Meet the no-nonsense French cafe owner who wants her country to know BRITAIN – not just the US – saved them from Nazis

Meet the no-nonsense French cafe owner who wants her country to know BRITAIN – not just the US – saved them from Nazis

IN the drawing room of a country house near Portsmouth a petite French lady is dwarfed by a 14ft-high map.

Madame Arlette Gondree, 84, is studying a top-secret chart that was used during World War Two to plan Britain’s D-Day landings on France’s Normandy beaches.

Arlette Gondree’s family owned the first building in France to be liberated as part of the D-Day operationsNews Group Newspapers Ltd

Her family had helped the Resistance, as well as Brit spies – it was like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo but without all the laughsBBC

She points to a spot near the Normandy town of Ouistreham.

The tiny village of Benouville is so small it is not even named on the map at Southwick House — nerve centre of the invasion to drive the Nazis out of France 80 years ago.

But it is where Arlette’s family ran a cafe and helped the French Resistance and British spies, like something from BBC sitcom ’Allo ’Allo but without all the laughs.

The cafe, still in the family today, was also the first place liberated by British troops sent to defend a nearby canal crossing, to be forever known as Pegasus Bridge.

Mum-of-three Arlette married a Brit and splits her time between the UK and running the family’s Cafe Gondree in France with son Giles, 60, and granddaughter Alisse, 24.

And in early June, she will be there to welcome a party of British veterans, all around 100 years old, to thank them on this 80th anniversary for having saved her country.

Best champagne

In particular, she hopes commemorations this summer to mark the anniversary will finally convince the French that Britain, and not just America, liberated their country.

She says: “For some reason, French people still think the Americans won the war. Maybe it is the way they teach children at school.

The café is still in the Gondree family, and Arlette still spends some of her time running itFTR Features

Arlette wants to remind France that Brits helped liberate her country too, as she thinks America’s role in the war is over-emphasised by young peopleGetty

“But more than 22,000 young British men lost their lives and many more were wounded in 1944 freeing my country from the Nazis. We must never forget them.”

She is delighted King Charles will lead commemorations on June 6 at the new British Normandy Memorial overlooking Gold beach.

On the map at Southwick House, the famous Gold, Sword and Juno beaches, where British troops came ashore at 7.24am on June 6, 1944, are all plainly marked.

These beaches where thousands of British troops were killed as they clambered ashore were each given fish-inspired code names by the Allied high command.

Juno was originally Jellyfish but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill changed the name “because no man should die on a beach named Jelly”.

D-Day is always commemorated on June 6 but for Madame Gondree the invasion began at 11.16pm the night before.

That was the moment her parents’ cafe was liberated by British paratroopers.

Within an hour of the first British troops arriving in gliders that landed in fields around Benouville, Arlette’s beaming cafe-owner dad Georges was serving them champagne.

When the Nazis invaded France four years earlier in 1940 he had hidden his best bottles under his vegetable patch.

While firefights were going on around the cafe during the first skirmishes of D-Day, Georges dug up his bottles of bubbly and popped the corks in honour of the hero Brits.

The occupation was very difficult. We were short of food, we were short of clothes and they had hardly any supplies which they could sell but we were tied together as a family

Arlette Gondree

Arlette is delighted that, at long last, there is now a dedicated British Normandy Memorial, overlooking Gold Beach just outside the village of Ver-sur-Mer.

Some veterans say the memorial, only completed during the recent Covid crisis, is “too little, too late”.

But Arlette says: “It is never too late”. Time has takent its toll, though, and it is believed that only around 40 British World War Two veterans will be fit and well enough to travel to Normandy this summer.

Although she was just four years old on D-Day, Arlette can remember every detail of the day she, her sister Georgette, ten, her father and her mother, Therese, were saved.

It was thanks for the family’s work for the Allies during the war, when vital information from Café Gondree found its way to Southwick House where it was used by British admiral Bertram Ramsey to plan the world’s biggest ever invasion from the sea.

Arlette says: “For my parents, the occupation was very difficult. We were short of food, we were short of clothes and they had hardly any supplies which they could sell but we were tied together as a family.

The dangerous fact is that my parents were passing on information through my father who spoke English well — but the Germans never knew.

“My mother, who was from Alsace and spoke Alsatian, was serving in the cafe most of the time.

“She could hear what the Germans were saying because we couldn’t stop them coming to drink.

“Little did they know that Mummy knew what they were doing in the village, what they were doing on the bridges and what they were likely to do.

“Daddy would also welcome a couple of British spies in the house, while the cafe front door was open to both the local inhabitants and the occupants.

Arlette’s dad Georges was ready to serve up champagne to Brit forces right after they liberated the cafePA

“But he was also meeting with Monsieur Melan who was the chief engineer responsible for all the bridges along the canal, and Madame Viand who was in charge of the maternity hospital — they were the Resistance people.”

On the eve of D-Day, Georges was tipped off by British spies not to move out of the cafe.

So he and Therese took their two daughters down to the cellar below the bar where the children bedded down in two empty cider barrels filled with straw.

Arlette remembers: “It wasn’t long after that when we were shaken by a tremendous crashing noise, which was horrific.

“Then we heard noises around the cafe so Daddy left us for a short time and went upstairs to see what he could see.

“The shutters of our dining room were being forced open and the window panes were being broken above our heads. We thought the Germans were coming in to get us.

“Daddy brought down two figures we had not seen before, covered in black with nets.

“One of them grabbed me, took me in his arms, and I was very frightened.

“But Mummy started kissing them and they gave me something I hadn’t had for a long time — chocolate and biscuits.

“Because we were under German time, it was the last hour of the 5th of June.

I will go on serving champagne to the men who saved our country, until the last one is left

Arlette Gondree

“That’s why we celebrate with my beloved veterans, whether they be older or youngsters of today, at that very special time of 23.16, with some champagne.

“Within the hour, my father had unearthed bottles from the garden and brought them out to the British soldiers, who were digging their trenches, to say thank you to them.

“By then there were casualties, so Daddy opened the front door and the cafe was transformed into a First Aid post. The wounded were lying everywhere.

“The dining room became the operating theatre and Mummy, who was a trained nurse, helped the doctor in charge.

“It was an horrific sight, very frightening, because I wanted to be with Mummy in the dining room. The noise, the cries and the smell . . . ”

“The veterans have always regarded Cafe Gondree as a shrine and a home to them.

“I will go on serving champagne to the men who saved our country, until the last one is left.”

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