University of Oxford
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Escape from France to Sweden - The Wennberg Family

online resource
posted on 2024-06-05, 19:51 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

This is the story of my British grandmother and Swedish grandfather, my seven-year-old father Douglas, and their escape from occupied France.

My grandfather was Swedish, but his mother was French. My grandmother was born in Cardiff. She was 'into' horses, and sold some, (to people such as Buffalo Bill!) so my grandparents and my father lived in France, in Brittany, near St Malo. They spent winters in Monte Carlo.

They were living in France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. My father was then seven. Grandmother always kept a diary - she used her diaries and the material recorded for talks to the W I in Bognor Regis after the war.

The diaries related the story of the family's journey to freedom - they were too late for the last ship to Britain. All the docks were being blown up to make them unusable to German forces. Grandfather decided to return to Sweden. Their months-long journey took them through occupied France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark.

They had to have formal permission to go first to Paris (see Document 1). They took a taxi, and to have money for their journey, grandfather wrote a cheque to be drawn through a French bank on an English bank account. This cheque was presented to the Bank of England at the end of the War in 1945 - and paid in full.

Once in Paris, they were stuck. They needed permission to go to Brussels (see Document 2, 17 July 1940). Grandmother was born in Cardiff, but this raised no suspicions. The Germans were so euphoric that they had beaten the opposition that they ignored the British connection. They witnessed the Germans emptying all the shops, etc. The streets were empty except for German vehicles, - see photograph of Place de la Concorde with only military vehicles in shot.

My grandparents were eventually given permission to go to Brussels. They travelled on a German Troop Train - the only civilians on board. At the Gare du Nord, a German soldier saw Douglas and picked him up, sat him on his knee and spoke to him in German. Douglas had the presence of mind to reply in French - his parents were desperate in case he spoke English and gave the game away. The train stopped at a station somewhere, and Red Cross volunteers boarded the train. They were shocked to see a family on military transport. They gave Douglas some milk - all that the family had between them for the whole journey.

Once they got to Brussels, they found a hotel and registered with the Swedish Embassy. Germany was a closed country. No one could enter. The family were stuck again for several months. (see Document 3 - Authorisation to withdraw 35,000 Francs, endorsed by the German authorities.)

Document 4 relates to Brussels: There was a lack of food. Only skimmed milk and plums were available. One day when grandfather went to buy a newspaper, the vendor noticed an English farthing in the change he took out of his pocket, and shouted out "God Save the King!".

The 15th of August was the Battle of Britain. The family remembered sitting in a park in Brussels, seeing wave after wave of Stukas en route to attacking Britain. There were also other Swedes stuck there, from July to September.

Meanwhile, in Antwerp, Swedish sailors with nothing to do, caused trouble, attacking German soldiers. So the German authorities wanted them all repatriated - which after some bargaining by the Swedish Chargé d'Affaires allowed other Swedish citizens to leave as well. They travelled on a communal passport, entrusted to a Swedish engineer, Mr. Frisk, - rather unkindly nicknamed The Führer.

They travelled from Brussels to Antwerp by bus and lorry, then from Maastricht to the German border at Aachen. There was no rationing in Germany, so they had the best meal for months at Aachen station. They caught the night train to Berlin, stopping at Köln, where the British were bombing the marshalling yards.

In Berlin, the Swedish Attaché helped them to get to the next station en route to Denmark. They saw the Brandenburg Gate, and much of the property was later destroyed. They were lucky to catch one of the last train ferries across the Baltic to Sweden and safety. The Swedish authorities closed the service because they were tired of sending transport to Germany which never came back.

My grandparents spent the rest of the war in Sweden, coming to Britain in 1946 on one of the first ships to make the journey. They lived from then on in Bognor Regis, and my father became a naturalised British subject in 1952. Shortly after that he met and married my mother, who is still alive at the age of 87. She remembers the Blitz, D-Day and Arnhem, and the planes going over. She also remembers being put under the table with her sister and their rice pudding as a stick of bombs fell! Her father was an ARP Warden. She remembers going shopping with her mother when the only biscuits left were custard creams, which were meant only for those in the Armed Forces. The shop assistant had to ask the manager's permission before she was allowed to hand some over! Mother also remembers some German airmen sitting in deckchairs in the garden, waiting to be collected by the authorities.

At the end of the war, grandfather let off some parachute flares to celebrate!


Item list and details

1. "A Journey in 1940", - a copy of Mrs Wennberg's account of the journey, presented to the W I after the war 2. Document 1 - Permission to go to Paris 3. Document 2 - Official German Pass (Ausweiss) , dated 17 July 1940 4. Document 4 - Brussels Pass Request dated 8.10.1940 5. Document 5 - Typescript entitled "A Journey in 1940", - a lecture given by Mrs Wennberg to the W I in Britain after the war 6. Typed Extracts from Mrs Wennberg's Diary, 1940

Person the story/items relate to

Mr and Mrs Wennberg and their son Douglas

Person who shared the story/items

Simon Charles Wennberg

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

They were the contributor's grandparents and his father

Type of submission

Shared at Ahmadiyyah Mosque Hall, Warwickshire on 7 October 2023. The event was organised by Leamington History Group.

Record ID

95203 | LEA023