THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

RENE BONDOUX: CAVALRYMAN

Papa had no strong militaristic leanings (aside for his taste for hard work and self-discipline), but it seems he was drawn to the Cavalry. He would tell of the Bastille Day celebration when he was eight years old, the year before WWI started, when the star of the military parade was the charge of the Cuirassiers, sabers drawn and trumpets blaring, galloping across the field to come and present sabers to the reviewing stand. This took his breath away. To shorten his draft obligation he chose to participate, while in law school, in military preparation courses. He took the entry exam for the highly competitive Cavalry Officers’ school, coming in first. He then discovered that he was not a "natural" horseman, but his determination and hard work still earned him the rank of third in his 1925 graduating class. He then completed his term of service in northern Brittany, at the 24th Dragoons, where his main activity seems to have been to compete in weekend horse races!

Fast forward to twelve years later: on his return from his honeymoon in late 1938, Father was met at the train station by a friend who delivered his mobilization orders. Assigned to a reconnaissance group, he managed a horse requisition program in Brittany during the 1939 "quiet before the storm" period.In May, 1940 he was promoted to Captain and charged off to war against the German Panzers aboard a gentle roan mare! His unit pushed as far as Vlissingen, Holland. Almost immediately his unit was ordered to join the retreat to Dunkirk, where he was made prisoner and shipped to Oflag IVD ("OffizierLager = Officers’ Camp") in eastern Germany.

Based on the records from his 1930 bout with pneumonia, and through the subterfuge of continuous smoking of cigarettes for a week before his date with the medical examination board, Father was able to secure a medical release from captivity and made his way to Vichy France, in early 1941. From there he escaped into Spain with the assistance of the Resistance people in Toulouse and Perpignan (his last stop before fording a torrent in the Pyrenees was the secret attic of a brothel near the cathedral of Perpignan!)

Although he escaped under the noses of German patrols and sentries, he was not so lucky in Spain where he was captured by the police. After being locked up for several months in the jails of Figueras and Gerona, he was released into the care of the American Red Cross in Barcelona: Franco was trading fugitives such as Father in exchange for food and petroleum. Father would reminisce fondly of his time in Barcelona and of using his small Red Cross allowance to buy pastries and tickets to the bullfights, especially since they featured the greats of the day, Manolete and Estudiante.

In October, 1943, he was able to find a spot on a "hospital ship" (really a troop ship in disguise) bound for Casablanca, from where he was assigned to a Regiment being reconstituted, the 2nd Dragoons, based in Sfax, Tunisia. The 2nd Dragoons, in due course proudly known as the "Escapee Regiment", was equipped by the US with half tracks, armored cars, and tank destroyers (a far cry from the roan mare!). Papa again displayed his customary bedrock determination by placing first in a course provided by the American Army at a special training school in explosives and mines.

The M20

The Bondoux squadron was equipped with M8 and M20 Tank destroyers. The M20 is pictured above. Essentially an armored car, it was designed to be highly mobile for reconnaissance and fast–strike capability. The M8, similar in appearance and characteristics, was outfitted with an anti-tank cannon. Both versions had an open turret and a 50-cal. machine gun.

The sketch of the Autun battle Diagram of the Battle for Autun. The Bondoux squadron led the pincer movement on the upper left and shredded a German column at the La Fontaine-La-Mere hamlet.

His regiment was part of Operation Dragoon, the landing in the South of France in August, 1944. With the rank of Captain, Father was the only reserve officer commanding a squadron, as the other three squadrons were lead by professional military men. He was amazed to find himself landing on a beach near St. Tropez where he had spent, years earlier, some summer vacation time! The 2nd Dragoons fought its way up the Rhone Valley, chasing the retreating German armies.

Captain Bondoux with General de Lattre

Captain Bondoux and General de Lattre de Tassigny, 1945.

They engaged in very hard combat to liberate the cities of Autun, Colmar, and Dijon, all of which which were chokepoints on the line of retreat for the German armies trapped in southwestern France. The group tasked with taking the first of these, Autun, comprised the 2nd and 8th Dragoons, the 1st Battalion of the Foreign Legion, and a battery of 105s. Father led one of the two pincers sent to encircle the town on the morning of September 8, 1944. From the History of the French First Army: "...the other column, under the orders of Captain Bondoux, was to close those [roads] on the north... Bondoux had hardly started when , at La Fontaine-La-Mere, he ran into a German column and cut it to pieces..." Thousands of German prisoners were taken after the surrender of the town. (These words are taken from The History of the French First Army, by Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, with a Preface by Dwight Eisenhower).

At some point the northbound Dragoon force would link up with Patton’s Overlord force as it swept eastward. The first contact was made on September 12, between the 100th Reconnaissance Group and the Bondoux squadron of the 2nd Dragoons!

After the hard-fought breakthrough at Belfort in the very harsh winter of 1945, General de Lattre de Tassigny, commander of the French First Army, asked Father to become his "Chef de Cabinet", i.e. his closest personal aide-de-camp. For the remaining hard months of the war, Father remained at the General’s side, managing all the daily details of his command.

Papa believed that his independent point of view, resulting from his status as a reserve officer, was valued by de Lattre more highly than the predictable and conventional input he would likely get if he had chosen a professional military man for the role of chief aide.

On May 7, 1945, Marshal Jodl surrendered the German armies to General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s representative, in Reims.

But the formal surrender of the Third Reich took place the next day at Karlshorst, (in southeast Berlin). Marshal Keitel signed the articles of surrender, With Marshal Joukov representing the Eastern Front and Marshall Tedder (Commander of the Allied Air Force) representing the Western front. General Spaatz was to witness for the US, and de Lattre for France. It was the middle of the night, with fewer than 40 people in the room, and Father was seated at a table between Joukov and Keitel.

Papa would reminisce about the event, and describe it as an intensely emotional one for all parties involved. He claimed that not a day in his life went by that he didn’t think back to that extraordinary moment.

Marshall Keitel at surrender ceremony

Marshall Keitel, center, with General Stumpf (Luftwaffe commander) and Admiral von Freudenberg (Kriegsmarine commander) in Karlshorst at the surrender ceremony.