As part of the D-Day landings coverage this morning I heard a very brief snippet of a story involving the meeting of a French volunteer nurse and a British Army officer after D-Day. It was moving and incredible and I as I have looked into it further this balmy Friday afternoon, so different from 70 years ago, I thought maybe it deserved a bit more attention.
Jacqueline Noel was a young girl of seventeen living in Hermanville, almost on the beach codenamed ‘Sword’ which was a British area of responsibility for the invasion on D-Day. Her twin sister had been killed by an Allied air raid, one of unknown thousands of French civilians killed in the bombing preceding the invasion, two weeks earlier. She had been swimming the day before D-Day in a red bathing suit given to her by her twin for their birthday.
In the annotated picture, you can see Jacqueline's town marked as 'Hermanville-sur-Mer' in the bottom left of the image. This is a pre-invasion intelligence picture of Sword beach. The events below took place somewhere on the beach in this picture.
When she woke on the morning of the invasion with all the resulting noise and chaos she realised that she had left that bathing suit at the beach in a small hut used for changing. Making a decision born perhaps of innocence Jacqueline set off to retrieve the bathing suit from the midst of the largest amphibious landing in history.
“...I just wanted to go and pick it up. I didn’t want anyone to take it.”
She passed through the German lines by virtue of the red cross armband she was entitled to as a student nurse and made it to the beach. She was whistled at a little by the British troops but says they were mostly ‘surprised to see her’.
A separate history of D-Day by Private Harold Pickersgill records that some of his mates claimed that they saw an absolutely stunningly beautiful eighteen year old French girl, wearing a red cross armband, ride her bicycle down to the beach to help the wounded. That girl was of course Jacqueline but Harold was dubious of such a story at the time.
With almost English understatement she described how there was …”quite a bit of activity.”
“...once I got to the beach I couldn’t go back...so I stayed on the beach to help with the wounded.”
In fact Jacqueline stayed on the beach for two full days nursing injured troops.
“...there was a lot to do.”
Jacqueline changed bandages, hauled wounded and dead soldiers out of the water and otherwise made herself useful.
During the carnage and chaos on Sword beach Jacqeuline met John Thornton, then a Lieutenant in the British Army, and got to know him well over the following days. John was an artilleryman which perhaps explains why he was in one place long enough to get to know Jacqueline. Despite the chaos of war, which was to continue for nearly a full year after D-Day, John and Jacqueline married upon it’s conclusion and lived happy lives together.
Harold Pickersgill, sceptical of the ‘stunning French girl’ on Sword beach at the time, met John Thornton in 1964 by chance and was introduced to Jacqueline. They were living in Ouistreham, a stones throw from their first meeting place on Sword beach in 1944. It is Ouistreham where the world leaders of 2014 are meeting today to remember the landings, a strange coincidence.