Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the World War II Front
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Reviewed by Charles L. Robertson
In 1943 a group of private, publicly-spirited women in New York organized a new volunteer ambulance corps that came to be called the Rochambeau group and later earned the nickname the “Rochambelles.” Their story—brilliantly told by Ellen Hampton in Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the WWII Front—differs from that of many other women who served in so many different capacities during World War II. The new corps became neither a separate organization, like the American Red Cross, nor one “attached” to some other military organization, nor an auxiliary service organization like the Women’s Army Corps. The Rochambelles, created through the determination of a woman named Florence Conrad, were unique in being an actual part of a particular fighting unit—French General Leclerc’s famed Second Armored Division—the 2ème Division Blindée. The Rochambelles organized and trained in North Africa and then accompanied the 2ème DB from the time it landed in France on July 20th, 1944 and came under fire in the Avranche battles that drove the Germans out of Normandy. They accompanied the 2ème DB as it fought its way across northern France to become the first Allied unit to enter Paris on August 25th; they were there when Leclerc’s division liberated Strasbourg following bitter winter fighting in the Ardennes mountains, when it crossed the Rhine, and they were with it when it ended up at Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. Fifty one women served in the group; fifteen went on to serve in Indochina after the end of the war in Europe; one was killed, one went missing in Europe, and six were wounded—of whom five “bandaged themselves up and kept on going” .
The Rochambelles have been mentioned in several books, including that of Jacques Massu, the formidable paratrooper who served under General Leclerc and married one of the Rochambelles, Suzanne Torrés who, like several others, wrote her own memoir, Quand j’étais Rochambelle, recounting her often harrowing but often exhilarating experiences. But Ellen Hampton’s compelling Women of Valor is the first book to pull together the entire story of this particular group of outstanding women, to bring each of them vividly to life, to detail how they came to join the group, their hardships and their personal triumphs.
During those years of global warfare, women performed enormously useful and often vital functions in almost every country at war. All countries had their military service units—though the Germans, under the influence of Hitler’s views on the proper role of women, lagged behind. In the United States the Army had its WACs (the Women’s Army Corps), the Navy had its WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and the Coast Guard its SPARS (from the Coast Guard motto—“Semper Paratus: Always Ready”). There were others: the WASPS, or Women Airforce Service Pilots, and the WAFS, or Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, who released male pilots for active duty. In total some 350,000 women served in the American armed forces. Other counties had their own equivalents. If the WAFS ferried planes, others performed clerical work, were dietitians, nurses, dispatchers, telephone and radio operators, parachute riggers, drivers, mechanics, and more. In the private sector, enormous numbers of women took on the jobs of men sent to war, working in factories, shipyards, and in transportation, doing the jobs of building and delivering the weapons, ammunitions, and supplies the fighting men needed.
Ellen Hampton details the arduous trek it had been to get this far, bringing to life the women whose energy and determination landed them to North Africa—with no assignment until Conrad’s forceful plea convinced Leclerc. Florence Conrad, twice widowed, was living in France at the time of the German invasion on May 10, 1940. During the six-week war she worked briefly in a clinic and then—as she had done in World War I—as an ambulance driver. After the German victory she continued to drive an ambulance bringing wounded back to hospitals, then installing a system of postcard communication by which, with German permission, French prisoners of war could let their families know they were still alive. In early 1941, encouraged by a French general, she returned to the United States to see what she could do to help France from there. When the Allied invasion of North Africa took place, she saw her chance and with the help of wealthy friends began to organize and train her new ambulance corps, recruiting both French refugees and Americans. She was determined that it would be ready when the liberation of France took place, and through hard lobbying persuaded the Free French mission in Washington to give her group official status, and to send it to Virginia to embark on a troop transport, destination unknown. The State Department dealt it a first blow, however. The Department would not permit the group to have its American members leave with it: Americans could not serve under French command.
So it was that, zig-zagging across the ocean to avoid submarines, accompanied by some 4,000 American troops, the Rochambeau group, as it was now called—after the Comte de Rochambeau who had led French infantry troops at Yorktown during the American Revolution—reached Casablanca. Ellen Hampton’s vivid sketches of each woman in the group include those of the new recruits picked up in Casablanca, sufficient in number to give each ambulance two drivers. Some of the new members were from North Africa and some had escaped from occupied France, often by perilous means. It was here in Casablanca that they were nicknamed the Rochambelles and that they underwent the rigorous training they needed for what was to come. Among the several bureaucratic horrors Ellen Hampton recounts is one that reminds us of another facet of our past: when Leclerc’s division was incorporated into the American army preparatory to sailing to England, Leclerc had to transfer out his prized black Senegalese troops to de Lattre’s First Army. Whatever the need, the US Army, including its French armored division, would remain segregated! Through some oversight, the Rochambeau women were allowed to stay with the division, although in principle no women could serve with American combat units. When it was time to sail the officers in charge tried to block the Rochambelles from boarding on the basis that military regulations forbade women on military transports. This time Leclerc intervened successfully: “They’re not women, they’re ambulance drivers!” and they got aboard . Two months later, six weeks after D-Day, they finally left England for France—their own country, from which they had been away for so long.
Many readers may be surprised to learn from Women of Valor that the brilliant soldier, war-lover and mystic, General George S. Patton, had once attended the French cavalry school at Saumur before the war, and spoke fluent French. He was, in addition, a close friend of Leclerc’s, and insisted on the 2ème DB coming to join his Third Army earlier than planned. And so, on August 6th, a week after landing in Normandy, the Rochambeau ambulance unit suffered its first bombardment, its first driver casualty, and transported its first wounded soldiers to a hospital where the guard refused them entry on the basis that the hospital was full—so that the driver, using her initiative, went to a side entrance where she persuaded someone to take in the five wounded soldiers who were in her ambulance. The lesson she learned—not to take “no” for an answer and to improvise—was one the entire unit soon learned. Ellen Hampton paints an extraordinary picture of how they also learned to accept not just the bombs, shell fragments and machine gun bullets, but the horror of fields of dead, rotting Germans no one would touch for fear of booby traps, the endless, sleepless nights, getting lost at night, mines in the roads that shattered some of their ambulances, dirt, smoke, dust, and few sanitary facilities, the mastery of fear—and a liberated population that might greet them with joy, or might be sullen at the destruction their liberators had sewn.
One Rochambelle, in an account of her experiences, wrote about whether she would have signed on if she had known how gory her duties would be:
It was about this time that one received a letter from her mother, worried about her daughter’s social reputation because she had gone rowing on a lake in England with some young officers!
On August 25th the Rochambelles entered Paris with Leclerc’s Second Armored Division, to be greeted with the same wild joy Parisians felt for all their liberators. For some it was a return home after four long years; for all of them, to be in Paris was something special. At their bivouac in the Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne, Leclerc arrived for an inspection, and reminded them he had said he would use them until he reached Paris. He paused—and continued “But…I’ll keep you” . Their own joy matched that of the Parisians. A hard road lay ahead, however: the fighting to liberate Alsace and reach Strasbourg, which Leclerc had sworn he would do, was some of the bitterest in Europe, and the Rochambelles were in the middle of it. To the previous experiences in Normandy was added the cold of winter. In the back of their ambulances, they sometimes slept in their boots to keep them from freezing. Houses where they were bivouacked were blown up around them. Ellen Hampton’s account of their often narrow escapes and extraordinary experiences during these months is a story not to be missed. She does not fail to include the tales of close friendships and happy moments that often occur within a harrowing context. At one point, when Leclerc liberated the glass-producing town of Baccarat, one of the Rochambelles wrote that as she tramped through the crystal factory in her muddy boots and bloodstained uniform, the contrast was almost too much: “here, all was light, beauty, creativity, while outside all was ugliness, ruin and suffering” . By actual count, at the end of the Alsatian campaign, one of the Rochambeau group’s remaining ambulances—they had lost several—had thirty-nine shrapnel holes. Miraculously, both drivers were intact.
On May 5, 1945, they reached Berchtesgaden, and Suzanne Torrès, who had succeeded Florence Conrad as their leader, wrote that they waltzed into Hitler’s abandoned offices with “the drunkenness of pirates,” looting it with abandon. She wrote to several friends on Hitler’s personal stationary!  And she later went on to command 1,200 medical corps troops in Indochina.
Return to civilian life was difficult for most of the Rochambelles: like so many other women in war work, they found it immensely difficult to abandon what they had achieved during the war, and Ellen Hampton titles her chapter “Coming Home is the Hardest Part.” Here, as elsewhere throughout Women of Valor, the author fleshes out her account with the individual stories of what the women go through and lets the reader understand their sense of loss of the camaraderie that marked their epic. In this final, moving chapter, we learn of how each faces a very different future.
This small slice of history, an account of women who did what few others did and who set a precedent for the future—women could serve with fighting units and carry out the hardest tasks that men could—adds immeasurably to our sense of what World War II was like. In the fog of war, when it was so often hard to know just what was going on, to know where the enemy was, to have any idea of what might unexpectedly happen, of where and when the next explosion might take place, women could successfully take on tasks few men thought they could. From the beginning Ms. Hampton has given us an engaging picture of who the individual Rochambelles are, where they come from, how they react and how they cope with the incredible conditions of war—along with a wonderful series of photographs taken during their campaign; she brings vividly to life the women she writes about. Her book is hard to put down. She can hardly have left any available sources untouched. We are all indebted to her for Women of Valor: the Rochambelles on the WWII Front.