Veteran Stories:
Gilles Gilbert Boulanger

Air Force

  • This is Rear Gunner Boulanger's log book, which describes the bombing mission on the French city of Coutances which he was part of on the 6th June of 1944. There is a note on the right hand side, written in blue, it was added in 2007, by the mayor of Coutances, and it says "with all my heartfelt gratitude, cordially". (translation)

    G. Boulanger
  • Members of "Alouette" squadron, England. Mr. Boulanger is fourth from the left.

    Gilbert Gilles Boulanger
  • Mr. Boulanger, with his sister, in April 2010.

    Historica Canada
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"It’s like you’d awoken in a bad dream; the turret, the machine guns, the noise, the motors, the fire coming out of the motors."

Transcript

I was born in Montmagny, to a big family. I was the middle child of a family of ten people. Fortunately, I was born between two girls, which gave me a lot of knowledge of the fairer sex as I was growing up. I think it helped me quite a bit throughout the war.

So, I had just turned 18 on June 3. I was studying at the technical school in Quebec City. I told my father that I wanted to join the Air Force. I had the paperwork and on June 3, I was going to sign them and join up. My father told me, "It’s a really bad time for you to ask me for such a thing. France, with the largest army in Europe, has just signed an armistice with Germany [June 22, 1940].” I didn’t know anything about international politics. I think that people from small villages and towns are more ignorant than people from the city. I knew there was a war on, but… I told my father that I wanted to join the Air Force, not the go to war - typical adolescent way of seeing things.

So the big day came when I would find out when I could leave for pilot’s training – because, like everyone else, I had asked to become a pilot. They told me that my medical test was good and that I was suitable to be a pilot, but that I would have to wait nine months. That meant that there were so many applications that I had to wait nine months. I was scared that the war would end soon, ignorant as I was of international politics. They told me that if I wanted to do something else, I could go to machine gunner’s school. I could leave right away. So that’s how I became a machine gunner.

The first time I experienced [the German bombs]… Mary had come to meet me at the train station; Mary, my British wife. The most beautiful woman in all of England for that matter! I stole her right from under [King] George VI’s nose. There was a bombing. I got off the train and we ran for the shelters. I had experienced bombings before, but from what I had understood, this time it was close. It was the first time I had gone into a bomb shelter. We went there and there were families and children, with their snacks and all kinds of things. It was almost like a vacation for the children. They had brought things to eat and colouring books. The families had two benches to sit on. We could hear the sounds of the bombs and people coming in. I was a lot more on edge than Mary or the children. The children would draw. I didn’t hear them crying, anyway. We stayed there for at least half an hour. The British never panic. In those kinds of situations they still say “after you” and let you go ahead of them. They’re very calm. Very civil, very calm. Often during the war, if we asked the British how things were going, even during a bombing they would answer that things were going well and that it could be worse.

All of the crew that was going to participate in that raid [D-Day, the invasion of Normandy] had gathered. There was a big map on the wall. All of the experts in armament, radio and communications were there. And that’s when they told us, " Gentlemen, tonight is the night"; the Normandy landings. I didn’t know it would be that day. I didn’t want to miss it. So, I participated in the first raid. It was at 1:30 in the morning, we bombed a small village along the coast of Normandy. At 9:30 on the 6th [of June, 1944] we took off to bomb the town of Coutances. It was not the town that we were bombing; the Germans were caught in the Cherbourg peninsula. Our troops had just come ashore and the enemy ground troops were trying to escape. They organised everything that they could. We bombed railways and crossroads, not far from Coutances. Coutances was a hub for train that arrived from throughout the countryside. So that night we bombed Coutances. I learned afterwards, in 2007, that we had killed 300 civilians and had destroyed 1000 buildings. It was the mayor who told me that while I was being received at City Hall. I didn’t know any of that and I was very troubled when they told me. An elderly lady came to see me; she saw that I felt uneasy. She touched my arm and said, "Mr. Boulanger, don’t be sad, that’s the price of freedom." I said, Madame, where I come from, nobody knows what that means.

Finally, I completed almost ten raids under the ball-turret.. That was the worst spot. You were completely isolated. If I hadn’t been as experienced, I would have gone mad in that thing. You opened a trap in the floor of the plane and slid in. It wasn’t really a turret; it was simply a metal cavity with a 50-calibre machine gun mounted on articulated movable arm. A machine gun that goes boom, boom, boom! I had an opening between my legs and I could only see the ground below, never the horizon. The sounds were always the same. At one point, all four motors would be in synch. We called it "the harmonic". They would vibrate all at the same time, their propeller strokes would be in unison. It went "Braaooomm !" We even got used to that. It was when there was a sound you couldn’t identify, that’s when you would start to feel scared.

You slowly lost control of your feelings, it was troubling. You didn’t know where you were anymore. It’s like you’d awoken in a bad dream; the turret, the machine guns, the noise, the motors, the fire coming out of the motors and all that. It’s incredible. We were isolated from everybody. The poor machine gunner has it the worst. You couldn’t turn around and talk to anybody. We could only speak through the microphone. We could hear other people, their voices. Some pilots were more thoughtful than others; they would call out to us often, "Hey Boulanger! How’s it going?" If they hadn’t heard from us in fifteen, twenty minutes they would ask how we were. Others just forgot about us completely.

My father was really happy. His words stayed with me, "Thank God! You came back from the war and brought us peace." Imagine: me, an adolescent - I left for war and after five years later brought back peace. It was fleeting, don’t you think? We are still just as much in danger today as we were, if not more so. So, I didn’t bring peace home. When I go to a cemetery today in Europe, I know a lot of people over there, all of my brothers-in-arms who are buried over there. I say to them: guys, we didn’t change very much.

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