In 1943 General Philippe Leclerc, commander of the French 2nd Armoured Division in North Africa, was preparing his division to be part of Patton’s Third Army in the assault across Normandy to strike at Germany.
He was told he could have 19 new Dodge 1.5-ton ambulances, each with crew of driver and litter-bearer trained in first aid. Leclerc was pleased. Then he learned the crews were all women. He would take the ambulances but no women.
Becoming the Rochambelles
Florence Conrad was the 50-year-old head of the ambulance group Rochambeau, named after French Count Rochambeau, hero of the American Revolution.
She said to tell Leclerc he gets the ambulances with the women or he doesn’t get them at all. Leclerc figured they wouldn’t last under stress and he could replace them with men. “All right,” he snapped.
In 1940 Conrad was a wealthy, twice-widowed American living in Paris when the Germans invaded France. She had been delivering blankets to troops and helping the wounded, and it was past time to try to escape.
She heard that the Gestapo was searching for her. It took all her courage to leave her beloved France, but in a few weeks she made it to New York.
There she met Frenchwoman Suzanne Torrès, who later was tagged with the name Toto, probably because she was small, feisty and courageous. Conrad had come up with the idea of buying ambulances and recruiting women for the crews.
Persistent as Conrad was, she got the ambulances shipped to Casablanca. Then she took Torrès shopping for uniforms. To a uniform supply store? Not for Conrad.
At Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers she had dress uniforms made. Back in Conrad’s apartment they gave themselves ranks. Conrad would be a major and Toto a lieutenant. They sewed rank stripes on the uniforms.
Ultimately, they got 13 Frenchwomen volunteers, so at an army post Conrad purchased GI-issue fatigue uniforms, enough for a full crew. The women then boarded a ship which joined a convoy headed for North Africa, and after a hair-raising journey avoiding German submarines they docked in Casablanca.
In North Africa they soon found a dozen other volunteers and kept adding to them one by one–all French except for one Austrian and a Romanian–until they got to 38.
Then it was training time which included Conrad and Toto – driving, tearing down engines and putting them back together, dismounting and mounting heavy tires, first aid and much more. Somehow they acquired the name Rochambelles.
The Rochambelles in World War Two
Anticipation mounted as the division went through battle drills. The women, along with 18,000 men, were pumped up, ready to go.
When it was time for them to board ship they were stopped and told crisply, “No women allowed!” The naval officer stood by the rules until Leclerc intervened, saying,
“They’re not women, they’re ambulance drivers!”
After another fearful trip avoiding marauding submarines, they landed in England amid masses of invasion forces—other French, British, American, Canadian, Polish.
Because of age, during the battles in France and Germany, Conrad asked Toto to take command. For those battle experiences, read Ellen Hampton’s well-researched and written book, Women of Valor, or Suzanne Torrès first-hand account: Quand j’étais Rochambelle.
The Rochambelles (51 total, accounting for replacements) performed heroically at the cost of one killed, one missing in action, and others wounded, one of them maimed for life.
The Rochambelles in Vietnam
Being too young, I took no part in in that war. I did, however, command a large armoured cavalry task force in the Vietnam War. After the war, researching, I found the performance of the Rochambelles in Vietnam to have been, frankly, astonishing.
The story was contained in part in several French books, booklets, and other sources. The most compelling story is told by—of course–Toto–who once more was the commander of a somewhat smaller but no less impressive group of Rochambelles.
The Japanese unconditionally surrendered on 15 August 1945. De Gaulle appointed Leclerc as commander of the French Expeditionary Corps with mission to enter Indochina and reestablish colonialism.
The Vietnamese were having none of that. They expected full independence and would make any sacrifices and fight for as long as it took to get it.
Leclerc had naturally turned to his former command to supply an advance fighting force. He appeared in front of assembled veterans and asked them to raise their hands, all who wanted to go with him.
Hands shot up, among them that of Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Massu. He said, “The idea of leaving such a leader never occurred to me.”
Massu had been one of Leclerc’s finest battalion commanders. Now he commanded a much larger group of 2,200 men. A medical evacuation unit was included, the famous Rochambelles. Among the women, Toto and eight others were veterans of Leclerc’s division in World War Two.
Here are two examples of Rochambelles’ performance:
Saviours from Saigon
The first all-French military action was in late October 1945 south of Saigon. Knowing that the French would be coming, the Vietnamese had made deep cuts in the road.
The Vietnamese could use the road on their bicycles or oxcarts simply by taking their time and winding around each cut, staying on the undisturbed surface that remained. Jeeps sometimes could also make the passage.
An ambulance team had been requested to evacuate wounded in the Mekong Delta. The ambulance crew of two young women had set out with a half-track for security, but en route the half-track had a mechanical breakdown.
Knowing how urgent was the need, the women charged ahead alone in their ambulance. They were stopped by a cut in the road and well knew that the rebels ambushed these positions.
They got out of their ambulance and–hearts pounding–(“never mind, it will pass,” one thought) looked around. Luckily, the position was unoccupied and they began gathering tree limbs and rocks and were able to fill in the trench enough so they could pass.
The men attending the wounded were stupefied to see an ambulance pull up and two young women alone get out. The Rochambelles themselves, though, thought it was not much and returned to Saigon with their wounded.
As soon as this operation was completed, another was launched. Massu’s contingent soon encountered a series of ambushes. The first cost them three dead and six wounded.
The enemy would fire from the brush, then disappear into the forest. A subsequent ambush succeeded in killing a truck driver which immobilised his truck and blocked the column behind it.
The medical officer was seriously wounded while aiding others, and a captain was killed. Toto had been promoted, and the new head of the Rochambelles drove her ambulance through the fire to rescue a man who certainly would have died. Then she climbed into the stopped truck and drove it so the column could advance.
Well done in two wars, Rochambelles!
Bill Haponski is an academic, but also an officer who served in Vietnam, enabling him to offer a unique perspective on the war in Vietnam. His book, Autopsy of an Unwinnable War, co-authored by Jerry Burcham, was published in April 2019 by Casemate Publishers.