As a Remembrance Day tribute, Francis Wright shares his story about growing up in Monaco in the 1930s and when Italy declared war on France.
Born in Monaco in 1927 on what is today known as National Day (see “It’s A Date!” text below), Francis Wright’s childhood consisted of walking from his home at Rue de la Source to Lycée Albert 1er up on the Rock, every morning, lunch and evening.
“We had homework to do over lunch which we had to recite at 2 p.m. Punishment was having to go back to school on a Wednesday, our day off, for one to three hours. I was punished once and had to write what the teachers told me,” says 93-year-old Francis.
When the weather was warm, Francis and his older brother, Peter, would swim early in the morning in the Condamine harbour, where Ubaldi is now, and then walk up to the Rock for classes. “That was our joy. Before the war, there were no parks or reserved places for children to play in Monaco. We weren’t even allowed to walk around the Casino in shorts, you had to wear a tie and proper clothes,” he reminisces.
In those days, men went to work and women looked after the house and the children, who were left to their own devices to entertainment themselves, like playing football or marbles in the street. Shopping was a daily occurrence. “There were at least four épiceries along rue des Roses. There were no Frigidaires at the time, so butter would melt at times. I don’t remember milk.”
Francis’ father had come to Monte Carlo in 1924 to set up a garage to service the cars of tourists who drove cars from England and through France on gravel roads. In the lead up to the war, British Motors at 5 Rue de la Source had fewer and fewer customers as there were no cars from either Great Britain nor tourists, and his business collapsed in the Thirties. “He took on a job as driver for Madame Westmacott, which took him all over France and other places. Mother looked after us alone, and that was hard.”
Francis says he will never forget June 10, 1940, the day Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. “My two brothers and I had already been badly treated by the Italian scholars because we were British, but the mood worsened, especially after Mussolini’s shouting speeches on the radio, and we weren’t welcome. The school closed that day and it was a frightening scene as the Monaco police – there was no military – rounded up all the fascists, including the baker, who were all taken to Fort Carré in Antibes.”
Francis describes, “It was the first day we had air raids. Sirens went off as a warning as Italian warplanes passed over Monaco flying to Cannes and elsewhere to do some bombing, I suppose. We would hide in the garage, others hid in their caves.”
Then came the phone call.
Fleeing France: 1 ship, 900 people, 2 toilets
On June 16, which happened to be Peter’s birthday, Francis’ father received a phone call from the British consulate advising the family leave the country as the Nazis had entered Paris. He explained that there were two ships leaving Cannes for England at 8 a.m. the following morning. “They had to make the decision then and there,” says Francis. “I remember mother and father sitting around the table and it must have been a hard decision for my father to make, to leave the garage, leave the home … we had to give away our Siamese cat.”
They were allowed one case each (the boys packed a few toys for the long journey) and the only clothes they took were the ones they wore. And so, the next morning, 12-year-old Francis, Peter, 15, and their parents fled Monaco being driven by their neighbour in their old Citroën. (Francis’ oldest brother Alan had joined the Royal Air Force in 1938 and in 1940 escaped France via Cherbourg during the Dunkirk operation.)
“It was hot and we had a trunk full of sardines,” recollects Francis about the drive to Cannes that morning. “My father had thought of escaping the Italian invasion by driving into the middle of France somewhere and mother had said the best food to take would be cans of sardines. And we took with them on the ship, which was a good thing. The only rations on the ship were a couple of slices of corned beef, slices of bread, and biscuits.”
On the ship Saltersgate, there were only two toilets for 900 Brits and no washing facilities. “We didn’t wash until we got to Gibraltar. We were going to disembark at Oran, but the captain said we could not land there because ‘France had capitulated and we are now in French Algerian waters, enemy waters.’” Francis saw the British fleet leave Gibraltar and later discovered they were, in fact, part of Operation Catapult, which helped defeat the French fleet in Oran so their ships would not fall into the hands of the Germans.
Historian Maureen Emerson comments: “Francis’ memories of the journey to freedom echo those of Somerset Maugham, who took the same journey on the same ship.”
In Gibraltar, they were able “to freshen up” the hospital served as accommodation and passengers were served a meal of bacon and eggs. “It was the best meal I’ve ever had, I’ll always remember that. My father fell ill with the dysentery and we thought we’d have to leave him in Gibraltar. But he recovered and on the City of Cairo ship, we had a cabin for the four of us. We left the cabin to mom and father and Peter and I slept on the deck. We landed in Liverpool on July 14 or 15.”
Francis says, “When we left Cannes, my mother had a lovely full head of brown hair. When we arrived in England three weeks later it was white.”
The family stayed briefly Liverpool, and then headed to Pinner in Middlesex outside of London where an aunt lived. “My mother took me to Lewis, the men’s shop for trousers, and it was the first pair I’d ever owned. I still remember that because I had always worn shorts in Monaco.”
Francis’ father found a job in Warrington as a transport manager to an air drone base, which would become one of America’s biggest bases in England. “The airplanes would arrive in crates from the U.S. to be assembled at the Burtonwood air depot, like toys being put together.”
Peter went to night school and eventually joined the RAF and Francis attended grammar school in Farnworth. “I didn’t like it at all. I was nicknamed ‘Froggy’ because of my name. It was big change and I stayed until age 16.” He spent a month in hospital having contacted pneumonia and pleurisy, and at one point he was placed on the dangerously ill list for a week. “I remember my father came to see me every night and I appreciated that very much.”
Once he “got over that” he began to work at an aviation company, working on Barracudas, where he gained great insight of airplanes and the air force.
Meanwhile Warrington was having air raids every night. “It was worse when the full moon lit up the Manchester ship canal, which if German Luftwaffe followed would guide them to the Burtonwood air depot. Liverpool got a packet during the war.”
There were no restrictions on movement or curfew and “the rationing was just about adequate, we didn’t starve. But the worst thing was the blackouts in the winter, you couldn’t see anything, not even cars and buses. I remember a blackout so intense once that biking home from work after work Peter ended up on the main railway station platform in Warrington.”
The return home, or what was left, in Monaco
Post-war, Francis moved back “home” early 1949. “There was nothing left of the apartment in Monaco, it was an absolute disaster.”
His dad had returned in 1947, alone, travelling by train all the way back to Monaco and found his garage business empty, the cars stolen by the Germans, who apparently left a note saying “something like when the hostilities were finished we’ll hand them back to you.” (Francis still has the note.)
“There was nothing left in the apartment, the cupboard with my toys had been emptied. We had to sleep on mattresses on the floors. And we started work on the garage.”
Francis has lived through three reigning Princes in Monaco. “I was too young to remember Louis II but Rainier had a pretty good relationship with the people, and decided that buildings built during his reign were not to be more than 13 floors high, except the Millefiori.”
As Rainier had a Rolls Royce, Francis met him through the garage. He and Peter (who returned in 1948 after leaving the Air Force) were also the ones who collected Princess Grace’s Rover from Paris to Monte Carlo “to check for any faults to sort out before Monte Carlo.”
“Princess Grace brought the Americans here and Monte Carlo changed completely, she put the country on the map because the Americans loved her marrying a Prince. Americans wanted to come and see where was this place Monte Carlo.”
One of the first things Grace did was to stop the live pigeon shooting, which took place at a range above the train station, where the Fairmont is now. They substituted real pigeons for clay but ended up packing the whole thing in. “They turned the shooting range into an open-air cinema, but if two people in the film were talking quietly and a train went past, you couldn’t hear.”
Monaco then and now
For Francis, Monaco is just “a town like every other town” with commerce and workers commuting in. “It is the press, not the people, that created the image that Monaco is full of glamour, cocktail parties every night, champagne everywhere, and full of rich people. Monaco is a working town, there are lots of people that are poor, lots of people better off, and some are struggling more than others.”
Looking back on 93 years, Francis feels fortunate but admits that living in Monaco was a career choice, coming back after the war to work with his dad at the garage. Their customers were ordinary people (although Sean Connery did bring his Rolls Royce in for service). “It was successful but we made it successful because we worked damn hard. Peter and I would do all the paperwork on the weekends.”
General Motors was the big seller in the 1950s and the American car company set up in Monaco, across from where the Marché U is now, on Boulevard Princesse Charlotte “Peter saw their showroom window and said that would be a dream to have. Then business slowed down because of space in Monte Carlo and GM went caput.”
For Francis, there are too many buildings in Monaco and not enough green spaces. “Everything is concrete now, which gives it too much heat in the summer. The Hotel de Paris had the Camembert garden/roundabout, then they got rid of it and it is just concrete. Why not have a little green space instead of a building?”
The other standout memory for Francis is when the relationship soured between Prince Rainier and Charles de Gaulle (France celebrated the 50th anniversary of his death on November 9) because of French companies evading taxes by having offices in Monaco. “There were plaques of French businesses on buildings, like the Victoria, and they didn’t pay any income tax. De Gaulle came down and sorted it out with Rainier. Suddenly Monaco had frontiers. Margare, my sister-in-law, would look out the window and see the old women carrying their baskets up the public steps leading up from rue de la Source, where French gendarmes were checking to see if they had anything to declare.”
Remembering and Remembrance
For Remembrance Day commemorations, Francis and two brothers often laid wreaths on avenue Grande Bretagne or were flag bearers at the war memorial in the cemetery in Menton.
“For me, Remembrance Day is about the pilots during the Battle of Britain. If we had lost, that would have been the end of it all. The Germans would be in England, the Americans could never have come over to create a base in England and it would have changed the direction of the war in the German’s favour. There would never have been a D-Day.”
He always thinks back to getting on that ship in Cannes in 1940. “It was the biggest event in my life getting on that ship, crossing the Atlantic as a convoy, all night the horns would blow, which meant changing course in a zigzag formation to confuse any U boats.”
Francis says it’s “not really fair to compare” Covid to a war. “Covid is an illness that I don’t think will ever go away properly and it is unfortunate you can’t go home, or go to France, but you just have to accept it and live through it.
“It’s like during the war. We didn’t like it but we had to live through whatever they threw at us.”
A heartfelt thanks to Ed Wright for assisting in the interview of Francis Wright, which I couldn’t do in person due to Covid restrictions.
Article first published November 19, 2020.
It’s A Date! Monaco National Day
Since 1857, Sovereign Day in Monaco typically coincided with the day of the ruling Prince’s Patron Saint. Prince Louis II broke this tradition when he ascended, however, as Saint-Louis day was on August 25, during summer holidays.
He instead chose January 17, the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot, the Patronal Feast of his granddaughter, Princess Antoinette.
When Rainier took over, the feast day of Patron Saint Rainier d’Arezzo fell on November 19, and so this date was consecrated National Day in 1952. Prince Albert decided to keep the same date as it also marked the second part of his investiture in 2005 when he was enthroned at Saint Nicholas Cathedral.