Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the World War II Front

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Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the World War II Front
One of the most satisfying literary experiences, in my mind anyway, occurs when first-rate historical research coincides with first-rate storytelling (and writing). And that is what I discovered, to my delight, when I opened the pages of Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the World War II Front, by Ellen Hampton. I would not have thought I would be quite so enthralled by a history book that recounts the day-to-day progress of a women’s army ambulance unit, from the time of its formation in New York City in the spring of 1943 through North Africa and England, Normandy and Alsace, to its ultimate arrival at Hitler’s remote hideaway at Berchtesgaden two years later. Author Ellen Hampton But indeed I was enthralled. This is an amazing story, about the first female unit to be part of an armored division on the European western front during World War II. It was the brainchild of a wealthy, forceful — and forcefully inspired — American woman named Florence Conrad who wanted to help with the effort to liberate France. She had driven an ambulance herself during the Battle of France in 1940 and had already demonstrated her ability to cut through bureaucracy to find immediate solutions to urgent problems. Her idea was that an all-female ambulance unit would free up more men to fight in what she knew was going to be the fight of the century; and so she gathered the means to purchase 19 ambulances, rounded up (and in fact carefully selected) drivers for them, and managed to get her offer of assistance all the way up to General Leclerc, commander of the French 2nd Armored Division. German troops in Paris. (C) CC BY-SA 3.0 DE Leclerc was of course most enthusiastic about the idea of gaining 19 ambulances, but not at all enthusiastic about the idea of them being driven by women. When he balked at accepting the latter, Conrad’s response was basically, “No women, no ambulances.” And, in the interest of his men, and in keeping with his pragmatic style, he changed his mind. It wasn’t the first time that he would change his mind about having women attached to an armored unit. By the time France had been liberated, these women, who came to be called the Rochambelles (you’ll have to read the book if you want to know why), had earned his respect and even his deep gratitude. (They had collected a number of military honors as well.)

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Barnaby Conrad
    2021-06-24 07:09:29
    Barnaby Conrad
    Dear Janet Hustrand, I'm a long-time subscriber to Bonjour Paris and was delighted to read your article about the book on the Rochambelles. Florence Conrad was the sister of my grandfather, Barnaby Conrad (1885-1956), both raised in Helena, MT, where their father John Howard Conrad was a cattle tycoon and an unsuccessful candidate for the lieutenant-governorship of the state in 1889. John married a Providence, RI debutante, Mabel Barnaby, but the marriage was not a happy one. After they divorced Mabel took the children to live abroad for a time, then settled on a large estate in Santa Barbara. While my grandfather went to Yale and became a businessman, Florence eloped to Paris with an American named Thompson, had a child with him, then divorced and remarried several times, once to General Lannusse, lastly to an American banker in Paris named Rosenberg, if I recall correctly. She had a chateau in the country somewhere, which my father Barnaby Conrad. Jr., an American author, (1922-2013) visited in 1949 on his own honeymoon. (Florence's grand-daughter Perrine de Paillette is still alive at 82, living near Montlucon.) I myself lived in Paris from 1982-87 and am the author of "Absinthe: Historry in a Bottle" and other books. Currently finishing up a big book on 95-year-old French artist Jacques Villeglé. Please contact me if you wish at [email protected]. Merci, et à bientôt, j'espére! Barnaby Conrad III