Long and eventful life remembered

Patsy Short was a capable, practical and energetic woman

An East Preston woman who led a life of constant activity and challenge has died just days before her 91st birthday.

Patsy Short worked for a number of years with the former Arundel-based charity SAGE, helping to run respite clubs for people with dementia. Even well into her 70s, she was dedicated to helping ‘her old folk’, as she called them.

She and her late husband John, who died in 2001, were also active in East Preston Twinning Association and regularly hosted guests from Brou, France.

It was France where she was born, Patricia Beatrice Marguerite Oliver, in Paris on October 17, 1926.

Her family believe she was one of the last remaining British citizens to have lived through World War Two under Nazi occupation in the French capital.

Vanya Body, Patsy’s daughter-in-law, said: “Patsy lived a long and eventful life, during which she was witness to some of the more turbulent events of the 20th century.

“She was always happy to talk about her wartime experiences and had a number of souvenirs from the period, including the leaflets dropped by the American liberators warning the Germans that they were about to re-take Paris.”

Alice and Percy Oliver brought up their three children, Peter, Patsy and June, in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Patsy’s English father was a photographer, working for the Red Cross, but at the outbreak of war, he left France to join up.

Vanya said: “The family was due to pack and follow as quickly as possible, as there was no sense of immediate threat. However, the German troops closed rapidly on the French capital and in the ensuing pandemonium, Alice bundled the children and a few belongings and joined with thousands of other refugees fleeing to the coast in the hope of catching boats to the safety of Britain.”

Alice took a pushchair for June and a small suitcase, and Peter took his bicycle, as he thought it could be useful.

Patsy, who was 13 at the time, later told her own children: “We walked through the streets of Paris, joining all the refugees and soldiers. There were cars, lorries, carts, people, horses - you name it, they were on the road, plus pets of all kinds. There were no buses, no trains, just people trying to get away from the Germans.

“The lack of real news, the rumours, the fear of bombs or diving planes. We carried on always in hope we would find some form of transport.

“We arrived in a village where there was an open baker shop selling bread. There was a mad rush by everyone as you can imagine. We also heard the latest news: Daladier had resigned and Paul Reynaud had taken over, the Government had moved to Bordeaux. Paris had fallen to the Germans, it was what they called ‘an open city’. The silence that fell was incredible, no one thought Paris would be in the hands of the Germans.

“I shall never forget that moment. People were stunned, and wandered aimlessly for a bit, ‘till the news sunk in’.”

It was not long before the German advance had overtaken the family and all the refugees were turned back to Paris to an uncertain fate.

A few weeks later, German soldiers took Patsy’s brother away, as they were rounding up all British men over the age of 16.

They took him to a camp just outside Paris, where the family could visit twice a month but only one at a time.

Patsy had recalled: “There were many Brits, who, like ourselves, had not been able to get away. I used to go on my bike to deliver Peter a weekly parcel. It took me quite some time to reach the camp due to traffic. German troops going where I do not know, tanks, marching and, worse of all, the German police who could stop you and ask for your papers, and if you were a Brit you would be arrested as the enemy – as I learned later they did not want English people to move about.”

Patsy and her family found out, via Red Cross letters, that her father had indeed reached England but they had no idea of his whereabouts.

They were given an allowance by the Swiss Red Cross but had very little to live on. They relied on the kindness of locals, though many Parisians either blamed the British for abandoning them or sympathised with the Germans and regarded them as the enemy.

The school, however, would not accept fees, saying ‘pay after the war’, and the baker and dairy said similar.

The most frightening set of events happened midway through the occupation. One morning, without warning, the family was ordered to pack, loaded on to a lorry and taken to the railway station.

Patsy had recalled: “Our neighbours waved us goodbye. I shall never forget the look on their faces, it will not leave me.”

The Germans appeared to have rounded up all the English citizens remaining in Paris and transported them to a Stalag, set up in a former army barracks near Besancon, in eastern France.

Patsy never forgot the awful smell, with damp straw bundles and dirty coverings to serve as their beds.

They were there for several months but eventually, the Red Cross got involved and it was agreed mothers with children under 16 should be released and sent back to their homes.

Back in Paris, the family received constant visits from the German police, at all hours of the night.

Recalling the day the Americans freed their area of Paris, Patsy had said: “There had been fierce battle and our house was right in the middle. And, guess what I did? Yes, you are right – I put my nose out of the window and nearly got it blown off. The battle lasted several hours, but when the Germans surrendered, the whole street came out in joy and the wine flowed.”

Miraculously, Peter had survived but the experience had taken its toll. Their father had too, simply turning up on the doorstep in Paris, out of the blue, a few months later.

After the war, Patsy took up nursing and trained at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

She met John, a young Scotsman who was passing through Paris, while attending a service at the Church of Scotland Kirk during a trip home. They married in 1952, in the same Kirk.

John worked for British American Tobacco (BAT) in its overseas operations and they had a series of postings to the Far East and Africa.

Vanya said: “Life was not without its challenges, be it coping with local customs, struggling with chaotic and unreliable services or even exotic wildlife, not to mention the heat and the constant moving house. But, a capable, practical and energetic woman, Patsy took it all in her stride.”

Patsy and John had four children, each born in a different country, and had to send them to school in England, as the custom decreed. Patsy found the hardest aspect of living an ex-pat lifestyle was seeing her children only in the long school holidays.

Even that was not guaranteed, as they were based in Cyprus during the civil war and partition.

Vanya said: “The younger children were told that it was too dangerous to come home for their school holidays and were billeted with friends but Patsy stayed with John in Nicosia and did their best to carry on with the business, whilst, once again, bullets flew around her. Patsy declared she was ‘not about to become a refugee again’.”

John went on to work for Guinness, which took the family to Africa, before retiring to East Preston, where they lived in The Street.

After John died, Patsy moved to a smaller home in the village, where she lived until she died, on October 4. The funeral took place on Thursday.

Patsy is survived by her four children, seven grandchildren and her sister, who still lives in Paris.

More from Lifestyle