I went back to Europe just as the war was breaking out. The war surprised us as we were passing Guinea, by Freetown. Father Viril and I who were childhood friends were told by the captain. He told us,
“I think there’s going to be war.”
And war was declared in fact. So, we went back to Freetown to camouflage the boat so there wouldn’t be any light and it wouldn’t be torpedoed by a submarine. We set off again for Europe. In Dakar we stopped for a while and from there we were taken in a convoy. Two or three warships accompanied five or six passenger ships to protect them from possible submarine attacks. There had some ships which had been sunk off the coast of Mauritania since the war began, passenger ships.
We arrived in Bourdeaux without any problems but since it was war we had to be mobilised. After a month I had to return to Africa again, this time as a soldier! I just had time to see my father and my brothers and sisters who were there for a few days.
So, it was back onto the boat at Bourdeaux and then return to Dakar, once again accompanied by the warships. Then the boat went on to Libreville where I was discharged.
Fr. Lefebvre (left) as Rector of the seminary in Libreville
I had been appointed to Donguila, a mission in the bush, by Mgr. Tardy. But then, it was, after all, wartime, I was mobilised again and sent to Chad. What a waste of time and effort. Then they sent us back to Gabon. We had to put up with a lot because Gabon was invaded by General de Gaulle’s troops, helped by the English which brought convicts and communists to Gabon. It was terrible; that gave a very bad example to the natives seeing the French fighting among themselves. Oh it was awful. Even Mgr. Tardy had been imprisoned on a boat sent by General de Gaulle. Locked up on board for a while. There had to be negotiations to get him released and so on. Dreadful things which obviously scandalised the poor blacks. It was a very poor example and certainly didn’t help our apostolate.
Libreville bay seen from the mission
I was sent to various mission stations: to Libreville for a while, then to Donguila, then Mgr. Tardy sent me to Larnbarene, where the famous Dr. Schweitzer was. He was a great musician, a very good performer of Bach, a doctor, a Protestant minister, he had been a professor at the Protestant University of Strafiburg. So, he was there in his hospital which he had built and which he was developing. He was on very good terms with the Catholic mission and I got to meet him several times.
One day I was on a trip in a small boat with some children – a small motor boat visiting the villages – when we could see a dugout canoe coming in the distance. The children recognised it, I couldn’t make out what it was. They said to me,
“Hey, Father, that’s a canoe from the mission. It’s a canoe from the mission.”
I said,”From the mission? Why? What’s going on? What do they want? What’s happening?”
“No, it is, it’s a canoe from the mission, absolutely”.
And in fact the canoe made towards us and came alongside…
“Hey, Father, there’s an urgent letter for you and so on”.
Oh dear! It was 1945, towards the end of the war, communications had been reestablished and Fr. Laurent, the same Fr. Laurent who had been with me in the novitiate and was now Provincial in France, he had asked Mgr. Tardy to let me come and be Superior of the Philosophy seminary in Mortain. Oh no. Oh dear, I could have wept. I didn’t want to go back to Europe, my mother was dead, my father was in a concentration camp, my brothers and sisters had their own lives. I wanted to stay in Gabon for ever, I didn’t want to return to France ever. Oh dear, I can tell you that was a great trial for me -I had to leave Gabon!