In 1940 Olivia Jordan, then Matthews, drove an ambulance under fire in France, escaped to Britain as the Germans closed in and became Charles de Gaulle’s driver-translator in London. Subsequently she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, though talking of her war work last year, Olivia, who has died aged 102, said: “I wasn’t of any importance, I was right down there,” pointing at the floor.
Pronouncing herself bored with the “phoney war”, 21-year-old Olivia had left the Matthews family home in Sevenoaks, Kent, in January 1940 and travelled to France to “see what was going on”.
General Pierre Héring, the military governor of Paris and an acquaintance of her father, facilitated her entry into the Sections Sanitaires Automobiles Féminines, a paramedic unit attached to the French army, and within months she was caught up in Nazi Germany’s invasion of western Europe.
An ambulance driver with rudimentary training in nursing and mechanics, Olivia was sent north towards an enemy that had crossed the Maginot line and was moving so fast it overtook the retreating French. She remembered a “good deal of time was spent hopping in and out of ditches” to avoid German strafing and under the banner of the Red Cross she nursed both German and allied troops.
Instructed to head south, with dying French soldiers in her ambulance, Olivia was part of a convoy that drove straight into a German attack outside Clermont-Ferrand in central France. “The marshalling yards were being bombed, but we had casualties on board so we couldn’t get out and hide or stop. I was so frightened I started singing the Marseillaise at the top of my voice.”
After the capitulation of France she had to get back to Britain on her own. With no money, no weapon, no paperwork, she relied on gumption and charm to reach the south-west coast of France before the Germans arrived. “I found an old motorbike, I’d never ridden one before but I’d ridden a horse!”
In St-Jean-de-Luz, near the border with Spain, she climbed the rope ladder on to a last remaining British vessel only to be turned away: “There’s no accommodation for women on this troop ship.”
When she eventually arrived home in a destroyer full of Polish soldiers her family’s response was underwhelming. “They didn’t seem worried at all. I was so disappointed.”
But the beleaguered French appreciated her and within months she had been presented with the Croix de Guerre for “courage and endurance”, and Olivia was soon begging her mother to stop telling everyone.
Born in Bushey, Hertfordshire, to Christabel (nee Stogdon) and Trevor Matthews, the chairman of Grindlays Bank, Olivia was the fourth daughter in a family hoping for a son. After a teenage riding accident she received plastic surgery and, although pioneering at the time, the outcome did little for her self-esteem.
She disliked boarding school at Downe House, Berkshire, but thanks to a governess was fluent in French and German by the time the war came. During a 1937 trip to Munich to “finish” her education, Olivia brushed shoulders with Adolf Hitler in a tea room. “I wasn’t politically conscious but I was very conscious of this man Hitler.”
Her language skills gained her work as a translator and driver for the Free French, led by De Gaulle, with a London office in Carlton Gardens, near St James’s Park. Difficult to work for, and with limited English, the maverick French general understood what this unlikely British girl in a French uniform had to offer. She summoned her father’s Wolseley to London and was soon back behind the wheel.
In August 1940 she noted in a letter home: “It was very thrilling last night, my man broadcast and I went with him actually into the room while he was doing it.”
The respect was mutual; he sent her his “most sincere wishes of happiness” for her wedding to Major Peter Jordan in 1943, when her service for De Gaulle ended. De Gaulle died in 1970, having served as president of France, and in 1993 Olivia was invited to the unveiling of his statue in Carlton Gardens.
Olivia worked for the Free French throughout the blitz. Letters home described to her appearance on London’s roof tops putting out incendiaries in nothing but an overcoat after jumping out the bath, and she survived the bombing of Café de Paris in Piccadilly. In the first few suspended seconds after the explosion, Olivia involuntarily checked her limbs. “You would not have known if your arms were blown off, not straight away.” Her hearing never fully recovered, but although almost totally deaf in old age she never shied away from talking about the second world war.
She and Peter, an architect, lived in South Kensington and had two daughters. The couple divorced after 25 years of marriage, by which time the family had moved to Dorking, in Surrey.
I interviewed Olivia last year for my forthcoming book Army Girls. As was the case for many young women of her generation the conflict presented Olivia with a chance to break away from a narrow, preordained path and prove herself: “It’s a terrible thing to say but I rather enjoyed the war.”
Olivia’s daughter Carolyn predeceased her. She is survived by her daughter Annabel, three grandchildren, Stephan, Samantha and Anne, and four great-grandchildren.
Olivia Jordan, wartime ambulance driver and translator, born 28 January 1919; died 19 August 2021.