A Canadian museum in Normandy, France, has acquired a 77-year-old folding bike that a Canadian soldier used after landing on Juno Beach during D-Day on June 6, 1944.
Normandy residents Marie-Claude Halot and Joëlle Letellier contacted the Juno Beach Centre (JBC) on Dec. 24, 2020, with the news that their recently deceased father, Christian Costil, wanted the bike donated to “the Canadian museum” after his death. Costil died last November, so his daughters were determined to fulfill their promise to ensure the bike reached the JBC.
The sought-after airborne folding bicycle was given to Canadian soldier Marius Aubé, who used it during the initial months of the Battle of Normandy before later giving it to the Costil family for safekeeping.
The Juno Beach Centre recently announced that it had acquired the bike.
“What’s so incredible about this artifact is that it’s so iconic,” said Marie Eve Vaillancourt, JBC manager of exhibitions. “For many, the historical photos of Canadian soldiers landing at Juno Beach with these bikes are very familiar.
“For over 75 years, this bike was only a few doors away from our museum, kept by a diligent family who lovingly cares for it out of respect and gratitude for what the Canadians accomplished for the French back in 1944.
“It’s a very special moment when such (a) symbolic object leaves the hands of its initial caretaker, passes through the family’s generations, and finally arrives at our doorstep,” she added.
Canadian and British soldiers used the bicycles, including the airborne folding model, after landing in Normandy on D-Day. They were assigned to airborne units and provided to infantry or service units, allowing soldiers to travel greater distances while remaining silent and undetectable by the enemy.
Costil’s family delivered the artifact to JBC director Nathalie Worthington, whose family was liberated by Canadian forces in 1944. Halot and Letellier shared the bike’s history with Worthington, including how it became an integral part of their father’s life decades ago.
A friendship begins
Costil was 14 years old and living in Ranville, Normandy, when he met Aubé in the summer of 1944. Aubé, from Sherbrooke, Que., had landed at Graye-sur-Mer on D-Day and spent the summer serving with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps near Costil’s family farm as the Battle of Normandy raged.
Aubé befriended Costil, often visiting the farm. When his regiment pushed into Germany during the final year of the Second World War, Aubé offered Costil his folding bicycle as a parting gift. Thus began a 40-year friendship between the two young men.
Costil kept the bike for 76 years.
His daughters explained that he used it daily to commute to college in nearby Bayeux. After working on the family farm until he was 28, Costil later worked for a major French energy company as a meter reader. He removed the backseat of his Citroën 2CV car to make space for his folding bicycle to accompany him to each community.
Costil rode the bike while making his rounds from house to house, reading meters until he retired in 1985. He then carefully stored the bike but couldn’t part with it during his life.
“My dad had an almost otherworldly love for this bike,” said Halot. “We weren’t allowed to touch it. But he was very modest and rarely spoke of Marius.”
Aubé and Costil established a lengthy correspondence, prompted by Aubé, who sent his first letter to Costil in 1945 when he was stationed in Germany. During their lives, they kept in touch, with Aubé often closing his letters by signing, “From a friend who will never forget you.”
Aubé died in 1988 and is buried in the veteran section of St. Michel Cemetery in Sherbrooke.
Promoting the past
“We have acquired a lot more than just a famous bike from historical photos; we have also acquired the human story behind the object,” said Vaillancourt. “And we’ve acquired a little bit of just how enduring the friendships that were forged in fire decades ago remain.”
It is now the Juno Beach Centre’s honour and duty to relay the bike’s significance to future generations, she continued. While the history of material from the Second World War will become more difficult to find in years to come, it will be even more difficult to secure objects “that have not been rendered anonymous by the passing of time.”
Besides the bike, Costil’s daughters also donated seven letters between their father and Aubé to the JBC. This allowed the museum to track down the latter’s brother, Gilles, who filled in some details about the Canadian soldier’s life after the war.
A family connection
The Aubé family adopted Gilles in 1945 because the family’s mother declared that she would adopt a child if Marius returned safely from the war. Gilles never knew his brother well based on age difference but remembered him as a “branchless bird” who lived an independent life and had no children.
The veteran returned to Normandy at least twice after the war, but he and Costil never again met in person due to circumstances. An unexpected new friendship, however, has blossomed due to this donation.
Costil’s daughters are now in touch with Marius’ niece, Nadia Aubé, continuing the international connection forged more than seven decades ago.
“Dad would have been happy to see (the bike) here,” Halot said. “It’s a little story within a big one. Because behind war, behind weapons, there are also stories of friendship.”
Updated visitor information, including pandemic-related changes, for Canadians in Europe or planning a trip to the continent is available at www.junobeach.org, along with a wide variety of Second World War resources for the public, educators, and students.
The JBC will mark the 77th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.