The first Germans arrived in Vichy in 1940. Following the occupation of northern France, several Nazi agents were sent to the Southern Zone, including to Vichy, to establish “relations” with the government.
During the first months of the Occupation, the German presence in Vichy was much more restrictive for the government than it was for the population, but from late 1941 this situation changed. Members of the Gestapo rose in number and after the occupation of the Free Zone in November 1942 they were literally everywhere. The principal Gestapo unit in the Allier was stationed in Vichy, with offices at Montluçon and Moulins.
In Vichy, they based themselves in boulevard des États-Unis, requisitioning twenty-five buildings including the Hôtel du Portugal. It was here that the Gestapo interrogated and tortured those it had arrested or had had arrested. A man employed in a nearby ministry recounted: “I start work at five in the morning. I go by bicycle. When I passed the Hôtel du Portugal, it was awful. I heard screams of agony coming from the cellar. They were torturing someone. It was horrific.”*
After the war, the Hôtel du Portugal was used by the Liberation Committee as an internment camp. As the two other camps in Vichy, the Concours hippique and the Château des Brosses, did not have the infrastructure for medical procedures, a camp hospital was created in the Hôtel du Portugal. Thirty prisoners could be hospitalised there at the same time, in the care of Doctor Lacarin, future mayor of Vichy. Another part of the building was used for the internment of prisoners who had conducted themselves badly at the Concours hippique and the Château des Brosses.
* Account by a ministry employee. Cited in G. Frélastre, Un Vichyssois sous Vichy, p. 22.
On 10 May 1940 Hitler’s troops invaded Belgium. Four days later they were in France. The German advance triggered an unprecedented exodus of refugees fleeing south. The towns and cities where they sought refuge were overwhelmed. In Vichy, the Concours hippique, the town’s equestrian stadium, was transformed into a reception centre. An enormous canteen was created and after only a few weeks around 800,000 meals had been served. In addition to the reception centre at the Concours hippique, the town council created an orphanage, a maternity service and several clinics housed in requisitioned buildings to cater to refugees’ needs.
The Concours hippique was then requisitioned by Pétain’s paramilitary groups, the GMR, created in the spring 1941. Following the armistice in June 1940, the army and antiriot police were drastically reduced in number. The GMR were created to maintain public order. They were initially deployed in the southern zone then throughout France late in 1942. In Vichy, they were stationed in the Concours hippique.
After Vichy’s liberation, the Concours hippique became an internment camp for several hundred presumed collaborators. To make the camp more functional and secure, the site was enlarged and altered and two watchtowers were built.
The camp’s population varied greatly, ranging from ordinary people to writers such as Jacques Chevalier, generals such as Commandant Féat, and members of the deposed government, including former ministers such as Xavier Vallat. The prisoners were housed in fourteen sheds, ten for men and four for women. The camp was dismantled late in the spring of 1945. According to the prefect, their proximity to the local population helped create an unhealthy and potentially dangerous atmosphere in the vicinity of the Concours hippique.