A wider and wider mass of young réfractaires and indeed all Frenchmen need to be brought into the immediate action of guerrilla warfare that we are waging.
(Charles Tillon to de Gaulle, 1943)
The tussles and conflicts between resisters in metropolitan France and between the Free French and Vichyites in North Africa were of very limited interest to the Allies. Their concern was the defeat of Germany and to that even the liberation of France was of secondary importance. Moreover the liberation of France, it was felt, could be delivered from the sky, in the shape both of Allied bombs and SOE agents parachuted in to work with select groups of French resisters. There was, however, another vision of resistance that was held by some resisters in metropolitan France and especially communists. This was modelled on the French revolutionary idea of the levée en masse, the people in arms who would rise up to free themselves from foreign oppression through guerrilla warfare. The battle between these two options began a long time before a second front was opened up and only intensified after D-Day.
Allied strategy was, in the first place, to bomb military-industrial installations in France that were contributing to the German war effort. Ideal from their point of view, they could prioritise military aims, exclude political considerations, and have nothing to do either with the internal French Resistance nor with the Free French. Bombing had considerable support from the population, at least in the early days, since the RAF benefitted from a heroic status gained during the Battle of Britain. That said, however precise it might be, it could not avoid inflicting civilian casualties, and this was mercilessly exploited by Vichy propaganda to turn public opinion against the Allies. An alternative Allied approach was therefore to organise the sabotage of military-industrial installations by agents who were parachuted into France to work with emerging resistance circuits. These circuits operated across wide areas but involved only an élite of French resisters on the ground. Weapons and explosives drops were guided in by agents and their radio operators and used to arm only select groups. At all costs it was felt necessary to keep weapons out of the hands of communist partisans. Yet the Resistance was independently gaining strength on the ground. The Armée Secrète had been developed as an army-in-waiting of people going about their normal lives but ready to support the Allied offensive when D-Day finally came. Free Corps or commandos were taking action to get comrades out of jail, take out collaborators and even kill Germans. Most important, the imposition of STO provided the raw material of the maquis, which planned to undertake guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces.
The first dramatic bombing raid of the Allies was on the Renault factories in Boulogne-Billancourt in the western suburbs of Paris on 3 March 1942. A Paris high-school student ‘who listens to you every day like most girls at my lycée’, wrote to the BBC in London:
I visited the vicinity of the Renault plant; that was great work! It is a pity that there have been some casualties among the civilian population. We mourn them but we do not blame the English. We know that they are doing it on purpose in order to deliver us.
Local people demonstrated their solidarity by burying downed pilots with full honours. A veteran of the Great War in Nantes told the BBC about the funeral of four British airmen there in 1941:
Their graves are covered in flowers. The first wreath laid on the airmen’s grave carried the inscription: ‘A group of metalworkers’. Every Sunday in the cemetery a large and reverential crowd processes in front of our dear English friends. Three-quarters of them are working-class people.
Not all Allied pilots who were brought down by German anti-aircraft fire died; many bailed out over in Belgium and northern France and, if lucky, were hidden by locals. Escape lines were organised by a few courageous local resisters to spirit these airmen to a neutral country so that they could resume the fight with the Allies. These circuits were purely military in purpose, to assist the Allied war effort. They had no political agenda and did not undertake political propaganda. Initially they functioned with very little Allied help, apart from diplomatic help in Spain or Switzerland, although in time Allied agents and servicemen linked up with the internal resistance.
The Comet line was originally devised by a young Red Cross nurse, Andrée de Jonghe, and her father Frédéric, a primary-school teacher from an industrial suburb of Brussels. They began by hiding and smuggling out British soldiers stranded in Belgian military hospitals after Dunkirk. Later they concentrated on airmen who had been brought down, escorting them first from the Brussels-controlled Forbidden Zone of the Nord/Pas-de-Calais into France – sometimes forced to swim across the Somme – then across France to the Pyrenees and to neutral Spain. There Andrée negotiated a deal with the British authorities in Bilbao to keep them out of Spanish prisons and get them to England. As British raids grew more intense and more airmen fell in France a turntable was created in Paris in the spring of 1942. It was a bourgeois Catholic network that included the Jesuit father Michel Riquet, a veteran of the Great War and chaplain to Catholic doctors, who was linked to Henri Frenay, and Robert and Germaine Aylé, who were in business and close to the Dominicans. The group organised safe houses and false papers for Allied pilots in transit. Stanislas Fumet, who had moved to Paris from Lyon, dined at the Aylés’ flat with Riquet, ‘a joyful and most friendly evening’, one Friday in June 1943 four days before the Aylés and Frédéric de Jongh were arrested. Frédéric de Jongh and Robert Aylé were shot at Mont Valérien on 28 March 1944. Germaine Aylé was deported, as was Andrée de Jonghe, who had been arrested in the Pyrenees in January 1943; both survived.
After these arrests the Comet operation was organised on the Belgian side by an industrialist of aristocratic stock, Baron Jean de Blommaert, and on the French side by Philippe d’Albert Lake, a publicist for P&O whose mother was English, and by his American wife, Virginia, from Dayton, Ohio, who went to France to avoid having to teach at her mother’s private school and married Philippe in 1937. They had a flat in Paris and a country cottage at Nesles-la-Vallée, 40 kilometres north-west of the capital. She recalled an autumn evening in 1943 when the local baker drove up to ask them to help with three American airmen who had been shot down:
The dark-haired, slanting-eyed Willy was from Hawaii. He was an oculist. There was serious, love-lorn Bob from California and Harry, a jolly factory worker from Detroit. They seemed so happy to be able to relax for a few hours and to talk with us who spoke and understood English.
She decided there and then to ‘work for the Underground’, hiding airmen in their Paris flat or walking arm-in-arm around the Trocadéro Gardens, under the noses of sightseeing Germans, before it was time to take the train. When from the end of May 1944 Allied bombing disrupted the rail network they took airmen to a maquis in the Fréteval Forest near Châteaudun, the ‘Sherwood’ plan masterminded by Colditz escapee Airey Neave, who worked for MI9. About 150 airmen were hidden there by mid-August 1944. Unfortunately, Virginia was arrested near there with a downed airman on 12 June 1944 and deported to Ravensbrück, which she survived.
The Comet line ferried Allied airmen to Spain via the Free Zone, but after the Germans occupied the whole of France in November 1942 the South lost its attraction and escape routes via Brittany were organised. The Shelburn network, active from 1943, escorted airmen to the Breton coast from which they were picked up at night by a British boat. The meeting-point was the Café de Biarritz on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, run by Georges Labarthe, a veteran of two wars from south-west France, and his wife. They had links to resistance organisations such as Libé-Nord and ORA, although they did not see themselves as ‘members’. The café was frequented by young men from the nearby École Polytechnique, Saint-Cyr, École Navale and the École de l’Air, so that Allied military men passing through were less likely to be recognised. At first the Labarthes advised them on how to get to the demarcation line, then teamed up with Mme Labarthe’s dressmaker and organised their own escape line. Marie-Rose Zerling, a young Alsatian woman and science teacher who knew Jean Cavaillès at Libé-Nord, organised accommodation for escaping airmen, who were then taken in small groups by courier, boarding the night train to Brittany from the Gare Montparnasse. Arriving at the last moment in order to avoid undue attention, they often encountered hostility from passengers in crowded trains obliged to vacate seats booked for the airmen but the latter were unable to give themselves away by talking. One of the couriers learned the trick of warning grumblers, ‘These gentlemen are Todt engineers. They are pretending not to understand but I’m sure that at least one of them does.’
Once at the station of Saint-Brieuc the key contact on the north coast of Brittany was Georges Jouanjan. An escaped POW, he hoped to find a way to join the Free French in Britain by talking to pilots shot down in aerial combat. When a Halifax crashed after bombing Lorient on 13 February 1943 he and a local miller sheltered half a dozen surviving airmen and got them taken off the coast. One of the airmen, Gordon Carter, who subsequently married Jouanjan’s sister, was debriefed by British secret services, which sent in an agent to make contact with the Breton group and set up a regular escape line. This was Vladimir Bouryschkine, an American basketball champion of Russian origin who went under the name of Val B. Williams. As the trainer of the Monaco basketball team, he had begun his resistance career by persuading the local Italian commander that Allied POWs at the nearby Fort de la Revère had a right under the Geneva Convention to enjoy one afternoon of sport per week. In this way he spirited fifty-three men away by boat to Gibraltar. Having met Jouanjan, he went to Paris to establish a link there, which he did via Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux’s OCM.
Back on the north Breton coast, the villagers of Plouha gathered at the café-tobacconist shop of François Le Cornec and organised the ferrying of airmen from the local train station to villagers’ houses. Then, in response to a BBC message, ‘Tout va bien à la Maison d’Alphonse,’ they were walked to a small house on the cliff-top, the same Maison de l’oncle Alphonse, and thence onto the beach. They used a creek, the Anse Cochat, from which signals were flashed to British ships but could not be seen by German lookouts. They were taken off on a launch bound for Dartmouth commanded on a regular basis by corvette captain David Birkin. Sixteen airmen were packed off on the night of 28–29 January 1943 and 128 altogether – including ninety-four Americans and thirty-two British and Commonwealth servicemen – until the Germans left the area early in August. Unfortunately, back in Paris, the Gestapo came for the Labarthes on 5 June. Georges got away but his wife and daughter were deported and did not return from the camps.
Allied bombing of military targets in France was generally supported by French public opinion until 1943, when the US Air Force joined the bombing campaign and regularly bombed from high altitude by day, much less accurately than the RAF. Civilian deaths rose to about 60,000 – about the same number as British victims of German air raids. Those who worked in shipyards and factories that were harnessed to the German war effort were potential targets, as were civilian populations in the same ports and cities. In Brittany the port of Lorient was attacked in January and February 1943, Saint-Nazaire in February and March 1943 and Nantes on 16 and 23 September 1943. Over 800 were killed and 1,800 were injured in the first raid, while 1,300 were killed in the second. A high-school student from Nantes who had witnessed the bombing and managed to make his way to England was debriefed in February 1944. He said that the raids had killed 3,000 people and another 3,000–4,000 were missing. He said that:
He himself was not particularly bitter about these raids, one of which did a great deal of damage to the docks. He had, however, seen a good deal of bitterness among his fellow-citizens […] people might not have been so bitter, he thought, if the BBC or rather the Allied Air Forces through the BBC had said just one word of excuse […] instead of pretending that the raid had been 100 per cent successful, when everyone in Nantes could see that this was not so.
After these disasters, Vichy claimed alone to be protecting the lives and interests of French people. An alternative strategy was to sabotage military-industrial installations on the ground, avoiding the downside of collateral damage. This might be undertaken in the first place by small numbers of French resisters fed up with the political infighting of resistance who wanted only to contribute to military solutions. It was also undertaken by SOE agents parachuted into France and making contacts with resisters on the ground. Their ideal profile was that they were bilingual and while totally loyal to the Allies could pass for French men or women.
A prime example of the first kind of resister was Jean Cavaillès. A brilliant mathematician and friend of Lucie Aubrac, he was one of the founders of Libération in Clermont-Ferrand in 1941. Appointed to a post at the Sorbonne, he very soon went to Paris and became involved in Libé-Nord, along with the likes of Christian Pineau. When Pineau went to London in March–April 1942, he persuaded de Gaulle that the Free French must become more political, but in return Colonel Passy asked him to set up his own intelligence network called ‘Phalanx’ in the Free Zone and ‘Cohors’ in the Occupied Zone. Cohors was entrusted to Cavaillès, who built up his network from Belgium to Brittany around two very different groups: first, young teachers such as his former pupil Jean Gosset, who had taught at the lycées of Brest and Vendôme, and second, an artistic ‘society’ of former students of the École du Louvre, such as Mme Tony-Robert and her former teacher and curator there, Robert Rey. Mme Tony-Robert’s tall, shy and bespectacled nephew, who was ashamed to have been invalided out of the army, redeemed himself by becoming Cavailles’ personal courier. Gosset, like Cavaillès, used the vaults of the Louvre as a hiding place in Paris and also returned to Brittany to set up a network with a friend, Yvonne Queffurus, who was bursar at the college of Quimperlé, which reported on the movement of German troops and ongoing work on the Lorient submarine base.
Pineau and Cavaillès were due to go to London to discuss their intelligence network and perhaps become more involved in sabotage. However they were arrested during the night of 5–6 September 1942, while trying to get off the French coast at Narbonne to a waiting submarine. Although they were acquitted by a Vichy military court at Montpellier, they were immediately interned by the prefect as undesirables in the Saint-Paul d’Eyjeaux camp near Limoges. Pineau managed to escape from the train on the way there and Cavaillès escaped from the camp on 29 December 1942. In January orders came from London that Cavaillès should split Cohors between an intelligence arm and a sabotage arm, to be headed up by Gosset. Cavaillès finally got to London from the Breton coast via a fishing boat that took him to a British launch. His sister recorded that:
He admired the calmness with which the British people accepted the danger of bombing raids. But he was quickly deceived by contact with the Free French. The soldier he remained was shocked by the triviality of the gossip – what he disdainfully called ‘the émigré mentality’ – the cliquishness of the Gaullist clan, women even wearing the cross of Lorraine on their hats, and above all the machinations, the ambitions and the politicking that ended up with the Committee in Algiers.
Yves Farge observed a similar change in Cavaillès on his return to France. The young man was disillusioned by the tensions between the Free French in London – about to move to Algiers – and the metropolitan resistance and by the amount of energy that was taken up by politics rather than defeating the enemy. He decided to work on sabotage with the Allies far from the world of political intrigue:
Cavaillès came back from London a disappointed man. When I recall what he said I believe that he picked up astonishingly early the drama that is evident in French politics today that set the internal resistance against the external resistance. In my mind’s eye I see him nervous. He needed explosives. This clear-thinking Huguenot always gave me the impression that he carried a great sorrow in his breast.
Cavaillès resigned from the leadership of Libé-Nord and devoted himself entirely to military action. He had been given two missions in Brittany, one to destroy German radio beacons on the Brittany coast which could be used to detect Allied bombers and the other to sabotage the infrastructure of U-boat bases. This last task he entrusted to Jean Gosset, who – as fiction aped extraordinary reality – is believed to be the model for Philippe Gerbier in Joseph Kessel’s Armée des ombres. Gosset investigated the possibility of sabotaging the Lorient U-boat base with the help of a New Zealand commando team. Cavaillès went to Lorient at Easter 1943 and managed to get inside the base in overalls with the help of a local man who worked there with a German pass. He confirmed that sabotage was a better option than bombing, if they could find a landing ground for the New Zealand commandos. The mission, however, was never accomplished by Cavaillès, who was arrested in Paris on 28 August 1943. He was interrogated by the same Abwehr officer who he imagined to be responsible for the death of his comrade René Parodi, found hanged in his prison cell at Fresnes on 16 April 1942. Questioned as to why he had become involved in such desperate resistance, Cavaillès riposted that it was to avenge the death of Parodi. Cavaillès was himself shot in the fortress of Arras on 17 February 1944.