The sabotage work was taken over by Jean Gosset, who duly destroyed pylons near Hennebont on 21–22 September 1943, the railway from Hennebont to Lorient, and transformers at the Lorient submarine base on 14 October. Gosset then went to London for two months’ training, where he was described by the commanding officer as ‘a nervous and rather intellectual type. He has very poor physique, making him awkward at weapons training. His great interest seems to be Demolitions’ – i.e. explosives. He was parachuted back on 30 December 1943 to head Cohors, now called ‘Asturies’, and undertook successful sabotage operations both in Lorient and on the Hotchkiss-Borsig and Timken ball-bearing factories in Paris. He was arrested in Rennes on 25 April 1944 and deported to Neuengamme, where he died on 21 December 1944.
More common in the work of sabotage were British agents with French backgrounds who were trained for SOE work back in France. These were generally officers who had fought in 1940 but women were often involved too. The latter were recruited into the auxiliary services and started as couriers but sometimes took over command roles when their commanding officer was arrested. Agents worked with small groups of French resisters on sabotage, which required the parachuting-in of weapons and explosives, extreme care being taken that they did not fall into the wrong hands.
Maurice Southgate was British but had been educated in France, was married to a French woman and ran a luxury upholstery business in Paris. He fought in France in 1940 and was one of the survivors of the Lancastria, which was evacuating British troops to England when it was sunk by the Germans off Saint-Nazaire on 17 June, a disaster that the British government attempted to cover up. He trained with SOE and was parachuted into the Auvergne on 25 January 1943 with courier Jacqueline Nearne. She recorded the initial confusion and panic of their landing:
I saw three shadows, of which one was pointing a revolver at me. I thought that my mission was already finished. A few moments later I realised that one of the shadows was my boss who had been parachuted in with me and whom I had not recognised. The other two shadows were trees. As we went along we met a peasant on a bicycle and twice my companion asked him the way in English.
Southgate’s instructions were to ‘undermine the Hun in every way possible, with the least inconvenience for French people. Avoid all contact with French political groups (this was an absolute dogma for our minders in the UK; they had a real thing about it)’. He put together a sabotage circuit which had two main regional leaders. In the Indre, near Châteauroux, he worked with Auguste Chantraine (Octave), the former mayor of the village of Tendu who had been dismissed because he was a communist. Chantraine commanded a group of Francs-Tireurs et Partisans with whom SOE would not normally have worked, but did so because of their effectiveness. In the Pyrenees, near Tarbes, Southgate worked with a former POW, Charles Rechenmann (‘Julien’), who had been released by the Germans as a Lorrainer on condition that he lived in annexed Lorraine or Germany, which he promptly fled. His group was made up former POWs like himself, on whom he could rely. Their sabotage successes included the Hispano-Suiza aircraft factory at Tarbes, a foundry at Bergerac, and a bridge-making factory at Châteauroux. SOE chief Maurice Buckmaster described Southgate as ‘the uncrowned king of five large departments in France’.
That September Pearl Witherington arrived to act as Southgate’s courier. She tried to persuade the management of the Michelin factory in Clermont-Ferrand, which was working for the Germans, to undertake sabotage onsite or to suffer Allied bombing. Unfortunately the Michelin bosses refused to believe that they would be bombed so Pearl cabled back, ‘I hate to suggest the bombing of Michelin but […] I think it would teach the management a lesson and force their hand if Clermont-Ferrand were bombed.’ More successful as a case of sabotage to avoid bombing was that undertaken at the Peugeot works at Sochaux, on the Swiss border, by Harry Rée. Born in Manchester to a Danish-Jewish father whose business had been in Hamburg, he was educated at Shrewsbury School and Cambridge and was teaching modern languages at Beckenham County School when war broke out. Left-wing and a conscientious objector, he nevertheless realised that the war was ‘much more than a capitalist business’ but an ‘anti-Jewish business’ too and volunteered as an anti-Nazi rather than an anti-German. His trainers at SOE described him as ‘highly strung and nervy’, worried about his ‘school standard’ French, and as ‘uncompromising […] very tactless and hates authority as such’. In April 1943 he was dropped near Tarbes, and met by Southgate who was alarmed by Rée’s accent. He was taken by courier Jacqueline Nearne to Clermont-Ferrand to attempt once again to sabotage the Michelin factory; when that did not work out he set to work on the Peugeot factory at Sochaux, which was making tracks and engines for German tanks. This had been bombed by the RAF on 14 and 16 July 1943, killing 110 and seriously injuring 154. Harry Rée made contact with Rodolphe Peugeot, who was keen on sport and pro-British, and persuaded him that sabotage within the factory would be preferable to the RAF returning. Between 3 and 5 November key workers recruited to the circuit used plastic explosives that had been parachuted in to blow up the turbine compressors and electricity transformers. It was, reflected Rée, ‘a wonderful job for an ex-conscientious objector to stop bombing by blowing up machinery’.
Even more dramatic were the SOE activities of Michael Trotobas, who undertook sabotage in northern France. With a French father and Irish mother, his unstable childhood was spent variously in Brighton, Dublin and the Toulon area. He worked in turn as a cook, waiter, electrician and debt collector, and thought about joining the French Navy before volunteering for the British Army in 1933. Wounded at Dunkirk, he was commissioned and joined SOE. Described by his trainers as quick-thinking but hot-tempered and liable to depression, he was parachuted in in November 1943 to organise sabotage in the heavily industrialised Lille area, ‘the Hell of the North’. He made contact with French colleagues, including a Denise Gilman, who became his liaison agent and a police officer who gave him a police identity. Known as ‘Capitaine Michel’, he organised a series of commando raids such as that of the night of 26–27 June 1943, which virtually destroyed the huge locomotive factory of Fives-Lille. In October he undertook a series of train derailments, a train carrying aircraft oil was blown up at Roubaix station on 5 November and another carrying dynamite and munitions exploded between Lille and Valenciennes on 23 November, which also put the line out of action. Unfortunately a parachute team coming in to lend support was captured by the Gestapo and information extracted led to Trotobas’s lodgings. At 7 a.m. on 28 November, it was reported:
Michel was up and ready to go out, dressed in police uniform. Finding himself confronted by Germans, he immediately knocked down the lieutenant in charge of the detachment. The soldiers retaliated with machine-gun fire. In the ensuing brawl, Captain Michel and a young girl belonging to the organisation who was there [Denise Gilman] were killed, along with another German soldier.
Trotobas was recommended for the Victoria Cross but did not receive it as his death was not witnessed by a senior officer, but Buckmaster noted that ‘his heroic death has become legendary’.
This sabotage activity in urban and industrial sites ignited a certain number of fireworks but it did not deal with the reality that the forced labour draft (STO) had driven young men of military age into the wilds of forest and mountain to escape going to Germany. Some simply lay low while others joined camps of maquisards. These were initially concerned with finding food and shelter and frequently acquired a bad reputation when they raided farms for food, town halls for false papers and tobacconists for cigarettes. However, they formed a reserve army that could be called upon to act behind German lines when the Allies finally landed on French soil. Until then they were beset by three fundamental problems: lack of weapons, lack of training and lack of leadership.
Since the Resistance had failed to persuade the disbanded Armistice Army to part with its hidden weapons, and German weapons could only be acquired by force in unequal combat, the only other source of arms was the sky. This source was limited and skewed. Limited because the Allies only had so much to offer and skewed because they did not want weapons to fall into the wrong hands, by which they meant those of communists. Key relationships were formed between SOE agents and small groups of non-communist resisters often commanded by former officers of the Armistice Army.
In November 1942 SOE agent George Reginald Starr was landed from a felucca on the south coast of France. He had trained as a mining engineer in Scotland before learning French while working on the Belgian coalfield at Liège. Originally supposed to go to Lyon, he heard that it was infested by police and went to Agen in Gascony. He set up his headquarters in the village of Castelnau-sur-l’Auvignon and recruited a team from among refugees from Alsace-Lorraine in order to receive parachute drops. This became the Wheelwright Circuit, which had tentacles from the Pyrenees to Vierzon. Unfortunately he was without regular radio contact with London until the arrival in August 1943 of Yvonne Cormeau, whose father was a Belgian consular official, and who had decided to continue the war fought by her husband when he was killed in an air raid in London in 1940. Under the code name ‘Annette’ she worked as Starr’s radio operator, travelling widely to avoid detection, and orchestrated the delivery of 147 arms drops to the circuit. SOE agent Harry Despaigne, usually known as Major Richardson, made a similar impact on south-west France, into which he was parachuted in September 1943. Born in London to a French father and a Belgian refugee from the 1914–18 German occupation of Belgium, he worked for a shipbroker before the outbreak of war in 1939, when he joined the Light Infantry. Recruited to SOE he was described as having ‘a curious and enigmatical personality and is altogether rather a dark horse’. In Toulouse he met Roger Mompezat, who had fought in the colonial infantry in 1918 and been a civil servant in Madagascar between the wars. Together they organised the parachuting of weapons into the Ariège, Aude and Tarn, and in April 1943 set up the Montagne Noire Free Corps. Heavily armed and highly effective, this group attracted the envy and hostility of less well-provided maquis, who regarded them as little better than mercenaries working for the Allies.
Even more significant than the south-west as an area of maquis activity were the foothills of the Jura and Alps. It was there that two of the most famous maquis formed on the Glières and Vercors plateaux, but the help of SOE agents was crucial. Richard Heslop was dropped into the Ain, north-east of Lyon, in September 1943. Born in France but brought up in England after his father’s death, he was educated like Rée at Shrewsbury and at London University before going into the shipping business. A lieutenant in the Devonshires in 1940 he joined SOE and, dropped into France, became the second-in-command of Major Henri Petit, a veteran of the Great War and of 1940, known in the Resistance as ‘Romans-Petit’. In January 1944 Heslop reported that Romans-Petit had ‘3,500 fully trained and armed men under his direct orders’. This made an impact symbolically long before it did militarily. On 11 November 1943 a group of well turned-out maquisards processed down from the Jura hills to lay a wreath on the war memorial of the small town of Oyonnax. Homage was rendered to the heroes of the First World War by those who aspired to be the heroes of the Second. More important, it was the staging of the liberation of a French town, designed to counter the image of the maquisards as outlaws, and to dramatise their fitness to receive weapons. Romans-Petit recalled that ‘the magnificent appearance of our young men, the guard of honour in white gloves, bore witness to the facts that were not looters but soldiers. The underground press all talked about it and we received many congratulations. The British, American and Canadian press dedicated long columns to it and carried photographs of the procession.’
Staging a symbolic liberation was not the same thing as carrying it out militarily. On the Vercors plateau the situation did not look good down to the end of 1943. The Italians extended their zone of occupation in November 1942 to cover the Vercors, and on 27–28 May 1943 surprised a lorry carrying petrol to the maquis. This led to the arrest of twenty men, including Aimé Pupin: ‘The maquis are disorganised, communications have been cut and funds are not getting through,’ reported Pierre Dalloz, who went underground and escaped from France to Algeria via Barcelona and Gibraltar that November. The maquis was reorganised and a second organising committee was set up in June 1943, headed on the military side by Alain Le Ray, who had escaped from Colditz, and on the civilian side by Eugène Chavant, a Great War poilu and former socialist mayor in the Grenoble suburbs. Together they celebrated a festival of unity of the plateau on 10 August 1943. On 6 January 1944 an Allied mission, code-named ‘Union’, landed on the plateau to help train and organise the growing maquis. It was composed of Henry Thackthwaite, a British former schoolteacher, Peter Julien Ortiz, an American marine with a French father who had earlier served in the French Foreign Legion, and a French wireless operator. They found a maquis about 3,000 strong, of whom only 500 were properly organised into groups of ten and armed with Sten guns. Four RAF pilots – who bailed out of a Halifax on 7 February and were sheltered for seven weeks by the Vercors maquis – were impressed by the bravado of Ortiz, who drove around in his marine’s uniform, in a car stolen from the Gestapo and ‘practically lives on benzedrine’. However, they expressed concern about the ‘poor quality’ of the maquisards, some of whom were only fifteen or sixteen, and were ‘willing enough to fight the Milice but the majority were scared of the Germans, who used all kinds of weapons against them, such as armoured cars, tanks and mortars’.
One way of ensuring the efficacy of the maquis while maintaining outside control was to develop the idea of a local rising co-ordinated with airborne troops. Under the ‘Plan Caïman’ or ‘Alligator Plan’ devised by Free French General Billotte, maquisards would be mobilised in the Massif Central with outside support to pin down the Germans in the South while landings got under way on the Channel coast. The plan was not adopted by the Allies, partly because of its impracticality, partly for fear of encouraging national insurrection. Nevertheless SOE leader Maurice Southgate contacted the charismatic resistance leader in the Auvergne, Émile Coulaudon (‘Gaspard’), on 15 April 1944, and asked him, ‘Could you hold a position for a few days in an area of the Massif Central to be decided on and control the access roads? In that case we could parachute in semi-heavy weapons and also commando forces to lead your corps francs.’ Gaspard agreed for the four departments under his control, and this was approved both by London and by a meeting of the Regional Liberation Committee called to a farm in the Haute-Loire by Henri Ingrand, the commissaire de la République-in-waiting. Unfortunately Southgate was arrested by the Gestapo in Montluçon on 1 May 1944. Coulaudon nevertheless went ahead on 20 May, publishing a call to a levée en masse that resulted in 2,700 individuals in fifteen companies gathering on Mont Mouchet by the end of the month.
Well into 1944 supplies of weapons from the air were limited and restricted to non-communist fighting groups. This of course infuriated the communists, who increased pressure on the Free French to intercede with the Allies on their behalf. In London Fernand Grenier went several times a month in the summer of 1943 to see Colonel Passy to request weapons for the FTP but without success; he also wrote a pamphlet on the glorious achievements of the FTP but Soustelle at the Information Ministry gave him no money to publish it and he had to turn to British communists for help. Charles Tillon, head of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) in France, who later described the BCRA as ‘driven by the narrowest anti-communist mentality that was entirely contrary to the interest of the Resistance’, wrote directly to de Gaulle in Algiers in August 1943. He underlined the significance of the flux to isolated areas of réfractaires, who with a little help could be trained by the communists in a whole new strategy of guerrilla warfare:
You know that for two years the FTP have conducted an armed struggle against the invader. They are part of the Armée Secrète and without qualification they are under your orders and those of the CFLN […] 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 […] But we lack the necessary weapons, food coupons and money to provide security and material existence to the Francs-Tireurs and réfractaires for whom we are responsible.
Tillon reinforced his point by sending a delegate to London early in September 1943 to discuss the question of parachuted weapons with both the BCRA and the Allies. The delegate was interrogated for a week by the British secret services and asked to reveal the names of his leaders, which he refused to do for their protection. Eventually he got to see Colonel Passy only to be himself persuaded of the ‘corrupt milieu of the BCRA’. He also saw British and American officers who expressed surprise that the Francs-Tireurs were receiving no weapons. Free French and Allies each blamed the other for failure to support them: ‘According to the Allies it was the BCRA that wanted to deny us weapons while for the BCRA it was the Allies who were refusing to give them to us.’ In truth, neither the BCRA nor the Allies wanted to arm the communists lest the national insurrection they desired became a communist revolution. The communists nevertheless did not give up. Waldeck Rochet, one of the twenty-six communist deputies who had been held at the Maison Carrée of Algiers in 1941–3, travelled to London to lobby for the French communist position. He was well connected with Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party of Great Britain and, in the rather vain hope of persuading the British establishment, attended the Armistice Day celebrations of 11 November 1943 in the ranks of the ‘Français de Grande Bretagne’ and gave fortnightly talks on the BBC.