Valor Friday

| August 23, 2019 | 5 Comments


Free France WWII

For today’s Valor Friday, Mason brings us to Occupied France during WWII, and the clandestine Freedom Fighters, or La Résistance. These men and women did their best to make German lives in Occupied France as miserable as possible. Mason, as usual, has done an outstanding job with his research, and brings life to a group of patriots who most of us have only cursory knowledge of. Here’s Mason:

Mason

Many of us who have studied World War II are aware of the French Resistance fighters. Called the Maquis in rural areas, these French nationals fought a guerilla war against the Germans who had invaded in 1940 and occupied their country. They spied on the enemy, provided intelligence to the Allies, and helped Allied and soldiers and airmen escape from behind enemy lines. Perhaps most nobly, some within La Résistance helped Jewish people escape deportation to the concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis.

The first person who had a role saving countless lives from the Nazi death camps is none other than Marcel Marceau. World renowned long after the war for his pantomime skills, he was only 16 when Germany invaded and took over his country.

His cousin, already a resistance fighter, encouraged Marcel and his brother Alain to join. They did, in the area of Limoges. Their father a Jew, Marcel and Alain took the surname Marceau in honor of Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, a French Revolutionary general.

In 1944 the boys’ father Charles Mangel was captured by the Gestapo and deported. He died at Auschwitz.

Marcel’s cousin, Georges Loinger, and Marcel took on the task of rescuing scores of children from the Nazis. They did this in a variety of ways. Marcel would change children’s ages on identity cards (of both Jews and Gentiles) so that they would then be too young to be sent away to labor camps (for the Jews) or to German factories.

More daringly, Loinger, who was a physical education teacher before the war, would help kids escape to neutral Switzerland. They used such tactics as staging a soccer game near the border and continually having kids run across the border into Geneva where the fence was guarded only by barbed wire. Marcel would even pose as a Boy Scout leader to lend legitimacy to why a man would be travelling with a large group of children (also dressed as scouts).

Marcel, who had been enthralled by Charlie Chaplin’s antics in movies as a boy, first mimed for these children as a distraction. As the men (who in the case of Marcel was still a teenager himself) would bring the kids towards the border, past Nazi checkpoints and roving patrols, they needed to be kept calm. When stopped, the kids needed to appear not as if they were running for their very lives, but that they were merely going on a vacation to a home near the Swiss border. His acting skills not only entertained the children, keeping them calm as they travelled through occupied territory, but also helped him pass the guards.

Marcel had a part in directly saving at least 70 children’s lives through these efforts. His forgery skills probably saved more than that. His cousin is credited with saving more than 300.

At one point he stumbled across a patrol of 30 Germans. Through his excellent acting skills, he convinced them he was part of a French Army advanced unit. Though the tale differs depending on the source, he either convinced them to surrender en masse or retreat. Frankly, either is impressive.

After the Allies invaded in 1944, he joined up with the French Army. Since he was fluent in English, French, and German, he worked as a liaison with Patton’s Third Army. After the war, he went on to become an internationally famous entertainer. As with many Holocaust survivors, he didn’t talk about his war exploits for more than 50 years, and to this day few know of his heroics during that time.

Marceau died in 2007. He was a recipient of the French Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) and Ordre national du Mérite (National Order of Merit).

Also fighting the Nazi occupation of France from within was Nancy Wake. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, she was living in Marseilles with her French husband when the war started, she soon became a key figure in the French Resistance.

After France fell, Wake started as a courier for the Resistance. As a beautiful woman, she probably had less trouble getting past patrols and checkpoints than men would. The Gestapo took to calling her “The White Mouse” for the ease with which she could elude capture.

With nerves of steel she began to help people escape to Britain. Allied personnel, prisoners of war, and other people unable to flee France before it fell were successfully smuggled out, with the help of people like Nancy.

By 1943, she was the German’s most wanted person in the Marseilles area, with a 5 million franc bounty on her head. This would be roughly $1M today. As a result, she fled to the UK. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, remained behind. The Gestapo arrested him, tortured him, and ultimately executed him when he would not betray his wife.

As she attempted to effect her escape, she was once part of a trainload of people arrested, but was freed by a fellow resistance fighter who claimed she was his mistress and hiding it from her husband. She once described how she’d get past German guards: “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Finally reaching the safety of Spain she then made her way to Britain. She immediately joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Known as “Churchill’s secret army” the SOE operated in all occupied territories. The forebearer to later organizations like the CIA’s Special Activities Division, the SOE was made of agents operating behind enemy lines. Their primary role was espionage, sabotage, and intelligence, but they also worked with resistance fighters in a more direct action role.

She took to the paramilitary spy life well by all reports. She was a good, fast shot, exhibited excellent fieldcraft, and would put the men to shame with her cheerful spirit and strong character.

On March 1, 1944 she parachuted into occupied France at Auvergne. Getting stuck in a tree on her way down, she was found by the Maquis fighter she was to liaise with. Upon finding her Captain Henri Tardivat greeted her remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”, to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

In her role as advisor to the Maquis, she helped recruit men. Eventually a unit of 7,500 was built up in her area of responsibility. She was involved in their direct actions, attacking German convoys as well as bridges and rail lines vital to the German war effort. She was also a part of a Resistance attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon during which 38 Germans were killed.

During the war she discovered that her men were hiding a German spy. The spy, a young lady, was avoiding execution because the men couldn’t bring themselves to kill her in cold blood. Sources differ. Wake either killed the woman herself, or when Nancy said that she would do it personally, the men relented and did what was required.

Wake and her 7,000 maquisards fought during the Allied invasion of France by any means possible. The men she worked with, especially Captain Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit. On one raid, she single handedly and with her bare hands, killed a German sentry to prevent him from raising an alarm. In the 90’s she was interviewed and asked how she had killed the man. Drawing her finger across her throat, she explained, “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

One day, because their radio operator had to destroy his codes to prevent their capture by the Germans, she rode a bicycle 190 miles, through numerous German checkpoints, to reach another Maquis radio operator to have him relay to the UK the situation. Being a proper spy, the radio operator didn’t believe she was SOE, but she eventually convinced the local Maquis commander. Then she rode the bike 190 miles back home. All within 72 hours.

During a German attack on a Maquis group she was with, she and two American officers took command of a unit whose leader had been killed. Directing suppressive fire, she facilitated the group’s withdrawal with no further casualties.

At the conclusion of the war and in the years that followed she received many awards and decorations for her actions. Britain awarded her the George Medal. Second only to the George Cross, it is awarded for gallantry not in the face of the enemy. The US gave her the Medal of Freedom (not to be confused with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which replaced this award in 1963) with bronze palm (only 987 were so awarded for WWII). The Medal of Freedom was a civil award for anyone not in the US armed forces for meritorious acts or services in prosecuting the war.

Wake received higher honors from the country she fought so hard for. France gave her the Médaille de la Résistance, which recognized “remarkable acts of faith and of courage that…have contributed to the resistance of the French people.” She received the Croix de Guerre medal with two palms and a star (indicating three separate awards). The Croix de Guerre is analogous to an American Silver Star or Bronze Star Medal. She was also made a knight in the French Légion d’Honneur in 1970, which was upgraded to officer in the Legion in 1988.

All of these awards and decorations make her the Allies’ most decorated woman of World War II.

After the war she alternated between living in the UK and Australia and continued work in intelligence off and on while dabbling in politics. She eventually wrote an autobiography of her wartime experiences in 1985 “The White Mouse”, becoming a bestseller. At one point she sold her medals saying, “There was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”

Nancy Wake died in 2011 at the age of 98.

Hand salute. Ready, two!
Thanks, Mason.

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (5)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    Another excellent job Mason. This should be required reading for every school child and for each congress critter (sic) that is advocating “gun control.”

    Freedom don’t come cheap.

  2. A Proud Infidel®™️ says:

    *Slow Salute *

  3. David says:

    380 miles on a non racing bike in three days. A bit unbelievable.

  4. cc senor says:

    How often do you find a mime fluent in three languages? The only thing I ever heard him say was “No!” in Mel Brooks’ movie, “Silent Movie”.

  5. We used to go to my friends inlaws community when the TAG put on plays and the guy who directed it was a WW2 member of the Jedburghs whom operated behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia. Didn’t know this until we went to a play and saw his service record on display on an easel as we walked in. He passed away and it was put up as a tribute. He also worked for the CIA for awhile until he went into teaching music. I googled the unit and saw his name on the list. That was a little bit of history that was kept under wraps for years.

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