Authors: Alex Gerlis
The others laughed. They knew that the railway workers, the
, were at the heart of the resistance movements throughout France. Thousands of workers risked their lives every day by doing their best to compromise the system. It was not always the acts of sabotage that counted. As Lucien liked to point out to them, if five workers were sent to repair some track and they took two days over a job that they could have done in one, then the Germans had lost five days’ labour. Multiply that by what was going on across France and the effect was significant.
‘You see, what would really cause major disruption would be a direct hit on a track and that has not yet happened in this region. The only way to be sure, is by planting explosives in exactly the right position.’
‘And,’ added Pierre, ‘doing that just before a train passes over.’
‘Indeed,’ said Lucien. ‘That way it takes many more days to remove the train before you can even begin repairing the track.’
‘Not forgetting, of course, that if it is a military train then you will kill troops and damage vehicles,’ said Pierre.
‘Our instructions are to concentrate on this area.’ Pierre was using a fork to trace a small circle around Hesdigneul-lès-Boulogne. ‘Where the line splits. That way, we disrupt the routes to and from Lille and the centre and to and from Normandy. Other groups will look after the Calais line.’
‘Will there be reprisals against civilians?’ asked Jean.
Françoise placed a hand on Jean’s arm. ‘Jean. Everything we do will help to end the occupation. How much longer can people be allowed to suffer? If we stop and consider all the consequences of our actions, then there will be no resistance and without the resistance, the occupation will continue.’
‘Tomorrow night,’ said Pierre ‘we will hit the track through Mourlinghen — where the Lille line goes through the woods. Geraldine, how much explosive do we have?’
Geraldine asked Pierre to repeat the question. She had been thinking. She had no way of contacting Lange today or tomorrow to warn him of the attack. They had agreed that when she knew the location of an attack, he would arrange for a German patrol to be on the line, which the group would spot and abort their mission.
‘Is Sunday really such a good day to do it, Pierre?’ she asked.
‘Maybe it will be ...too quiet?’
‘But the attack will be late at night. It will not matter what day it is. In any case, Lucien is working tomorrow and finishes at six in the evening. By then he will have a good idea of what movements there will be on the line that night. How much explosive do we have?’
‘Enough for three major explosions. Maybe we could split some up and go for two major attacks and two or three smaller ones – like junction boxes or signalling equipment.’
‘Very well,’ Pierre was folding the map now and placing it back into the lining of his jacket. ‘We go for a major attack tomorrow night at Mourlinghen. We will meet at Jean’s house at eight. Be careful.’
They left Jean’s house between nine and ten o’clock the next night.
Lucien’s information was that a supply train would be leaving Boulogne just before eleven, heading towards Lille. He was unsure of what was on the train, it didn’t do to ask too many questions, but the important thing was that they had an opportunity to blow up the track with a train on it. As Lucien pointed out, if they could blow up the track when it went through the woods, it would be even harder to remove the train. With any luck, it would put that line out of action for three or four days at least, quite possibly a week.
The night before, Jean and Geraldine had retrieved the explosives and the detonation equipment from where it was hidden in the forest and had concealed it in a culvert under the Calais–Paris road. They left the house one by one, at ten minute intervals. Jean went first, heading due north and then working his way round anti-clockwise to Mourlinghen. It was a long route, potentially hazardous, but Jean knew the countryside so well that he could take the risk. Pierre also headed north from the back of the house, taking a clockwise route to the woods. The other three fanned out in a southerly direction.
By ten thirty they had all crossed the River Liane as it flowed across the gently sloping countryside and were at their meeting point in the Bois du Quesnoy. They crouched close together as Pierre carefully went through the instructions one more time. The railway line cut through the top of the woods, most of which was on the southern side of the railway track. Pierre and Françoise would guard the north east and north west corners, Jean would look after the south. Lucien would go down with Geraldine to the track. If all went well, four of them would be north of the track at the moment of detonation. From the position they had chosen, it was a relatively short distance across the fields back to their village, although it was uphill. Hopefully they would be back in the village before the Germans appeared on the scene. The real danger would be if the Germans billeted in the village heard the explosion and came out to investigate. There was no discernible wind that night and Pierre was concerned that the sound of the explosion would carry to Hesdin. They would just have to be very careful when they returned.
As Geraldine scrambled down the steep bank to the track, she remembered her training in Lincolnshire. It had been much colder then but strangely, she felt calmer now. Then she had been concerned that the training was a trap, that maybe they would discover her true identity.
If tonight’s explosion worked, then the SOE and the resistance would be pleased, if it failed, then the Germans would be pleased. She still had no idea what to do, she would have to wait and see what opportunities were presented to her. In a strange way, it seemed to sum up her predicament; increasingly she felt that she had slid into a state of limbo. She knew which side she was meant to be on, but she was no longer convinced how distanced she was from the other side.
There was little cloud in the sky, but the tall trees made it difficult to see. She and Lucien waited by the side of the track, scanning up and down the line with their binoculars to see if there was any movement. They waited five minutes, listening carefully for any warning signals from the other three.
. Lucien crossed the track, crouching down by the southern side of the line. Geraldine got to work from the north side. Scooping the gravel away with her hands she pushed the explosives in and then attached the wire. Until that moment, she was not sure which course of action to take. She thought of what Lange had said. She imagined what the reaction of the group would be. Lucien seemed more concerned with scanning up and down the track than with what she was doing. Once she had made her decision she finished her preparations, smoothed the gravel back over the wire and then ran it back towards the siding, taking care to scatter some stones on top to keep it in place. Lucien joined her and together they climbed up the bank and back into the woods. Geraldine had taken care to bring plenty of wire to enable them to reach the far edge of the woods. They had chosen a position that gave them a view of the line, so she could see the train as it was about to enter the woods. Two seconds after that, she would press the charge.
They had only just settled into position when they heard the first distant rumble. It was hard to work out where it was coming from at first, but within a minute it was the unmistakable sound of a train coming down the line from the direction of Boulogne. They heard the clatter as it slowed down and crossed the points at Hesdigneul-lès-Boulogne and seconds after that the dark mass loomed into sight. As the train entered the woods, they counted, ‘
one, two ...
’ together and Geraldine pressed hard on the detonator. Instinctively, they all covered their heads, not so much because of the noise they were anticipating, but more because of the danger of any flying metal or exploding ammunition.
But there was nothing. Just the rush of wind as the train sped through the woods and the noise of the birds disturbed by it. In front of them, a small creature scurried through the undergrowth.
Pierre looked at Geraldine.
‘I don’t understand. It makes no sense. What do we do now?’ she asked.
Pierre looked shocked. ‘It’s too risky to stay. We can’t even risk getting the explosives back. We must try to pull in as much of the wire as possible and then go. There must have been a faulty connection, I don’t understand. Did you check it, Geraldine?’
‘Of course I checked it! What do you think I was doing down there, Pierre? We checked it, didn’t we, Lucien?’
The railwayman nodded.
Pierre shook his head. This was close to a disaster.
‘Lucien. You go down and recover as much of the wire as you can. I’ll cover you. You two, back to the village. Jean will guess something has gone wrong, he’ll make his own way back.’ He was clearly angry and was muttering to Françoise in the local patois, something which he had avoided doing in her presence since her first night back in France. He shaking his head and saying ‘
Jean arrived back just after midnight. Geraldine was already in her bed when he silently entered the house. He came into her room, leaning exhausted against the doorframe.
‘What happened? Why was there no explosion?’ He was angry, his tone almost accusing.
‘I cannot explain, Jean. How do you think I feel? When I was training in England, sometimes it happened, the explosives didn’t work. Maybe a rat got to the wire, maybe Lucien or I pulled it by mistake with our feet –I just don’t know. It’s possible that the explosives got damp when it was stored. I did my best, I checked the connection carefully. I don’t understand either.’
‘Such a wasted opportunity. We cannot risk getting those explosives back.’
He stood there shaking his head.
The thirteenth of June was a Tuesday, exactly one week after D-Day. Lange had left instructions in the usual place under her saddle telling her when and where she was to meet him. She had wheeled her bike up a narrow alley just beyond the old town and came across a shop with a dusty façade, improbably squeezed between two larger shops. She paused there, exhausted. She was getting tired these days and after the exertions the other night, her back was hurting. The shop sign said
‘Levy – Chapellerie’
. There had been a clumsy attempt to scrub out the word
, but the outline of the name remained visible, like a ghost haunting the new owner. Geraldine was looking at the tired display of just a few men’s hats when a man materialised on her right. When he was sure no one was around, Lange spoke quietly in the direction of the window.
‘Do they believe you?’
‘Your comrades, who do you think I mean,’ Lange said sarcastically. ‘Do they believe you? About Sunday night?’
‘What do you know about Sunday night? I was going to tell you about it.’
‘Do not forget that I am an
officer. I am trained to deduce matters. Yesterday morning a patrol found some loose wire by the track in Mourlinghen. They are aware of my interest in any matters relating to railway sabotage so I was called in. We found the explosive. You had not connected the wire to the explosive. It was not even subtle, was it? If one of them had gone back to check the connection that would have been obvious to them too.’
‘Of course, I didn’t connect it. Did you want me to blow up the train?’
‘Absolutely not! All I’m saying is that you need to be careful. You did the right thing, but what I want to know is this: do they suspect you?’
‘I don’t think so. Pierre is angry, but I think he just believes I was either incompetent or unlucky. Lucien was near me but he never saw the actual connection being made, he was too busy watching the track.’
‘Just so long as they don’t suspect you. They’ll kill you, you know. We infiltrated a man into a cell near the Belgian border. He was useful for a time, very useful. But he must have made a mistake. At the end of May he was found hanging from a tree. His ears and nose were not the only parts of the body they had cut off. Before they hanged him.’
‘I am sure they don’t suspect me.’
‘The minute you think they do, you come to me and we’ll get you out of the area. The Gestapo will be very keen to get their hands on your “friends”.’
Geraldine looked shocked.
‘Don’t worry. You will be well out of the way. It won’t matter to you, will it? It won’t be long now. Soon we ought to know for sure whether there is going to be an invasion in this area. Once we know that, your job is done.’
The shopkeeper opened the door and gave them an unctuous smile, hopeful that their lengthy spell at his window might result in some much needed business. No one was interested in hats these days. All they were interested in buying was food. He thought it had been too good to be true when he was offered the chance to take the shop over when the owner was sent away. His wife told him it was a mistake. ‘It can only bring bad luck,’ she had said. He regretted it now, of course, but it was too late. Even his own brother wouldn’t talk to him. The neighbours crossed the road when they saw him. All these rumours he was hearing. He had nightmares about what would happen to him when the war ended. What about if the old owner returned? He shook his head sadly as the couple walked down the alley in the direction of the cathedral. It was a pity. They would have been his first customers that week.
Boulogne and the whole of the Nord Pas de Calais region continued to be battered by the RAF. One night just over a week after D-Day three hundred RAF aircraft took part in a raid on the Boulogne area. Geraldine and Jean watched the sky turn black with swarms of Lancaster and Halifax bombers. By 20 June Boulogne was barely recognisable as a town, with its identifiable infrastructure of roads, traffic signs, shops, houses and places of work all but destroyed. Its landscape now took on a strange dimension, with the rubble resembling mountains formed over thousands of years.