Voices from the Dark Years

BOOK: Voices from the Dark Years
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘Having no literary pretensions, I never intended to publish my notes. Yet now, when so many want to forget it all happened, we must go on record.’ Pierre Mignon, farmer, patriot and survivor of the extermination camps

‘History tends not to repeat itself exactly. Next time, it could be worse.’ Renée de Monbrison, who wore a yellow star in the Occupied Zone

‘If I could not be your sword, at least I have been your shield.’

Marshal Philippe Pétain, in his last message to the nation before being abducted to Germany by the SS in August 1944

‘Everything I did was for France and the cause of peace.’

Pierre Laval, shortly before he was executed for high treason at Fresnes prison on 15 October 1945


Many people contributed to the research for this book by reliving with me their experiences during the dark years of the German occupation of France. They recalled moments of anguish and joy, of shame and triumph, of fear and elation. They unearthed personal papers, showed me treasured mementoes and lent precious documents, manuscripts, photographs and books on trust. Many said at the end of our meeting, ‘I haven’t helped you much’, but research is like an iceberg: it is the nine-tenths below the water-line that gives balance and perspective.

From Bordeaux in the south-west of France to Schirmeck in Alsace, survivors asked to remain anonymous after telling me things they had never divulged to anyone else. To them goes my greatest gratitude. Among those I can thank, in Tarn-et-Garonne, Andrée Fourcassié, née Giraud, was my unassuming guide to the misty timescape of the past, opening doors I should never otherwise have known existed; Chantal Fraïsse welcomed me to the Archives Municipales of Moissac; Joseph and Paulette Gouzi offered hospitality, shared memories and lent precious unpublished documentation; Jean-Claude Simon made available photographs of the Maison de Moissac rescue operation; and Françoise Blanchard, née de Monbrison, unlocked the rich resource of her family’s published and unpublished records of the occupation.

In Paris, Naomi Wilson shared her research for a PhD thesis on women’s experience of the occupation. In Gironde, Christian Chabrier, Jacques de La Bardonnie, Cathérine and Robert Hestin and many other neighbours and friends dug into their personal memories; Trudi Higgins supplied correspondence from Ste-Foy-la-Grande; Maj. Len Chaganis unearthed material on Operation Cockade; and the wife of dying hero Henri Salmide (formerly Heinz Stahlschmidt) put aside her grief to talk to me. In Lot-et-Garonne, Guy de La Bardonnie generously shared both published and unpublished resources. In Charentes, Philippe Delaurain gave me the benefit of his encyclopaedic knowledge of the occupation, as well as access to his unsubsidised museum Le Musée de la Poche, which told so well the story of the Royan pocket of resistance until it had to close for lack of funds. And fellow BBC-pensioners Don Craven and Brian Johnson helped me track down the Morse Vee-sign used for so many broadcasts to Occupied Europe.

With good reason, historical writers thank the spouses or partners who tolerate the solitude imposed by their craft and their spending more time with the dead than the living. For a person as sociable as Atarah, this is doubly hard; her enthusiasm and active support is more valued than she imagines. Among my predecessors on the research trail, American historian Robert Paxton deserves acclaim for first shining the light of enquiry on the dark years at a time when nobody in France wanted to talk about them. On a professional plane, my thanks go to agent Mandy Little for getting the first edition published and to commissioning editor Mark Beynon, editor Rebecca Newton, proofreader Alwyn Harrison and designer Jemma Cox at The History Press for this edition.


  1.  All translations are by the author, unless otherwise attributed.

  2.  All reasonable steps have been taken to clear copyright material. If any copyright has been inadvertently infringed, please write to the author, care of the publisher.

  3.  All photographs are from the author’s personal collection, unless otherwise stated.





List of Abbreviations


Part 1

Defeat and Occupation

1    From Sitzkrieg to Blitzkrieg

2    Pétain Quells the Panic

3    An End to the Killing

4    ‘Trust the German Soldier!’

5    Behold the Man!

6    The Lie that was True

7    The Number of the Beast

Part 2

Life, Love and Loot under Pétain’s New Order

8    Clearing up the Mess

9    Of Cheese, Plays and Books

10    Of Bread and Circuses

11    Courage of a Quiet Kind

12    Culture and Crops

13    Saving the Children

14    The Women’s Ordeal

15    ‘We have Learned of the Scenes of Horror …’

16    The Protests Gather Strength

Part 3

1944 – The Beginning of the End

17    Soap and Sabotage

18    Casualties in the Great Game

19    Happy New Year!

20    Dancing in the Dark

Part 4

The Price of Liberation

21    Atrocities on Both Sides

22    Murderous Midsummer

23    ‘Hell is the Other People’

24    A Carpet of Women’s Hair

25    Death of a Town

26    After the War was Over …

Further Reading in English

By the Same Author






Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action (eventual title of the London-based co-ordinating centre of Gaullist intelligence networks)
British Expeditionary Force
Commissariat Générale aux Questions Juives – main body charged with enforcing anti-Semitic laws
Conseil National de la Résistance
Eclaireurs Israélites de France – the Jewish Scout movement
Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg – Nazi cultural agency
Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur – Free French forces inside France
Francs-Tireurs et Partisans – left-wing Resistance movement
Geheime Feldpolizei – German Military Police
Groupe de Protection – Pétain’s bodyguard
Légion des Volontaires Français contre le bolchevisme – French volunteers fighting in German uniform on the eastern front
Mouvement Social Revolutionnaire – a fascist movement
Oberkommandantur der Wehrmacht – German Army High Command
Parti Communiste Français – French Communist Party
Parti Populaire Français – Doriot’s extreme pro-German party
Police aux Questions Juives – special anti-Jewish police force
Renseignements Généraux – French equivalent of Special Branch
Reichshauptsicherheitsampt – Himmler’s umbrella organisation running the SS and SD
Régiment de Marche de Volontaires Etrangers – temporary Foreign Legion regiment of volunteers in 1940
Rassemblement National Populaire - Déat’s extreme right-wing party
Sicherheitsdienst – Amt VI of RHSA covering external security
Société des Chemins de Fer Français – French state railway system
Service d’Ordre Légionnaire – forerunner of the Milice
Service de Police Anti-Communiste – anti-Communist police units
Service de Travail Obligatoire – organisation of compulsory labour in the Reich
Union Générale des Israélites de France – umbrella organisation by which the Germans organised the fate of the Jewish community


The seed of this book was sown at a diplomatic reception in Bordeaux by an elderly Englishman, who confided to me out of earshot of the French guests that he first saw the city through the bombsight of an RAF Lancaster during the Second World War. When I asked whether he had been targeting the immense bomb-proof shelters, constructed by the Todt Organisation for the long-range German submarines that wrought havoc among the Atlantic convoys, he laughed: ‘With all that Jerry flak coming up at us, all I cared about was dropping my load and getting back home in time for breakfast.’

BOOK: Voices from the Dark Years
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Hand of God by Philip Kerr
The Rocker That Holds Me by Browning, Terri Anne
You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt
After the Honeymoon by Fraser, Janey
Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital
Inhibition-X by Bobbi Romans
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson