Stories of amazing courage
Matthew Cobb’s book, The Resistance: The French Fight against the Nazis (2009) seemed a good choice of reading for my French holiday. Although I read some of it with tears in my eyes, I was glad I had taken it. I had known, of course, that the French had suffered during the Occupation, but I hadn’t known how much. I hadn’t known about Service du Travail Obligatoire through which young French men were conscripted to work for the Nazi war effort in Germany. It was an idea that back-fired, as many young men escaped by taking to the hills and joining the Resistance. I hadn’t appreciated the scale of German reprisals: when the military commander of Nantes was killed by the Resistance, forty-eight hostages were executed including Guy Moquet, the 17 year old son of a Communist deputy, followed by another fifty.
The Resistance was never a unified movement and the history of the shifting enmities and allegiances between different groups and their political affiliations was at times hard to follow. It is the stories of individual daring, of hair’s-breath escapes, of RAF Lysanders taking off from French fields on moonlit nights that stay in the memory. Women as well as men behaved with great courage: Lucie Aubrac spirited a group of resistants from a guarded hospital by posing as a nurse. Andrée de Jongh ran an escape line across the Pyrenees; when she was arrested the Nazi refused to believe that a woman could be the organiser. They sent her to Ravensbrück all the same. She was one of the lucky few to survive.
Their numbers were never great, but the Resistance made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, for instance in supplying information that led the destruction of German submarine pens at Saint-Nazaire, and destroying lines of communication after the Normandy landing.
After we got home, we watched for the second time Melville’s extraordinary film about the Resistance, Army of Shadows, starring the sublime Lino Ventura.