A Schoolmaster’s War: Harry Rée, British Agent in the French Resistance 
edited by Jonathan Rée.
Yale, 204 pp., £14.99, March, 978 0 300 24566 0
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MarieFouillette died in France in 1975. By then, Harry Rée was a teacher at Woodberry Down Comprehensive in North London, back doing the job he loved best. But a little over thirty years before, they had been together in the French Resistance. Harry (‘Henri’ or ‘César’) was an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), parachuted in by London to organise the local ‘maquis’ to carry out sabotage in the Franche-Comté, up against the Swiss border. Marie was married to Roger Fouillette, a schoolteacher like Harry. They lived near Montbéliard, and belonged to the secret circle of his loyal helpers and friends.

The Gestapo arrested Roger in 1943. Then they brought him, chained, battered and bleeding heavily, to show Marie. We admire your family, we want to let him go, they said to her. All you have to do is to invite your friend Henri to a meeting, and tell us when. Marie and Roger looked at each other and Roger muttered: ‘Suis ta conscience.’ Marie refused to co-operate. So Roger was dragged away and sent to Buchenwald. He somehow survived, but for 18 months she had no news of him, apart from a printed card every so often saying he was alive. During this time, she wrote a letter full of love to Harry Rée in which she said: ‘As for the other matter [her refusal to betray him], do not imagine, dear friend, that you are the only one who profited by it, because Roger and I could never have been happy again if …’ At her funeral, the procession was led by a small boy carrying a silk cushion, and on the cushion was the British decoration Harry had sought for her: the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. It was buried with her.

All that, the emotions as much as the events, seems a very long time ago now. Well before Marie’s funeral, the noble legend of the Resistance had begun to corrode. Political rivalries and the paranoia of the Cold War alienated old comrades from one another. Heroic reputations were defaced as survivors wondered who might have betrayed whom in the fog of clandestinity. Agonising research confronted the French with the sheer scale of civil service and police collaboration with the German occupation, including the delivery of French and foreign Jews and their children to the gas chambers. Those who had risked their lives and lost friends and family to firing squads and concentration camps fell silent as they watched people who had only contacted the Resistance weeks before the Liberation strut past with fresh rosettes in their buttonholes.

Abroad, the myth was slower to fade. As a wartime schoolboy, I was told about a France united in patriotic rebellion against the Nazi invaders. Our headmaster – how did he get hold of it ? – read us Paul Éluard’s heart-rending poem ‘Liberté’, smuggled across the Channel to the Free French in London. And two very different Resistance memoirs, published in the first year after the war, soon invaded and occupied my adolescent imagination. One was Guillain de Bénouville’s Le Sacrifice du matin. De Bénouville, whose patriotism was fiercely Catholic and conservative, mistrusted ‘les anglais’ almost as much as he loathed the Germans. He became a leading figure in Combat, the most powerful non-communist formation in the Resistance, and had a career as a right-wing politician after the war. The other book was George Millar’s Maquis. Millar, a brave and very talented Scottish journalist, was recruited by the SOE and parachuted into the Franche-Comté, just after the sorely wounded Harry Reé left it.

For a teenager on this side of the Channel, these books suggested an alluring maquisard way of life, in which you travelled light, put down no roots, lived off the land and – with the help of some ‘Jean faux-papiers’ forger – answered to no fixed identity. It took time for that glamour to wear thin, a process started in my case by getting to know the real France and French families in the postwar years. To my dismay, I discovered how many people who had hated ‘les Boches’ and could not be called collaborators regarded the maquisards as irresponsible bandits, probably communists, whose actions had been insignificant but had provoked the shooting of innocent hostages and general lawlessness. Later, Marcel Ophuls’s great film Le Chagrin et la pitié revealed how many French bureaucrats, officials and policemen had helped to hunt down Jewish families and deport them to their death.

In the silence of lockdown, rereading those two Resistance autobiographies alongside Harry Rée’s account has been salutary. I hadn’t realised that de Bénouville was a supporter of the fascistic ‘Cagoulard’ conspiracy, which aimed to bring down the Popular Front government before the war, and had fought against the Spanish Republic. During the German occupation, he intrigued to keep Combat and the Armée Secrète independent of London-Gaullist control and was later accused – wrongly, I think – of having a hand in the betrayal to the Gestapo of de Gaulle’s famous emissary, Jean Moulin. His narrative hurries past that event, although he knew almost everyone involved and was probably aware of the real culprit. As for Millar’s thrilling and moving Maquis, his story is full of entertaining dialogue and minute details (the pattern on Mme Hunblot’s dress, the sound of the rain as it fell on dry clay, the courses of the meal he ate at the Dardels’ house) which are blatantly but very professionally re-imagined rather than remembered.

Harry Rée died in 1991. His memories and reflections have been edited, arranged and footnoted with extraordinary care by his son, the philosopher Jonathan Rée. The book starts with a long narrative of his experiences. He doesn’t hype this testimony with reconstructed dialogue, but it’s followed by a group of ‘adventure stories’, written for young people, which set real Resistance events in fictionalised form. Then there’s a series of BBC radio talks, delivered anonymously between 1945 and 1949, a selection of ‘Letters from France’, from comrades and families he had known in the struggle, and an epilogue. At the end, his son has added biographies of the people his father mentions. This, in its spareness, is the most moving part of the whole book. Its nine dreadful pages – ‘died in Buchenwald’, ‘executed by firing squad at Besançon’, ‘died in Bergen-Belsen’, ‘killed in action with the Lomont maquis’, ‘died in Ravensbrück’ and so on – record the price paid by so many of the women and men who worked for Rée and the SOE teams.

He was a very upright young man. Born into Lancashire’s industrial bourgeoisie, there was wealth in his background but his disdain for privilege sent him leftwards into pacifism (which he dropped in 1939) and an intense hatred of fascism. He was already a schoolmaster when he decided to join the army in 1940, and was taken up by SOE. (He is a bit devious in his account of how this happened, but anything written in that period about clandestine operations is almost bound to have elisions and evasions. The Official Secrets Act still hung invisibly over his typewriter.)

Rée was parachuted into France in April 1943, ending up in the Franche-Comté where he established the ‘Stockbroker’ circuit of resisters and maquis camps. This was a strategically important region: it included the Jura department close to the frontier with neutral Switzerland, through which agents were smuggled back and forth with intelligence and money. It also contained a vital road, rail and canal route through the Belfort Gap towards Germany. Rée and his comrades visited the first maquis groups in the forested hills, at this stage still tiny, squalid and disorganised, and slowly beefed them up with parachuted weapons and explosives (not to mention chocolate and cigarettes). The containers, often dropped along with more SOE agents and radio operators, were flown from England when there was a full moon to secret dropping-grounds where crews would be waiting to collect them. Harry trained Resistance members in the use of plastic explosives and in techniques for disabling railways and locomotives, and even managed to block the Rhine-Rhône canal by sinking a barge loaded with military vehicles across it. But his most important achievement, at once military and humanitarian, was to infiltrate and sabotage the huge Peugeot plant at Sochaux, near Montbéliard.

He was already in touch with the manager at Sochaux, Rodolphe Peugeot, who was committed to the Resistance, when in July 1943 the RAF unexpectedly attacked the factory with 165 Halifax bombers. The raid was a disaster. The bombs mostly missed the Peugeot works but killed or wounded almost three hundred French civilians in Montbéliard. Harry took the chance to insist that the job could be far better done, and at a far lower human cost, by internal sabotage, and over the ensuing months the RAF was induced to hold off while workers in the plant skilfully wrecked its machine tools and equipment.

In the village of Valentigney, just outside Montbéliard, the Barbier family sheltered Rée, and Mme Barbier, treating him as an extra son, laid on a tremendous feast for his birthday. There’s nothing contrived about his memory of that menu, dish by dish, culminating with an enormous chocolate cake from Mme Thiéry, the baker’s wife. But after that, nothing went right. Dozy with cake, he cycled to visit a contact, only to be confronted at the door by a German Feldgendarme with a gun. After a hand-to-hand struggle, during which he was shot several times, Rée managed to escape and drag himself across fields and through two rivers to the house of another friendly family. Patched up, he was smuggled across the border into Switzerland to recover, in December 1943.

It was the end of his war in France. But a few months later the Gestapo raided Mme Barbier’s house, where she had just welcomed Harry’s successor. He was shot and killed trying to escape; the family were arrested. M. Barbier died in Dachau. Marguerite Barbier died in Ravensbrück. So too did Madeleine Thiéry, the baker’s wife who made the cake, and it seems that Marguerite may have given her away when the Germans threatened to shoot the Barbier sons if she did not name other Resistance supporters in the village. Before she was deported to Germany, Marguerite tried to hang herself in her cell.

In retrospect, Rée refused either to take a heroising, comic-book view of the Resistance, or to deconstruct its legend. He was all too well aware that its unity had failed to survive the Liberation; as his son writes, he was reticent because of ‘disappointment at the condition of postwar France, where the spirit of solidarity and optimism … gave way to recrimination, obfuscation and vindictive partisanship’. But he continued to tell British radio audiences after the war that ‘the huge majority of the [French] population was either vaguely or keenly in favour of the Resistance. There were of course some active collaborators …’ He did concede, scrupulously enough, that ‘the only people I was introduced to were people who would accept me as what I was: a parachuted Englishman working with the Resistance.’

But his own account shows that treachery – the informer, the double agent, the man or woman who started as a genuine Resistance militant and then secretly switched loyalty to German counter-intelligence or the Vichy government’s sadistic ‘milice’ – was all around him. An early friend was Pierre Martin; he toiled all night with Rée delivering containers of arms and supplies, but then – only weeks later – sold another SOE agent to the Germans and tried to lure Harry himself into a Gestapo trap. He was executed by the maquis, but not before he had sent a further string of agents and partisans to their deaths. Somebody else – probably under torture – gave away Rée’s closest comrade and friend, young Jean Simon (‘Claude’), who was shot down in a Sochaux café. A double agent known as Max Foret betrayed the wireless operator John Young and the courier Diana Rowden (he was shot at Mauthausen; she met a dreadful death at the Natzweiler camp in the Vosges hills). Of the 12 agents who worked most closely with Harry in those few months, only six survived. And he came to suspect that his SOE colleague John Starr, who was arrested but emerged alive from the war, had saved his skin through some grisly deal with his captors.

After the war​ , he was often pressed to talk about his experiences in the Resistance. But as time passed, he grew less and less willing to do so. Partly, this reluctance was an English instinct not to show off, to underplay his own achievements. (The SOE evaluating mission that visited Franche-Comté after the Liberation was surprised to discover ‘the immense authority which Captain Rée wields in the Doubs and neighbouring departments, where his name is legendary’.) More important, though, was his feeling, at times exasperated, that British audiences didn’t want to hear what he wanted to say. ‘It was not their fault, but they could not see the real life behind the thrills, and I was not prepared to talk about actual, suffering, innocent human beings if my audiences were going to use them as a kind of stimulant or pep pill.’

They hoped for thrilling tales of battling patriots and evil Germans, troop trains blown up and Nazi generals assassinated. Books to feed those fantasies soon abounded. In his introduction, Jonathan Rée recalls that his father’s ‘former commanding officer, Maurice Buckmaster, published a couple of books in which – on the basis of invented dialogue, adventures that never took place, and serious confusion over dates – Harry is presented as a swashbuckling hero … Confidentially, Harry described them as works of “fertile imagination” and “really scandalous”.’ He wanted his British audience to understand that the French men and women who had taken part in the Resistance were not superhuman. ‘What I shall try to get across,’ he told a symposium in 1973, ‘is the complete and crushing ordinariness of the people I worked with in France.’ Among them were a barber, a man who made bicycle bells, a village butcher, a bank clerk, a saddler, a retired schoolmistress, a baker and his wife. These were, as he puts it, unheroic working-class and middle-class families, not particularly less selfish, greedy or willing to follow orders than their neighbours, and yet capable – in the hour of trial – of sacrificial courage. That, to Harry, was the reason their ordinariness was wonderful.

He went back afterwards, of course. The first time, in April 1945, was grim. The French were killing and accusing one another in hysterical purges. Food was short, and families were still waiting for news; the war had not ended and the concentration camps in Germany had not yet opened. He had a better moment when old comrades held a reception for Monsieur Henri.

Too many were missing. There was hardly a family that had not been affected in some way, and they all wanted to tell me. They were terribly pleased to see me again. It was touching … For a moment we caught again that wonderful, terrific spirit of unity which had made young Claude [his dead friend Jean Simon] say: ‘This is the best time of our lives.’

During the Second World War, Resistance movements throughout Nazi-occupied Europe shared a passionate ‘never again’ mood, a conviction that after this global nightmare everything would be changed and made new. No more government corruption, no more giant industrial trusts and monopolies, never again mass unemployment – all the laissez-faire compost thought to have bred fascism. For a few years, it seemed possible that Western and Central Europe might be restored by coalitions of democratic socialists, communists and ‘progressive’ Christian Democrats – movements that had co-operated in the underground struggle. But Stalin and the Truman administration, both of them driving on the advent of the Cold War, soon made those alliances unthinkable. Those railway workers whose skills had allowed Millar and Rée to dislocate the tracks, points and rolling stock of eastern France were soon portrayed as communist enemies of Western values. Others fell back on old Gallic myths of ‘gloire’, greatness, and the ‘mission civilisatrice’ of the French empire. De Bénouville broke with de Gaulle when he prepared to grant independence to Algeria. Harry’s old companions in Franche-Comté, grown middle-aged, reverted in ways that pained his radical heart.

‘In the summer of 1983,’ Jonathan Rée writes, ‘I met up with Harry in Paris and accompanied him for three or four days as he drove round Franche-Comté looking for once familiar people and places, forty years on.’ The encounters were often warm and happy. But Harry was embarrassed to find that the young had been brought up to regard him as a demi-god who had stepped down from the sky. And then, ‘one evening, some old comrades organised a gathering in Harry’s honour, but they showed no interest in what he had been doing for the past four decades, preferring to slap backs and complain in loud voices about Arabs and Vietnamese, and also about their wives, and women in general, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher.’ He found this ‘phoney, oppressive and grotesque – “like Buñuel”, as he put it once we had made our excuses and left’. And yet, it’s hard not to feel that his hosts were demonstrating exactly the point he kept trying to make: their ‘complete and crushing ordinariness’. The times had changed; they had changed with them. Perhaps they could no longer imagine how they had once done such things. But Harry could not forget that they had once been extraordinary, and the memory hurt.

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