I have just read “The Next Moon” by Andre Hue and Ewen Southby-Tailyour, published by Penguin Books 2005 – what a book! This was recommended to me by Trev, who was fitting a satellite dish for us at the time. I happened to mention that I was very interested in the French Resistance and their activities in our local area, and he assured me that this would answer a lot of my questions. I am extremely grateful to him.
The book is based on the notes made by Andre Hue about his work with the Resistance in Brittany – in an area slightly further south than our town. It is difficult to believe that the Resistance was so active all around our home as there is little other than fields, hamlets and isolated farms, but the Germans were forced to maintain a heavy presence there in an attempt to keep the Maquis under control, and limit the damage the Maquisards were intent upon inflicting on communications, trains and ammunition dumps. There are still signs of their fight for freedom today – friends of ours bought a property with a barn, and soon discovered a secret cache of hand grenades and bullets hidden inside. Another friend recently came across a similar collection buried at the top of her garden. Not one to make a fuss, she simply assured us that she doesn’t dig there. Steve and I like to listen to Radio 4 while we are sitting in our Breton kitchen, and I remarked one day that we would have been shot if we had been discovered doing that seventy years ago.
After training with the Special Operations Executive in England, Andre Hue was parachuted into the Saint-Marcel area to provide leadership for the Maquis group based at the farm there. I read this book in a state of perpetual terror – I hardly dared turn each page in case the Maquisards were discovered by the Gestapo. The German soldiers are depicted as rather dim and bumbling, and Hue feared the Milice much more because the Milice were French (and fighting on the side of the enemy, as were some Russians.) The Germans were no good at spotting fake French accents, but of course the Milice could do so immediately.
The Resistance had a vital role after 1944 – to prevent German reinforcements reaching the coast once the invasion began. As Hue explained, “The men they wanted to organise and coordinate this phase of the war had to be from that rare breed, Englishmen who spoke French as their primary language.” Hue kept in close radio contact with the SOE in England (the radio operators were lodged in the pig sty) and organised the dropping of supplies and SAS soldiers in the landing field near to the farm. These drops by the RAF took place night after night, and I couldn’t understand why the Germans failed to notice they were happening. On one occasion Hue had ordered jeeps, and two of these were manoeuvred out of the plane, attached to several parachutes. There was some panic among the Maquisards when one of the jeeps looked as if it was going to land on the roof.
These drops ended on June 18th 1944 when the Germans finally suspected something was going on and set up searchlights. By this time the Saint-Marcel Maquis numbered four thousand men, and across Brittany there were twenty thousand Maquisards ready for action. The Battle of Saint-Marcel then took place, and the Germans were forced to bring reinforcements from far and wide once they realised just how strong the Maquis had become. One of the first things that had to be arranged was the evacuation to safety of Monsieur Pondard, the owner of the farm, and his family, animals and furniture. Now the Germans knew he had supported the Resistance, the reprisals would be terrible.
The battle lasted for many gruelling hours, with thousands of German troops flooding into the area, and many young, inexperienced Maquisards simply packing up and heading off home. Just before dark the situation became desperate, but Hue had sent a message earlier in the day requesting support from the RAF, and just in the nick of time forty eight British aircraft swooped over the farm and attacked the German positions. The Maquisards were able to leave during the night and disperse into the woods. The Germans totally destroyed the farm, and burnt every house in the village.
Andre Hue continued to make life difficult for the Germans until France was liberated, and he was then parachuted into Burma. I was staggered by his courage, and that of the many farmers who were so willing to help the Maquis, even though the punishment was terrible if they were discovered. Whole families were shot and their farms destroyed, even if they had only been near to Resistance activity. One bed-ridden eighty three year old lady was shot by the Germans merely because her farm was in the Saint-Marcel area. Andre Hue worked hard after the war to achieve recognition for the bravery and sacrifice of these farmers.
I have always loved the TV series ” ‘Ello, ‘Ello”, but surely this portrayed the French Resistance as a rather comical organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth – perhaps “The Next Moon” should be on the reading list for all secondary schools.