From “Rye’s Own” March 2006 Issue
By David Bourne
Because of his upbringing Henry was thoroughly Anglo-French being able to pass as a Frenchman and as an Englishman. After being in the Army’s evacuation from France in 1940 he was recruited into the F (French ) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Henry broke his leg attempting to return to France as an agent. He escaped, over the Pyrenees into Spain with Jaques Poirier, a young Frenchman.
It was believed that escaping French people were returned to France by the Spanish so they tore up their French identification papers and planned to call themselves escaping Allied airmen. They descended from the mountain into a village as Henry was extremely tired, because of his leg, and needed rest. However his spirits revived when he saw a bus as he anticipated they would be able to travel on it to Barcelona. Closer inspection showed that it was full of Spanish policeman. After a short chase they were arrested and interned. The conditions in the first prison were such that Henry would not speak of them. However they managed to contact the British Embassy through an interpreter and an attache came to the prison. As a result they were moved to an internment camp for officers at Jaraba in the province of Zaragoza. It was paradise compared to the prison that they had left. They were made to swear that would not try to escape but Henry was eager to get home. Using a visit to a dentist with another internee they left after the dentistry and evading re-capture made it to the Embassy in Madrid on 11th April 1943. A month later he was back in London. Marching into SOE HQ he reported to his CO, Col. Maurice Buckmaster. “Sorry I made a balls of it, Sir”. he said”When can I go back?”. Jacques followed him shortly afterwards to London.
He was given leave during which he renewed his friendship with Viollette Szabo another SOE agent. Again he could have opted for a safe billet in the training section of SOE in England but he was eager to go back to France. The situation in France had altered considerably since 1942. There had been disasters. Many agents were captured but to a combination of clever GESTAPO operations: betrayal by some of the captured agents; and through sheer ineptitude on the part of inexperienced juniors in F Section. On the night of 17/18th September 1943 Henry returned to France by Lysander landing just north of Angers in the Loire. Making his way to Bordeaux he evaded anyone following him. Here he found that the “Scientist” circuit of agents set up by de Baissac, with whom he had originally parachuted into France, was in disarray. Turmoil prevailed within the SOE in France. Despite the obvious dangers Henry’s private gift for survival kept him safe. Various contacts put him in touch with resistance groups further inland, eastwards, in Correze who needed organising. They were disparate groups being left-wingers, socialists, communists and politically conservatives. All had differing aims and a sparse and uncoordinated guerrilla campaign was spluttering busily. The onset of winter, together with the shortage of arms and German counter attacks, enforced a period of armed truce. During this period Henry welded these groups into a co-ordinated force of some 3500 people, while acting as his own wireless operator.
He was able to organise weapons drops and in a few months his circuit, code named “Author”, had become a compact efficient organisation. In early January 1944 Jaques Poirier rejoined him at Brive and shortly after Andre Malraux, the distinguished author, joined the circuit. The pace of preparation and arming increased and Henry recruited a small combat unit capable of carrying our acts of sabotage and launching surprise attacks on the enemy. Henry and Jaques took part in several ambushes exasperating the Germans. For them this reduced the neighbourhood to disarray and uncertainty. Henry was involved in a successful battle at Montignac which left 50 Germans dead for light resistance casualties. However it was becoming obvious that Henry was tired. It was planned for him to go, on 20th March, to Jaques’ family home in the Savoie for a rest. He refused and sent Jaques instead who had not seen his mother for a considerable time. Two hours after Jaques left Henry was attending a meeting in a house when it was raided by the Gestapo and he was captured.
They had been tipped off by a neighbour, M.Dufour, who thought that the activity in the house was to do with black market. The presence of the wireless exposed them as resisters. (Dufour was a member of Milice, the French equivalent of the SS).
The initial interrogation in Limoges was mild by comparison with that Henry had endured when he was transferred to the Fresnes Prison in Paris. The forms of torture employed at the German SD HQ on the Avenue Foch included Henry being half-drowned on several occasions. Physically weakened Henry’s iron determination ensured his silence. He continued to watch for a chance to escape and he made the attempt, when in the main hall of the prison. He joined by a throng of French people, as they left, who had been visiting the ordinary criminals. An alert SS sentry was him and shot him in the thigh. He was thrown back into his cell without medical attention. He realised that the bullet was still in his leg and using the handle of his spoon dug out the bullet leaving a hole which safely, fortunately, healed. By mid August 1944, a few days before Paris was abandoned by the Germans, he was included in a large party of captured SOE agents being sent to Germany. Violette Szabo was in the group.
Chained together the male prisoners, being refused water, became extremely thirsty during the journey. It was the height of August and very hot, the next day the RAF attacked the train bringing it to a halt. There Germans fled to the safety of the ditches beside the railway. Inside the train Violette, who was chained to a companion, crawled bravely along the corridor to the men with water from the lavatory. That night was spent in the stables of a nearby barracks in Metz. Henry and Violette, still chained to there companions were in adjacent stalls. Through a chink in the woodwork they talked the night away. In the morning the women went separately to Ravenbruck concentration camp where, after intensely cruel treatment, Violette was executed. The men were taken on to Buckenwald concentration camp.
To be concluded next month.
From “Rye’s Own” March 2006 Issue
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