Six faces of courage

Andree de Jongh "Dedee", who ran the Comet escape line
I had a problem finding a title for this post. How else can you describe what this book is about without using M.R.D. Foot's own title? Six faces of courage examines very briefly the wartime exploits of six men and women who were involved in anti-Nazi resistance. Some of them had links to the British S.O.E. or the American O.S.S.; organizations which were set up to promote sabotage, resistance and intelligence work within Axis-occupied territories, some had links to their own governments in exile, while others largely worked independently. Five of the six people mentioned here worked within the French or Belgian resistance, one worked in Poland. The six are Jean Moulin, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, Harry Peuleve, Victor Gerson, Andree de Jongh (clearly the model for Yvette in the BBC's superb wartime resistance drama Secret Army) and Witold Pilecki.

I've had an enormous admiration for the work of the underground resistance during World War II ever since seeing Secret Army as a child. M.R.D. Foot is an expert in the resistance, having written several of the definitive accounts. And this is a good introduction to the types of work that they were involved in, as well as the sheer courage that it took to be a resistant. It's a very quiet factual account. There's little of the drama that is present in some biographies / autobiographies - not that I'm saying that the biographies / autobiographies are not factual, it's more that inevitably human emotion creeps in and colours them. There are some very good ones around. In spite of the appalling title Assignment Gestapo Kill by John Goldsmith is a brilliant, if rather flamboyant, introduction and gives an interesting perspective on someone caught on the edges of a resistance circuit that is in the process of being betrayed, also very well written is R.J. Minney's life of Violette Szabo GC Carve her name with pride.

Jean Moulin became De Gaulle's organizer on French territory, he was responsible for setting up a network to manage arms drops and organize a fighting force in preparation for an Allied invasion at some point in the future. Arrested by the Nazis he was tortured, who were unable to persuade him to betray his colleagues. The only thing he eventually gave them was his name (he corrected their mispelling) and a cruelly lifelike cartoon of his principal torturer Klaus Barbie. Both Marie-Madeleine Fourcade and Harry Peuleve were involved in the central work of SOE - resistance and intelligence. Fourcade helped organize a circuit that provided intelligence information to the Allies - her group was central to the Battle of the Atlantic, and also provided information on the V-1 bombs; while Peuleve helped organize arms, training and recruitment. Victor Gerson and Andree de Jongh built up escape lines for soldiers and airmen trapped in Europe. De Jongh's stretched from the streets of Brussels to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and she often escorted escapees the full length of the line including the treacherous passage over the Pyrenees (one of her colleagues was drowned trying to cross a swollen river there during the winter). Witold Pilecki's story was the one I knew least about - he infiltrated himself into Auschwitz, in order to tell the world what was going on in there. He was an extraordinarily brave man. What he hadn't foreseen was that the truth was so gruesome that his intelligence reports were dismissed as unbelievable.

The sheer tenacity of these people was just incredible. And what makes it even more incredible is that much of what they did they largely did alone. That's not to say that they didn't have dedicated friends and colleagues - they did, but so much of their work they had to deliberately separate themselves from everything that was important to them just to maintain security. They were unflappable, tenacious, and enormously courageous. And courageous, not in the sense of going into battle fired up with adrenalin, but a courage that had to be sustained through some very dark times. I have an enormous amount of admiration for them, and this book is a fitting memorial to their life and work.


Anonymous said…
Pilecki did much more than his 3 years in Auschwitz.Unfortunately he was murdered by polish communists...

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