Wartime research: The French Resistance


28 June 2024
Martin Walker talks about his special research into resistance history for his latest historical thriller, and offers top tips for other writers

While walking along the valley of the river Vezere to the hilltop village of Limeuil where it meets the much larger river Dordogne, I came across a plaque in a stone wall. It commemorated the death of Lieutenant Chateauraynaud on June 23, 1944, ‘felled by German bullets.’ Intrigued, I went to the local library to learn more and began a fascination with the local Resistance which has lasted for more than twenty years.

Thanks to local veterans and historians, I soon learned that the young Lieutenant, age 24 and a graduate of the St Cyr military college, had been attached to the so-called ‘Inter-Allied general staff.’ This was led by the flamboyant novelist Andre Malraux and members of De Gaulle’s Armée Secrète, and the French section of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, played supportive roles.

The young Lieutenant had been given the task of shadowing a special unit of the 11th Panzer division charged with routing out and destroying the local Resistance, which earlier in that month of D-Day had inflicted a crucial blow upon the German forces in France.

The D-Day planners in England were worried by one German unit, the SS Das Reich panzer division. With 23,000 men it was twice the size of the usual Wehrmacht armoured division. Sent to southern France to be rebuilt and re-equipped after being chewed up at the battle of Kursck on the Eastern front the previous year, it was reckoned the most powerful single unit in western Europe. It could be expected to arrive at the Normandy beachhead three days after D-Day. London ordered the Resistance: ‘Whatever it takes, slow them down.’

The cheminots of the railway trade union, many of them Communists, used a specially doctored ‘lubricant’ sent from Britain that would immobilise the wheels of railcars after twenty miles. Then the Resistance located the trainloads of fuel cars that were ready to refuel the Das Reich, resent the news to London by radio and within hours, RAF Mosquito bombers destroyed the lot. And then at every river crossing and bottleneck, small groups of Frenchmen armed with sten guns and hand grenades parachuted in from England, tried to slow the tanks of Das Reich.

They succeeded, less by their skills than by their sheer impudence, which so enraged the SS troops that they turned aside from racing to Normandy to retaliate against the local Resistance. Rouffignac was burned, Mouleydier was shelled to bits, more than a hundred men were hanged from the lampposts in Tulle, and at Oradour, 247 women and 205 children were locked into the village church and burned alive in one of the most gruesome atrocities of the war in Western Europe.

The troops and tanks of Das Reich were supposed to hit the D-Day invaders like a great first. Instead, they trickled into Normandy over the last ten days of June and first seven days of July. They were not able to fight as a unit until July 10, 34 days after D-Day, which is why the official British historian, a former SAS Commando and later Professor M R D Foot, suggested that this was probably the most important contribution the Resistance made to the war effort.

The problem was that there was not one Resistance but two. There was the communist-controlled FTP (Franc-Tireurs et Partisans) and the Gaullist Forces Francaises de l’Intérieure. Britain's Special Operations Executive tried to keep the peace while arming and training them both, even when they began fighting over the parachute drops of cash and weapons. One right-wing Resistance leader, André Grandclément, even showed the Gestapo where to find FTP arms dumps, convinced that the Communists were the true enemy.

So tracking down and interviewing surviving members of the Resistance, navigating the politics, visiting the camps they built in the woods and the sites of their small victories and bitter defeats has become more than a hobby. 

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I keep returning to that plaque on the wall at Limeuil that marked the death of young Lt Chateauraynaud. And I follow the track of his teenage aide, Marcel Rivière, who got away from the Germans. He ran through the fields to the small chateau de la Vitrolle, where Malraux and his team were based and warned them to flee. They got away through the woods and lived to fight another day, to see France free again and to take pride in the part they had played in her liberation.

And some of them did so while counting the banknotes they had taken at Neuvic, where the local Resistance mounted the real great train robbery on July 26, 1944. Tipped off that the reserves of the Banque de France, more than two billion francs, were being taken by train to Bordeaux to be consigned to the German navy, the Resistance stopped the train and took the lot. Its fate has never been clearly established. But that’s another story.

Martin’s top tips on research resources

For French-speakers, Guy Penaud's Histoire de la Resistance en Perigord and Jacques Gillot's encyclopaedic Resistants du Perigord are the basic texts, and the Centre Jean Moulin in Bordeaux is a powerful and moving museum, but almost all exhibits are in French. For English-speakers, Julian Jackson's France: The harsh years 1940-44 is an excellent introduction. M R D Foot's SOE in France is a highly detailed account of the crucial role played by the Special Operations Executive, the intelligence gathering, arms provider and support system set up by Churchill in 1940 with the order 'Set Europe Ablaze.' Paddy Ashdown's Game of Spies; the secret agent, the traitor and the Nazi is a very readable account of a double agent turned by a very cunning Gestapo man. Max Hasting's Das Reich is a sober and balanced account of the Resistance efforts to delay an SS armoured division from reaching Normandy.

A Grave in the Woods by Martin Walker was published by Quercus in Hardback, audiobook and ebook on 20 June.


Read more about writing wartime crime fiction from author Mark Ellis



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