Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
One of Patrick’s several previous books was a biography of Jean Moulin, the head of de Gaulle’s resistance arm, so brutally murdered (effectively) by Klaus Barbie in Lyon. This book stimulated a bizarre letter from an anonymous major that Marnham received a year or two later. This forms a hugely intriguing introduction which whets the reader’s appetite immediately.
The opening chapters beautifully evoke a rural bourgeois past now largely disappeared in France. In 1962 Marnham visited the de Bernard family in the Sologne region, on the banks of the upper Loire. This was just along the river from the setting of Alain Fournier’s turn of the century coming-of-age novel Le Grand Meaulnes: anyone who had to study it for A level, as I did, will have a very strong image of the characters and landscape.
Marnham expertly weaves characters from the Sologne house’s history into the narrative. An episode in which Captain Bradford of the British Army had to order a bayonet charge against rioting French soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk, is breath-taking. Indeed Bradford’s sustained courage is remarkable. Helping his escape is what started the de Bernard family’s road to becoming central figures in the local Resistance. Marnham’s 12 years as a journalist in Paris has given him an equal facility in dealing with archives in France as in England, and he unearthed a very moving last letter from a young resistor to his mother. Indeed its extensive sourcing from French archives is quite unusual for an English language account of SOE & the Resistance.
There follows a prolonged digression into whether in 1942 the Allies were going to open a second front. This evolves into later explanations of how, having decided against it, they could deceive the Nazis that it would still take place. Readers unfamiliar with the saga will perhaps be rather surprised by the degree to which the Allied Secret Services are shown to spend much time if not at war with each other, then certainly duping them.
Marnham is not sparing in revealing the problems that de Gaulle created in London. Moulin’s insertions into France, and retrievals, did much to cement his power base. De Gaulle and his team were sufficiently crazed as to torture French agents returning to London who had displeased them. It was not just Churchill who found de Gaulle a major pain – the Russian envoy is quoted as saying” I’m fed up with that Jeanne d’Arc in trousers. I have been looking for some bishops to burn him”!
PROSPER, on the Loire, was one of the Resistance’s biggest networks, and under Moulin’s prodding it received massive arms drops in the first half of 1943. It was penetrated thoroughly, and whilst its woes have been related in many other books, Marnham narrates its operations and failures well. There are plenty of tales of great bravery by Resistance members and ordinary citizens alike – although the reader is left in no doubt that there were plenty of collaborators in the French midst – indeed the Gestapo received so many letters of denunciation from French citizens that they finally ceased to take any notice of them! When Moulin was finally arrested in June 1943, Hitler was convinced this was a major stumble in the Allies plans to launch an invasion that year.
Skipping forward to the post-Liberation France, the author evokes the anarchical air, with so many allegiants of so many conflicting political ideologies all bent on revenge. It seems extraordinary that even someone who had been incarcerated in Buchenwald could be hauled in front of the tribunals.
The second half of the book becomes more forensic. Marnham gives a useful summary of the Englandspiel – the Abwehr’s subversion and control of SOE’s Dutch network, and goes on to analyse how the Gestapo dismembered PROSPER. The level of detail is most impressive. He effectively undermines the authority of MRD Foot, the ex-SOE man chosen by the UK Government to write the official post-war account of SOE (and indeed MI9); although the level of detail in this criticism is self-indulgent and risks losing the reader. The wanton destruction of large swathes of the DOE’s archives (in January 1946) is rightly severely criticised.
The theme of the second half is Operation Starkey – the Allied attempt to convince the Nazis that there was a real risk of cross-Channel invasion throughout 1943. It is surprising that in discussing the SCIENTIST network (in Bordeaux), Marnham does not cite Paddy Ashdown’s excellent Game of Spies. The case of Henri Déricourt is covered extensively – a pre-war Air France pilot who knew lots of Lufthansa counterparts, and who ended up as a double agent of SIS. Marnham does not fully describe what a sleazebag Déricourt was, who, with his wife of similar morals, enjoyed living the high life courtesy of the British exchequer. I am not sure I entirely agree with Marnham ’s assertion that “He [D] was the gift that Buckmaster [operational head of SOE] could not refuse.”
In the closing chapters Marnham’s forensic skills notch up further; it would surely spoil the narrative for the reader to explain fully what these produce. But by the book’s end, Marnham has squared the circle – to all intents – with some well-reasoned hypotheses that he largely succeeds in proving. The clues of the anonymous major’s letter are satisfyingly disentangled.
The first few pages of the book are enjoyable at any level – the pastoral France of the Thirties. It then shifts much, much darker. Readers with scant previous knowledge of the activities of both sides’ secret services will struggle to follow the plot twists and extensive cast of nefarious characters. But this is a very richly researched volume that sheds new light on a particular dark part of WW2.