One of The Secret WW2 Learning Network’s partners is Libre Résistance, or more properly the Fédération Nationale Libre Résistance, which preserves the memory of the circuits of French Section SOE. Libre Résistance (LR) organises the annual ceremony at the SOE French Section memorial at Valençay in the Indre and a periodic colloque in Paris, normally at the École Militaire.
This year, LR’s AGM and EGM on Saturday 27th January were timed to follow the colloque on Friday 26th. Three 'Secret WW2' members who also belong to LR – Chair Louisa Russell, Trustee Paul McCue and supporter Ray Windmill - made the journey from London and took the opportunity to make it a French Section three-day pilgrimage.
Even their hotel was French Section-related, managed in 1942 by George Wilkinson and his wife while involved in resistance activities. George later escaped to Britain via Spain and, like his brother Edward, joined SOE and returned clandestinely to France. Both brothers were caught and later executed – George at Buchenwald and Edward at Mauthausen. Tragically, a third brother, Bert, an RAF fighter pilot who had survived the Battle of Britain, was killed in combat in North Africa.
The hotel, still named the Hotel Montpensier, was little changed from the ‘40s, giving an instant ’period’ atmosphere to the weekend – though the one-person caged lift was somewhat of a challenge. Coincidentally, or not, the hotel had once been owned by the famous Parisienne milliner, Caroline Reboux …. for whom Vera Leigh, also of French Section, had once worked.
Vera’s own business premises ‘Rose Valois’ (now the ‘Vertu’ shop), were close by at 18 rue Royale, while the Wilkinson family home, a restaurant and apartment above, at 5 rue des Pyramides, was also just around the corner. The premises are still a restaurant – ‘El Tonel’.
The colloque had as its subject just one man – but what a man. The late, great, Bob Maloubier. An entire afternoon was devoted to this fascinating former French Section agent, who had gone on to be a driving force behind the creation of France’s combat divers.
LR’s evening reception and dinner was a further opportunity to meet like-minded people and it was a particular pleasure to see the family members of many F Section agents, including Lionel Southgate, Bill Beauclerk , Véronique Dalais and Diane Villemur (sister and niece of Major Amédée Maingard CBE DSO). Congratulations to Bill and LR’s committee for a very enjoyable occasion.
The next day’s EGM and AGM went off smoothly. Another of LR’s committee is our very own Martyn Cox, Co-founder of The Secret WW2 Learning Network, and though Martyn had been unable to attend, it was good to see another of our supporters, Nick Fox, among the committee members.
After the meetings, our intrepid trio hit the streets of Paris to seek out secret WW2 locations. The George Wilkinson and Vera Leigh locations, as described above, were soon ticked off and a break from pavement pounding was taken in the magnificent surroundings of the Hemingway Bar in the Ritz, where the writer Ernest Hemingway (then acting as a war correspondent, but accredited to the OSS, forerunner to the CIA) had famously hosted a gathering of Résistance fighters to celebrate the liberation of Paris in 1944. It should have come as no surprise that one of our trio, Ray, had previously crossed the path of the head barman, Colin, at an OSS Society dinner in Washington DC.
Other less-salubrious sites visited included: 11 rue des Saussaies, once the home of the Paris Gestapo and now a French Police headquarters where a couple of cells are reported to remain in wartime condition, but are able to be visited only rarely; and 3 bis place des Etats-Unis, former holding prison of the SS’s Sicherheitdienst (SD). The premises are now the Embassy of Bahrain. Close by, at 93 rue Lauriston, the former headquarters of the notorious and thuggish Bonny-Lafont gang, known as the French Gestapo, are now private apartments, but marked by a plaque commemorating those who suffered and died there.
All these locations brought home the fact that, had the Dunkirk evacuation and the efforts of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy not prevailed, there could have been London equivalents.