Femmes Formidables de la Résistance: Amazing Ladies of WW2
When General de Gaulle published a list of 1,038 resistance heroes who contributed to the liberation of France; only six were women. In fact, there were many more courageous ‘résistantes’ involved in the clandestine ‘maquis’, often providing crucial intelligence, and participating in sabotage operations and armed combat. If caught, the punishment for a woman was no less severe than for a man: beatings, torture and execution.
The following courageous ladies all have links with the P-O.
MARIE-LOUISE DISSARD….CODE NAME ‘FRANÇOISE’
One of the few French women to lead a resistance group and escape network during www2, Dissard helped more than 500 Allied airmen to escape occupied France via the Françoise Line.
In 1940, at the age of 58, she started to distribute anti-Nazi propaganda, and went on to work alongside the Pat O’ Leary Line, sheltering downed airmen in her own home, ironically overlooked by Gestapo headquarters, and organising their escape across the Pyrenees into Spain.
Described as ‘small, cheerful, talkative, opinionated, and anti-fascist’, she was so outspoken in her views that the French police opened an enquiry into her ‘subversive’ activities. She was quickly pronounced crazy and the file was closed!
As Vichy France and the Gestapo increased efforts to stamp out resistance and escape lines, the Pat Line was infiltrated and betrayed. One of the few survivors, Dissard organised funding from the British and took over the leadership, directing operations as she moved around from from cellar to attic, a master of disguise, organising safe houses, and appearing in public as many different characters. She escorted many airmen herself to Perpignan where she turned them over to the ‘passeurs’ who would take them across the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Spain. She died in Toulouse in 1957,
ANDREÈ DE JONGH….CODE NAME ‘POSTMAN’ (NICKENAME ‘DÉDÉE’)
Belgian heroine, Andreè de Jongh helped around 400 allied evaders to cross the border to Spain.
One of the main creators of the Comet escape line, she helped more than 400 Allied soldiers to escape from Belgium to Gibraltar, personally accompanying more than 118 airmen over the rugged Pyrenees herself. She was supported by MI9, and famed Colditz escapee Airey Neave.
Betrayed and captured in 1943, she admitted, under Gestapo torture, to being the leader of Le Reseau Comète. They didn’t believe her due to her youthful appearance!
She was sent to Mauthausen and Ravensbruck concentration camps until, desperately ill and undernourished, the allied armies liberated her in 1945.
Escaped airmen later described her as “… always smiling and brimful of enthusiasm” and “….the force, the power and the inspiration that brought us from Belgium to Spain.”
She died in Brussels in October 2007
Kristin Hannah based her 2015 book ‘The Nightingale’ on Andrée. NY Times bestseller, Wall Street Journal’s Book of the Year… and, perhaps most prestigious of all, rave reviews from P-O Life readers.
Swiss born Elisabeth Eidenbenz created La Maternité Suisse in Elne as a refuge for expectant mothers fleeing the Spanish Civil War, and later for displaced victims of World War 2. Situated on the road to Montescot just outside Elne, and classed as a Monument Historique since 2012, she obtained 30,000 francs from the Swiss Red Cross (Aide Suisse aux Enfants) for the repairs and renovations of the former dilapidated Château d’En Bardou and created a haven for these desperate ladies and their babies.
When the Gestapo arrived in their black leather coats looking for Jews, Elisabeth sent them packing. One time, They told her that if she did not produce a Jewish lady they were looking for, they would take Elisabeth instead. She simply asked for a few moments to pack her bags. The lady in question refused to accept the sacrifice and gave herself up, her fate a cattle wagon from Elne to Rivesaltes, and onwards to the gas chambers at Mauthausen via Drancy.
She died in 2011 in Zürich at the age of 98.
BETTY PACK… CODE NAME ‘CYNTHIA’
Betty Pack, American debutante and sexy séductrice, has been described as one of the most successful Allied spies of World War II.
An agent for Britain’s MI-6 and America’s OSS, this ‘femme fatale’ with ‘radiant smile and emerald-green eyes’ used beauty and brains to seduce diplomats and officials across the globe in exchange for their bedroom secrets, including vital information about Vichy collaborators, naval codes for the Vichy flotilla, and even Germany’s famous Enigma code machines.
Her wartime base was the Château de Castelnou and after the Armistice, she married Charles Brousse, press attaché at the Vichy French embassy in Washington, and returned with her husband to settle in the Château. She died in 1963 and is buried along with her two dogs in a discreet corner of the castle’s grounds.
When asked after the war about her questionable morals, she said “My superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives. Wars are not won by respectable methods.’
NANCY WAKE – THE WHITE MOUSE
Feisty New Zealand born Nancy Wake led the Germans a merry dance as a major player in the French resistance. Her nickname of ‘White Mouse’, was bestowed on her by the Gestapo due to her ability to evade arrest. Even a reward of 5-million-francs offered by the Gestapo for her capture couldn’t pin her down.
Nurse, then journalist, Nancy’s life changed before war was declared when she interviewed Hitler in 1933, attended his mass rallies in Berlin and witnessed the random and brutal beating of Jews on the streets in Germany.
When war broke out, she quickly became a courier for the Pat escape line, helping Allied airmen cross over the Pyrenees. Her husband Henri was captured, tortured and executed.
Intensely loyal to Great Britain and France, Nancy never backed down from a dangerous mission.
Escaping to London in 1943, she joined the SOE and underwent rigorous training in silent killing, explosives, map reading, returning to France to work with and coordinate the Maquis, in the lead up to D-Day.
She was described as “the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts, then she is like five men” and “I do not know what effect Nancy had on the Germans, but by God she frightened me!”
She died on in 2011 aged 98, her chosen funeral music ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’.
Mary Elmes, Irish aid worker is believed to have saved the lives of at least 200 Jewish children at various times during the Holocaust, by hiding them in the boot of her car.
Working first in a children’s hospital in Almeria in war-torn Spain, she went on to set up and run children’s field hospitals ahead of Franco’s advancing troops. Fleeing over the border when it was no longer safe to remain in Spain, she continued to help refugees, organising workshops, schools and hospitals in makeshift camps in and around Perpignan, and in particular Rivesaltes Camp Joffre.
When the Vichy government started to send Jewish children to concentration camps, she joined up with a small group of friends and together they rescued dozens of children, often at great personal risk, by hiding them in the boot of her car. They would then be taken to safe houses or across the border to relative safety. One of the safe houses, the Hotel du Portugal in Vernet les Bains, still stands today.
Between August and October 1942, more than 2,000 adults and 171 children were sent from Rivesaltes to Auschwitz. Mary Elmes and friends saved an estimated 427 of those children from Rivesaltes transit camp, and likely deportation to Nazi extermination camps.
Betrayed, captured by the gestapo and interned in the much feared Fresnes prison, outside Paris, her Irish neutrality saved her and she was released after 6 months.
After settling in Perpignan, she died in 2002, aged 94. Her funeral was attended by children she had saved from a terrible fate.
Model, muse and platonic companion for artist Maillol, and based at his home in Banyuls, she helped to smuggle refugees into Spain, initially unknown to Maillol. She was easily identifiable from a distance by her trademark red dress, commemorated by Maillol in one of his last paintings.
Refugees were told to take the last train to Banyuls-sur-Mer, get off and look for a girl in a red dress, who would be in the café opposite the station. They were not to speak to her, just follow her at a distance in silence. She never knew the identity of the people she was guiding, although some contacted her after the war.
When Maillol found out about her nocturnal activities, he showed her shortcuts and smugglers’ routes known only to a native of the region, and even offered his studio at Puig del Mas as a halfway house.
Arrested by the Gestapo, she was released after six months when Maillol intervened by appealing to Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor.
She died in 2009, aged 89.
MORE FEMMES FORMIDABLES DE LA RÉSISTANCE COMING SOON
At the end of 1942, with full collaboration from the Vichy government, the Germans introduced compulsory labour service in Germany (Service du travail obligatoire or STO) rounding up men in towns and villages around France for forced enlistment and deportation.
Almost immediately, thousands of young men, especially in the south, fled to the countryside, living in camps in the mountains and garrigues that covered much of the area. They called themselves les maquisards or le maquis, loosely translated as thicket or scrubland.[/vc_cta][/vc_column][/vc_row]