CHAPTER 12 – SPY CATCHING
One day I was ordered to report to the Divisional Intelligence HQ, housed in a nearby chateau. An intelligence officer said: `I understand you speak fluent French. Well, your CO has agreed you can be temporarily attached to us because we’ve got a job for you.’ They had received reports that a Belgian, who had been working for the German Todt organisation, had stayed behind when the Germans had retreated and was being harboured by his mistress, a local Frenchwoman. He was suspected of having been left behind as a spy.
I was put in command of a patrol of three and given a vehicle. I was instructed to make inquiries within the beach-head, track the man down and capture him.
I thought they must be very short handed indeed to have to rope in a Pioneer Corps man (even a French-speaking one) for intelligence work. After a number of enquiries I eventually traced the man to a house near Lion-sur-Mer, a few miles to the east, down the coast. I left the driver at the wheel of our vehicle with the engine running and sent the other man to cover the back of the house. Then, loading a magazine into my Sten gun, I strode up to the front door and knocked. A woman opened it.
I walked into the front room, pointing my gun at a man who stood there, my finger on the trigger. If he had a gun and was going to resist I was prepared to shoot him first. It is strange what thoughts come into one’s head in moments of danger. . My immediate thought was that it was such a neat and tidy room, the floor was polished, and it would be terrible to have blood and bullet holes all over it and I must be careful not to scratch the floor with my studded army boots. To my relief he put his hands up. I relieved him of his revolver and escorted him to the truck still pointing my gun at his back, trying not to scratch the polished floor.
We searched the house for a hidden radio set or other incriminating material but found nothing. My orders had been simply to bring the man in, not to question him. But on the way back to the Intelligence HQ he volunteered his story. He told me he was not Belgian but Italian. He had fallen foul of the authorities in Italy (he hinted because he was an anti-Fascist), and had emigrated to Belgium before the war to keep out of trouble and had started a restaurant. When the Germans occupied Belgium he had been conscripted into the Todt organisation. He had stayed behind, not to spy, but because of his attachment to the woman at whose house we had found him.
It was not up to me to judge whether his story was true but I hoped for his sake that it was and that he was just one of those millions of little people caught up in the maelstrom of the world conflict, and that he would be released. I handed him over to the intelligence people and returned to my unit. I never heard what happened to him
As soon as I got the chance I visited Bayeux, which, as the first sizeable town to be liberated from the Germans, had been visited by de Gaulle. He was anxious to reinforce his claim to head France’s legitimate government. The internal situation in France was fluid. The Resistance movement was comprised of different groups of differing political affiliations ranging from militarist and super-patriotic groups like the OCM (Organisation Civile et Militaire) on the right, to the Front National and FTP (Franc-Tireurs et Partisans), both controlled by the French Communist Party, on the left. There were also a number of independent resistance and maquis groups of various or no political leanings. The Communist Party was following a `national unity’, class-collaborationist policy. All the main Resistance organisations were united in the National Council of the Resistance and accepted the legitimacy of de Gaulle’s `Free French’ government. Nevertheless, there was tension between the local Resistance groups and the London and Algiers-based Gaullists. In many areas the local Resistance had risen in advance of the arrival of the Allied armies, defeated the German forces, chased out the Vichy collaborationist officials and seized all official buildings. Local `Liberation Committees’, representing the various Resistance organisations had seized power and were arresting collaborators, disarming the Vichy militia and police, and organising food supplies, etc. De Gaulle was alarmed at this development of power from below. It was reminiscent of the `dual power’ that had sprung up in Russia and Germany after the First World War, when councils of workers and soldiers had disputed power with the official state machine. De Gaulle hurried to appoint `Delegates’ and `Prefects’ over all the liberated regions. Many local Liberation Committees challenged the right of the de Gaulle appointees to assume power. The tension sprung from the different aims and interests of the classes making up French society. The rich, even those who had supported the Resistance, wanted a return to the pre-war situation. They supported de Gaulle because they were frightened that the Communists and Socialists would take advantage of the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Germans and the breakdown of the Vichy state machine to seize control. To a certain extent their fears were justified. The pre-1939 ruling circles and politicians of the corrupt Third Republic, which had collapsed so ignominiously in 1940, were completely discredited in the eyes of most of the population. The workers, peasants and lower middle class, who had fought in the Resistance, had not done so to restore the power of the `200 Families’ who had between them controlled most of France’s wealth. They wanted to rebuild a better France, with social justice and no exploitation.. The prestige of the Communists, as the most active force in the Resistance and with the highest casualties, was great. They called themselves and became widely known as the `Parti des Fusillếs’ (Party of the Executed). However, following the policy laid down by the Kremlin, the leaders of the Communist Party used this prestige to defuse the situation and prop up de Gaulle’s authority by persuading the local Resistance committees to accept his appointees.
We Trotskyists anticipated that the conflict between the working class and left-wing Resistance forces on the one hand and de Gaulle on the other would develop into civil war and that at some stage British and American troops would be used against the left - as soon happened in Greece. I got together about half-a-dozen soldiers to discuss what our attitude would be if called on to act against the French Resistance. We had, of course, to meet clandestinely, and it was difficult to meet regularly as the company was always being split up into different work parties and shifts. Whether anything would have come of this effort if it had come to the crunch is hard to say