Friday 26 September 2014

Dangerous messages

"By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator working for the French resistance and the British agents on the ground in Nazi-occupied France was down to six weeks. Sending and receiving vital messages between the sharp end and London to organize secret drops of agents and weapons, and provide the link between sabotage operations, was dangerous work."
This is the start of a post I've written this week, Communication in Wartime: Between the Lines, for the Reading the Past blog, written and curated by Sarah Johnson. If you'd like to continue reading a salutary tale of how, despite the part women were playing in secret missions, the opinions and instincts of the women who worked in the secret London office were disregarded, leading to fatal consequences, then click on this link.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Secret weapons

It's an extraordinary thing, actually to see the tools of the trade of the secret operations that took place in Nazi-occupied France. Impossible to look at them, as here at the Musée de la Résistance at Fontaine de Vaucluse, without imagining the fear and sheer courage that went with their use in the darkest days of World War Two.
Here is an SOE wireless set disguised as a small leather suitcase. Operators knew that if they were challenged to open the case during a security check on a train, for example, it was as good as a death warrant for there could be no other explanation for it other than the owner's occupation as a spy or active resistant. And neither spy nor resistant had the protection of a uniform under the Geneva Convention.

At the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum (see my previous post here), more mundane but still vital equipment is on display. The disguises were intricate and ingenious: a compartmentalised fountain pen contains a silk map and compass. Compared to the basic magnetised compass in the tip of a match it's a de luxe item - a precursor to James Bond's armoury, perhaps...

Special agents were issued with British-made imitations of French cigarettes and matches to make their "French" identities more plausible. Their pockets and bags were carefully checked before they set off across the Channel for any clues that would give away their true nationality. The fabric of their clothes, their buttons and jewellery and shoes: all had to be right. The British even cooked special soap with ashes to mimic the poor tablets that most French had to use during the war. 

But among the artefacts from a deadly serious time, there are still moments of humour. This one tells you a lot about how the British saw the ordinary French: a bar of French Menier chocolate "modified to produce a garlic odour on the consumer's breath"! A classic worthy of Fairfax and Carstairs in Allo Allo...

Monday 15 September 2014

The Bertrams of Bignor Manor

"These few flowers were picked by moonlight a few hours ago by the faithful friends you have in France."

During the darkest days of World War II when France was under Nazi occupation, it was inconceivable to most people that there might be an air service across the Channel. But there was, run by the secret intelligence services in Britain and the French resistance, and the start of the dangerous journey was often this house, Bignor Manor in West Sussex.

Nestled at the foot of the South Downs, it is more a pleasant-looking farmhouse than a manor house. It was rented in the 1940s by Anthony Bertram and his wife Barbara, who lived there with their two young sons and a menagerie of animals. An author and art critic, Tony Bertram had served in the 1914-18 war, and though he was too old for the front line this time, he was recruited into MI6 on account of his fluent command of French. Given the title of Major, he became the liaison officer for the French agents arriving and departing via the moonlight flights run by RAF Tangmere.

Barbara Bertram played a vital role, too. Resourceful and calm, she welcomed these men (and occasionally women) into her home. Often their introduction to her was over a breakfast she had cooked, using eggs from the chickens, at 4am. As the war went on, she found she was effectively running a hostel for spies and saboteurs, with little outside assistance and in conditions of utmost secrecy. No one in the village of Bignor was allowed to know what was happening - and neither, amazingly, did her children. When numbers grew, and the men became impossible to hide, it was put about that she was looking after injured French servicemen.

This led to some amusing episodes of light relief in what was always a tense situation as they passed the hours and days until full moon and the risky ascent in a Lysander plane to their renew their fight. The French and others involved in the operations would play darts in a local pub, the White Horse at Sutton (pictured below). During one match against the regulars, one of the French with an arm in a sling (purely for effect) astonished his adversary by a brilliant performance despite using his "wrong" arm.

More than two hundred French personnel passed through Bignor Manor during the course of three years. Throughout this time, the Bertrams offered practical assistance and the comfort of being looked after in the atmosphere of a spirited house party. The clandestine flights took place during the nights of full moon; between the moons, Major Bertram trained them in finding landing fields in France and organising operations on the ground there.
When the men wanted calm, they helped in the garden and relied on Barbara's sympathetic ear and understanding. When they wanted company, she would drop everything to make up a four at bridge, or play darts, or go for a walk. Her discretion and gaiety made her immensely popular. "The ones who were leaving were mostly there for two or three days; but they were nervous, short-tempered, impatient, and let's face it, scared stiff. Difficult guests, but so good was she with them that I have often heard them say, 'Our best memory of England was the time we had to spend in Mrs Bertram's house,'" recalled one high-ranking member of the Resistance.
One tiny incident illustrates why Barbara Bertram was so loved. When a group arrived off the night flight from France, their boots were often very muddy from the field where the plane had taken off. Barbara collected this mud and grew mustard and cress on it, to be able to offer the men salad grown on French soil.
This framed memento at the RAF Tangmere museum contains pressed lilies of the valley, long since faded, but the sentiments are still poignant, as is the reference to moonlight: Dear Mrs Bertram, These few flowers were picked by moonlight a few hours ago by the faithful friends you have in France. Hoping you will receive them in good condition. We remain yours devoted, Roddy and Armand.  

The National Portrait Gallery in London has two photographs of the Bertrams, both taken in June 1932. Almost ten years before they would be called on for their unique contribution to the war effort, Barbara looks classically serene before a religious background. There is a sense of quiet goodness in the picture.

Tony is serious, the man of letters at a desk, with a steely determination in clever eyes.

In The Sea Garden, I have changed the names of many of the real-life characters whose stories inspired the novel. But Tony and Barbara Bertram appear in cameo as themselves, in the real Bignor Manor, at one of the many jolly gatherings that took place when Sussex fog descended, blocking out the light of the moon and the possibility of night flight from Tangmere. It was almost possible to forget that they were involved in a risky game, that a silk scarf was a map of Europe and a leather purse contained a lethal weapon.

After the war, Barbara Bertram wrote a memoir of her experiences at Bignor, "when it was still fresh in my mind and going round and round in my head". It was finally published in 1995 as a delightful small book, French Resistance in Sussex. I drew on several of the incidents for The Sea Garden.

Thanks to Tangmere Military Aviation Museum for allowing me to take photographs of the exhibits there. Next post: The secret weapons.

Friday 5 September 2014


It began with the sparkle of lights on a distant hill. Every night we stared into the far distance from the terrace at the ripples of the Luberon ridge as it darkened and the lights coming on over the vast floor of the valley. With binoculars we could see Roussillon, with Gordes behind it on the northern rise towards Mont Ventoux. And on the furthest point of the Petit Luberon on the south side, was a collection of lights in the shape of a perched village - but which village was it?

At first, we thought it might be Lacoste, its castle lit at night for the summer arts festival with necklaces of streetlamps below. But that was geographically impossible; what we were looking at was a great deal further away. Maps were fetched and proved inconclusive, as did Google Earth. The only way to find out was to set a course west and go there.

We knew more or less where to start. First, to see a friend who lives in Murs, not far from Gordes, high on the hills opposite Bonnieux and Lacoste. From her garden, we strained our eyes into the rolling blue hills. We headed towards Les Taillades, which was our best guess; it was at the end of the Petit Luberon and was bolstered by some promising internet research. But when we got there, it just wasn't high enough to be a candidate. At Robion, also on the list of possibilities, the Vieux Village was higher than the part we usually dash through on the way to Cavaillon and Marseille airport, but again wasn't high enough. What we'd been seeing, was right at the top of the hill. A hill that had disappeared.

So we had lunch (always important on a quest) in Robion, and considered our options. The breakthrough was made when I asked someone to look at a blurry photo I'd taken. "That's Oppede-le-Vieux you're seeing, no doubt about it," I was told. "But what's the hill behind the end of the Petit Luberon?" I asked, "I'm sure that's where the lights are - but from here there doesn't seem to be a hill further on." This was true, and had been the subject of some heated debate. Perhaps it was another one of those French country mysteries, like the village that you never find again.

Another look at my photo. "That could be the Colline de St-Jacques at Cavaillon. It does have a chapel on the top and cliffs that are illuminated at night. But it won't be that - too far away. It's Oppede-le-Vieux." So that's where we went.

We did know the village, and it had been on our list of possibilities, though largely discounted because it wasn't in quite the right place, clinging as it does to the wooded cliffs of the Petit Luberon. A haunting place, with a melancholy atmosphere that still lingers in bright sunshine. It dates from the 12th century, when its position was defensive. In the bloody battles and religious turmoil of the middle ages, it was a stronghold as well as a seat from which atrocities were launched, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had been abandoned. It was north-facing: cold, dark and damp in winter, and too far from the farmers' fields.

Oppede-le-Vieux came back to life during the 1940s, when it was claimed by a commune of artists, including Consuelo, wife of the celebrated French airman and author Antoine de St-Exupery. These incomers began to restore many of the crumbling stone houses, but even now, as you walk higher and higher up the narrow cobbled paths to the ruined castle, there is a pervasive sense of mystery. What happened in this place of shadowy overgrown streets and steps that seem to climb nowhere?

The elegant 12th century church of Notre Dame d'Alydon is the reward at the end of the stony path, from where the panorama reveals the full expanse of the western Luberon valley and a sighting of the white stony peak of Mont Ventoux.

From here, you can see the village of Menerbes, with its characteristic shape of a ship run aground on the lower hills. The photo below was taken with a zoom - if you want to see it clearer, you can click on it to enlarge. At the far left end is Le Castellet, temporary home in 1950 of the cookery writer Elizabeth David as described in this previous blog post, and subsequently bought by the artist Nicolas de Stael.

However, it was at this point we knew the quest was not over. In the other direction is the end of the Luberon ridge, and beyond that, form this height, is just visible the hill we thought we had lost. It's a bit faint in this photo, but it is there on the horizon, far further away than we'd imagined. What we could see from our terrace couldn't be Oppede.

On the way down to the main part of the village, we discussed the implications...past this pretty small chapel, La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs...

...and this blocked-up doorway with the date 1721 carved into the stone lintel...

...until we reached the shady courtyard of Le Petit Café in Place Croix.

Some delicious mandarin and sharp lemon sorbets helped the thinking process. But it wasn't until we got home that the wonders of the internet helped us to the solution. Pictures found there of the Colline de St-Jacques that looms above Cavaillon, provided matching rock patterns and proof that this was what we had been looking for. On its summit is a chapel, lit at night above sheer rocky cliffs that are also illuminated. And amazingly, the night skies are so clear that we can see it from our west-facing terrace almost forty miles away.

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