As the War in Europe came to an end, France was faced with a post-war task: they had to rebuild, and they had to do it quickly, and they had to do it on their own. Without the support of the United States and Britain they would not be able to do these things, and so the US and Britain were forced to go their own way and they did not forget their window was open. But now, as those events come to be remembered, those countries now look at the past and see the events for what they were: a time when, with the help of their allies, they were able to save their own country and their own freedom.
In 2016, France paid tribute to a man who was a hero to many of its citizens, even though he was a German pilot. In the early days of World War II, the German pilot of the aircraft was one of the few who could pilot a plane against a British pilot, a pilot of a plane facing the pilot of a plane. It was a pilot who was a pilot of a pilot. Friedrich Nicolaus Johann Menges was a pilot of a pilot of a pilot. He used to pilot a pilot of a pilot of a German pilot.
What do we remember about September 11th? I’m not sure we do. For most it’s just a date and a long time to remember, and many of us brush off memories of that horrible day and think we’ve moved on. But it’s important to take a moment and remember the people, places, and things that remind us of where we’ve been and where we’re going.. Read more about free french navy and let us know what you think.
Eighty years ago, the first execution of a Free Frenchman awakens some conservatives to the reality of the Nazi occupation.
Count Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves followed the traditional route of a nobleman’s son: top schools to the prestigious Polytechnique, navy officer to ship commander, practicing Catholic to marriage and five children. During the Nazi occupation of France in 1940-44, his profile was a great fit for individuals the ultra-conservative Vichy regime wanted on its side.
So, on Aug. 29, 1941, when German authorities placed d’Estienne d’Orves in front of a firing squad and shot him, it served as a warning to the conservative classes who had previously been ready to play Marshal Philippe Pétain’s game of cooperation. No one was safe if they could murder d’Estienne d’Orves.
“His death awakened many people’s eyes to the truth of Hitler,” said François Guy Trébulle, mayor of Verrières-le-Buisson, the French hamlet where d’Estienne d’Orves was born and buried. On the 80th anniversary of his birth, the town, located just south of Paris, gathered for a celebration commemorating their local son.
Trébulle said that today, d’Estienne d’Orves symbolizes not only a bravely taken resistance engagement, but also the opening of a door to reconciliation. Trébulle said, “He tried all he could for reconciliation.”
On August 29, 1941, the Nazis executed D’Estienne d’Orves. (Photo credit: Ellen Hampton)
D’Estienne d’Orves was executed at a period of increasing anti-German sentiment; August 1941 was a watershed moment in the Occupation on many levels. Following the June split of the Soviet Union and Germany, young French communists sprang into action, forming resistance organizations and staging a short demonstration in Paris on August 13. Simultaneously, Vichy authorities were drafting a new legislation that would make any communist action, such as printing pamphlets, forming organizations, or demonstrating, punishable by death. On August 15, two 20-year-old protesters who were detained on the 13th were executed. At retaliation, a comrade shot and murdered a German naval cadet in the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station on August 21, the first German assassination since the Occupation began more than a year earlier. France was devolving into a vengeance fest, with German police holding hundreds of hostages and threatening to murder them after each German assault. Many of the captives were known communist militants, despite the fact that the Communist Party had been outlawed in 1939.
D’Estienne d’Orves had nothing to do with it for the French. However, he was in jail for spying when the Germans announced that anybody in prison for whatever reason might be shot as a hostage in retaliation for assaults. After the British crippled the French fleet in July, D’Estienne d’Orves joined the Free French in London and was dispatched with a squad to the Brittany area of France to form a covert Resistance organization he called Nemrod. On Dec. 21, 1940, the crew arrived, and d’Estienne d’Orves, operating under the alias Jean-Pierre Girard, started establishing connections and information networks.
They had hardly been there for a month when the team’s radio operator sold them to a German intelligence agency in Nantes. Alfred Gaessler, a drunken Alsatian, was overheard moaning that Churchill didn’t pay him enough. He was so indiscreet that he brought his bar friends into his room to view his radio. The remainder of the squad advised d’Estienne d’Orves to get rid of him, but the Abwehr was on them before he could move. The group’s twenty-six members were detained.
d’Estienne d’Orves became an anchor of support for the twelve Resistance inmates imprisoned in cells surrounding him at the Cherche-Midi Prison. Survivors spoke of his generosity of spirit, his attempts to keep morale up, and his empathy that reached beyond iron doors and stone walls in their memoirs. Agnès Humbert, an art curator imprisoned for resistance activity, claimed that he held a mock flag-raising ceremony every morning in his cell, with everyone softly singing the Marseillaise and concluding with “Vive le général de Gaulle!” When the guards left, d’Estienne d’Orves put together “Radio Cherche-Midi,” a show in which everyone contributed stories, recollections, songs, or poetry, and he served as the host. They conversed while laying on the floor, via ventilation holes or beneath the door gap.
He and two friends were convicted of espionage and condemned to death after a 14-day trial in May 1941. (a total of nine members of the group received death sentences on various charges). He informed Humbert that he was relieved to finally meet his wife and that his youngest kid, Philippe, was a healthy six-month-old. Humbert was in the cell next door to his at the time, and they could readily communicate through the wall. “Despite everything, we laughed and described ourselves physically to one other so that we wouldn’t be disappointed when we saw each other at my house […] Because I don’t want to believe, no, I don’t want to believe that he’ll be executed, and I feel that it amuses him to play the game, to imagine a future that he may not have.”
Members of the children’s town council. (Ellen Hampton, narrator)
Even Vichy was taken aback by his sentencing to death. Admiral François Darlan, the previous commander of the French naval and later Prime Minister under Pétain, used his good connections with the Germans to attempt to have d’Estienne d’Orves pardoned. Both the Abwehr colonel who apprehended him and the German judge who convicted him felt the same way. Infuriated by the growing assaults on Germans in France, Hitler bluntly refused and ordered the death to take place right now.
D’Estienne d’Orves, Yan Doornik, and Maurice Barlier were driven to the fort at Mont Valérien before daybreak on August 29. They requested that their hands not be tied or blindfolded. They’d stare their assailants in the eyes. Prior to the firing order, d’Estienne d’Orves apologized to the German magistrate who was present during the execution. He’d written a last letter of love and compassion to his sister the night before. “No one should even consider retaliating against me. All I want is for France to regain its grandeur and harmony. Tell them all that I’m dying for her, for her full liberty, and that I hope my sacrifice will be of use to her.”
D’Estienne d’Orves, the first military officer and the first Free French spy to be executed, had spent his seven months in jail keeping a diary and sending letters to friends and family. Mayor Trébulle said that his unselfish character and generosity of spirit were on display as a result of these papers. Verrières-le-Buisson has been twinned with Hoevelhof, Germany, for 50 years, and the latter’s mayor, Michael Berens, was present for the event on Sunday. He said that d’Estienne d’Orves’ last gesture of forgiveness for his executioner “was the beginning of German-French forgiveness.”
Both towns have been trying to keep d’Estienne d’Orves’ message alive. The elementary school in Verrières is named after him, while the secondary school in Hoevelhof is named after Franz Stock, the German army chaplain who counseled d’Estienne d’Orves and cried at his death. As part of the event on Sunday, members of the Verrières Children’s Municipal Council read from his letters. As color guard and choir, a group from his alma school, the Polytechnique, took part.
The name of D’Estienne d’Orves holds a particular place in French war monuments. More than 80 streets, schools, ships, and buildings have been named after him throughout the nation. MH
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