At one level War in the Shadows: Reception and Betrayal in Occupied France is the account of an investigation into a wartime mystery.

Who betrayed PROSPER, the biggest SOE network in France on 21 June 1943?  And was the destruction of that network – active in central France – connected with the arrest of Jean Moulin, whose codename was ‘Max’, the political head of the French Resistance, in Lyons, 400 kilometres away?

At another level it is a personal story, based on a beautiful chateau in the Loire valley which used to welcome English students who wanted to learn French. In 1962 I was one of those students. The house is still there, and the family are still friends of mine.

 

 The chateau of Nanteuil.

Mme de Bernard, with Nanny and three English students, Nanteuil, 1960s.

 

The house was owned by a courteous but rather intimidating widow who we always called ‘Madame de Bernard’. We knew she had been part of a small local resistance group, but not much more. In the 1960s people in France did not talk about the war. They were still putting it behind them and learning to live with each other again after the appalling divisions exposed by the Occupation. But I knew that my hostess had been deported, and even at that time the name ‘Ravensbrück’ rang a bell.

My interest in her wartime story was awakened by the purest chance. Long after Anne-Marie de Bernard had died I wrote a biography of Jean Moulin, now in paperback as Army of the Night, but originally called The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost. And shortly after that was published, I received an anonymous letter. The writer suggested that there was a link between those two Gestapo operations of June 1943, and that finding this link was the key to understanding what had actually happened. 

At first I regarded the letter as a practical joke. But something in its 16 pages awoke a distant memory. I recalled a remark I had heard at the funeral of Madame de Bernard’s daughter, which had taken place a few years earlier. It made me wonder whether my friends had in fact been among the survivors of PROSPER. I wondered whether I should take the suggestions in the anonymous letter more seriously. I began to research them in detail – and found that I was on a journey into my own past.

 

*

 

I started by trying to understand how Anne-Marie de Bernard’s family had been drawn into resistance. Was it because of the English connection, the consequence of a long friendship?

They had after all employed an English nanny, who had spent the whole war with them, and had become part of their resistance group. ‘Nanny’ had risked her life, listening to a wireless set hidden in her bedroom cupboard and monitoring the coded BBC messages that she passed on to SOE’s trained saboteurs. Was the English connection part of the reason for their discovery?

 

German soldiers talking with Monsieur and Madame de Bernard at the front door of Nanteuil. Photograph taken by Souris’s daughter ‘Moune’ from a first-floor window in summer 1943.

 

By June 1943 many resisters in this part of France were operating under control from London. They were instructed to receive and conceal the arms and explosives the RAF were dropping by parachute at night to equip ‘the Secret Army’. As the pace of deliveries increased so did the danger and eventually on 21 June the local Gestapo set a trap, PROSPER was broken and hundreds of local patriots were arrested. Most were deported to Germany and only a minority survived. Those who returned were on a mission, to find out how they had been betrayed.

 

*

The first of my questions, concerning the downfall of PROSPER, had been answered by the official historian of SOE in 1966. Professor M.R.D. Foot said that there was no treachery, and that the network was broken through the mistakes of its British officers. His book is still a work of reference and widely admired today, and his explanation has been generally accepted. But was he right?

The second question, of a link between the two police operations, has never been raised before. It has been generally accepted since the war that the political head of the French Resistance was betrayed by a resister – who had been persuaded to lead the Gestapo to the house where ‘Max’ was holding a meeting.

The doctor’s house at Caluire where Jean Moulin was arrested in June 1943.

 

No one has previously suggested that there might be a connection between those two German police operations in different parts of France; the coincidence of dates was seen as just that – a coincidence. But I was aware that Jean Moulin had many enemies even within the Resistance. And that if he had succeeded in bringing the whole movement under the centralised control of General de Gaulle, it would have been a direct challenge to allied policy.

 

*

My work in the archives in Lyons, Blois, Paris and London led me into a labyrinth of deception and betrayal. In War in the Shadows I describe that world – where allied and enemy intelligence services struggled for the upper hand, ‘an underworld of dead ends and false leads’, where I hoped to find the clues that would finally reveal the truth.

 

 

Photo by Chantal Marnham. 

Patrick Marnham is a biographer, reporter and screenwriter. His biographies have covered subjects as diverse as Diego Rivera, Georges Simenon, Jean Moulin and Mary Wesley. He was a staff writer for Private Eye, a BBC script writer, Literary Editor of the Spectator and Paris correspondent of the Independent and the Evening Standard. His most recent book is Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky. He lives in England near Oxford.

 

 

War in the Shadows is out now in hardback. Find out more here.