A Schoolmaster’s War: Harry Rée, British Agent in the French Resistance
Edited by Jonathan Rée
As one drives around the back roads of rural south-west France, where I live for part of the year, it’s quite common to come across a small, well-maintained obelisk on the verge. These modest memorials – usually inscribed with a few names – are testimony to some forgotten firefight between German soldiers and members of the French Resistance (“fusillés par les Allemands”) that took place during the dark days of 1940-44. The victims of these brutal encounters were soldiers on the front line, as it were; in harm’s way and, if not shot in some Churchill’s Secret Army: Harry Rée in August 1940, shortly before enlisting ambush, then liable to be arrested, tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed.
But, as Harry Rée’s striking memoir makes clear, for all the Resistance’s derringdo it was the secret army of “passive supporters” that allowed the French Resistance, and its British allies, to function at all. These unnamed, forgotten people provided safe houses and hiding places, stored munitions, passed on messages and supplied food, water and shelter when required. In effect they did nothing overtly heroic but their quiet participation in the struggle against the occupation often meant that their lives were as much on the line as the most daring guerrila in the rural Resistance, known as the Maquis. Harry Rée takes pains to make this point again and again in this short and remarkable history of his own years as an officer in the Special Operations Executive and his experiences as an SOE agent in occupied France. The SOE was variously known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare”. Its remit was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. At its height, the organisation employed some 13,000 people, of whom more than 3,000 were women.