My great uncle, André Heintz, is, at age 94, one of the last survivors of the French Resistance. This series of posts reports on my recent trip to Normandy to visit him on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.
From the autumn of 1940 through the early spring of 1944, André Heintz, dressed as a French schoolboy, traveled around Caen and its environs, mostly by bicycle, learning about the positioning and strength of German forces and reporting these details back to the Allies. Technically, he worked as a schoolteacher, and one of his recurring nightmares was that the Gestapo would come for him while he was teaching at the school. The “lycée,” the high school, had been evacuated to a site that was enclosed on all sides. “I would have been shot like a rabbit in the kitchen garden,” he says.
André had many adventures over the course of those three and half years. He located the spot where the Germans were hiding some of the bombers being used in the Blitz on London, for example. As you drive around the countryside with him, André will gesture casually at an old barn, saying, “I remember standing there waiting for the Boche one night.” He and the other Resistance networks were crucial to the Allied war effort, as Eisenhower himself pointed out: more locomotives and miles of railroad track were destroyed by the Resistance than by Allied bombers.
The Germans attempted to confuse the Allies by operating several false headquarters in Caen, and one of Andre’s assignments was to locate the real headquarters. After many reconnoiters, André told his Resistance chief, Bernard, that he was virtually certain he had found the right place. However, the Allies demanded photographic evidence, so André, still playing the French schoolboy, rode his bicycle past the building several times a day, waiting for an opportunity to snap a couple of photos.
One afternoon, just as André approached the building, the German guard entered the small guardhouse, large enough only for one man. Assuming he couldn’t be seen, André pretended to stop to tie his shoes, yanked his camera out of its bean can and began snapping shots of the building. It was only later, after he developed the film, that André noticed the observation hole in the back of the small guardhouse. If the guard had happened to be looking out that hole – well, best not to think about that.(1)
It’s useful to keep in mind that throughout the three and half years between the Fall of France and D-Day, André Heintz’s life hung by a thread. But for now we’ll focus on his remarkable activities during and immediately following the D-Day Invasion.
“They were the most terrifying days of my life.”
The Resistance had asked André to use his (highly illegal) crystal radio set to listen for certain code phrases that would be broadcast by the BBC at pre-determined times. Most of these were meaningless, designed to mislead the Germans,(2) but a few were critical. For example, on June 1, 1944, the BBC announcer declared “L’heure du combat viendra,” the hour of combat is coming. This meant that the Resistance was to stand by, that the invasion was imminent. (Though exactly when and where was still not disclosed.)
Finally, on June 5, the BBC broadcast the phrase, “Ne faites pas de plaisanteries,” don’t make jokes, the key words that were to activate the Resistance. Wildly excited – André and his Resistance network could now launch the business of serious sabotage and misdirection – André hastily arranged to meet Bernard to pass along the good news.
But as André was leaving his home his sister raced in the front door with the news that a certain Monsieur Amiens(3) had been arrested, and that he was believed to be the top Resistance leader in all of Normandy. The name meant nothing to André – people were always being arrested, after all. He shrugged and raced to the Eglise Saint-Pierre to meet Bernard.
André’s chief was already in the church, kneeling in a corner. Excitedly, but keeping his voice low, André told Bernard that the Allied invasion was coming, possibly that very night. Bernard practically cried out for joy and hugged André. “We have much work to do, mon ami!” he said, leaping to his feet.
Normally, André would have let Bernard leave the church first, so that they would never be seen together. But, remembering what his sister had said, André raced after Bernard and, catching up with him at the back of the nave, told him about the unfortunate M. Amiens. Bernard turned pale and began trembling all over. He grabbed André by the shoulders and practically shouted, “No! It can’t be!” He fell to his knees, crying out over and over, “C’est fini! C’est tout finis!”
M. Amiens, it turned out, was in fact the top Resistance leader in Normandy. As Bernard well knew, the man would be brutally tortured and could be expected to give up the names of every member of the Resistance he knew – including Bernard. Outside the church, no longer worrying about being seen together, Bernard begged André to run home and produce false identity papers for him. Meanwhile, Bernard would remain at the church, praying for his mortal soul.
When André returned with the fake IDs, Bernard embraced him, saying “Courage, M. Courtois!” and, with the clothes on his back and the loose change in his pocket, ran off into the forest, never even returning to his home.
That night, and the next several nights, André slept fully clothed on the floor beside his bed. “They were the most terrifying days of my life,” he would say later.
When the loud pounding came at the door, indicating that the Gestapo had come to arrest him, André’s plan was to leap out his second floor bedroom window onto the shed below, climb the low garden wall and race off into the forest.(4) But the Germans never came. Either Amiens hadn’t betrayed André, or perhaps he simply didn’t know his true identity. Most others were not so lucky: in the days following the invasion, 80 to 90 senior Resistance members were arrested, tortured, shot and buried in unmarked graves. Their bodies have never been found.
(1) Unfortunately, the true German headquarters turned out to be less than one hundred meters from the house where André lived with his parents and sister, creating a deep moral dilemma. If André passed along the exact location of the true headquarters, the Allied offshore batteries would pound the entire neighborhood in an attempt to destroy it. Such a barrage could kill his own parents. If André didn’t pass along the information, thousands of Allied soldiers could die. In the end, he passed the information along and then tried mightily, but unsuccessfully, to convince his parents to move to the countryside for a few weeks. Since, for their own protection, André hadn’t told his parents he had joined the Resistance, they saw no reason to move. In the end, the headquarters was destroyed and the Heintz home was only modestly damaged – damage you can still see today on the façade.
(2) “Il fait chaud à Suez,” it’s hot in Suez, for example, or “La flêche ne percera pas,” the arrow doesn’t pierce.
(3) Obviously a nom de guerre, since no one in France seems to be named Amiens (except, of course, for the town).
(4) As noted, André never told his parents that he had joined the Resistance. Once, his father entered the room as André was tuning into a BBC broadcast. “André, tu nous feras tous fusiller avec ta radio!” he shouted, “We will all be shot over that radio!”
Next up: André Heintz (Part 3)
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