M R-D-Foot

Jealous neighbourhood watch

M. R. D. Foot on the new, English translation of Simon Kitson's book 

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The Hunt for Nazi Spies

Simon Kitson, translated by Catherine Tihanyi

University of Chicago Press, pp. 218, £

M. R. D. Foot on the new, English translation of Simon Kitson's book 

This short, telling book — it has barely 160 pages of actual text — first came out two years ago in French. It takes a fresh look at Pétain’s French state, which tried to govern defeated France from Vichy from 1940 to 1944; the unfamiliar angle of sight reveals several surprises. Those of us who do not live under authoritarian regimes are always curious about what life in them is like; here is fresh fuel for our curiosity, neatly set out by an expert.

The French intelligence services had a visceral dislike both of Great Britain (which they usually called ‘Angleterre’) and of Germany. German spying on the two-fifths of defeated France that were not yet occupied was even more widespread than it had been before the military collapse of May and June 1940. To combat it, the Vichy regime set up two secret services: Travaux Ruraux (TR), Country Works, splendid cover in a state that stressed agriculture as a vital industry, and the Bureau des Menées Antinationales (BMA), the armed forces’ counter-espionage branch. The BMA so much annoyed the Germans with its efficiency that they insisted that it be put down; which it was in August 1942, replaced at once — in the very document that put it down — by a still more secret Service de Sécurité Militaire (SSM), which continued in existence after the Germans occupied the whole of France in November 1942 (as a riposte to the Anglo-American landings in North Africa). Thereafter the SSM worked independently of its Vichy creators.

Simon Kitson, a don at Birmingham, has delved deep into the archives and memoirs of all three of these services and of the routine French police bureaucracy. He has also talked to Paul Paillole, head of the SSM, who cast up later in Algiers and was given a very cold shoulder by de Gaulle.

Needless to say, all the usual French postal and censorship controls continued to exist, and were available to help the secret services, as were the prefects’ office staffs in every departement, as well as the customs police; so they stayed reasonably fully informed. Their relations with their nominal bosses at Vichy remained complicated; but Kitson is able to show that Vichy’s own policies were much more nuanced and less passionately pro-German than popular myth supposes.

Two thousand-odd pro-German spies were arrested in the ‘free zone’ of France in 1940-42, four-fifths of them French citizens. Over 100 were sentenced to death; 26 at least of these sentences were carried out. The exact figures, the author freely confesses, cannot now be established with any certainty. Of course there were ructions with the Germans; but ‘whenever the Vichy secret services had to choose a camp, they opted for the anti-German option’. Pétain himself did his best to look the other way; he was the final court of appeal, and it was open to him to commute sentences of death into some lesser punishment, which he quite often did. Among his senior supporters, Darlan and Laval held firmly to a pro-German stance, while Huntziger and Weygand — both generals, both minded to hold territory — tended to be anti-German. Weygand indeed supported, in north Africa where he became governor-general, the official shaving of the heads of women who had slept with members of the Italo-German armistice commission: an ancient penalty, world-notorious from newsreel film taken in 1944 of its application by resisters to the mistresses of the just-rejected Nazis.

Vichy France was a society so shattered by the defeat out of which it was born that it teemed with informers, men and women who were ready to testify against their own neighbours to the police; the police were not slow to follow up every denunciation, and knew which secret service to call on if there turned out to be anything in it. Many informers, believing their new government to be pro-German, tried to go direct to German authorities with what they had to say; down on them French administration came like the proverbial ton of bricks. One of Vichy’s proudest boasts till November 1942 was that it preserved French sovereignty; one of the objects of setting up both TR and BMA was to centralise complaints to the Germans through Vichy-approved channels, and to stifle any attempt by ordinary citizens to show private initiative. This was a mark of Vichy’s dictatorial tendency, which Kitson does not seek to disguise.

The British hardly appear in this picture. Ian Garrow, who started up an early escape line in Marseilles, having evaded from the besieged 51st Division at St Valéry, was mis-identified by an Indian under arrest as an MI6 agent. There are traces of MI9, the escape service: one of the spies sentenced to death by the French, who was not at that stage executed, was the notorious Harold Cole, a British army sergeant who had deserted, joined the nascent ‘Pat’ escape line, and after arrest betrayed over 50 of its helpers to the Germans. (He came to his well-deserved sticky end in Paris after the liberation, when he was shot by a gendarme on whom he pulled a pistol ‘while resisting arrest’.) There are traces of jealousies between the French and the British secret services; just as, within the French services, there are traces of petty office squabbles and inter-departmental boundary clashes. Kitson does not mention SOE at all.

He does give his readers plenty to think about by presenting an informed view of Vichy France quite different from the usual stereotypes.