It takes courage to be a spy. The women who volunteered to be spies and came to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) unit attached to the 36th Infantry Division–with which I was serving in the Vosges Mountains of France in the fall of 1944–had plenty of courage.
As soon as our OSS unit debarked on the Riviera on August 16, it was apparent that the Seventh Army campaign in Southern France would be unusual. The army’s lightning advance in the first two days caused plan after neatly conceived plan to be scrapped. Two days after D-Day, it was evident that the Strategic Service Section’s (SSS) plan to work only at army level was ineffective, and on August 18 (D-plus-3), small SSS detachments were dispatched to the three divisions of the Seventh Army.
The experiences of the SSS detachment working with the 36th Division comprised two very different phases–the period prior to the crossing of the Moselle River on September 21 and the period of the advance from the Moselle to the Meurthe River.
After the 36th Division crossed the Moselle, the fluidity of the front decreased. Opposition became increasingly fierce as the division approached the Meurthe River in the Vosges region, and the relatively stationary German front became harder to penetrate.
There are no hard-and-fast rules of procedure for securing intelligence by infiltration through enemy lines. Recruiting, briefing and infiltration must be adapted to the peculiarities of the existing situation. Most of the agents our detachment used were locally recruited for specific missions in the region that the 36th Division was operating in at the time.
Our main sources of agents were the various Free French Intelligence (FFI) organizations. France was rich in courageous men and women whose hatred of the enemy made no risk insurmountable to them. Women were found to be valuable for short-range intelligence work. They attracted less suspicion in enemy territory than men, and although they usually lacked the necessary background for reporting technical data, they were often able to extract otherwise-unavailable knowledge of German military intentions from enemy officers.
For several days after the 36th Division crossed the Moselle in late September, the 3rd Division, operating south of the 36th, lagged behind and had not yet reached the river. This left the 36th Division’s right flank exposed, and the division command was extremely worried that the Germans might counterattack on that flank.
The division needed information on German plans, but our recent experience with agents had not been good. The Germans were obviously taking greater precautions against agent activity, so there was a great need for agents with better ‘cover.’ Fewer intelligence operations with better planning were also a must.
On October 1, it was decided to put two 29-year-old women, Odette and Simone, who came from the FFI at Epinal, into enemy territory, placing them as close as possible to the town of Granges sur Valonne. They were remarkably good spies. One had been helping the Maquis resistance fighters for two years, and the other had been in the intelligence game for six months.
I took them to Tendon by jeep, but there was a roadblock 500 yards beyond the town, on the road toward Le Thuly. I turned back, and though there was scarcely a minute during the trip when we could not hear the sound of cannons and small-arms fire, we reached St. Jean de March. There I found the nearest American outpost. There were infantry patrols in the hills to the right and left of the town. No Americans had yet gone down the road to Houx. Nobody knew for sure if there were Germans in the town or not, but it was assumed that there were.
I proceeded down the road to Houx with Odette and Simone; we went to within 200 yards of the town, where I could see it. There the road turned and was under observation by Germans on the many hills beyond the town. I left Odette and Simone there and returned to our lines. Their instructions were to infiltrate the German lines and return to Lepanges that night.
Only Simone returned to our lines that night. Apparently the two women found just seven Germans in Houx. They were all enlisted men who wanted to surrender when they were told that the Americans were coming. They surrendered to the two women, who took their weapons, locked the arms in a separate room, and put the Germans in a cellar. Odette stayed there with the men, and Simone returned to our lines to get someone to come out and take the prisoners.
The next morning, I made several attempts to enter the town, but I was stopped by machine-gun and rifle fire each time. Finally, traveling by jeep and then on foot, a lieutenant from a cannon company and I reached the ghostlike town. We heard a telephone bell ringing in a house across the street. It proved to be a small store, and I dashed in. In the semi-darkness I called out and saw a door start to move. I turned, carbine at the ready, and saw a woman coming out of the cellar. I asked her if there was a Mademoiselle Odette who had come yesterday. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She is in the cellar with the prisoners.’
I started down to the cellar and called ‘Odette, Odette.’ Finally, I heard her voice, amid a strange babble. Other shadows in the dark turned out to be the seven prisoners and most of the local population, who had taken refuge from shell fire in the cellar during the preceding night and that morning. I turned the prisoners over to the lieutenant (also leaving him with the problem of handling an old man who had gone stark raving mad during the night and thought he was Louis XIV) and took Odette back to St. Jean.
Odette and Simone were both ready to try again. They successfully completed a mission to secure fresh, accurate and immediate intelligence on the area near Docelles. The difficult short-range mission was accomplished with promptness and skill.
On October 9, I took Odette and Simone to near Glonville to attempt infiltration there. As we passed through the villages in that region, we saw desolation beyond description. Villages that once had perhaps 20 houses now had only three or four left anywhere near intact. I found that it was too risky to allow the two women to infiltrate in the area, and we returned to Rambervillers. Darkness caught up with us there, and it was impossible to proceed farther.
On October 11, I sent two male agents through the town of Bruyers by Fays. I instructed their guide to come back as soon as possible on October 12. He returned that afternoon. I accompanied the guide with Odette and Simone through the forest just a little beyond the line parallel to our last position. There was considerable machine-gun fire to our left, and the Germans were only about 100 yards from our position. I left the others in the forest and started back.
Odette and Simone returned from that mission on October 14. They had been able to proceed as far as Taintrux but had not been able to reach St. Die. Their report was particularly valuable because it warned of considerable troop movement in the forest region near Les Rouges Baux. They also brought back another excellent report from one of our chains of agents.
Another woman I worked with was Jeannette, who I called ‘the spy who used her head.’ She, too, was courageous. But when she was captured and faced almost certain torture and death, she found that more than courage was necessary.
Jeannette came to our unit as a volunteer for the infiltration of the dangerous Gerardmer region. Gerardmer, a prime intelligence objective, was located at the western end of the Col de la Schlucht, one of the most important passes in the Vosges Mountains and a key supply line for the Germans. It was also a beehive of Gestapo activity. We had already lost two agents there.
Jeannette was a plain-looking woman of 38 who had been in the Resistance for two years, since her husband had been sent to a forced-labor camp in Germany. She looked like a typical French housewife of the region, which she was. She was a spy only by an accident of war. Her mission for the OSS was twofold. First, she was to secure intelligence about enemy activities in Gerardmer and the 40-mile area ahead of our lines, which she would traverse. Second, she was to make contact with the Gerardmer Resistance.
On October 2, her briefing completed, she was escorted to a platoon outpost. From there she managed to slip through the enemy lines. Making her way from safe house to safe house by forest path and mountain road, she reached Gerardmer safely in three days.
Spies must constantly gamble with fate, and fate caught up with Jeannette shortly thereafter. The Gestapo had planted an agent in the local Resistance group some time earlier. Jeannette unfortunately attempted to contact the Resistance just as the Gestapo was poised to strike. She was picked up and taken to the Gestapo headquarters at the Hotel de l’Esperance for questioning.
Her identity papers stated that Moyenmotier (a town occupied by the Germans some distance away) was her residence and birthplace. The Gestapo could not detect that her papers were false, but the fact that she had tried to get in touch with known Resistance members aroused suspicion in spite of her innocent appearance. She was cajoled, threatened, slapped, kicked and beaten, but she only repeated with stubborn simplicity: ‘I am from Moyenmotier. I came here innocently to seek my brother who I understood was in Gerardmer.’
For three days the Germans held her in a room on the third floor of the hotel headquarters. Each morning the guard forcefully kicked open the door and deposited a bowl of watery soup and a piece of leathery bread on a small table. Each day was a nightmare of brutal interrogation, but she courageously stuck to her story. Finally, a Gestapo major exclaimed in exasperation: ‘Very, well, madame. Tomorrow we take you to Moyenmotier and see if your story is true!’
That night, locked securely in the third floor room, Jeannette lay on her bed, sleeplessly gazing at the stars through the concussion-shattered panes of the one window. If they took her to Moyenmotier, her identity was certain to be proved false. The brutal questioning of the past few days had been the result of mere suspicion. She knew that once that suspicion was confirmed, the Gestapo would torture her and force her to talk–to reveal names of Resistance members, owners of safe houses, American positions and units. Her tortured mind sought some means of escape. There was none.
The night wore on toward morning, and the desperate woman thought of suicide. She rose and went slowly to the window. With a calmness born of desperation, she began to work loose a piece of shattered pane. ‘Bon Dieu,’ she prayed, ‘How can I face You if I have been forced to betray my comrades, if I have aided the Germans by speaking? Is this not better?’
It was the hour of supreme darkness. The stars flickered out, one by one, like the last embers of hope. Then in her mind, drained of all emotion, an idea began to form. It was a slim chance, but it just might work.
She raised the piece of glass, but instead of slashing her wrists, she began to cut her forehead, well up into the dark mass of her hair. Blood began to ooze down in a thin stream. Resolutely, she raised the glass again, painfully, patiently deepening the cut. The blood flowed more freely, matting her hair, trickling slowly down her cheek, into her eye. She carefully hid the glass under the mattress and lay down on the floor directly behind the door. Her hands worked the cut constantly to draw more blood. A small puddle began to form about her head. It seemed like ages before she at last heard the guard’s heavy footsteps approaching. A few moments later the door was kicked open and struck her head. Jeannette mercifully lost consciousness.
She came to in a hospital some time later. Her captors had seen no alternative but to send her there. She had no recollection of what had happened, or so she said. ‘I must have fainted,’ she explained weakly. When the Gestapo major questioned her again, her replies were anything but coherent. The doctor told him that head injuries were very tricky.
The Gestapo major cursed the guard for being a stupid pig and finally gave up. He had more important things to do than waste his time on this’stupid French peasant,’ and she was probably too dull to know much anyway. If he had taken better care of the rooms where his prisoners were kept, he might have found the bloodstained piece of glass and made some very interesting deductions.
After a week in the hospital, Jeannette was released. Instead of taking refuge in Gerardmer and awaiting its liberation, she courageously chose to make the perilous journey back to the American lines. We were elated at her return, since we had given her up for lost. Her report on enemy dispositions and movements, based on personal observation, was timely and useful.
The official report of the mission rather laconically termed her ruse ‘worthy of note.’ It certainly was. In the tightest of spots, Jeannette had, figuratively and literally, used her head. *
This article was written by Wayne Nelson and originally appeared in the June 1997 issue of World War II Magazine.
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