- Contributed by
- People in story:
- André Heintz
- Location of story:
- Caen, Normandy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 April 2004
André Heintz, member of the French Resistance
This is André Heintz's account of his D-Day experiences:
I lived in Caen, a city in Normandy, before the start of the war, and became involved in the French Resistance during the German occupation. I worked for the Resistance from 1940 until 1944, during which time I provided information about German defences and troop movements to the Allies. I also provided people who were in trouble with new identities, and distributed underground newspapers.
Joining the Resistance
I got involved with the Resistance early in the war, shortly after the Dunkirk evacuations. Some British soldiers were stranded on the Cherbourg peninsula at that time, and I helped them to get back to Britain. They were very pleased to find out that I could speak English, and I could give them the latest information about what was happening - that France had signed an armistice, and that the Americans had not joined the war.
My involvement with the Resistance was largely due to a Polish priest I had known since before the outbreak of war. He was part of a Franco-Polish resistance network which provided information to the British. After the German occupation he said to me one day, 'We must kill at least three Germans before the war is over, or we'll have another war like this one within 20 years.'
He said this in front of my mother, who said to me that he was no priest and I should stay away from him. Well, Resistance is largely about disobedience, and in that case I disobeyed my mother.
The priest sent me to a farmer who lived close to the airport, to gather information. This was quite easy as the airport was clearly visible from the farm, and the farmer had a lot of contact with German soldiers who visited him to buy eggs and milk. The farmer had a way of making the Germans talk, and reported what he heard to me. I soon found out that some of the planes leaving from that airport were on their way to bomb Bristol, a city very dear to me as I had been at grammar school there in 1935. It broke my heart to think that Bristol was being bombed by planes coming from Caen.
We could see that the Germans were preparing for an invasion of Britain. They were very active at the coast, and had requisitioned many fishing boats at the ports of Normandy.
Organisation Civil et Militaire
In 1942 I joined a group called the Organisation Civil et Militaire (OCM), the most active Resistance group in Caen. I was part of a small group of students who divided the area up into sections which we inspected once or twice a week.
Our main task was to observe and report changes to the landscape. For example, we saw the Germans digging a tunnel, which eventually became their regional headquarters. We saw that they were digging a trench from there to the airport, obviously to lay telephone cables, so we knew that it was an important location.
I was responsible for passing on all the information we collected to our leader, whom I regularly met at a church in Caen. We always went to the 6.30am mass, so that we could go to work afterwards. We chose that particular church because it faced three different streets and had two entrances, making it easier for us not to be seen together outside.
We would kneel together in a quiet corner of the church, and he would pass his prayer book to me, containing the questionnaire for the next week. I would pass my prayer book containing all the answers I had been able to gather that week. We were asked things like where headquarters were positioned, where weapons were hidden, how many vehicles were at each place, and what the names of the officers were.
One morning the leader and I had a lot to discuss and we decided to go to a nearby café to talk. Unfortunately, and unbeknown to me, my father passed the café and saw us sitting together. That evening he said to me, 'How is it that you know my former pupil, LeLievre?'
I hadn't known the man's real name, I only knew him by the name Livou, so I told my father that I didn't know anyone called LeLievre. My father treated me like a liar, saying, 'I saw you with him this morning.'
My father never asked me any more questions, but I often wondered whether he suspected that I was part of the Resistance.
LeLievre was arrested in April 1943. I found out about it one evening when my sister said they didn't have any classes that day because her teacher had been arrested. I knew it was him. I remember we were just starting to eat our dinner, and I couldn't swallow my soup after I heard the news. I kept thinking of him in jail, possibly already being tortured, giving them names of people involved in the Resistance.
LeLievre was eventually shot in jail on D-Day, 6 June 1944, along with 68 other members of the Resistance. They were taken out in groups of six and shot. I suppose the Germans didn't want them to survive the landings, and maybe they were afraid that they would operate against them again in some way. It was a horrendous crime, and the poor families were extremely distressed because these men's bodies were never found.
Coded messages on the BBC
We didn't have a radio transmitter but our leader was in touch with a radio operator, and we got vital messages back from Britain through the BBC's radio broadcasts. The news was read in French three times per day, and the newsreader would always stop and say, 'Et voici quelques messages personnel', which means, 'And here are some personal messages'. At first we thought these messages were from Free French in Britain trying to contact their families, but we soon found out that they were coded messages to the Resistance.
Our radio operator was an amateur, and we were never sure that our messages had reached Britain until we heard the coded messages on the BBC. We always sent our messages under an assumed name, and this name would be mentioned under the 'personal messages' in the BBC broadcast.
One of my friends from Bayeux once sent a message signed as Alain Chartier, the 16th Century poet who wrote 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. Two nights later, the BBC mentioned the poet Alain Chartier from Bayeux. When I told my friend about it, he said it had been an awful mistake to include the word Bayeux in the message. Indeed, soon afterwards a German van with radio detection equipment was seen around Bayeux. At that time, using triangulation, they could pinpoint the exact location of a radio transmission within ten minutes, so my friends had to be very careful after that.
We knew that the Germans could find the transmitter after ten minutes of broadcast, so radio operators were always told to keep their transmissions to a maximum of nine minutes. But sometimes the ones who had been going for quite a long time would become over-confident and transmit for longer - and that's when they would get caught. The radio operator who worked for us often moved location for his transmissions. In summer, when the corn was high, he would sometimes hide in a field while transmitting.
Of course the Germans knew that the BBC was transmitting coded messages, so they ordered everyone to hand in their radio sets. Many people hid their sets around the house, but for Resistance members this was too risky. I had a crystal set that was so small I could hide it in a bean can, with dried beans on top. I kept my headphones in a trunk in the attic. I knew about the Heinz 57 varieties, and I called this my 'Heinz Beans 58 variety'. When my friends needed me to listen out for a coded message, they would say, 'Use the 58 variety'.
Fake ID for fallen airmen
Another one of my jobs was to provide new identities to people who were in trouble. These were often Jews and people who had escaped prison, but sometimes also British soldiers. We took a lot of trouble making sure that the fake identities looked as real as possible.
There was a place on the French identity cards for a 'special mention', and in the case of British and American airmen who couldn't speak French, we used this space to fill in 'deaf and dumb'. But of course it's not too easy to feign being deaf and dumb! Once, I was on a train with one of these soldiers. He fell asleep and when he woke up his head was leaning on the shoulder of the girl next to him. He said, 'Oh sorry', but fortunately the German in the carriage didn't speak any English!
We helped these Allied airmen to escape, but the escape line was always divided into small parts so that the whole system wouldn't collapse if one person was caught. It took about 18 different people to help one person to escape.
In early May 1944, my leader's wife came to the school where I was teaching. She made me learn six sentences by heart, and also gave me their meanings. The messages would be broadcast just before the invasion, giving us a sign to start our acts of sabotage.
It seemed an awfully long time between the beginning of May and 1 June, when the first message was finally broadcast, signalling that the invasion would happen within the next week. That Sunday, 4 June, I went to a party at a friend's house. As I stood there with people dancing all around me, I had this strange feeling that I was like a little god, because I could see into the future. I wanted to warn all my friends to go into hiding, but of course I couldn't say anything, not even to my parents, because I was sworn to secrecy. I stood there wondering how many of my friends would survive.
The next day, Monday 5 June, we knew that something would happen soon, because the train from Paris didn't reach Caen - the lines had been sabotaged. That evening I heard two messages - 'the dice are on the table', meaning we should sabotage railway lines; and 'it's hot in Suez', meaning we should attack telephone lines.
My task that night was to watch the headquarters of the German 716th Infantry Division next door to our house, although I would have much preferred to carry out acts of sabotage. I was quite surprised that nothing happened at the headquarters until 3.30am. I had already met my mother on the stairs at 2am - she couldn't sleep because of all the planes going over, and the sound of bombing in the distance. Afterwards I learned that there were already about 20,000 Allied paratroops in Normandy at that time, but the headquarters only stirred into action at about 4.30am. At about 8am they all evacuated the headquarters. I later learned they had moved to a nearby tunnel.
At about 4.30am my mother was up again, saying that it had to be the landings. Of course I couldn't say yes or no, because I had been sworn to secrecy, but I told her perhaps we should fill some bottles with water. She also had the great idea to cook some potatoes - and lucky she did that, because at 8am there was no more gas, water or electricity. These services were only restored again six months later.
Cut off from the Resistance
I had an appointment to meet my leader at 8am, but I suspected that his train might not get in from Ouistreham, and indeed it didn't. That meant I was cut off from the Resistance, so I went to the Red Cross to volunteer my services. They told me to come back in the afternoon. At about 1.30pm I was still at home, and some heavy bombing occurred near our house. I suspected the target was the divisional headquarters - of course the Allies knew from me where it was located. One of the blasts from those bombs ripped off our double-locked cellar door.
I rushed over to the improvised Red Cross hospital, and got on board an ambulance to find some of the wounded. We heard some planes coming over and pulled over to take shelter. I could see a bomb leaving a plane and coming straight towards us. I gave a last look at the people around me, and suddenly there was a massive blast. It felt like we were on a railway track with the train coming straight at us.
We were surrounded by smoke, but it was the house behind us that had been hit and collapsed. Injured people were stumbling out of the building. We searched for survivors in the ruins, and made four trips to the hospital, carrying four to six people each time.
When I got back to the hospital my sister was there helping out. She said we had to make a red cross near the building so that the planes could see it was a hospital, because the building was being bombed. I went looking for paint, but couldn't find any. Eventually my sister had the idea to dip some sheets in blood in the operating theatre, and we laid them out in the garden. As we were doing this a reconnaissance plane came over and dipped its wings to signal that he had seen the cross. Of course by the next day, the blood had dried and the sheets were brown, so we took some more blood from buckets in the operating theatre and stained them again.
A bombed city
Caen was bombed 26 times between D-Day and its liberation on 9 July. Sometimes, hundreds of Halifaxes and Lancasters would come over to drop bombs. It was a terrifying sight.
The city was practically razed to the ground, except for two places: the Abbey and the hospital, thanks to that huge red cross. These two buildings were hit by nearly 200 shells, but that's little compared to the 600,000 shells that rained down in the month after D-Day.
People were very scared. Many took refuge in the abbey at Caen because William the Conqueror was buried there, and they believed the Allies wouldn't dare bomb the grave of an English king. Of course, the abbey is also a very strong building, and provided a good place to shelter.
A legend soon started among the people there. People said there was a saying in England that, if William's grave was ever destroyed, it would be the end of the English crown. I have never heard that story repeated in England, so I think it was just something people kept repeating to keep up morale. I thought this story would die out after the war, but even today you sometimes hear guides telling that legend in the abbey!
There are historians today who say that the bombing of Caen was a crime, but even under siege the people of the city did not feel resentful about what was happening. We knew that it was necessary for the liberation.
After the liberation, when the city was being cleared up, they came across a cellar where a man had died of suffocation after being trapped. They found a note with him that said, 'I feel that I am dying. It is terrible to know that I'm going to die because I have been expecting the liberation for so long. But I know that, because of my death, other people will be liberated. Long live France, long live the Allies.'
On 9 July there were rumours that the Allies were about to enter the city. I went to the northern part of the city, to the area that is now part of the university campus. The whole area looked like I imagined the moon to be, because the many bombs that had been dropped had brought lots of white stone to the surface.
When I saw the first Allied soldier I put my hands up, because I had no way of identifying myself. I was taken to the Intelligence Officer, who was very pleased to see me because I could pinpoint our location on a map. The soldiers gave me sugar, chocolate, jam and Spam. I took them to meet the Deputy Mayor at the Abbey, and remained their interpreter for the next five months.
That day was the most beautiful of my entire life. I could hardly believe that I survived the German occupation and the battle, and I rushed to church as soon as I could to thank God for the privilege of being alive and being free again.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.