NOM DE GUERRE

 

France 1944


She was fearless. He was fearful. Both were average, just two of millions in a world at war.


They might never have met, not in their lifetimes, but he needed a sanctuary, a planque as he called it, to escape and to rest. His name was Roland and he’d killed a man in Chartres, some traitorous official. Or so it was whispered. Nobody seemed to know why or how, yet here he was, body lean and face ashen, having chosen this remote place because he believed – an instinct, nothing more – that they wouldn’t betray him.


Her name was Simone. Still only eighteen, she worked the family farm. Strong of limb and sharp of mind but uneducated, having left school four years previously. The summer of the invasion. She could just about read but knew little else. Not the reasons for the conflict, nor the political excuses, nor the ideological demons it had unleashed.


Yet she did know they’d raped the land.


She’d seen the crush of the tanks, heard the scream of the divebombers. She was aware of the executions and the deportations and the refugees. And in the wake of the chaos, she’d witnessed the orphans, staring at the remains, faces blank with nowhere to go, nothing to drink but their own salted tears. She knew of all that and for the present, it was education enough. 


And she knew, too, that the young man who arrived one night had stood in defiance. Once a chief engineer in the merchant marine, he’d exchanged rank and status to form a sabotage unit of the maquis, the resistance. In her eyes, they were not ragged and threadbare, they were moonlight warriors, avenging angels, lords of the shadows, and she was envious of their noblesse. By comparison, she thought her own existence meaningless and when he wasn’t around to inspire her by his presence, the hours seemed empty.


Occasionally and very briefly, she could sense him watching her, but not in the usual way, not the way the boys glanced at her when she accompanied her father on market day. This was more intense, a mix of caution and calculation, devoid of all emotion.


“You have a feeling,” he said to her one time.


She’d just entered the barn with the minimal food her family could spare. A crust or two, a few root vegetables, plus a pitcher of water drawn by her own hand from the well. His comment was cryptic and her only response was to shake her head in denial. Even if she did have any feeling, she would never display it, and nor would she ask him to elaborate on his words because that would be embarrassing.


Yet her parents seemed to approve of this stranger. Her father had been decorated in the previous war, a different generation but the same enemy, so he suggested she might wish to offer the young man her help. She had three brothers but the request was to her, only her.   


Initially, it was just a simple task that Roland needed, a scribbled code taken from here to there, from one planque to another. Not too difficult, except for the fact that she had no means of transport. No spare fuel for the farm’s ancient tractor and no money to pay for it on the black market.


“Get a bicycle,” said Roland. It was the obvious solution.


“From where?”


“Anywhere,” he said. “Just get one.”


The answer lay in the village of Thivars, so she would first have to walk the distance.


By the time she arrived, it was nightfall but that was to her advantage. The darkness gave cover to her purpose. As Roland had informed her, there was to be a meeting that evening at the Mairie between her countrymen and their overseers: the former, a humbled and quiescent council of locals; the latter represented by a single junior officer of the Gestapo, whose commander held responsibility for this entire département.


It was there at the building, right outside, that she found what she was seeking. An assortment of the two-wheeled contraptions propped against the walls. She held back a few moments to prepare. Ready in her hand was the small rusty knife Roland had provided, yet she was breathing low and hard to counteract the tension, to prevent herself from backing down, from just turning and leaving as quietly as she came.


All she had to do was focus.


When she was sufficiently steady, she looked around one more time. Then without thinking any more, she began to jab every tire of every machine, just as she’d been instructed. All except the one that bore the inscription Hergestellt in Deutschland, made in Germany. This she kept for herself, mounting it to ride rapidly back to the farm, secure in the knowledge that by her action, nobody would be capable of following. Being stolen, it would need repainting of course, but it was solidly built and well-suited to her requirements, whether wheeling through gutted tracks or across muddied fields.


That night she lay in her cot, unable to find sleep, elated by her accomplishment but not fully understanding why. Was it because she thought that it would meet with her father’s approval? Was it that she’d struck a minor blow for the country he once served? Or was it for some deeper reason that she tried hard not to consider.


A reason whose name was Roland.


The following day, she duly began carrying his messages to all points of the compass, to a radius of twenty miles or more, and although the recipients always met her with a smile, were always appreciative to hear from their leader Roland, he’d warned her not to become too familiar with them. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, he did so without hesitation, but because to him, all unchecked expression was dangerous.


“You need a different name,” he told her. A simple statement, clear and direct, as always.


“Why?” she asked, but she’d already guessed. It was in case she was caught. A revealed identity would put her family at risk.


She heard nothing more about it until early one morning, he returned and placed some official-looking documentation in her hands.


“You are no longer Simone Segouin,” he said in his flat tone. “You are now Nicole Minet. When you take messages, these are the papers you will carry.”


She nodded her acceptance. “I always wanted to be a Nicole,” she said.


“It’s from Dunkirk,” he told her, “where most of the files were destroyed. That means it can’t be traced. You’ll be safer with that name.”


“Am I now a member of your unit?”


“Yes,” he said.


“So Nicole will be my nom de guerre.”


He smiled slightly, perhaps mocking the naive romanticism of such a concept. Still, it was the first time she’d seen any expression at all from him.


“Are there any other women?” she asked him. “I mean in our unit.”


“Have you met any?”


“Not yet.”


“So when you meet one, you’ll know.”


Another example of his vagueness but by this time, it was expected. He lived in a cocoon of secrecy and she’d now accepted to join him. There was no ceremony or celebration on her induction, no form of welcome, but from that time on, they were allies, comrades, he the burdened mentor, she his eager apprentice.


There was much to learn and she soon advanced beyond the role of mere messenger, anxious to absorb all that he could teach her. So he gave her lessons as best he could. How to hold the Schmeisser, how to clean it so it wouldn’t jam, how to hold her breath as she fired. He showed her the way to handle explosives and to prepare the wires. Beyond the practicalities were the strategies and in this context, he informed her that vast friendly armies were now on the move, that freedom was near, and that it was the task of their maquis to clear the route, to prevent the Boche as he called them, from reinforcing their lines.


And finally, one night, he took her on her first real operation, their task being to blow a bridge on the road to Paris. Her assignment was to remain still and watch the approach, to whistle if anybody came.


“Can you whistle?” he said.


“I have three brothers. I can whistle, I can wrestle, I can do anything you want.”


“I just need you to whistle.”


Another time, the target was the rail track. Another it was a fuel container, the explosion ripping the night, the flare blinding and the smoke searing their throats as the roar echoed around them.


This had become her life, this recruit who had turned so readily from the girl, Simone, into the woman, Nicole. No longer a daughter and sister, no longer a day labourer but a night fighter, hardened and reliable, and the sheer speed of the transformation surprised even Roland.


Yet she still hadn’t faced any real test, so he held his judgment in abeyance until the time came.


It happened close to dusk. There were three of them near the roadside when a pair of Wehrmacht soldiers appeared in their dusty gray uniforms, riding slowly towards them on bicycles like the one she originally stole. All three of the maquis had their MP4 machine pistols slung around their necks and slowly they eased down into a crouch. Then they leveled their weapons and waited.


Waited.


A thousand thoughts raced through Nicole’s brain, obliging her to realize that this moment was where it had all been leading. All the training, all the minor victories. This would be a moment like no other. The murder of humans. True, it was self-defense but only in as far as their entire raison d’ être was self-defense against a monstrous tyranny. But on this specific occasion, here by the roadside, it would be deliberate and unprovoked and she wasn’t sure it was right.


When the soldiers were so close that the syntax of their chatter could be detected, the signal was given. That’s when the thoughts and doubts were closed off as the small group stood as one and opened fire, the staccato bullets spitting from their barrels, tearing through cloth and flesh as the riders tumbled over, their bodies splayed and twitching as the dark blood seeped from their tunics.


Which of the three had done the most damage? She didn’t care. Instead of guilt, she felt nothing at all, not proud but not ashamed, not glorious but not cowardly. Just nothing. Just doing the job she’d been assigned. And easier, as she would say later, than slaughtering a pig on the farm.


As for Roland, he appeared satisfied but again, as usual, said nothing. He’d already told her she had the feeling but for what, she still didn’t know. She certainly felt none on this occasion. Unless, of course, she was ready to admit to herself that the feeling was for him but she couldn’t seem to do that. And besides, she’d already managed to convince herself that it didn’t matter. In her mind, this new life she was leading was a duty and so far, grâce à Dieu, it had been a success. None of their unit had been captured or injured and by the third week of August, they found themselves advancing on the cathedral city of Chartres, just fifty-five miles from Paris.


Here they finally met up with their liberators, well-equipped and all-conquering, with oil-stained grins and smokes behind their ears. None spoke her language but along with everything else, Roland had taught his novice the rudiments of English, knowing it would be useful whichever army arrived first from the beaches of Normandy: the British, the Canadians, or as it turned out, these Americans, unstoppable in their optimism.


Plus a new phenomenon. Along with the troops came the newsmen, writers armed with pencils, photographers with flashbulbs, jotting and clicking to record a living history uplifted by tones of heroism. Theirs was a story of young men at war, far from their home and their sweethearts and mom’s pumpkin pie.


Yet there was one reporter from a magazine called Life who also noted some truth of what he saw. In particular, he took to describing the women present that day. One element, he wrote, were the mesdemoiselles, pretty and flirty, who lined the streets in every town they entered, throwing their flowers and blowing their kisses. Another cohort was the older generation, the prim and the righteous, who preferred to show their gratitude on worn wooden pews within ancient stone walls. But then, in addition, he found cause to mention a more wretched group, sallow and shame-faced, who were forced to line up in the square to have their heads shaved, the women with eyes lowered who had survived by sleeping with, or simply falling in love with, the men who enslaved them. They were labeled horizontal collaborators and for the citizens of Chartres, it was time for castigation, just as they might have burned witches two centuries earlier. Possibly, as the journalist noted, it was a way of justifying their own years of passive timidity. It was a distressing scene which might well have terminated his story, rejected by distant editors as not suitable for a family magazine.


He was about to move on, to find other items of interest, when he saw yet another woman who didn’t seem to fit any of the clichés he’d listed. She was alone in the courtyard of the prefecture, dressed in shirt and shorts, as he described her, with bare brown legs and long wavy curls tucked under a military cap. On her shoulder was a machine gun, at her waist was a pistol and in her hands was a crusty baguette smeared with jam. Who was she, this girl with the guns? Who or what was she waiting for while chewing her lunch?


“What do those letters mean?” he said, pointing to the armband she wore. It was his approach question, a way of starting the dialogue.


She nodded her comprehension and wiped her mouth before answering. “Franc-Tireur Partisan Français,” she replied.


“Is that you?” he asked.


She nodded again.


It was the word partisan that intrigued him and he invited her in his stumbling way to dinner. Perhaps she didn’t know what that might imply for a foreigner but to her it meant a free meal and she was ready to agree, until a lean young man came along, took her protectively by the arm and led her away to a waiting automobile.


That night there was sporadic firing in the surrounding forests but neither Nicole nor Roland were involved because their mission was accomplished by other means.


They and a couple of others from the unit were supposed to ambush what they believed to be a small platoon that had not yet surrendered. But there were at least two dozen of them. Probably too many for a firefight. So instead, Roland quickly decided on another tactic, even more outrageous. From behind the enemy column, he jumped out and yelled at them loudly in his basic German. Hände hoch. Raise your hands. They looked exhausted and famished and to Nicole’s astonishment, they simply obeyed.


And this was how the American reporter concluded his story, when he saw a few  maquis, including the girl he met briefly the previous day, bravely herding a column of twenty-five prisoners at gunpoint through the very centre of Chartres. Instantly, he knew that this was a spectacle his editors would love - and that was how Simone Segouin, alias Nicole Minet, was introduced to millions half-way around the world.


More than that, such a spectacle perfectly matched the impression that the self-proclaimed leader of the Free French, the arrogant Général de Gaulle, was attempting to create. Part of his mission, as he saw it, was to alter the allied perception of the collaborative Vichy government and convince them that his people had fought well against the Nazi regime. This was the myth he wished to build, yet as Roland and his unit of maquis had proven, it was founded on a small basis of truth.


By the third week of that long, hot August, they had helped the push through Chartres, clearing the advance on the capital, which was where Nicole arrived with de Gaulle’s 2nd Armoured Division on the day Paris was at last liberated. At six in the morning, the swastika was finally lowered and the tricolore raised. Delirious crowds lined the Champs Élysées and a great military parade marched through the Arc de Triomphe. And the girl with the nom de guerre now wore the Croix de Guerre, formally presented to her by m’sieur le général himself, a rare honour for a woman, or for anybody.


It was a worthy apex to her story but not the final chapter.


After VE-Day, after her fame had spread across two continents, she realized she couldn’t just return to the farm. She’d come too far, experienced too much, to go back to pitching hay and shoveling dirt. So with the alacrity for learning that she’d developed in the maquis, she went on to study medicine, passed the exams and was received into the nursing profession, specializing in pediatrics. It was a useful but tranquil occupation and she preferred to keep it that way. Despite the curiosity of historians and the admiration of schoolgirls, she remained forever modest about her wartime exploits, attending memorials and even having a street named after her, but revealing little, even when invited to speak. 


As for Roland, he not only survived, he returned to marry his Jeanne d’Arc, a love forged in combat that was ultimately rewarded with six fine children.




         
        
        
         
 

STORY OF A LEGEND

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