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War Hero: Francis Cammaerts

John Simkin

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One of the UK's greatest war heroes died this week. His story is a good one to use in the classroom.

Francis Cammaerts was born in England in 1916. His father was the Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts, but had moved to England after marrying Tita Brand, the Shakespearean actress. Cammaerts was educated at Mill Hill School.

After obtaining a MA from Cambridge University Cammaerts taught in Belfast before teaching at Penge County School for Boys in London where he taught with his close friend from university, Harry Reé.

Cammaerts and Reé were both pacifists and on the outbreak of the Second World War they both registered as a conscientious objectors. After appearing before the Conscientious Objectors' Board he was directed to do agricultural worker.

After the death of his brother while in the Royal Air Force he changed his mind about the war and was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1942. As he was 6ft 4in tall, there were doubts about his ability to work as an undercover agent in Nazi occupied territory.

Given the code name "Roger" by the SOE, in March 1943 he was flown to occupied France at Compiegne. He was originally a member of the Donkeyman Network but after discovering that the circuit had been penetrated by Hugo Bleicher of Abwehr he moved to St Jorioz in the mountains of Savoy and set up a new organization known as Jockey.

By the autumn of 1943, Cammaerts had established a network of small independent groups up and down the left bank of the Rhone Valley. He developed a secure system where although he knew how to get in touch with members of the group, they had no idea where he was living and could only leave messages for him in letter boxes (somebody with whom one could leave a message to be collected later by another person giving the right password).

Cammaerts two main lieutenants sent by the SOE were Cecily Lefort and Pierre Reynaud. In September 1943 Lefort was arrested while visiting the house of a corn-merchant at Montélimar. She was tortured by the Gestapo but the system Cammaerts had set up enabled the Jockey Network to survive. On 6th July 1944 Lefort was replaced by another woman agent from Britain, Christine Granville.

By the time of the D-Day landings Cammaerts had built up an army of 10,000 men and women. His area of operations went from Lyons to the Mediterranean coast and to the Italian and Swiss frontiers.

On 11th August, 1944, Cammaerts and Xan Fielding were captured while travelling from Apt to Seyne. They were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Digne.

Three days later the Allies began landing in the south of France. Fearing that the men would be shot before the arrival of British soldiers, Christine Granville went to see Albert Schenck, the liaison officer between the French prefecture and the Gestapo. She told Schenck that the Maquis knew about the arrests and would arrange for him to be killed unless he released the men. Schenck knew that it was only a matter of days before the Germans would be overrun by the Allies. However, he did not have the power to release them but he contacted Max Waem and after the payment of two million francs the men were given their freedom.

After the war Cammaerts created an international system for the exchange of schoolchildren in Europe. He did this for ten years before becoming professor of education at Nairobi University. Later he returned to England to become head of Rolle College, a teacher training college at Exeter.

Francis Cammaerts retired to France where he died on 3rd July, 2006.


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