We got a little flak coming over the French coast in the Lysander the British were using to fly us in for the parachute drop. I was a member of one of the Jedburgh units, the O.S.S. man in one of the many allied teams going in before D-Day to soften up the Krauts for the actual invasion of France.
At 0330 we got the nod from the dispatcher and the word that we were over our pin-point target, a clearing in a clump of trees near Lyons-la-Foret in Normandy. The dispatcher opened the hatch and bunched the sponge-rubber packed packages of explosives and weapons around it. Then he signaled to us to get ready—we were dropping too low to use the ripcords in our chutes. Wilson, my radio operator, and I hooked into the static cord.
I turned my back to the front of the plane and swung my legs over the open hatch. The red light blinked “on” in front of me. Below, I could see the dimly lighted torches of the Maquis who were waiting for us, marking out the target area of the drop. Suddenly, the dispatcher’s arm went up, and the lamp turned to green. I pushed off for the big drop into the darkness.
The slipstream hit me, a cold shock wave. Then I felt a slight tug and my parachute opened over my head and billowed out, and I began to float down.
I touched down at the edge of the clearing, rolled forward, and started to undo my harness straps as a cluster of Maquis came running out to greet me, some of them armed with Sten guns, others carrying clubs and rocks.
“C’est vous, Bistro?” one of them challenged. “It is you, Bistro? ” Bistro was the code name that headquarters of the Special Operations Bureau, Norgeby House, Baker Street, London, had given me.
Our packages of explosives and weapons were dropping all around us; we ducked into the trees and waited until the packages landed. Then the Maquis returned to the field, picked up the packages and dumped them into a big hole. They threw dirt over the equipment, planning to return at a later date.
Corbet, the man who had greeted me, was a short, swarthy, hard-looking Frenchman. He headed one of the first of the Maquis groups, the Confrerie de Notre Dame. Now he led somebody over towards me. In the darkness I was barely able to see that it was a girl. They were both pushing bicycles.
“This is Odette,” Corbet said. “You will go with her. She will take you to a safe house about fifteen kilometers from here while the rest of us remain behind to finish the burying of the equipment.” He shoved a bike into my hands.
I followed the girl along a path through the woods to the road. She got on her bike there, and I got on mine, and we peddled off into the night.
“We will have to be careful,” Odette warned. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She was pretty, a face of delicate features and a figure with soft curves that strained at her sweater. “It is after curfew,” she said, “if we run into a German patrol, you must do exactly as I tell you.”
I nodded agreement. The kilometers passed, one after the other, under the wheels of our bikes. I fell into a kind of self-hypnotized trance, forgetting where I was or where I was going. My mind played with the French name, Andre Pourgalle, I had been given by the colonel who had planned this operation. My code name was Bistro. My address—11 rue Riche-panse, Paris. I had been equipped with a Carte d’ldentite issued by the Paris Prefecture de Police, a Feuille de Demobilization issued in Marseilles, and a Permis de Conduire issued in Paris. They had also given me a current French ration card. Nothing had been overlooked. I was given a ring full of cyanide to wear on my finger, contents to be taken if I were caught. A pistol strapped to my leg along with a tear gas fountain pen. The Lewis bombs, the time bombs with magnets for attaching to metal, the explosive coal, the altimeter bombs that would destroy a German plane when it reached a certain height, the Sten guns ... all buried back there at the drop point, to be used when we were ready for the Germans.
Suddenly I was snapped out of my reverie. Odette’s bicycle brushed up against mine. Then she spun her wheel to the side of the road. “German patrol,” she whispered in my ear. I suddenly became aware of the hum of a car motor off in the distance, rapidly approaching us.
There was a grassy patch at the side of the road under a tree. Odette threw herself on the ground, pulling me after her. She inched her way into my arms, pressing her body up against mine. “Quick,” she said, “pretend you are making love to me.”
I felt clumsy, restrained. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I was hesitant about touching her. Then, suddenly, the German car was passing us. It slowed down, ground to a halt, and backed up.
"What is the matter with you?" Odette whispered in my ear. “Are all Americans so cold?” Then the door of the German car opened and we heard the sound of heavy jackboots hitting the road and walking in our direction. Odette shivered in my arms, and her voice took on the fine edge of fear as she whispered to me: “If you want us to live, make love to me now as if you meant it.” But the point had been reached where I no longer needed any encouraging. My hands slipped under her sweater, and I buried my face in the rounded softness of her bosom.
We heard the German officer stop and look down at us. His flashlight snapped on. The German laughed harshly, and I felt a tremor of fear run through Odette’s body. I felt the German shove his jackboot into the small of my back and press me closer to her. The German roared with laughter at his great joke. Then he flashed the light full into Odette’s face. “Show me your papers,” he said. Odette cringed from the light, turning her face away. “Here,” she said in a small voice, handing up a sheaf of papers.
The German studied the papers. "Odette Mantel," he said musingly. "I may be interested myself some day." He dropped the papers down on the ground next to us, paying no attention to me. “We Germans are human,” he said. “Only for this would I let somebody be out after curfew."
He turned on his heel and walked back to the car. The motor roared and the car, an old Citroen, took off down the road.
“That was Rudi von Merode,” Odette said. “The Gestapo call him the Prince de Merode. We call him the Nazi butcher. May the Lord keep me from his hands....”
In a week’s time Wilson, my radio operator, had joined me at the farmhouse and set up his receiving and transmitting equipment. The cases of Sten guns and explosives were unearthed from their hiding places, and we were ready to put Operation Snowball into action. For this purpose, the local Maquis group, headed by Corbet, was assembled at the farmhouse and I briefed them with a large-scale operations map.
“This railroad spur,” I told the Maquis, tracing the tracks on the map, "must be destroyed so that the Germans cannot bring up reinforcements in this area when the invasion comes. Our logical point of attack is the bridge at Pinet. It must be destroyed—and with time bombs."
We agreed to try for the troop train as a bonus, went over our plan of attack, and then the Maquis members slipped out of the farmhouse and returned to their homes. I went upstairs to relieve Wilson at the transmitter in the attic room of the farmhouse and Odette came up to join me. We were alone, and I kicked the door shut. In the few days we had known each other, we had realized that we were in love. Odette went into my arms. “You will be careful," she pleaded. "I don't want to lose you now....”
I bit down on the glass phial, crushing it between my teeth, releasing the acid that would eat away the restraining- wire on the detonator of the last of the Lewis bombs I had wired to the underpinning of the Pinet bridge. The acid would eat its way through the wire in fifteen minutes and then release the spring that held the firing pin. When that went, the aluminum detonator of ultrasensitive fulminate of mercury would explode the plastic, thermite and metallic oxide that made up the body of the bomb. And with it would go the underpinning of the bridge.
I ran along the stream bed and then cut into the hills where I joined Corbet and Odette at their Sten gun. Spaced out in the hills around us were the rest of the members of the Maquis band, their automatic weapons trained on the bridge, waiting for the train of Nazi troops.
The minutes dragged. We sweated. And then we saw Pierre Douce, a member of the Maquis, running towards us, through the hills, dodging from bush to bush. He dropped to the ground at my side, struggling for breath. “Merode,” he gasped out, "is on the train. He is on an inspection tour. We may get the butcher himself."
Just then we heard the sound of the approaching train. I checked my watch. With just a little luck we would catch the troop train out in the middle of the bridge.
The engine moved out on the bridge. It crossed, reached the other side, and started to pull the rest of the train across. I cursed myself for bad timing. And then when only two cars were left on the bridge, the explosion came with a roar and a blinding flash of flame.
The bridge collapsed. The last two cars fell back into the canyon, Nazis spilling out of them. The two cars caught fire and burned furiously. Ahead, the rest of the train jarred to a halt and the Nazi troops surged out and hit the dirt. I pressed down on the trigger of my Sten gun and sent a stream of slugs down into them. All around me, all hell broke loose, the Maquis had opened fire.
We could see Merode’s black Gestapo-uniformed figure below. He was taking command, maneuvering his troops into cover, moving them around a rise in the terrain that would bring them in on our flank and expose us to a withering crossfire. Corbet quickly realized the Nazi’s strategy and signaled to the rest of us to pull back. We grabbed the Sten guns and started to run, making for the woods where we could disperse and go to our separate hiding places. . . .
After the attack on the Pinet bridge, I had to leave the Lyons-la-Forest area for a rendezvous with another Jedburgh team which was operating farther north, in an effort to coordinate our operations. When I returned, after ten days, I learned that catastrophe had fallen on the Maquis group I had worked with. Worst news of all was that Odette Mantel had been picked up by the Gestapo for interrogation. It was only later that I learned what brutal torture she had been forced to undergo by Rudi von Merode in his efforts to make her reveal the identities of the members of the Maquis band and the identity of Bistro.
Odette was taken into the prison at Fresnes where she was thrown into a cell with several other women. An hour later Odette was brought into the interrogation room. Rudi von Merode was waiting for her wearing his black Gestapo uniform. With him were two non-commissioned Wehrmacht officers. Merode came out from behind his desk and towered over Odette.
"If you cooperate with us you'll save yourself a lot of trouble,” he snarled.
“I know nothing.”
“Who brought in the equipment?” Merode asked. “Who is the man known as Bistro, and where is he hiding?”
Odette was startled. She wondered how Merode had found out my code name. “You ask me questions to which I don't know the answers,” she told von Merode.
"I'll make you cooperate," Merode said, smiling at Odette. He suddenly slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. Blood spurted from a gash in her lip. “Will you talk?” Merode asked. “I know nothing,” Odette said through bruised lips.
Merode went to work, beating Odette systematically about the face. She remained silent and he became furious. He punched her in the breast and knocked her sprawling and unconscious from the pain. Then he sent one of his non-coms to fetch a pail of cold slop which was thrown on her, bringing her to consciousness. Merode roughly pulled her to her feet by grabbing her clothes, tearing them. This excited him, and he tore at her clothes like a mad man until she stood naked. Merode handcuffed her hands behind her back, then went to his desk, opened a drawer, and took out a long chain and an ox-gut whip with a flexible steel rod inside it.
Merode marched the naked Odette into a tiled bathroom on the top floor of the jail and was forced to stand facing a bathtub.
“Who is Bistro?” Merode screamed.
“I don't know,” Odette said. “It is foolish to ask me questions when I do not know the answers."
Merode cursed. He tied the chain around Odette’s ankles. Then he filled the bathtub with cold water.
He grabbed her by one of her breasts and forced her down into the water until she was sitting.
“Who is Bistro?” Merode shouted.
Odette shook her head, her teeth were chattering with cold.
Merode cursed. He grabbed Odette by the thighs, his thumbs biting into the soft flesh on the inside of her legs, and lifted her body. Odette’s legs went up into the air until her buttocks were almost completely out of water and her head was submerged. She tried to hold her breath but finally had to give up. She swallowed water, began to drown, and then lost consciousness.
Several times Odette was drowned in the tub and then revived. Finally Merode took her to another room in the jail where she was chained down on a table with her legs and arms spread-eagled and beaten with a black rubber hose.
Odette was beaten by the Gestapo sadist until she was unconscious. When she came to she had been unchained. Merode hammered away at her. He wanted to know where Bistro was hiding. What were the names of the other members of her Maquis group? "I will take the skin from your lovely body in little pieces," Merode told Odette, “unless you give me the information I want.”
Still the French girl pleaded ignorance. And the knowledge that she was lying and refusing to give him the information he wanted only served to infuriate the Gestapo butcher, the Prince de Merode, as he was known among the professional Nazi torturers.
Merode beat Odette about the face with a key ring wound around his hand. Then he had her taken to another room in the Fresnes prison where the handcuffs around her wrists were attached to a hook on the end of a long double chain which hung from a pulley on the ceiling. Odette was lifted off the ground. She hung by the handcuffs around her wrists for many hours. She thought her arms would come out of their sockets—and at last unconsciousness mercifully swept over her.
When Odette came to she was lying on a palliasse of straw in a cell, naked, the handcuffs on her wrists were rusty with blood, her wrists were purple, her left arm swollen to the elbow, one breast was all black and blue.
At this time, Simon Boulanger, an underground worker, who worked in the kitchen at the Fresnes prison, got word to Corbet, and then to me, of the torture to which Odette was being subjected by Merode in his effort to force her to reveal her contacts. I went insane with revenge when I heard of her suffering.
I was determined to assault the prison and liberate Odette, regardless of the cost. Corbet and his Maquis friends agreed to help me I assembled our heavy arms, bazookas for breaching the walls of the prison, plastic bombs, grenades, Sten guns, and then we moved into the town and surveyed the jail from a house that we rented on the street opposite the jail. All our plans were in readiness for an assault on the jail. One night Boulanger got word to us she was being removed from the jail. We settled on a point on the road leading out of town on which the motorized caravan would have to pass.
By morning we were in position. But when dawn came to the Fresnes jail, Odette learned that she was leaving the prison, but not for a transfer. Merode came to her cell carrying his ox-hide whip. He told her he would take the skin right off her body. Her torn dress was thrown to her and she was told to put it on. Then she was dragged out to a car in chains.
Odette was driven out of town on the road we had forseen would be taken. The car stopped at a clearing where a Nazi Mark. IV tank was parked. When Merode and his two non-coms dragged Odette out of the car, he told her what her fate was to be. "We are going to chain you to the tank," he shouted. You will be pulled apart by the monster. The only thing that can save you is if you give me the information I want."
Odette said nothing.
They were chaining Odette to the tank when Corbet and I gave the signal for the assault. We ran forward screaming, taking the whip-wielding Merode, his two non-corns, and the tank crew by surprise. In a matter of moments the tank was aflame, hit by a grenade thrown by Corbet. I was insane with hate beyond reason. I was carrying a bazooka which I had intended to use on the tank but I turned it on Merode. The first bazooka round caught him in the gut and blew apart inside of his body, sending bits of flesh and blood hurtling in all directions.
The Nazi tank crew and Merode's non-coms were gunned down. Odette had collapsed and was unconscious when we unchained her from the flaming tank. The shells inside the tank began to explode, as we hurried her across the field to a waiting car.
For six weeks we tried to nurse Odette back to health. But we did not have the necessary drugs and medicines that her abused body needed. Finally, she died of blood poisoning, she lay in my arms, hearing my words of love to the very end. She was one of the unsung, unknown, heroines of resistance to the Nazi tyranny.