Back in May 2016 I was sitting in the garden of my little cottage outside Oxford when I got an email from someone whose name I didn’t know and a place I hadn’t heard of. He explained that he was a French soldier called Jean-Luc Fleutot, and he lived in Belfort, a French city near the Swiss border. He had been looking into the history of the Resistance in his area, and for months he’d been trying to get in touch with any relatives of a British man by the name of Harry Rée, who had been a prominent resister there back in 1943. He had approached the British Embassy in Paris and received a pompous reply saying it had proved impossible to trace any surviving family members. (Apparently the Embassy did not stoop to trying Google.) M. Fleutot did not give up, however, and contacted an organization of British friends of the Resistance, who put him in touch with me.
As it happens Harry Rée (1914–1991) was my father, and a week later we—that’s to say me and my fifteen-year-old daughter Lotte—set off on an unanticipated mini-break. We took the Eurostar from London to Paris and then a fast train to Belfort, and within seven or eight hours we were being welcomed as guests of honor at a lavish civic parade outside a little bar in a street near the main square. There were speeches in praise of the Resistance in general and my father in particular, and then there was a ceremonial dedication of a shiny bronze plaque. The plaque was not new, but it had been refurbished for the occasion, to reveal the following inscription:
ETAIT LE SIEGE
The French was not hard to translate: “This was the headquarters of the CESAR-BUCK network during clandestinity.” But what on earth could that mean, and what was CESAR-BUCK? With a bit of effort I managed to figure it out. BUCK must be a reference to Maurice Buckmaster, who headed the French section of a British organization known by the deliberately opaque title of Special Operations Executive. SOE had been set up by Winston Churchill in 1940, to the considerable annoyance of the military top brass, and its job was to send agents to work behind enemy lines. Agents would be fitted out with fake local identities, and once they arrived “in the field,” they were left largely to their own devices. They would try to blend with the rest of the population, while making contact with local resisters, arranging for parachute-drops of arms and explosives, and organizing sabotage operations designed to undermine the occupying German forces. It was dangerous work: 400 SOE agents were sent to France, and more than a quarter of them lost their lives. (Harry was extraordinarily lucky: he had managed to escape, though carrying several bullets in his chest, from a fight with an armed Feldgendarme.) As for CESAR—well César was one of the noms de guerre Harry was known by, and the locals (who of course had no idea of his true identity) must have used it, faute de mieux, to describe the vast network of saboteurs and helpers that he had organized throughout Franche Comté and beyond.
When I got back home, I tried to piece his story together. I read dozens of histories and memoirs, explored all sorts of archives, and looked through a disorderly stash of family papers. I also travelled round France talking to several people who had known him, including a gracious and modest gentleman called André Graillot, who, at the age of sixteen, had helped smuggle my badly wounded father over the Swiss border, thus saving his life. On top of that I tracked down various things Harry had written about his war, some of them very fine indeed, and most of them either unpublished or anonymous, which I was sure would be of interest to a wider public.
One curious thing I came to realize was that, despite that burnished plaque, Harry is very unlikely to have visited Belfort, and he had certainly not used it as any kind of “siège” or headquarters. From the point of view of the French and German authorities, who had informers everywhere, he was an evil terrorist, and he had to be constantly on the move, never settling anywhere or having any regular habits. Désolé, mes amis belfortains.
Like thousands of others who saw action in this war, or any other, Harry hardly ever spoke about his experiences. If anyone pressed him, he would smile and say that it had been like a wonderful summer holiday: he spent most of his time cycling through idyllic landscapes and enjoying enormous hospitality, and all of it was paid for by the British government. But the more I looked into it the more I realized that he was pulling the wool over our eyes. During his eight months in France he had worked directly or indirectly with around 400 supporters—women and youngsters as well as men—and he became extremely close to them. But almost half of them were arrested at some point, many were imprisoned and tortured, and dozens were murdered, executed, or deported to German concentration camps from which they were unlikely to return. And I began to put faces to some of these statistics: his devoted young assistant Jean Simon, who was gunned down in a favorite café, and the retired schoolmistress Marguerite Barbier, who loved him like a son and died in deepest despair in a German camp.
Harry may not have liked to speak about it, but it is clear to me now that he was dazed by grief. Some people will reach for the well-worn formula and ascribe his silence to “trauma” or PTSD. But he wasn’t ill: he was just desperately sad. People who suffer psychic trauma cannot articulate their experiences at all; but Harry was perfectly capable of talking about his war and did so brilliantly—it’s just that he preferred not to. And the strategy seems to have worked: he went on to lead a good and happy life, as a talented school-teacher, a free-spirited university professor, and, I suppose, a loving and beloved husband and father. He opted for a silence, and it seems to have been a good choice, even a brave one. But I don’t think he could have objected to me breaking his silence now.
Jonathan Rée, son of Harry Rée, is a freelance historian and philosopher. His books include Philosophical Tales, I See a Voice and Witcraft.