What was it that made an Englishman want to parachute into occupied France, in civilian clothes? It was understandable for Frenchmen: they naturally wanted to get back home and more still to get away from the sickbed smell of the Français de Londres. But why should there have been hundreds of Englishmen who wanted to ‘do the war’ in this way? . . .
The big difference between choosing to be a civilian parachutist and the other alternatives was that having made your choice it was not an end of choosing. A parachutist would continue throughout his war, until arrested or killed, to be faced by various choices. It would be up to him to make repeated decisions immediately affecting his own life, or death.
Here then was the real attraction of the job, an attraction as unfamiliar to the chairborne as the airborne military. To realise that if one were killed or arrested it would not be because of the stupidity of some major or colonel you despised, but would quite likely be your own fault. This meant freedom and adult self-responsibility. After a year in the ranks as a junior officer in the fifth-form atmosphere of the mess, what could be more tempting?
We were a mixed crowd: a French-Canadian businessman, a Paris street vendor, a young aristocrat from Mauritius, a student of French from London University. There was hardly a single quality common to more than two or three of us, except perhaps that we were all individualists, and perhaps egoists too.
Never has a group of officers received such special treatment – been so spoilt in fact. And like spoilt children we grumbled, we sulked, we quarrelled. The ‘schools’ where we did our training were lovely country houses, and we travelled about either by car or by train, in first-class reserved carriages. The food in the schools was always especially good, the drink nearly always plentiful. Batmen abounded. And yet we found reason to complain – to complain cruelly and spitefully about food, drink, or service, often hoping to injure the reputation of some hard-working instructor.
Tension was ever present between instructors and ‘students’, as we were called: a continual conflict between feelings of guilt and feelings of superiority which was hardly ever resolved. Instructors were often glad to see the last of their students, and vice versa.
After a tour of the various schools the ‘student’ was handed over to the ‘office’. Here the relationship was even trickier because these were the people who were going to ‘send you out to the field’, who would keep in touch with you by radio, and who were responsible for paying you and getting you medals and promotion.
Our executive officers were invariably friendly, supremely confident, and unconvincingly optimistic. One great point in their favour was that some of them had already been ‘in the field’ and had returned: they were living proof that return was possible.
But if this was a comforting thought there was another, less comforting, that struck me. I could not help feeling that these men were so admirably equipped, they spoke such perfect French, they knew France as well as I knew my home town of Manchester, and they had practical experience behind them. It would surely have been more sensible for them to be dropped into occupied France, leaving me behind to do the office work for them. But no. I had to go through with it.
‘Of course, Rée, if you feel the slightest doubt in your mind you must say so now. It’s not just for yourself, it’s for the chaps who are out there already. They’d be in a nasty spot if you broke down after your arrival. So, if you’ve any doubts, the courageous thing to do is to withdraw now.’
‘Oh no, sir! I’ll go through with it!’
As if I hadn’t any doubts. I was a syphon of doubts. . . .How was I to know how my body and mind would react to stimuli that they’d never met before? But I just smiled, confidently I hoped, and went on to ask some questions about the people I was dropping to.
I refused to be dropped ‘blind’. That meant being dropped to a map reference, burying your parachute, collecting the suitcases that would have been dropped with you, and then making your way as unobtrusively as possible to a given address in the nearest town. My French was weak, and my knowledge of French ways of life full of gaps, so I insisted that I should be dropped to a ‘reception committee’ and, what’s more, to a reception committee where there would be an Englishman to take me under his wing. (Reception committee was the name given to the group who go out with torches to guide the aeroplane to a particular field where they are waiting to receive ‘bodies’ like me, together with huge containers packed with arms and supplies.)
I was to be received by ‘Hector’ (Maurice Southgate) in the Massif Central, and I made my first trip over occupied France in February 1943. I had told my friends and family that I was off to North Africa, on a special security job, and that I would not be able to send or receive letters. I told my wife Hetty the truth. She was due to have a baby in May. I said goodbye to her and went up to a great country house (Gaynes Hall, Cambridgeshire) near the aerodrome. This is where we waited, all nationalities in civilian clothes, for a fine moonlit night when we could be dropped into Europe.
From A Schoolmaster’s War, edited by Jonathan Rée. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Harry Rée, DSO, OBE, was a British school teacher and educator and a wartime member of the Special Operations Executive. His son Jonathan Rée is a freelance historian and philosopher. His books include Philosophical Tales, I See a Voice, and Witcraft.