The stories of Odette and Violette Szabo are well known in Britain, largely due to the films about them. We know far less about French heroines of the Resistance and Francelle Bradford White is seeking to put this right with her biography of her mother, Andrée Griotteray. She has based the book on conversations with her mother and uncle over many years and on Andrée’s diaries, using secondary sources for the historical background, which is very complicated.
The Griotterays were a prosperous bourgeois family, able to afford good food and clothes, to travel and to educate their children. Andrée was sent to England for a year when she was sixteen and her younger brother Alain spent a few months in Germany. When war broke out in 1939 Andrée was just nineteen and Alain seventeen. Andrée reflected that her own mother Yvonne, who was Belgian, had been the same age when living in occupied Brussels in 1914. What a sad generation, to have lived through two world wars!
Soon after the occupation, Andrée obtained a job in police headquarters in Paris, working in the passport department. She disliked working for an organisation which collaborated with the Wehrmacht (this is still so hard for the French to come to terms with) but the work offered an opportunity to play her part in resisting the Germans. From the start, she took great risks. She smuggled out blank identity cards, hoping their loss would go unnoticed. Alain founded an undercover newspaper, La France, which she secretly printed at work. She also kept a diary, in itself a dangerous thing to do. The diary is touching in its juxtaposition of war news with a young woman’s preoccupation with clothes, boyfriends and, as the war went on, the search for food. Whenever Andrée was able to have a good meal, she recorded it.
Andrée and Alain’s early adventures were mere gestures of defiance compared with what they got up to later. Aged only eighteen, Alain set up his own resistance group, named Orion after the château where it was based. His team gathered information about German activities and sent it to Algeria (at first in the so-called Free Zone), from where it could reach British and American Intelligence agencies. Andrée’s role was to be a courier or, as she preferred to say, a postman. It’s astonishing that she managed to get permission and passes for the number of journeys she made from Paris down to the south, but she did. She became an expert smuggler. Messages were sewn into the lining of her smart suitcase, money she sewed into a girdle and when Alain handed out cyanide pills in 1944, Andrée sewed hers into her bra. Fortunately she had no need to use her pill, even on the one occasion that she was arrested and interrogated but there’s no question that had she ever been caught out, she would have been tortured and executed. Orion was very well organised, with each member knowing as little as possible about the others; only two men were lost.
After the war, Andrée married an Englishman and raised her family in England. She spoke freely about her wartime activities but was always modest about them. She was thrilled to receive the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. She had to wait until 1995 to receive the Légion d’honneur; her contemporaries said that this was because women’s war work was never taken as seriously as that of men. At the ceremony, Alain Griotteray said:
‘Today, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary since the end of that war, I think back to the enormous risks I asked my sister to take on behalf of me and my group, risks which could so easily have led to her death many times at the hands of the Gestapo and the Nazis.’
Sadly, this brave woman has suffered for years from Alzheimer’s. All royalties from her daughter’s book will go to The Andrée Griotteray White Charitable Trust (Registered Charity No: 1157258), established in Andrée's name ‘to fund research into any form of Alzheimer's disease or dementia and to provide support for those suffering from it.’ For more information about the book and the charitable trust, see here.
Many thanks to the publishers, Elliott and Thompson, for sending me a copy of such an interesting book.