French Resistance WWII Secret Landings in the Vaucluse
Tales of the French Resistance during World War II have an enduring appeal. The wooded paths and mountain plateaux in the Vaucluse made ideal terrain for the secret fight to liberate France, and clandestine airdrops of arms and agents by the British RAF are the stuff of legend around the Luberon valley.
A pride remains to this day in the achievements of fathers and grandfathers. In small villages, stories are still passed down in everyday conversation. The Resistance years are spoken about – to British, American and Canadian visitors in particular – with considerable pride and a sense of shared history.
I had heard these stories about secret landings for years, without ever being sure where exactly they had taken place. I finally found confirmation in the memoir We Landed by Moonlight written by one of the RAF’s finest Special Operations pilots, Group Captain Hugh Verity. The centre of operations was a makeshift landing strip code-named Spitfire, on a hidden plateau on the way to the great lavender fields of Sault. In order to disguise its length from the ever-vigilant Occupation authorities, a 200-yard long strip of lavender had been planted just over halfway down the ‘runway’ and, close to the end, a patch of potatoes.
The Spitfire landing field had been used successfully for some four weeks when, in August 1944, a Dakota was flown in carrying key French personnel just before the Allied landings on the south coast, the start of the military liberation. The plan was to drop the passengers and collect a group of escaping American airmen who had been on the run, helped and hidden by brave local people – thirty-one men in total.
The Dakota made the landing by moonlight, guided only by torches held by Resistance members on the ground. But with that number of passengers, the Dakota – the largest aircraft by far to use the strip – proved too heavy to take off again. The makeshift runway was too short. The undercarriage snagged on the bushy strip of lavender and lost speed. Before the pilots would try again, some of the US airmen had to disembark.
Promises were made to come back for them the following night, but it was too late. The botched operation had taken too long. The noise had carried on the night air. The Nazis and their Vichy enforcers, the Milice, were now aware of it and took brutal reprisals, including burning a nearby farmhouse and murdering its two occupants who had done nothing but close their ears and eyes to the rumble of a plane. The next night, the Dakota returned but there was no Resistance reception team waiting to signal it down.
This was the starting point for The Lavender Field, the mid-section of my novel The Sea Garden. It is a triptych novel that draws on several true stories as its inspiration. What links the three apparently unconnected stories is the theme of communication, or the lack of it: coded wireless messages; torch signals; the human senses, especially that of smell; information withheld; misinformation. The novel’s structure mirrors the secret connections between underground Resistance cells, where security is paramount and the best defence is limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization.
Though the main characters and stories in my book are all fictional, their actions are underpinned by real events. Much background information came from the work of the French poet René Char. In his secret wartime life, Char was a highly respected and successful Resistance leader, code-named Alexandre, based in the village of Céreste at the eastern end of the Luberon valley. The account by his friend Georges-Louis Roux, La Nuit d’Alexandre, is full of poignant local detail.
In the present day, no indications remain of the drama that took place on Spitfire field, but a hunt for its setting and exact location has a certain satisfaction, even so. It sits on the Albion Plateau: south of Sault, north of St Saturnin-lès-Apt and west of St Christol.
The village of St Christol is quiet and shuttered. Like so many hill villages in Provence, it is a place of narrow streets. You can’t help but wonder how many people looked up furtively at its central clock on a night of vital activity. Not far outside the village are little-used roads and fields that are relatively flat. Lavender now fully covers many of them. The atmosphere is quiet and, even now, the terrain is off the beaten track.
The actual field is known as Champ Long (Long Field) to the locals, and the exact coordinates for a walk to find it from the small village of St Jean de Durfort can be found in this lavishly illustrated guide I’ve found online: Balades dans les lavandes. There is some very good information about the wartime operations, too, including verses by René Char, the lynchpin of the Vaucluse Resistance, page 26 onwards.
If you don’t read French, here is another guide in English from the En Provence website, though it only mentions Champ Long in passing, and gives no indication of its fascinating history.
Of the very many books I read while researching The Sea Garden, these are the ones I found most illuminating, and recommend without hesitation to anyone who would like to know more about the true stories that lie behind the fiction.
Books on the Resistance Movement in the Vaucluse
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We Landed by Moonlight, Hugh Verity (revised edition, Crécy Publishing, 2000)
The Resistance, Matthew Cobb (Pocket Books, 2009)
Déricourt, The Chequered Spy, Jean Overton Fuller (Michael Russell, 1989)
French Resistance in Sussex, Barbara Bertram (Barnworks Publishing, 1995)
The Death of Jean Moulin, Biography of a Ghost, Patrick Marnham (John Murray, 2000)
La nuit d’Alexandre: René Char, l’ami et le résistant, Georges-Louis Roux (Grasset, 2003)
Feuillets d’Hypnos, René Char (Folioplus, 2007)
René Char, Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas (New Directions, 1992)
The Sea Garden, Deborah Lawrenson (HarperCollins USA and Orion UK, 2014)