Count Jacques le Bel de Penguilly: Aristocrat and one of the last members of the ‘Jedburgh’ Allied special forces


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Count Jacques le Bel de Penguilly was one of the last surviving French members of the “Jeds” – allied special forces who parachuted behind enemy lines as part of Operation Jedburgh in support of the Normandy landings in 1944. Their mission, working in three-man teams, was to liaise between local resistance groups, to advise, support and arm them and, when advisable, lead them.

Each Jedburgh team was made up of a British or American officer, a non-commissioned wireless operator (usually British or American) and an officer from the target country – France, the Netherlands or Belgium. Jacques le Bel de Penguilly, from one of France’s oldest families of chevaliers, was one of the latter, having escaped the Nazi invasion of his country to link up with fellow patriots in England.

British and French intelligence agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had parachuted into France long before the Normandy landings but, with D-Day looming, the SOE reluctantly accepted that it needed not only more funds but aircraft, personnel and arms from its American allies. As D-Day approached, Prime Minister Churchill and the SOE also  realised they needed not just more intelligence but increased physical harassment of the Germans – sabotage, blowing up railway lines and roads – to divert and slow down enemy movement towards Normandy.

Operation Jedburgh was a tripartite covert operation by the SOE, the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and the Free French intelligence service, the BCRA (Bureau Central de Renseignement et d’Action, set up by De Gaulle), from which Le Bel was recruited. The “shadow war” played a major role in helping the allies liberate France and push on to Berlin, and the “Jeds” are now widely seen as precursors of modern-day Special Forces.  Le Bel was believed to be one of the last survivors of the 82 French “Jeds”.

The 100 or so three-man teams of Operation Jedburgh (apparently named at random after the Scottish border town),  guided local maquisards and called in weapons and ammunition drops, a key factor in slowing German attempts to get their Panzers to defend Normandy, and later in protecting the flanks of General George S Patton’s US 3rd Army as it pushed through France.

But the “Jeds” were involved not just in resistance and sabotage. Le Bel’s three-man Jedburgh Group, codenamed “James”, joined maquisards in direct combat and helped drive the Germans from several towns before the liberation of Paris. Group James comprised Le Bel, US paratrooper Lieutenant John K “Jack” Singlaub (later head of US Special Forces in Vietnam)  and wireless operator US army sergeant Anthony Denneau.

The two Americans had no idea Le Bel was an old French aristocrat and thought his real name was Dominique Leb, the nom de guerre he had been using within French intelligence. In any case, the three ended up with new Jedburgh codenames for radio traffic – Le Bel was “Michigan,” Singlaub “Mississippi” and Denneau “Massachusetts”. They knew if they were captured they would be executed by the Gestapo under Hitler’s “Command Order”. If successful, they were unlikely to receive recognition.

Fighting their way east along Route Nationale 89 along with local maquisards in mid-August 1944, Group James helped liberate the south-central French towns of Brive-la-Gaillarde, Tulle, Egletons and Ussel in the Central Massif, several days before the liberation of Paris. Le Bel, using a heavy machine-gun, personally shot down a low-flying Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber, according to Singlaub, who is now 91 years old. The liberation of Brive-la-Gaillarde on 15 August 1944 is often considered the first liberation of a French town by the French themselves.

Jacques le Bel, Count of Penguilly, born in Brittany in1919, was from one of France’s oldest families of chevaliers, dating back to the Middle Ages and of Celtic origin. After leaving school, he joined his family’s import-export business but his family were passionate anti-Nazis and when the Germans threatened his country, he enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the French army.

After the German invasion he found his way to London to join the resistance led by Charles de Gaulle. Recruited by the BCRA, the Free French intelligence service, he was sent for commando training at Milton Hall, a country house and estate outside Peterborough requisitioned from the Fitzwilliam family. After intense commando training, including parachuting and hand-to-hand combat instructed by the legendary Major Eric Sykes (of the famous double-edged Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger), Le Bel was “married” to the Americans Singlaub and Denneau as Jedburgh Team James in the run-up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.

The first Jedburgh team, codenamed Hugh, was parachuted into France on 5 June 1944, the eve of D-Day, but Le Bel’s team was delayed after Singlaub had to have his appendix removed. Team James finally got their turn on the night of 10-11 August 1944, specifically to harass the enemy before Operation Dragoon, the allied invasion of southern France scheduled for a few days later.

Each armed with a 9mm Llama automatic pistol and a folding-stock U.S. Army M-2 carbine – Denneau also carried a special B2 radio which became known as the “Jed Set” – they took off from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire aboard an RAF 190 Squadron Short Stirling Mk 1V bomber. With them were a team of Free French paratroopers who had been trained by the fledgling British SAS.

The group parachuted into the Corrèze département in France’s Massif Central, landing in a valley near the village of Fonfreyde before dawn on 11 August with the help of bonfires lit by farmers. “The farmer’s daughter brought us a mushroom omelette made with fresh eggs,” Singlaub, now 91 years old, who was shot in the face by a German sniper soon after landing, told The Independent.

Fighting their way east along Route Nationale 89 with local maquisards, Group James helped liberate Brive-la-Gaillarde and other towns on the  highway. “Jacques was an inspiration to the young maquisards we were leading,” Singlaub said. With Le Bel at the head of the local resistance, the liberation of Brive-la-Gaillarde on 15 August 1944  is often considered the first liberation of a French town by the French themselves.

In early 1945, Le Bel was parachuted back to France and ordered to get to the German-occupied Austrian Tyrol via Switzerland, which he did partly by bicycle with his automatic rifle in his picnic basket. That May he had the pleasure of being the first Frenchman to liberate many of his compatriots including, in Niederdorf, Léon Blum, a pre-war French Prime Minister who had been rounded up by the Gestapo because he was Jewish and had spent time in the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. Blum was said to have been astounded and elated at seeing a Frenchman among his liberators.

“Jacques was tall, lean and alert in appearance,” Singlaub said. “He was a patriotic Frenchman without any political ambitions beyond getting the German invaders out of his homeland.”

After the war, Count Le Bel returned to the import-export business, a quiet man who never spoke of his wartime experiences. He was, however, named an Officer of the Legion of Honour and was given the Croix de Guerre and the US Medal of Freedom, established by wartime President Harry S Truman to honour those who aided the US during war. The Count died in his historic Chateau de la Tiemblais in Saint-Samson-sur-Rance, Britanny, just south of St Malo. 

Count Jacques le Bel de Penguilly, Resistance fighter and businessman; born Saint-Lormel, France, 2 September 1919: unmarried: died Saint-Samson-sur-Rance, France,  16 October 2012.