Ernest Renggli: Wartime friend to RAF aircrew shot down in Burgundy

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The Independent Online

Ernest Renggli, a Swiss agricultural labourer, was working on a small farm in northern Burgundy at the outbreak of war. Working at first on his own, and later as part of a wide local resistance network, he became a key player in the rescue, shelter and escape of British airmen shot down in his area.

He found them safe houses, sheltered several at the farm where he lived, and arranged for their movement on through the network along an overland route home via Switzerland, or for them to be picked up by air at night. Honoured by the RAF Escaping Society, he received a birthday card from them every year until it was disbanded in 1995, with its surviving members by then very old.

His story goes some small way to counter the bleak picture of France under the German occupation left by the film Le Chagrin et la Pitié. This was a narrative of passive acceptance and even rampant collaboration. But Renggli and his colleagues, at the grass roots level, showed a heroism and commitment in response to the fall of France that saved the lives of many, of several nations. He first became involved on 15 June 1940, when two bedraggled French cavalry soldiers, fleeing south from the invaders, came to the farm where he was working and asked for water for their horses. Having put the horses in the stable, and as the Germans arrived, he led the fugitives out of a back window and away to safety in the hills. On returning to the farm he was immediately arrested on the assumption that he was one of the cavalrymen. He managed to persuade the German soldiers that he was a farm worker by showing them his Swiss passport.

He soon started more active resistance, being the first to sabotage a munitions train in that part of France. Having no explosives at that time, he obtained the special key to undo the rails from a level crossing keeper. At night, he unlocked the points, and waited and watched as the train left the rails. Furious at this attack the Germans suspected the railwayman, whose baby they took away in frustration at his silence. After a long hunt, the wife found the infant next day, still alive among bushes where it had been thrown some distance from her home.

Renggli then gradually became involved further in resistance activity, such as the falsification of papers and the training of young recruits to the movement. He naturally expected to be detected before long, so that when he saw, through his kitchen window, two German soldiers in the yard of the farm where he was working, he put his hand on the grenade he kept in his pocket and began to pull out its safety pin thinking, as he reported, "s'ils m'arrêtent, je ne partirai pas tout seul" ("If they arrest me, I'll not go alone"). To his surprise, after knocking at the door, one of the soldiers merely demanded eggs. So, one hand still on the grenade in his pocket, with the other Renggli handed them the three eggs in a basket on his kitchen table, and the soldiers departed happily.

Later in the war, Renggli became a key player in the recuperation, storage and distribution of munitions parachuted in by RAF planes for the resistance. This was always a risky enterprise, and he made extensive use of his ox cart, which would be piled with huge loads of straw to conceal the weapons hidden within it. Having, with their agreement, filled many of his neighbours' drained water cisterns with arms, he needed yet more space, so later drops were carried up ladders and stored high in the tower of the little church at Layer-sur-Roche, the tiny village which he was living. Catholic Germans used to attend services in that church, unaware of the cache aloft, which remained safe there for later use.

Towards the end of the war the men of the Maquis became bolder, and indeed many became suddenly keen to join them. At this time Renggli liberated three Senegalese prisoners of war who were working for the occupiers. Just as he had freed them an unaccompanied German captain unexpectedly drove up in his car. Renggli and the Senegalese immediately disarmed him, and he bundled him into the lorry with the Senegalese, as their prisoner, to astonishment all round at the sudden reversal of roles. Later, the Senegalese, having been armed from the supplies stored at Layer-sur-Roche, joined the Maquis in the Châtillonais forest.

Renggli's survival against the odds – he was wounded several times – may well have been helped by how much and how widely he was liked as a person. It was characteristic of him that, however violently he objected to the occupation, he never hated Germans as individuals. After the war he became a timber merchant, trading in trees from the Châtillonais forest he had known so well as a Maquisard. He was awarded several French military honours, the latest being the Medaille Militaire in 2005, but he was the most pleased of all to be given French citizenship in 1997.

His much loved wife died a few years ago. He leaves their son, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Ernest Renggli (known to family and friends as Nénesse), resistance fighter, sergent chef of the Forces Françaises Interieur: born Switzerland 1915; died Châtillon-sur-Seine, Cote d'Or, France 5 July 2009.