Jacques Brunet: French Resistance fighter who was captured and tortured by the Gestapo and survived Buchenwald camp

The disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942 changed the horticulturalist's life

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The Independent Online

Jacques Brunet was a 20-year-old horticulturalist in his home town of Dieppe during the disastrous allied raid on the Normandy harbour town on 19 August 1942. The six-hour battle cost more than 1,100 allied lives, mostly Canadians but also British and American. With the war going badly, Winston Churchill had ordered Operation Jubilee to raise allied morale but the crushing defeat and retreat set the allies back almost two years until D-Day 1944. It also changed Brunet’s life.

When the beach battle, RAF and Luftwaffe dogfights and Royal Navy gunfire subsided, Brunet and his family emerged to carnage. There were hundreds of bodies on the beaches, burning allied Churchill tanks and smouldering debris of Spitfires and Luftwaffe fighter planes. On one 200-yard stretch of pebble beach, at Puys just east of their home, the Brunet family saw 200 bodies of Canadian troops. Among the bodies in Dieppe was that of US Army Ranger Lt Edward Loustalot, the first American killed on land in wartime Europe. Forty-eight of Brunet’s fellow Dieppois civilians had also died.

Since the Nazi occupation of his country in 1940 Brunet, who was born in Dieppe in 1921, had been quietly aiding the resistance while working in his family’s horticultural business. Moving around relatively freely to sell plants and bushes, he had informed the armed resistance of German movements, military installations, fuel depots and listening posts in his area, including artillery pieces at Dieppe harbour, anti-aircraft batteries and machine-gun positions that could threaten any allied invasion. He was, according to citations for various Resistance medals, “causant aux Allemands tout le préjudice possible” – colloquially translatable as “harassing the Germans as much as possible”.

After the raid, he signed up with the Front Patriotique de la Jeunesse (FPJ), the Youth Patriotic Front, distributing underground newspapers and tracts denouncing the Nazi occupiers, the Vichy régime and local French collaborators. It was a dangerous job: the two founders of one of the clandestine news sheets, the communist L’Avenir Normand [Future of Normandy], had recently been rounded up by the Nazis; Russian-born French Jewish philosopher Valentin Feldman was put before a firing squad in a Paris suburb while Marie-Térèse Fainstein was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp (she survived and died in 2013).

Brunet soon found himself as a maquis with the socialist-led Libération Nord resistance movement (best known in France simply as Libé-Nord), one of the eight movements to make up the National Council of the Resistance led by the London-exiled General de Gaulle. Libé-Nord was headed by Christian Pineau, who went on to be a postwar French finance minister, foreign minister and, for two days, prime minister.

For almost two years Brunet passed on coded messages from the BBC in London, some of them from de Gaulle, and helped rescue and shelter downed allied airmen and organise escape routes. On 26 June 1944, barely three weeks after the D-Day landings down the Normandy coast, he was helping distract the Nazis when he was arrested by the Gestapo in Janval, outside Dieppe.

He was tortured at the Nazi Kommandantur on the Rue Gambetta in Dieppe, transferred to the Bonne Nouvelle [Good News] prison in Rouen and deported with other résistants to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, where the inmates were mostly Jews, the mentally ill, the disabled and homosexuals, but also included a number of British prisoners of war. 

Like most Buchenwald inmates, Brunet was part of a labour Kommando taken every day to the armaments factories in the Ruhr Valley, where the POWs were forced to work. Moved to the Witten-Annen sub-camp of Buchenwald, he was assigned to the local gare de triage, a railway marshalling yard which, being vital to the Nazis, was constantly bombarded by the RAF. According to Brunet, the vast majority of his labour Kommando, hundreds of them, were killed in allied raids on the yard.

Brunet witnessed – or at least heard – Buchenwald’s infamous “musical hangings”; the Nazis would take inmates beyond the gates to hang them from a neighbouring forest. The “music” was their screaming.

His Nazi guards had picked out Brunet and other résistants for a forced march as American troops closed in on Buchenwald. On 11 April 1945, the camp inmates, via radio interceptions, camp commandants’ unease and the noise of warfare closing in, attacked the remaining Nazi guards. Though starved and emaciated, the inmates stormed the watchtowers and seized control of much of the camp. Later that day a tank battalion of the US 6th Armored Division ploughed through the camp gates, finding 21,000 inmates. Brunet recalled that the Nazis had given them a daily diet of 400 calories. He weighed less than six and a half stone.

His daughter Elisabeth said that he never talked about his wartime experiences until the mid-1990s, after she came across some of his camp diaries.

In 1946 Brunet married a fellow Libé Nord resistance fighter, Jeannine Boyard, and returned to the family business, which continues to this day in the Dieppe area, including the popular Jardiland (Gardenland) garden centre and tourist attraction. Brunet was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1971, upgraded in July this year to Officer.  

Although D-Day is more famous, the date 19 August 1942 is engraved in the memories of Dieppois, Canadians, many British soldiers, US Rangers and their relatives. The vast majority of invading troops were Canadian, many of them Acadians, descendants of 17th Century French colonial settlers in Canada. Although militarily it was a disaster, the raid on Dieppe, with the lessons it taught the Allies before D-Day, is considered by many as the first step on the path to freedom for Europe.

Jacques Brunet is survived by his sons Jean-Jacques and Michel, daughter Elisabeth, grandchildren and great grandchildren, his sister Denise and his companion Jacqueline Sagot.

Jacques Brunet, horticulturalist, Resistance fighter and death camp survivor: born Dieppe 27 December 1921; married 1946 Jeannine Boyard (one daughter, two sons); died Dieppe 14 August 2015.