Obituary: Michel Hollard

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The Independent Online
Michel Hollard, engineer and wartime resister: born 1898; married; died 18 July 1993.

MICHEL HOLLARD helped to save London from the worst of the buzz- bombs bombardment by transmitting information to Britain on the siting of V1 flying bombs during the Second World War.

Hollard was born in 1898, the son of a scientist. He ran away from home at 16 to join the French army fighting the German invasion of 1914, became an infantry officer, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for valour on the battlefield. It was not the last time he showed his courage.

Between the world wars he qualified as an engineer, married, and became the father of three children. He tried to rejoin the army in 1939, but was turned down as too old, and sent to an armaments factory instead. He resigned from it when it started to work with the Germans, under Petain's Vichy government after the French defeat. He got a job making motor-car engines that ran on wood gas - in German-occupied France there was hardly any petrol for civilian traffic.

The wood gas came from charcoal from eastern France, to which Hollard could get a permit to travel. He began collecting intelligence about the German armed forces, and in 1941, on a journey to see about charcoal, slipped through the forbidden frontier zone into Switzerland. He turned up at the British legation in Berne, filthy dirty and with a sole missing from one shoe. Brigadier Cartwright, the military attache, told him coldly that the legation did not deal with spies, and showed him the door.

Hollard persevered; he was able to indicate English friends who would vouch for his integrity. A month later he made touch with the secret services' man in Switzerland, who told him that - on the contrary - the British would be glad to have him as a secret agent, and explained on what points he should report. Altogether he crossed the frontier into Switzerland and out again, clandestinely, 48 times; bringing with him every time secret news of interest and importance.

In the summer of 1943 his work acquired a new edge. The Germans started building heavily camouflaged sites, most of them in wooded areas, in northern France. Hollard went to have a look at one, picked up a wheelbarrow outside it, wheeled it in, and had a good look round. He put a friend on to one of the sites, who copied all the working drawings, which Hollard took to Switzerland. Each of the sites contained a strip of concrete; all the strips of concrete pointed at London. They were in fact the launching pads for Hitler's first revenge weapon, the V1 pilotless aircraft, what would nowadays be called a cruise missile - like Saddam Hussein's Scuds. RV Jones, then the secret services' scientific adviser, found Hollard's information priceless; especially when the agent himself measured a V1 piece by piece as it lay in a railway goods yard at Auffay, between Dieppe and Beauvais.

Hollard liked, when he could, to see things for himself; he had a capacious memory as well as an engineer's training, never used the telephone, nor the post, nor wireless. But he was not proof against treachery. His small circuit was broken into by a double agent. He was arrested with three friends at a cafe in Paris in February 1944. Under interrogation he said nothing he should not; so he was put to torture. He was repeatedly plunged into cold water until he had all but drowned, brought round, and re-questioned: he still did not break. So he was packed off to a German concentration camp; even that he survived. For he was a devout Protestant Christian, prepared to accept whatever disasters befell him as the will of God. On liberation he went back to his family, and spent the rest of his life working as an engineer and saying his prayers.

He was received into the Legion of Honour and the Distinguished Service Order. In 1960 George Martelli's book Agent Extraordinary put Hollard's remarkable secret career in front of the English-speaking public; Hollard, a modest man, did not care to advertise himself, and always remembered the score of colleagues in his network of spies who did not survive German torture.