Obituary: Andre Dewavrin

Douglas Johnson
Saturday 02 January 1999 01:02

IT WAS good fortune that brought Captain Andre Dewavrin to St Stephen's House on the Victoria Embankment in June 1940. He had been temporarily stationed in Trentham Park and had heard vague talk of a French general who refused to accept the French armistice with Germany and who had announced his intention to carry on the war in the name of Free France. Once he had more precise information Dewavrin set off immediately for St Stephen's House and after getting lost several times presented himself to General de Gaulle.

De Gaulle interviewed him with a cold formality. Presumably he already knew quite a lot about this 29-year-old officer of the regular army, who had studied at the Ecole Polytechnique, lectured on fortifications at the military college of Saint Cyr before 1939, and who had served as an engineer in the ill-fated expedition to Norway where he had taken part in the first battle of Narvik. Once he learned that Dewavrin spoke English easily, he appointed him one of his staff officers.

The first interview did not need to be "glacial" as Dewavrin later described it. He had not come empty-handed. In spite of orders to the contrary he had succeeded in bringing back from Norway a number of French tanks and vehicles which he had deposited in the Southampton docks. These were, as he proudly wrote in his memoirs (2e Bureau, Londres and 10 Duke Street, Londres, both 1947, and Missions Secretes, 1951), almost the whole of the material then available to "Fighting France" in its earliest days.

In the summer of 1940 it was clear that the Germans were establishing powerful occupation forces in France, especially along the Channel coast. It was therefore essential that both the British and the leaders of Free France should be informed about what was happening. Undercover agents needed to be sent to France and establish centres of information and to communicate with London. In July the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under the leadership of Maurice Buckmaster. De Gaulle selected Dewavrin to set up a similar organisation, which came to be called the Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action (BCRA).

He quickly gathered around him some 60 men who, he thought, filled the requirements necessary for the dangerous tasks. Dewavrin, whilst encouraging their sense of adventure, emphasised the realities of their tasks. "Renseignements" meant spying, "Action" meant sabotage.

Just as the conspirators surrounding the Duc de Guise in 16th- century France concealed their identities by adopting the names of different chateaux, so Dewavrin's men adopted cover-names taken from the Paris metro. Dewavrin called himself Passy and afterwards was universally known as Colonel Passy.

He had the reputation of being single-minded and ruthless, never forgiving those who criticised him or let him down. Those who met him were struck by his baby face and misleadingly easy smile. Dressed in a dark suit, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella, he sometimes appeared too English to be true.

But whereas de Gaulle would listen in silence to what some Frenchman, newly arrived in England, had to say about France, Passy would interrupt them, suggest things, ask them to repeat themselves. He was always an inquisitor and most people who met him during these years remembered his piercing blue eyes, a sign of his determination.

With some invaluable assistants he succeeded in establishing a whole series of implantations in France that were centres of information and that could become focal points for future action and sabotage. But, apart from the inevitable difficulty of knowing who could be trusted, there was the discovery of existing groups, often amongst regular army units, that were anti-German and ready to fight against the Germans, but which were also opposed to de Gaulle and loyal to Petain. When men of the British SOE countered such groups, they did not experience the same embarrassment.

Relations between the SOE and the BCRA were very complicated. At the top, although Passy and Buckmaster had their difficult moments, when they discussed matters together as they frequently did - since their offices were close to each other - they usually agreed. But Passy needed British help since he was always short of manpower (although he recruited more helpers he never had more than 400) and required considerable assistance in a multitude of ways. Many British agents, like the British government itself, did not think that bringing de Gaulle to power in France was one of their war aims. There was intense suspicion of the Free French.

Sometimes this suspicion was political. There was concern, amongst both the French and the British, that Passy authorised important missions to men who had been members of the pre-war Fascist organisation known as La Cagoule. It was said that Passy himself had been a member of this group. This was so insistently said that General de Gaulle summoned Passy and asked him directly whether it was true; some resistance leaders in France refused to have anything to do with Passy, and the rumour was to follow him after the war. But he constantly denied it.

On 25 October 1941 Jean Moulin came to London and met General de Gaulle. Much was learned about the state of the Resistance in France and much was planned to unite the different movements under the control of Jean Moulin and the authority of de Gaulle. After the meeting Passy and Moulin attended a special parachute class and they became friends.

The important moment in the history of the unification of the resistance movements occurred in the early months of 1943. In February Passy joined up with the left-wing Pierre Brossolette, sometimes presented as the real hero of the Resistance, in northern France. Accompanied by Flight-Lieutenant F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, in six weeks they made a systematic survey of the situation and made Paris the capital of the Resistance.

Once the Liberation of France began Passy turned to combat. In August 1944 he parachuted to Brittany, near to Guincamp, and joined the Breton resistance. They captured the important part of Paimpol and took many German prisoners.

In 1945 with one job ended, de Gaulle expressed his admiration for Dewavrin (who in England had been awarded the DSO and MC) by putting him in charge of intelligence, in the Ministry of Defence. His position there became insecure once de Gaulle resigned in 1946, and he left the post.

But de Gaulle's successor listened readily to the story that he had provided a considerable amount of money for the launching of the newspaper France- Soir. For a time Dewavrin was imprisoned, accused of having misused office funds that had been destined for the Resistance. But he was released and nothing was ever proved.

From then he interested himself in business, particularly in the Banque Worms. He was involved in many controversies over events from 1940 to 1945, including a lively quarrel with the eminent British historian M.R.D. Foot (who had had a distinguished military career in the services concerned). Dewavrin did not agree with Foot's history of the SOE.

Andre Dewavrin also shocked many Gaullists when he praised Francois Mitterrand as a resistance leader and urged the French to vote for him in 1981.

Andre Lucien Charles Dewavrin (Colonel Passy), soldier and resistance fighter: born Paris 9 June 1911; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 20 December 1998.

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