Obituary: General Andre Devigny

Douglas Johnson
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:50

THE NAME of Devigny was for a time the best known of any hero of the French Resistance. In April 1943 Andre Devigny was arrested by the Germans and taken to Lyons where he was imprisoned in Fort Montluc. There he was tortured by the infamous Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, and his assistants. He resisted their torture and gave no secrets away concerning the Resistance. But he began a series of attempted escapes from the prison, none of which were successful. After each failed escape, Devigny was punished. Finally on 20 August 1943 a German military court sentenced him to death. He was due to be executed on 28 August. He escaped three days before that date, on 25 August.

In 1956, when he was serving in Algeria, Devigny wrote his account of how he, a condemned man, had escaped from the death penalty. The writer- director Robert Bresson seized the opportunity of making a film out of the book, keeping the same title, Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe. This proved to be not only an exciting film, but, more than this, an achievement.

Truffaut described it as being the most decisive film of the last 10 years. Not using professional actors, Bresson showed Devigny and a younger companion in all the details of their escape: using a pin to unlock their handcuffs, making a spoon into an effective tool, patiently taking a lock to pieces. The close-ups of hands and faces were accompanied by sonorous prison sounds - the jingle of keys, locks being turned, steps getting closer. The film won a prize at the Cannes festival, and items from the prison have been put in the resistance museum in Glieres, as a souvenir of the episode.

Apart from the matter of the film, Devigny's wartime experience was extensive and dramatic. Having started life as a schoolteacher, he joined the army and was trained as an infantry and light tank officer just before the outbreak of war. He played a full part in the fighting of 1940 and was mentioned four times in despatches. In June he was badly wounded and this prevented him from joining General de Gaulle in London.

Transferred to the Lyons region, Devigny took part in the growing resistance to the Germans which characterised many army officers at this time. He used the code-name Valentin, and since many of his fellow-officers, unlike him, were clear in their hostility to the Germans but uncertain as to their attitude towards de Gaulle, Devigny found himself moving into areas where the British Special Overseas Executive were active. It was under their control that he spent some time in Spanish Morocco co-ordinating information about German movements and intentions.

In October 1942 Devigny became a member of a new resistance group (at about the time when the name "Resistance" had gained the right to its capital "R"). This was the network "Gilbert", a Christian name of Colonel Groussard, formerly the deputy commander of the military school of Saint Cyr, who had established himself in Switzerland from where he commanded an organisation that stretched, via Lyons, the "capital" of the Resistance, to Toulouse and south-eastern France.

Devigny was to become one of the three commanders of this organisation, along with Groussard and Jean Cambus, a headmaster in Lyons. Their activities were varied. They helped refugees to gain access to Switzerland, they sent information by radio, and via the British vice-consul in Geneva, Victor Farrell, they organised the sabotage of German war material.

Devigny, who had been born in the department of the Haute-Savoie, made his base at Annemasse, a small town near the Swiss frontier. There a young woman of Belgian origin, Edmee Deletraz, had already helped two British airmen and a number of Jews to cross into Switzerland. Devigny recruited her and she was a valuable member of the group.

However, in April 1943, an Alsatian who had been working at the powder factory at Toulouse when the Gilbert network sabotaged it, decided to take his revenge. Robert Moog, using a number of false names, infiltrated the network and betrayed several members to the Germans. These included Edmee Deletraz, whom he obliged to work for the Gestapo. It was after she had encountered Devigny on the railway station at Annemasse that he was arrested and sent to Montluc. Subsequently she was suspected of being the source of information that led the Germans to capture Jean Moulin. Devigny always rejected this accusation and fiercely defended her.

After his escape from Montluc, Devigny was captured again and escaped again. The Germans took their revenge by arresting two of his cousins and sending them to the death camps. After spending some time in Switzerland and Spain (where he was again imprisoned and again escaped), Devigny rejoined the French army and took part in the liberation of Alsace. In December 1945 he was made a Companion of the Liberation with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

He was appointed to intelligence work, mainly concerned with the detail of disbanding units of Fighting France and of the Resistance. In this work he became associated with several ministers and he was transferred to a newly created counter-espionage organisation. He served in Algeria but in 1964 he was recalled to Paris to conduct a secret reorganisation of the military.

Certain officers, often in contact with the police, were increasingly hostile to the government and to the administration. The independence of Algeria appeared to be the first step in the decline of France. The kidnapping and death of the Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka (29 October 1965) was a manifestation of this discontent, since both police and military units had acted secretly and illegally in this action.

The widespread intelligence reports suggesting that the former prime minister and his wife were involved in the murder of the bodyguard to the film star Alain Delon, in September 1968, were also indicative of this conspiratorial atmosphere. Devigny conducted a purge of suspect officers and presided over courts-martial.

In 1970 Pompidou, now President of the Republic, appointed Alexandre de Marenches as his head of the intelligence services. He immediately dismissed General Jacquier, Devigny's superior. Devigny therefore resigned and left the army in 1971 with the rank of general.

In addition to numerous French and Belgian decorations, General Devigny was awarded the British Military Cross.

Andre Devigny, soldier: born Habere-Lullin, France 25 May 1916; married (two sons, two daughters); died Hauteville-sur-Fier, France 12 February 1999.

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