The slight, dark-haired girl with her wireless set on the front line in 1944 had got there only by determination, unswerving since her convent schooldays, to fight the Nazis. Not even a hail of machine-gun fire from the pocket of German resistance around La Rochelle as the Allies advanced could shake her. Michele de Ducla was a member of General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and had been dropped by parachute in Rochefort on the Charente-Maritime Atlantic coast. It would be her job to liaise between US army units and French resistance networks. She did it from the November after D-Day until the German surrender.
“She showed the greatest contempt for danger, repeatedly fulfilling her duties under fire during operations against the enemy pockets along the Atlantic coast”, a commendation declares. “A first-class team player, she was noted particularly for her initiative, drive and high spirits.” She had served as Bureau Chief and carried a pass in the name of de Gaulle’s provisional government, allowing her authority even when in civilian clothes and licensing her to carry a revolver .
The commendation adds that the establishment of links between the US secret services and the French intelligence service owed much to her good judgement and perfect English. De Ducla was educated at the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square in London, and at the age of 18, when the Germans invaded her native France, had found herself cut off from her parents, brother Hubert and sister Janine on the other side of the Channel.
Her immediate offer of service with de Gaulle’s Free French Forces was spurned because of her youth, but she refused to give up. Though only 5ft 1in tall, she had an assertive personality – deemed by her family too boisterous and in need of the convent’s strict discipline – and had demonstrated leadership in the Girl Guides, having been made chief guide of all the French Girl Guides in London. Her local Guides unit was the same to which Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, belonged.
Recognition of her qualities by de Gaulle’s forces came only in 1942, when she was 20. She was sent for special forces training in parachuting, armed combat, and wireless telegraphy.
Even before her mission to France two events that would affect the rest of her life had occurred: one was her father Paul’s death while fleeing Paris in 1940, about which she would not find out until 1945; the other was meeting, at special forces school STS 52 at Thame Park in Oxfordshire, her future husband, RAF officer and SOE and Jedburghs agent, Arthur Breen.
The pair were at Thame to learn Morse code wireless telegraphy, and she fell in love, she recalled, with Breen in his blue silk shirt, the same that he had been wearing when he had escaped from France. Both would have five years to wait, and perilous assignments to accomplish, before fate reunited them, passing one another by chance in a street near the Opera in Paris, and they decided to marry.
By that time she had been awarded the US Bronze Star and found her family again – her mother survived the war and was living in Biarritz. The family came from Pessac, near Bordeaux. They were neither rich nor aristocratic, despite the unusual name; the second element – “de Ducla” – is believed to be a reference to the Scots Earl of Douglas who fought with the French in the Hundred Years’ War.
After parachuting into France in 1944 as a wireless operator Breen had gone on to fight the Japanese in Burma. In France he had dodged from house to house to avoid detection, and even worked undercover as a cook for the Gestapo, whose conversations he reported to the Allies. In Burma he had fought the Japanese under harrowing conditions, and when he returned weighed less than six stone.
The shadow of war still hung over the couple – their wedding, at the church of Saint Charles in Biarritz, took place in such a hurry at the height of the crisis of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, that no photographs were arranged. Their desire never to be separated again caused de Ducla to renounce her French citizenship – an act that scandalised her family, the mayor of Biarritz (Guy Petit, the future French politician), and General de Gaulle himself. She did it because she and Breen were each still reservists in their own country’s armed forces, and she wished to be answerable to the same call to action, should it come, as his.
They were to see more action together, in the unrest that accompanied the end of France’s colonial empire in Indochina. Breen joined Assurances Generales de France and was made its man in Saigon, acting also as honorary consul for several countries, including Britain.
The couple entertained with bridge parties; she used big American cars and would attend appointments with Japanese political or commercial delegations on her own when Breen, still deeply affected by his war experiences, could not face meeting them. They stayed for 14 years, through the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, until they quit in 1962, having three times narrowly escaped being killed.
Once their dogs were poisoned, allowing intruders to creep on to their balcony: they kept Groenedael Belgian shepherds, and at least one is remembered to have died. Grabbing the revolvers they each kept under their pillows, the couple fired through the windows.
Another time only the need to nurse their son, who was unwell, kept them from a party at a plantation outside the city at which the Viet Cong blew up and killed all 40 guests except for one nanny and her two small charges, who had hidden in a cellar. After a grenade was thrown at their car they decided to return to Europe for the children’s sake.
They lived in Milan, Paris, and finally Dallington, East Sussex. Breen died in 1986. Their eldest son, Michael, died of an aneurysm, in 2004. De Ducla revealed her “silent killing” skills to her grandchildren after a burglary that took place when she was in her late 70s. She told them her special forces tutors had advised getting behind the victim, encircling his neck, and stabbing under the ribs. This she had never actually been obliged to do, even in war; but she told police she was quite unconcerned about the burglar, as had she noticed him she could have swiftly finished him off.
Claude Michele Suzanne Wattebled de Ducla, Free French agent: born Pessac, Gironde, France 13 February 1922; married 1948 Arthur Breen (died 1986; one daughter, two sons, and one son deceased); died, Dallington, East Sussex 14 February 2015.
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