Tuesday, March 9, 2010

From Housewife to French Resistance Hero, Berthe Fraser

Today I thought that I too should do a posting about a heroic woman as a complement to “Man With the Muckrake’s” posting noting the World marking International Women’s Day. As I am a father with two daughters, I am posting this in honor to them.

In the dark days of WWII in Nazi occupied France, there was a group of valiant and daring individuals known as the French Resistance. They dared to defy the vice-grip of Nazi Germany (as well as the French collaborators) using stealth, reconnaissance, infiltration, and whatever means necessary to save their beloved country and fellow man from destruction. Most of these brave souls were subject to betrayal, unspeakable torture, or death. One of these members of the French Resistance appeared to be an ordinary housewife, by the name of Mrs. Berthe Fraser, but Berthe Fraser was anything but ordinary.

Mrs. Fraser’s story begins with her birth in 1894 as Berthe Emilie Vicogne. She married an Englishman and thus became a British subject. When the rumblings of WWII hit France, Berthe Fraser was going about her domestic life in her hometown of Arras, France, all the while organizing an underground network that saved the lives of countless English agents and pilots. Mrs. Fraser was the head of a great movement, which worried the Germans stupid. She was the hub of this big wheel. Her first work was in 1940 when there were hundreds of British soldiers roaming around France. She sent dozens of British soldiers by devious means to the coast where they were smuggled to England.

Berthe Fraser had been betrayed twice but was an unshakable woman for whom I have the utmost awe and respect.

In 1941, someone betrayed Berthe, and she was arrested by the Gestapo. She spent 15 months in a Belgian prison, and was released in December 1942. Berthe immediately jumped back into the work of fighting Hitler’s campaign of death and terror. No sooner had she got out than Berthe immediately contacted the officers sent into France from England, and embarked on a new phase of anti–Nazi activity, helping the Allies by supplying English agents with a complete support network of Resistance fighters. She looked after the foreigners, providing them with shelter, transport, and safe hiding places where they could engage in their clandestine missions. She arranged liaisons, transmitted vital messages, and took on the very dangerous role of courier, traveling far and wide by car, sometimes on foot, laden with documents, arms, and occasionally the dynamite required for sabotage operations.

Somehow she managed to evade discovery, collecting the supplies of weapons that were dropped by night at secret locations by British planes, hiding the vital goods in safe houses where they could only be released on presenting her signature.

Berthe had to go to great lengths to protect her English charges. Once, entrusted with the care of the well–known English agent Wing Commander Yeo–Thomas, known as “The White Rabbit,” she arranged a funeral cortege to transport the senior officer, hidden inside the hearse.

Berthe was betrayed again in 1944, unbelievably by one of the very English agents whose life she saved. She spent six months in solitary confinement at Loos where she was tortured every day. She was stripped and flogged in front of Nazi troops and condemned to death. Never did she betray her friends in the Resistance or the English army. How many lives she saved through her own afflictions will never be known.
When the Allies stormed the prison on September 1, 1944, Berthe Fraser was just hanging onto life, and she is reported to have said, “Thank you boys, you are just in time.”

She suffered extreme torture during her second capture, and Berthe Fraser died in 1956, her health never restored. Although most have never heard of Berthe Fraser but I feel that her heroic efforts were a major factor of the Allies winning the war.


  1. Excellent story, Engineer, and a learning experience for me, personally, as I never knew of Berthe Frase before your posting. I was struck [in the heart] on reading that TWICE she was betrayed to the Nazis. What on earth could the betrayer[s] be thinking to do such a thing? What motivates an individual to tell the dastardly occupying Nazis that a woman may be working against them? Beats the hell out of me how that could happen.

    Were I in Berthe Frase's place, I'd be at her side, working hard for my people, working to rid my land of scum like those!

    Thanks for the historical memory-jogging post, Engineer!

  2. Great story. There were a lot of women who played a heroic role in the French Resistance.It's kind of strange living here and talking to people who were alive during the war. We have casually tried to find out who did what around here during the war. I am beginning to suspect that the property I now own was owned by a family who prospered.
    There was a lot of resistance and the chateau in Badefols was a center. The family members whpo were caught were rounded up and sent to concentration camps near the end of the war.
    They were betrayed. The Germans tried to destroy the 11th century chateau and set fire to it. It burned on the inside for 3 days, but the building remains, restored now.
    My neighbor told me the story of when it was burned....he was a small boy, his father was mayor.
    He said that everyone stopped because they heard a strange popping noise coming from the tower...
    It was the slate tiles on the roof exploding from the heat...then the roof erupted in a column of flame. the war traumatized everyone and people don't speak of it too much, but scores with collaborators were settled, privately over the years.
    Here in the country, people don't talk.

  3. Hello Microdot,
    Great addition to the piece. I was hoping that you would be able to pass on more information from the local perspective.

    Maybe you can do a posting on the resistance and retribution to the collaborators. I would love to hear more.

  4. The family who owned the property I live on were collaboratoirs, but on a small level. There was a lot of activity around here at the end of the war as the German SS pushed upwards to meet the Allied Invasion. That's when the resistance really kicked in with a number of spectacular train wrecks and British agents parachuted in to organize small groups.
    For the most part the Resistance was led by the Communists but many people from many different political persuasions were part of it.
    The Milice, the locals who collaborated as militant bands were especially brutal.
    The German SS took reprisals to try to stop intimidate the resistance. The burning of the Chateau here was a small one.
    The payback for collaborators was private. The peasant mentality is one of traditional distrust of police and the government. People don't talk. Sometimes it was a "hunting accident" 30 years later. A house fire.
    I find Vichy money buried all over the place here. I have quite a collection as if someone was trying to dispose of all the evidence.

    This was the most prosperous modern farm before the war. The family prospered selling gas from their private tank which mysteriously was always full. After the war, they went on to become the "the kings of bulldozers"...but they destroyed themselves...the grandfather hung himself in the yard, their grapes died. The father and son became bitter business competitors in the same house. Finally, the father left his wife alone in the house where she died alone around 1990.
    The son, who still was known as the king of bulldozers, built a huge modern house in the village. He tried to screw his sister out of her part of the heritage when the porperty was broken up.
    The old father, who never really divorced his wife, resurfaced to claim his share...I think it was miniscule...1/40th, but he wanted the house for his 60 year old girlfriend, he was 94 at the time.
    He died, we got the house, the son who tried to screw his sister...who was screwed literally by her father, the old bastard...got screwed in the end by a friendly Marchand de Vente...a sort of country real estate agent who manages these kind of deals for peasants. The son sold the house to us for a fraction of its real value because we offered him cash and paid the sister under the table....
    The son is slowly succumbing to Alzheimers and the sister is our real friend. The agent is a true friend, he took a liking to us the first time we met because we were artists and musicians and could tune his dulcimer...

    It's interesting because the generation that lived the war is dying out and the silence around their lives and the histories is being chipped away. You realize that here we are only a generation from the advent of rural electricity. No one had a phone before the late 60's. The water came from wells.
    The idyllic peasant reality of our urbanized dreams obscures the brutal life of labor, scheming, violence, blood and mud.

  5. I was reminded of Berthe Fraser when I heard of the death of Nancy Wake earlier this month. She was known as the White Mouse and Berthe was named in the Yeo Thomas book The White Rabbit.

    I met Berthe on a number of occasions when I was an exchange student in 1946. I was one of the first exchange students after the war and I lived in the village of Vimy just outside Arras. I recall that Berthe Fraser kept a perfumery shop near the centre of Arras and was an active member of the Societe Franco Britannique,the organization that made the student exchanges possible. I have a photograph to prove it!! and was privileged to attend the 60th celebrations in Arras in 2006.