They were escape artists, in several senses, and they were old men, well into their 90s, and they are remembered.
Raymond Samuel, born July 31, 1914, was on his way to a fine career in civil engineering in the late 1930s, a graduate of the elite Ponts et Chaussées school in Paris and the recipient of scholarships for post-graduate work at MIT and Harvard, when war broke out — resumed. Serving on the Maginot Line, he made his way home to nearby Haute-Saône after the debacle of June 1940 and with Lucie, Lucie Bernard by her maiden name, his wife of only one year, organized one of the first Resistance networks, Libération-Sud. France stayed in the war thanks to a few souls like these, like Captain Henri Frenay, like Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
Alex Cassie, born in South Africa on December 22, 1916, flew a RAF fighter in a successful attack against a U-boat in September 1942 but was hit by return fire and forced to land off the coast of Brittany, where he and his crew were picked up by a German patrol. He found himself at Stalag Luft III in Poland, where he promptly got to work in the forgery section, called Dean & Dawson after a famous London travel agency, of one of the most famous POW escape schemes of all time. Due to his skill as an artist (his degree from Aberdeen University was in psychology), he helped produce the essential false documents, ranging from ID cards to “letters” from “girlfriends,” that his fellow-escapees would carry for authenticity while making their way across Europe back to their units and squadrons. But finding that his claustrophobia endangered the plan during the trip through the tunnel to the other side of the barbed wire, Lt. Cassie gave his place to another and immediately got to work forging more papers for the next group. (This follows excellent obit in the Telegraph of April 13.)
Ahmed Ben Bella, born December 25, 1918 in a small town near Tlemcen, the scholarly city of Algeria’s west that produced many of the country’s patriot leaders, was a decorated hero of the total hell of Monte Cassino. The French Expeditionary Corps under Gen. Alphonse Juin, part of the U.S. Fifth Army and credited with some of the key piercings of the Gustav Line defending Rome, was largely made up of indigenes from Morocco and Algeria, though it is only in the past 15 years or so that this has been acknowledged in French military histories.
By 1945, after witnessing a disastrously brutal return of colonial policy, including a massacre of thousands following a peaceful demonstration in Setif near Tunisia, he opted for violence to achieve independence and was caught during a fund-raising operation at a operation in Oran. Escaping from prison, he quickly asserted himself as one of the historic leaders of the new National Liberation Front that refused to accept anything short of complete independence from France.
Aubrac, Cassie, Ben Bella: extraordinary and yet typical of the generation — they were near-contemporaries — that won World War II for freedom, diverged on what this meant. Many, if not most, of their comrades-in-arms did not survive the war in which they gave the very best of their young manhoods or, in the Algerian’s case, the battles that followed. The passing of these men in their great old age reminds us how brave the new world is that they and their generation left us.
Raymond and Lucie Samuel, nom-de-guerre Aubrac — the capitulatinist regime’s anti-Semitic legislation passed without German encouragement and Samuel was too easily identified as Jewish — led Libération-Sud and did not forget they were fighting for life: Lucie was pregnant with their second child when Raymond was caught, almost certainly betrayed by a comrade, during the meeting of Resistance leaders in the Lyon suburb of Caluire. The Gestapo, under the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie, after a year-long hunt, netted Jean Moulin, de Gaulle’s personal representative and delegate to the internal Resistance — sharply divided among movements with divergent concepts of the meaning of their wars. Moulin did not survive the torture but indicated to his friend with a final wink that he had not talked. Aubrac was sent to await the firing squad.
Alex Cassie and the others prisoners for a few days dared hope everything was well, as 76 of their fellow-RAF officers made it through the tunnel and in their various disguises began the great escape westward. After a few days the bad news began to trickle in, as one after another was spotted and re-captured. Only three made it back to England; 50 were shot by the SS.
An airplane carrying Ahmed Ben Bella and other top FLN leaders was intercepted and forced to land by a French air force fighter in 1956 while flying from Morocco to Egypt. The nationalist leaders spent several years in jail, to be freed only on the eve of independence in July 1962. A civil war flared up after the French departure from Algeria, but Ben Bella found himself on the winning side, backed by the head of the national liberation army, Col. Houari Boumediene. By 1963 he was president of the new “democratic and people’s republic”, opposition having been crushed, driven into exile, or silenced.
Lucie Aubrac, visibly pregnant with their second child, convinced a Barbie subaltern that they were not yet married and under a French law permitting condemned to wed in extremis, to insure their children’s legitimacy, and they should be allowed to do so. While he was being transferred to another location for this purpose, Lucie and a band of partisans attacked the Gestapists, killed several, and escaped with her husband. Too hot to stay in France, the couple was exfiltrated to London where they stayed the remainder of the war working at Free France headquarters. The elder Samuels, shopkeepers, and Raymond’s older brother were eventually arrested, deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
Alex Cassie did not get another chance to escape. By early 1945 the Germans were in full retreat and the inmates of stalags and concentration camps still alive were force-marched westward. Cassie was liberated by the advancing British army and went back to work for the RAF as a civilian psychologist, advancing over the years of a distinguished career to one of the British armed services’ directors of profiling and training programs.
Three lives, three fates. This war that almost ended civilization as we know it has scarcely any survivors left who can tell us what it meant to them personally, though fortunately, as in these, many lives have been recorded, even turned into legend. The epic of the Resistance (which took place throughout the occupied continent), like the heroic determination of the soldiers and airmen of the Great Escape, like the men from three continents who rescued Europe in Italy and Normandy and the east, is all but gone from living memory.
Raymond Aubrac became a commissaire, prefect, of the Republic at the Liberation, but displayed an excess of zeal, even in those heady days, in going after Collaborators and seizing industrial properties in view of the nationalization program promised by the new government. He took up his career in civil engineering while staying active in politics, taking fellow-travelling positions which led to an intense friendship with Ho Chi Minh, who godfathered the Aubrac’s third child. He and Lucie likewise took an “anti-colonial” line on Algeria and stayed close to the Communist Party, without joining it, on the other big issues of the post-war decades.
Ben Bella, too, opted for radical change, approving the murderous purges of Algerians who had served in the French army and putting in place socialistic policies during his brief presidency, including agricultural collectivization, state-managed industrial projects and turning Algiers into a welcome center for revolutionaries from everywhere. Houari Boumediene overthrew him in 1965 and established a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1979; you will find many in Algeria who assert that the years under the austere and taciturn president, the country achieved more that it ever could have under the reserved but charismatic and perpetually busy Ben Bella.
And of course you will find many others who will not mind asserting that Ben Bella and those who overthrew him would have spared their country much subsequent trouble had they opted for the freedom Ben Bella himself fought for at Monte Cassino.
Alex Cassie did not become famous and prominent in public affairs; he did his job as he had done it during the war, in years of less drama of course: loyally and honestly.
Ben Bella was released from the house arrest under which his erstwhile friend and comrade had kept him and spent a number of years in Europe, with a residence in Switzerland, like the other “historic FLN leader” whom he had defeated in the 1962-3 civil war, the Kabyle chief Hocine Ait Ahmed, who is still alive and well. But the other “historic leaders” are dead, killed in action against the French army or in purges at the hands of their own comrades or in exile by the long arm of the revolution.
Was it the same revolution Raymond and Lucie Aubrac thought they were serving during the years of fellow-travelling and what the Europeans called “tiers-mondisme,” third-worldism? Before the war, many were disappointed in bourgeois democracy, viewing it as the cause of the death instinct of the West — or at least impotent to reverse it — that seemed, since August ’14, to be prevailing over a culture of life and progress. Even so clear headed a man as Eric Blair, pen name George Orwell, hesitated at first — as did many Americans — then found his inspiration in the plain courage of ordinary people and the green meadows of England that he knew would turn red with blood, including his own, before foreign boots trampled them. The same initial ambivalence touched many in France, even as the country was invaded, and could be at least in part explained by the collapse of will and utter confusion displayed by the government. The Communist Party, however, chose a deliberate policy of non-belligerence which translated into collaboration with the occupiers.
This was due to the Soviet-Nazi pact, designed to enslave Poland while allowing both sides to prepare for what each knew would be an apocalypse in the eastern plains of Europe. But even after the Party entered the Resistance in the summer of ’41, following the German invasion of Russia, some ambiguity remained in many minds regarding the ultimate aims of the war, and betrayals, based on longer-term calculations, occurred. Some preferred to banish such thoughts, celebrating the common cause —
Mon parti m’a rendu les couleurs de la France, sang the most lyrical of the Resistance poets, the Surrealist-turned-Communist Louis Aragon, “My party has clothed me in the colors of France.” The Aubracs’ network welcomed the Communist reinforcements because they shared vision of the kind of world that should emerge from the global conflict. This led to tensions with the Gaullists represented by men like Jean Moulin, as well as the networks of men of the right like Henri Frenay.
Wickedly exploiting rumors, insinuations, false allegations and unproven accusations that had lingered for decades, Klaus Barbie, before he died in a French prison in 1990 — caught in South America and extradited, he was tried in a sensational trial during which his attorney defended him by arguing that he had done nothing the French army did not do a few years later, in the prisons and torture houses of Algiers and environs — claimed the tipster of Caluire was none other than Raymond Aubrac. This led to further proceedings that eventually cleared the legendary Résistant, but it left, as it had to, a bitter taste. It was no secret that there were deadly rivalries within the Resistance in France — as there were in Poland and Yugoslavia, as there would be in the anti-colonial war in Algeria, the revolutionary war in Indochina.
Ben Bella, if you put it in a comparative frame, did pretty well. After the “Spring” of 1989, when single-party rule was abolished and freedom of the press permitted, he launched the MDA, Democratic Movement of Algeria, an Islamic party that proposed a moderate alternative to the Brothers in the Islamic Salvation Front. Yet his rants against Israel and the Jews (and the Kabyle Berbers) were as filled with hate as theirs and, anyway, he got nowhere. He was given a state funeral, however, by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been a young comrade-in-arms but who ditched him to become Pres. Boumediene’s foreign minister.
Alex Cassie’s war was the least complicated — there was no unfinished business afterward for him, except the continuing business of defending his island nation. Yet — of course — even Great Britain could not be unaffected and untroubled by the aftershocks and the sequels of the world wars, the European civil wars if you want to call them that, or the wars to save the liberties Europeans had strived for so long to secure. We need not, should not, get histrionic and over-excited about where we are now, in the unending work to preserve our freedom and our liberties. We should learn, remember, transmit what we know or think we know about what others before us tried to do, wanted to do, did.