Moondrop to Gascony

by Anne-Marie Walters

Foreword by Professor M R D Foot

Introduction, postscript & notes by David Hewson

  • RRP £13.99
  • Offer price: £11.19
  • Available from 2nd November 2009
  • ISBN: 978-0-9557208-1-9
  • Pages: 304
  • Maps: 2
  • Photographs: 16 pages
  • Published: November 2009
  • Format: Paperback

Please note the book is now also available in French from Editions Gaussen

Book description...

On a cold, moonlit night in January 1944, Anne-Marie Walters, just 20 years old, parachuted into southwest France to work with the Resistance in preparation for the long-awaited Allied invasion. The daughter of a British father and a French mother, she was to act as a courier for George Starr, head of the WHEELWRIGHT circuit of SOE (Special Operations Executive). Over the next seven months Anne-Marie criss-crossed the region, carrying messages, delivering explosives, arranging the escape of downed airmen and receiving parachute drops of arms and personnel at dead of night – living in constant fear of capture and torture by the Gestapo. Then, on the very eve of liberation, she was sent off on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain, carrying urgent despatches for London.

Anne-Marie Walters wrote Moondrop to Gascony immediately after the war, while the events were still vivid in her mind. It is a tale of high adventure, comradeship and kindness, of betrayals and appalling atrocities, and of the often unremarked courage of many ordinary French men and women who risked their lives to help drive German forces from French soil. And through it all shines Anne-Marie’s quiet courage, a keen sense humour and, above all, her pure zest for life.

For this Moho edition, David Hewson, a former Regular Army Officer and much interested in military history, adds biographical details for the main characters, identifies the real people behind the pseudonyms and provides background notes. He also reveals what happened to Anne-Marie at the end of the war.

One of the outstanding surveys of the real life of a secret agent.” M R D Foot

About Anne-Marie Walters...

Anne-Marie Walters was born on 16 March 1923 in Geneva, where her father was a rising star in the Secretariat of the League of Nations. On the outbreak of war in 1940 she moved to England with her family and, aged only 17, volunteered for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She was then recruited by SOE, and parachuted into southwest France in January 1944, where she worked as a courier for the WHEELWRIGHT circuit. After the war, Anne-Marie married her childhood friend, Jean-Claude Comert. They spent several years in New York, before returning to France in 1955. In Paris, Anne-Marie worked for a while as a sub-editor at France-Soir, then moved to Spain, where she set up her own publishing agency. Anne-Marie finally moved back to France in 1990, where she died eight years later. She is survived by her two children, Jean-Pierre and Sophie.

About David Hewson...

David Hewson grew up in the south of Ireland and subsequently joined the British Army as a Regular Officer. It was during this period that he developed an interest in military history as a result of visiting many of the battlefields where his Regiment, The Blues and Royals, had fought during the campaigns of the previous three centuries. He has lived in southwest France for 15 years, which has given him the opportunity to retrace many of the journeys made by Anne-Marie Walters and to meet some/a great number of the people who still remember her from 1944.

Reviews of Moondrop to Gascony...

"In January 1944, when she parachuted into Occupied France as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, Anne-Marie Walters was just twenty years old. Three years later, she wrote this compelling work, which went through three editions before disappearing into obscurity. It has been rescued and resuscitated by David Hewson, who provides an introduction, a rich set of notes, evocative photographs and an excellent postcript...[Anne-Marie's] writing - extraordinarily assured for one so young - is vivid and charming, captivating the reader with the force of her personality." - Times Literary Supplement (5 March 2010)

"Meticulous research by David Hewson for this new edition (the original was published in 1946) identifies the real people behind the pseudonyms Walters used and the places in Gascony where they worked." - Daily Telegraph, Pick of the Paperbacks (9 January 2010)

"This is an interesting insight into a world of sabotage and the terror of being caught...It gives us a comprehensive look at the SOE in the lead up to D-Day and its aftermath. Anne-Marie comes across as a brave and resourceful young woman who does her job but also is able to befriend all her contacts. It was perhaps due to the latter that she was sent back to England. Starr wrote in a report that she was 'very indiscreet...disobedient in personal matters'. I would suggest, from reading this account, that her obvious vitality and popularity were more than her boss could cope with at that time. The account was simply written but I was thoroughly fascinated with the insight of the Special Operations Executive given by David Hewson." - The Foreces Pension Society

"Given Walters' young age when she set pen to paper, this is a remarkable and inspiring work from an equally inspirational author." - France Magazine (January 2010)

"The title is a little obtuse but as I start to realise what this book actually is, it's hard to peel my eyebrows back from the top of my head. Anne-Marie Walters was a 20-year-old, bilingual, half-British, half-French Allied spy who parachuted into south west France in January 944. This book is her account, written just after the war's end and fresh in her mind. Resistance, reprisals, double-bluffs, escapes and the confursion of war are all told through a calm and articulate author." - The Connexion (December 2009)


Extract from the book: Chapter I...

“Come on, Minou, make yourself comfortable,” Jean-Claude said. “If you want to sleep, just lean on my shoulder.”

As long as he wasn’t bored, Jean-Claude was satisfied with everything. Just quietly satisfied. But when he got bored, he sat silently with a vacant look on his face and refused to submit to the most elementary forms of human civility. Trying to argue with Jean-Claude was like attempting to crash head-first through a rubber wall: you bounced right back. This was one of those numerous occasions when he was contented with the impossible: he asked me to make myself comfortable. And without the smallest trace of irony, either. Minou was the nickname he liked giving me.

And all this time, I was tied up like a Christmas parcel in the tight harness of a heavy parachute, sitting on two inches of seat (because that was all the cumbersome parcel on my back allowed me to reach) in the side of a Halifax bomber. I was suffocated by the heat and deafened by the roar of the engines. I simply gave up arguing and gave up Jean-Claude, settled against his shoulder and went to sleep.

I woke up an hour later: Jean-Claude had also fallen asleep and slipped against my arm. His long eyelashes cast childish shadows on his cheeks. The engines still rumbled with a monotonous roar; the noise had become part of me. It caught hold of my head and shoulders and my blood seemed to run rhythmically along my veins. I wondered how the crew managed to keep awake. I looked round and saw the despatcher busily engaged in tightening the straps round the six bundles due to be dropped with us. I shifted Jean-Claude gently and settled him against a bundle of RAF coats: he never stirred. I joined the despatcher just as he was opening the trap.

“What are you doing?” I yelled through the deafening row.

“Leaflets..,” he yelled back, pointing to a dozen square parcels on the edge of the hole and turning up the collar of his fur jacket.

The cold wind whistled inside the aircraft. The despatcher cut the strings round the parcels and chucked them out with precise and rapid movements. They hit the slip-stream with a crack. I tightened the scarf around my neck and leaned over the hole. Down below, I could see a city: it looked like a beehive. It also looked very small. The blocks of houses, the straight roads and avenues, the squares and, outside, the neat cutting-out of the land, conveyed a strong impression of design and order.

“Caen..,” the sergeant shouted again, in answer to the mute question of my raised eyebrows.

Small puffs of clouds ran past under us in short bursts, hiding the city at broken intervals. In between them I could see black shadows sweeping rapidly across the beehive: heavy clouds were passing in front of the moon. The weather was not improving as we flew further south; it was already poor when we had left England. After all the leaflets had gone, the despatcher started throwing out little cylindrical boxes with tiny parachutes packed on top of them. They whistled as they hit the slip-stream.

“They’re pigeons,” the sergeant explained after he had closed the trap again. “There’s a questionnaire from the BBC in the box with them. The idea is that people answer the questions and let the pigeons fly back home with them. Pretty simple – but I bet half the folks down there eat them. I’m sure I would,” he added, with a wink.

Pretty simple, indeed. I wondered how many simple things went on like that that no one knew about. All along, I had ached to keep some sort of a diary of all my activities and new sensations; but that was strictly forbidden, for obvious reasons of security. Now, as I sat down near Jean-Claude again, I wondered how long I would remember my emotions. Maybe I could write them down some day, but what day and when? The past months were very clear and very much of a whole in my memory, although, as soon as we had taken off, their disagreeable moments had receded into a distant unconsciousness.

Could it really be only six months ago that I had had my first interview?

“Do you speak French?” a short and jumpy Captain had asked. His voice was high-pitched and piercing. I had found his cold and bare office after losing myself several times in a labyrinth of corridors inside a large and nondescript block of flats.

“How is it that you speak French so fluently?”

I had explained that I had a French mother and had always lived on the Continent and been brought up like a French girl.

“Are you ready to leave England? Are you ready to do anything we may ask you against the enemy? Can you ride a bicycle?”

I had said yes to everything, although I had no idea what he was getting at.

Three weeks later I had understood, as I began my courses in various super-secret ‘schools’; hair-raising cross-examinations, tough soldier’s training. If anyone had told me that I would spend the summer of 1943 being timed at assault courses, tapping Morse messages on a dummy key, shooting at moving pieces of cardboard, crawling across the countryside and blowing up mock targets, I would have shrugged my shoulders with disbelief. And then, when I had arrived at the parachute school, I had realized that I never really believed it would happen. And if I had jumped, it was only because the boys expected the girls to be scared and to refuse.

“Ha, ha,” they had said. “We just can’t wait to see you shake like jellyfish and howl with terror on the edge of the hole...” And they had rubbed their hands in anticipation of a good laugh. Only we’d all jumped, and their throats had been as dry as ours when the despatcher had laid a firm hand on our shoulder to warn us that the fatal moment was approaching.

After the jump school, we were sent to a ‘security school’ where we had learnt the art of being a proper gangster: how to open locks, lie successfully, disguise ourselves and adopt different personalities, how to recognize German uniforms and armament and how to code and decode messages.

We had all had a wonderful time during our weeks of training. Firm and solid friendships were forged in the clean and healthy life of work and exercise and we emerged thoroughly fit and keyed up. My training was over by the end of October.

“You’re off by the next moon, the November moon,” I had been told at the office in London.

Only things had not run so smoothly: there had been the last six weeks... I had counted without the English end-of-the-year weather. They called it pea-soup in London: heavy clots of yellow fog hanging onto the window-sills and pinning themselves to a standstill on chimney-tops. The city sounds were muffled and the lights were lit at lunchtime, while cars glided like ghosts between the gaslit landmarks of the streets. The office was over-shadowed with depression; the staff officers pointed to the windows in helpless answer to our renewed questions.

“Maybe tomorrow, we can’t tell... Ring up or call without fail. But whatever you do, stay at hand and don’t go away more than eight hours without leaving a phone number. You’re standing by for imminent departure, don’t forget...”

As though we could. Tension grew and the sense of looming perils sneaked in. Frightful stories about agents who had been caught roamed about the back-stages of the office. My family was in the process of moving from Oxford to London and I lived in a hotel. Day after day the same routine: reaching the office with a vague hope, and leaving it disappointed; dragging round restaurants, movies and clubs in the company of others, waiting too. It was too difficult inventing stories about your activities to your old friends, so you just didn’t see them. As days dragged by, the enthusiasm of the weeks of training dropped and nearly vanished.

I had been over and over my preparations for the ‘field’. There were thousands of things to think about. First, clothes: a tailor specially appointed to the office had made a couple of suits and a coat for me. According to the Paris fashions, French women’s jackets were at least ten inches longer than in England or the United States. Small details of finishing and lining were also different; nothing was overlooked. I had swiped one of my mother’s Parisian maison de couture labels and sewn it inside a coat, picked the laundry-marks out of various clothes and rubbed off the names inside my shoes with sandpaper.

Then, make-up and small objects: I had scratched the labels off jars of cream and been given French powder-boxes, nameless tooth-brushes and French tooth-paste; even polish to clean my shoes in case I had to walk straight into a town from a muddy landing field.

To be ready for all the ‘in-cases’ was an impossibility; the next best thing was to be ready for all the obvious ones.

Two weeks before leaving, I had met Jean-Claude. I had been briefed to be dropped with a Parisian medical student but had not succeeded in contacting him earlier. Somehow, being briefed some weeks before me, Jean-Claude had not been told that he was due to go with a woman: I had some apprehensions about the way he would take it. We bumped into each other in the office doorway; he simply raised his eyebrows.

“I had no idea. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care...”

I didn’t know how to take this so I had turned my back and walked out.

I ran into him the next day, by sheer chance, at a French exhibition in Grosvenor House. He was nonchalantly fixing the wires of a microphone.

“Bored...” He dropped the word, without showing the slightest surprise at seeing me.

Jean-Claude was just twenty. He was very tall and very good-looking; his open and childish face had one remarkable feature: large and warm eyes of the purest shade of deep blue. The whole expression of his face rested in them. His full mouth revealed a little weakness, but his calm, serene personality brought about a sensation of security and trust. His new clothes were shabby already.

“Look,” he declared, showing cigarette burns in his blue suit. “It looks old like this...”

My family having at last settled in London, I had taken him home. My father was the only one who knew anything of my future destination.

“Be very careful what you say in front of Mother,” I had warned Jean-Claude repeatedly. “She thinks we’re heading for North Africa...”

He had made a couple of faux pas, but caught them up artfully and Mother hadn’t noticed anything. He had made himself comfortable at once, and from the depth of an armchair methodically proceeded to contradict everyone. Otherwise he just sat around and said nothing. He had come very often; sometimes he had brought chocolate, handed pieces around and then eaten all the rest. We had both grown very fond of each other: being with Jean-Claude was a relaxation. He was so natural, so unsophisticated, intelligent and alert. When we couldn’t be bothered to talk we didn’t, but with him silences were never heavy or uncomfortable.

Jean-Claude was going to France as a saboteur and an instructor to various Resistance groups under the orders of a British nicknamed ‘the Patron’. The Patron was an important organiser; he had already been in France eighteen months and his ‘circuit’ was reputed to be one of the best and safest. I was going as his personal courier and liaison officer. Our ‘circuit’ was in the southwest of France and comprised roughly the Dordogne, Lot-et-Garonne, Gers, Hautes-Pyrénées and Haute-Garonne departments, and even bits of the bordering ones. Jean-Claude and I were due to be dropped on the edge of the Landes, near the village of Gabarret. We studied the maps for our region to the last detail: reading a Michelin map with care is like getting a mental photograph of every inch of land. We learnt the names of the main streets in the main towns and the hours of trains and buses between them, lying on the floor of the office bathroom: it was the only room we could be spared.

We had rehearsed the story built up round our papers with the greatest care: cover stories were prepared and invented by a specialized staff officer and ‘according to the agents’ personalities’. I was supposed to be a lady of leisure, born in Cannes and brought up in Switzerland. I had nothing to learn about Switzerland, that part of my cover story was true. But I found maps and postcards of Cannes, learnt the names of the streets, shops and cinemas. Jean-Claude and I stretched that work as far as possible in order to keep ourselves busy and keep our minds off the tension of the long weeks of waiting.

Both of us had been given field names. Mine was Paulette.

“Do you know what they’ve found for me?” Jean-Claude fumed. “Néron... Yes, Néron. I’m sure they simply want to make a fool of me. There’s an obvious connection between Néron and Claudius...”

Poor Jean-Claude, it was a tough war for him. Later, however, we called him by his real name. Néron simply remained his code-name for radio messages.

That morning, December 16th, when I least expected it, someone had rung through and told me to report within an hour. I had horrible indigestion from a meal I had eaten at a Belgian club a couple of days before. Outside, the fog was thicker and yellower than ever; the houses on the other side of Queen’s Gate were invisible. I collected my last small objects in a frantic hurry. My cases had gone to the aerodrome to be packed at the beginning of the month. All I took with me was to be carried in my pockets.

At the office I had received part of my equipment. My papers: a ration card, a clothing card and an identity card, all made in England to the exact image of French ones. I was given money: 99,000 francs and 1,000 in small cash, and a little gun, a Czech .32. I was the only woman in a group of twenty-two men briefed to leave the same night. The tall Colonel had appeared.

“Here’s a little souvenir from us all,” he had said, his mouth twitching a little, “and the very best of luck to you children...” I had received a silver powder compact and the others a silver pencil. The Colonel kissed me good-bye and shook everyone’s hands. It was very moving and very final.

Merde..,” said everyone as we walked away. No one was supposed to say “good luck”; it brought bad luck. “Merde” was the only wish of good fortune allowed.

We had driven more than a hundred miles across the country. The fog was not so thick outside London, but still very much there. No one had spoken. The car had rolled silently along the edgeless road: I wondered at the choice of weather. We might have left long ago, if we were to go off on a foggy night anyway...

We arrived at the ‘departure school’, a large house in central England, at four in the afternoon. A pompous Captain greeted us with a chart and pencil in his hand.

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you. Everyone has been scrapped off for tonight, except Hairdresser and Milkmaid...” Hairdresser and Milkmaid were the code-names Jean-Claude and I had been given for the trip. The RAF knew us under no other names.

The others had looked at us angrily.

“Why should these two go off? They’re the youngest...”

“Well? Aren’t we the most important?” Jean-Claude had declared airily.

We were led to a small hut where we received our last bits of equipment: a green-and-brown camouflaged parachute suit with long trouser-legs and dozens of zip-fasteners and pockets, a flashlight and spare batteries, a knife and a compass, a small flask filled with rum; even a sharp spade, tucked into a leg pocket, in case we had to bury our parachute ourselves.

At five we were treated to a gargantuan meal of eggs, steaks and oranges tenderly prepared by sweet-voiced women in khaki.

“You’ll even have some wine..,” we had been told with a you-lucky-people tone. “White Chablis...” The white Chablis had turned out to be of a curious dirty-water colour and had finished upsetting my stomach completely.

Then we had been inspected a last time, making sure our shoes were not wrapped up with the morning’s News Chronicle and that we didn’t retain London theatre tickets in the corner of pockets. At six we had left; the others had waved on the steps:

“Bye... We’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow; you’ll never get there with this weather. You’ll have eggs, don’t forget...”

The fog closed down visibly as we drove to the aerodrome. We dressed in small huts reserved for ‘operational personnel’, which made me feel very important. The jump-suit was about fifteen times my size, but everything was straightened out by the time I was tied up in the straps of the parachute. My ankles were bandaged tightly by an RAF sergeant, as I was jumping in low, walking shoes.

As we climbed into the car taking us to the plane, and sat uncomfortably in the back, I remarked with great satisfaction that I wasn’t frightened in the slightest. I had always expected to be, but now that I was at last faced with the realisation of all my past imaginings, I was nearly disappointed to find myself calm and unconcerned. Jean-Claude and I shook hands with the crew and chatted below the wings of the heavy Halifax. Someone nudged me: “There’s a General to see you off...” I never saw the General but I shook hands with lots of people I had never seen before. They patted me on the back and I wondered if they were jealous. Then our cumbersome persons had been pulled from the inside and pushed from the outside through the narrow door of the plane and we had taken off at about 8.30pm.....

©Anne-Marie Walters