A fallen hero, a daughter left behind
Gustave Bieler was one of 25 Canadians to serve in an elite British unit of secret agents. Now, his daughter tells his story
Gustave Bieler, who emigrated from France to Quebec in the 1920s and was recruited by the British secret service at the age of 38, parachuted into occupied France in 1942, the darkest days of the Second World War.
"Commandant Guy," as he was codenamed, smashed his spine upon landing in northeastern France, but recovered and went on to set up sabotage networks for the French Resistance. He organized the bombings of Nazi-controlled railroads, factories and canals, all in preparation for future Allied landings.
In January 1944, just months before D-Day, the Gestapo caught up with Guy in the town of St. Quentin. They tortured him and eventually shipped him off to a concentration camp called Flossenburg in Germany, near the Czech border, where he was executed.
Bieler was one of 25 Canadians who were recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) because they could blend into French society and wreak havoc among the Germans in occupied France. Of the 25 Canadian agents, only 10 survived.
Winston Churchill conceived of the SOE as a means to infiltrate Nazi-occupied Europe and, as he put it, "set Europe ablaze," posting agents all across the continent.
Bieler is regarded as perhaps the greatest and most beloved hero of the Canadian group. That is partly because of his effectiveness on the ground and great personal charm, but also because, despite countless torture sessions, he never gave the Gestapo any information — not even his real name. Today, streets in France, a retirement home in Montreal and a lake on Baffin Island are all named after him.
Britain also awarded Bieler the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) posthumously.
To his daughter, however, Bieler remains an enigma, a beloved father lost to her in childhood.
Jacqueline Bieler, now 72, has searched out her father's story ever since she was a teenager. Not until she met some young German historians a few years ago did she learn the full details of his fate.
She recently chronicled her life-long journey in a book, Out of Night and Fog: The Story of Major Guy Bieler, Special Operations Executive.
CBC News producer Jennifer Clibbon spoke with Jacqueline Bieler.
CBC News: How did you come to write this book?
I was appalled. I was dumbfounded. Then I pulled myself together and said, "I think you're right."
CBC News: So you went to the former Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany.
The Germans got in touch with me and asked if I would come and commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Americans. We [my son and cousin] went through the camp, collecting documents, attending ceremonies.
By 2007 [the Germans] had finally completed the [camp] museum, which they had started 10 years before. A young German military historian wanted to restore the camp; his project was to help heal the survivors [families of the prisoners]. He wanted their story to be told. He wanted them to return to Germany and be well treated by the young historians, who were, some of them, the grandchildren of the Nazis.
CBC News: And this visit led to the writing of the book?
Meeting the young Germans, the third generation, I realized I no longer had this absolute horror, dread of Germany. I realized that these are young people. They didn't do this awful stuff. They are trying so hard to atone for what their forefathers had done.
I had always in my life done a lot of documenting and reading and searching. Now, I thought, I could write the story. I could not write this story as long as it had to end with a bullet; with my father's life ending with a bullet.
Now my story was no longer my father's story, it became the story of my own journey toward reconciliation with today's young Germans.
CBC News: You started your search for your father back in 1957, when you were only 20 years old. You returned to St. Quentin, France, to visit the place where your father had helped the Resistance. You describe in your book the warmth and emotional outpouring of the local people there.
They took me around to visit the people who had worked with my father and who had sheltered him. And they all told me stories.
This was the first that I really knew about his character, what kind of man he was.
They gathered a ceremony at City Hall. When they greeted me, they showed me the front page of the local paper. There was the whole story of my father, with [the headline] "The Daughter Has Come."
I had never been surrounded by so much love. There was such reverence.
[Editor's note: In 1968 Jacqueline went back to France for Reader's Digest to help research a series about the war. She interviewed her father's surviving Resistance colleagues. She still has the transcripts of those interviews].
CBC News: Explain the meaning of the title of your book. It refers to the special status of the SOE prisoners in the Nazi camps.
The title of my book is Out of Night and Fog. Those secret prisoners in those secret places [at Flossenburg Concentration Camp] were called NN. (Nacht und Nebel, Night and Fog). When you were designated an NN prisoner, you were meant to disappear. If the Red Cross asked questions about you, they weren't supposed to find out anything.
CBC News: What do you think was your father's motivation to take up such dangerous work? He was French-born. Was it the tug of patriotism?
He had a brother in Paris and a sister in London, and he knew what was going on in Europe. Just after the declaration of war, he registered in the COTC [Canadian Officers Training Course] and got training. He knew this was more than Europe's war. He was good at intelligence work. He had a great moral clarity.
CBC News: How was he recruited?
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) sought him out. The British were looking for native speakers of all European countries.
In 1941, he was recruited. [In training,] they had to go out and do dastardly deeds. They were stationed in the south of England at Pevensie Castle. They had to go overseas, bop a German on the head, or kill him, and examine his uniform. They had to prepare to blow up factories. That was their practicum.
CBC News: Describe his clandestine work in occupied France from April 1942 until his arrest by the Gestapo in January 1944.
One of his jobs was to organize a parachute drop. He had to find reliable people. Then they had to find a field or a landing place. He had to signal London.
They would go out in the night and receive the drops and then hide the stuff. The stuff was meant to be hidden away so that when the [Allied] landings came, there would people and organizations to help the Allied soldiers as they came across the land.
He organized the railway workers and the guys who worked on the maintenance of the railways. They would either do something to the tracks to send the train off the rails, or he would supply them with axle grease that had abrasives in it — it would cause the wheels to fall off. One of the [coded] BBC messages to Guy was "the toy maker is angry, because his toys are broken and will take a long time to repair."
The railways were important because the Germans were taking all the foodstuffs out of the country using the railways. So it was important to sabotage the railways. [They also sabotaged some factories and canals in St. Quentin.]
CBC News: Everybody writes about how brave he was after the Gestapo arrested him. He was tortured, but he didn't reveal anything.
Apparently he was an inspiration to the local guys in the prison, because they saw him in the state he was in after being beaten. In his eyes, there was a fierce look, "don't talk."
CBC News: The man whom you believe betrayed your father to the Gestapo was a fellow member of the Resistance. He was working in the local pharmacy and he hosted Guy at his home for Christmas Eve dinner a month before the arrest.
According to a letter I received not long ago from someone who had also been part of their team, he said, "he's the guy who did us in." He was a double agent, and he got paid for it.
He was part of the reseau [the resistance network]. He happened to be away during all the roundups. But then, after the war, he happened to be found dead in the canal.
CBC News: There is controversy about the Resistance, the SOE and how effective they really were. A couple of the Canadian agents sent to France apparently didn't even speak much French. The Gestapo picked them up right away. What did you personally conclude doing your research about the contribution of the SOE?
But it was [U.S. General Dwight] Eisenhower who said that he thought SOE shortened the war by six to nine months, because the people were prepared [for the Allied landings]. When the Allies moved through their communities, they had a lot of help that they wouldn't ordinarily have had with the Resistance.
CBC News: Do you have any memory of your father?
Zero. None. But there's a grief there, even if you didn't know somebody. It's a story. And to me, a story is about memory. We have documents and street names and a lake in Baffin Island, and several monuments and a veterans' retirement home [in his honour] in Montreal. But those things don't tell a story.
The best honour we can do for someone to keep their memory alive, is to tell their story. That's about all I can do.