June 6 marks the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy that led to the liberation of Europe during the Second World War.
In order to clear the way for the invasion, the Allies launched increasing numbers of bombing raids to soften resistance. It was dangerous work and allied aircrews were often shot down, either dying of their injuries or taken prisoner. But some escaped.
It was the job of an elite group of French-Canadians working behind the lines in France to safely usher the flyers back to Britain.
Fighting a rising sense of dread, Lucien Dumais slowed his bicycle. Standing in the bombedout roadway ahead, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, was a German Army sergeant, signalling him to halt. It was late fall 1943. Dumais and his travelling companion, Raymond LaBrosse, had just left the French city of Rennes and were on their way to the Britanny coast to complete a dangerous task. This holdup could easily end their mission, endangering the lives of many people, including themselves.
Dumais thought fast as LaBrosse wheeled up beside him.
“We’ve had it if he finds the radio,” the short, stocky Dumais whispered to LaBrosse. “You keep going and I’ll see what he wants.”
LaBrosse, taller, huskier, and almost two decades younger than his partner, continued on his way while Dumais came to a stop in front of the German, talking fast in an effort to divert the sergeant’s attention. Dumais had good reason to be worried. If the German soldier found the wireless radio hidden in a suitcase strapped to LaBrosse’s bicycle, the two cyclists would either be shot immediately or taken to the nearest Gestapo headquarters, where they undoubtedly would be tortured and executed.
What made the situation even more perilous was that Dumais and LaBrosse were not who they said they were — two Frenchmen headed to the small coastal town of Plouha for work. Their identity papers named Dumais as Jean-Francois Guillou, a mortician, and LaBrosse as Marcel Desjardins, a medical equipment salesman.
In reality they were two plain-clothed French-Canadian soldiers operating secretly in Nazi-occupied France. The francophones — Dumais was from Montreal, LaBrosse from Ottawa — were spies working under the direct orders of Britain’s espionage agency. Their task was to work with the French Resistance in smuggling downed Allied flyers out of France.
As he pedalled away — leaving Dumais to deal with the German — LaBrosse was torn between a natural instinct to go back and help his partner and a strong sense of duty. But the Canadian spy doggedly pushed on toward the Brittany coast, as ordered, though he was almost certain the effort was pointless.
Their task had been to set up an escape network — code-named Operation Bonaparte — in occupied France. With Dumais, the chef de mission, possibly out of action, the mission seemed doomed to failure. Fortunately, LaBrosse knew the plans by heart.
LaBrosse rode on until dark. He slept that night in an open field and woke up at the crack of dawn, hell-bent on reaching his destination later that day. As he approached Saint-Brieuc, a town near Plouha, he was exhausted, despondent, and thirsty. Seeing an outdoor café ahead, he decided to take a break. He noticed a man sitting at a table with two cognac glasses in front of him. LaBrosse almost fell off his bicycle when he realized who it was — Lucien Dumais! But surely this was impossible.
“What took you so long?” Dumais said with a grin as a shocked and elated LaBrosse sank into the chair opposite him, reached for the proffered glass and downed its contents in one swallow.
“All the German wanted was the bicycle,” Dumais revealed, then went on to explain that he’d then done what any self-respecting Frenchman would do. He’d stormed off to the nearest German army post and insisted that since one of their men had stolen his bicycle, they owed him a ride to the coast. For good measure, he’d hinted he had connections to the universally feared Gestapo.
The German army vehicle that whisked Dumais to Saint-Brieuc apparently had passed right by the field where LaBrosse had collapsed, dog-tired, for the night.
Dumais and LaBrosse were the backbone of Operation Bonaparte, the Brittany segment of a larger Allied escape network called the Shelburn Line. With plans in the works to invade Normandy in June of 1944, increasing numbers of Allied aircraft were flying massive bombing raids against strategic targets in France in order to soften up the enemy. More flights meant more aircraft being shot down, so an escape network for surviving aircrew was needed.
The network was set up by the British spy agency known as M.I.9. Dumais and LaBrosse were selected as agents in charge of Operation Bonaparte because not only were they bilingual, they both had first-hand experience in escaping from France back to England.
LaBrosse first signed up for active duty with the Canadian army in 1940, when he turned eighteen. He was a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals when the British recruited him as their first Canadian spy.
He parachuted into France on February 28, 1943, to be the contact between a French Resistance cell in Paris and the British secret service. He was soon blowing up bridges and rail installations, as well as firing machine guns and other small arms in raids against the Germans.
But the German secret police had infiltrated the Resistance cell. Learning this, M.I.9 ordered LaBrosse to leave France at once to avoid arrest. LaBrosse radioed back that he had become mother hen to twenty-nine downed Allied flyers, most of whom spoke no French. The next M.I.9 message ordered LaBrosse to leave the others behind. He flatly refused and instead guided his flock through enemy territory, crossing over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, then on to the British-held territory of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean.
Dumais was a thirty-eight-year-old career sergeant-major with Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal when he and some two thousand other Canadian soldiers were captured in a suicide raid on the port of Dieppe in August 1942. Vowing he’d never be delivered alive to a Nazi prison camp, he escaped from the train heading to Germany. Like LaBrosse, he fled via the Pyrenees.
LaBrosse and Dumais met in England, where they trained together as spies. The young, soft-spoken LaBrosse and the older, tough-as-nails Dumais proved to be an excellent team, although Dumais would admit later that he had his doubts. He thought the easy-going LaBrosse would not be able to stand up to the roughhewn French Resistance fighters they would be dealing with.
But not long after they landed at a makeshift landing strip outside of Paris on November 19, 1943, LaBrosse proved his mettle as Resistance members moved in to help them.
“Everyone started grabbing up our off-loaded equipment in their haste to get away from the rendezvous area,” Dumais recounted during a 1984 return to Plouha for a French government ceremony honouring the members of Operation Bonaparte.
“Raymond’s suitcase with the wireless radio was between his feet. When one of the Frenchmen reached for it, Raymond hissed: ‘Laissez-ça tranquille.’ [Leave it alone!] There was a tense moment as the two men eyed each other. Then the Resistance fighter gave a small smile and a shrug and left the suitcase alone — as Raymond had ordered. The moment passed without incident.”
They easily passed as French nationals. Any locals or German soldiers they dealt with regarded their Quebec accent as a dialect from some remote French village. “What one had to be very careful about,” LaBrosse would say later, “was not to use French-Canadian slang or idiomatic expressions. If you spoke correct French but had an accent, that didn’t tell anyone you were Canadian.”
Upon landing in France, they immediately set to work — planning escape routes, selecting hideouts, and arranging for the delivery of supplies and weapons. They recruited dozens of French civilians to funnel the fugitive airmen to Plouha, a tiny coastal village with a strong Resistance cell, where airmen could be hidden until they could be evacuated off a nearby beach.
The next few weeks raced by and the two men were soon ready to launch Operation Bonaparte. Finally, on the night of January 29, 1944, Dumais and LaBrosse were listening to a low-volume radio in a small stone farmhouse in Plouha when they heard a welcome phrase: “Bonjour tout le monde à la maison d’Alphonse!”
In bringing greetings to everyone at the house of Alphonse, the announcer from the BBC French Service had uttered a call to action. A Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat (MGB) had left Dartmouth, England, and was streaking across the 140-kilometre expanse of the English Channel toward the coast of Brittany. The rescue was on. The agents quickly switched off the radio. “That’s it,” said LaBrosse. Dumais turned to the third man in the room, section chief François LeCornec, and nodded: “Let’s go!”
The Plouha area was crawling with German troops, Gestapo agents, and French collaborators. It was common knowledge that the Allies were planning a massive invasion of France. The tense, trigger-happy Germans were likely to shoot first and ask questions later.
As they exited the “House of Alphonse” — a misnomer, since the small stone dwelling actually belonged to French Resistance member Jean Gicquel — Dumais and LaBrosse could make out a number of human forms moving in the darkness toward them from other houses in the area. The escape party consisted of sixteen American and RAF airmen and two British agents. LaBrosse had sent a message to M.I.9 earlier that day saying he had eighteen “packages” to be picked up.
With the eighteen “packages” forming a huddle around him, Dumais whispered last-minute instructions for getting down the nearby steep incline to the beach. He warned them that the slope had been mined by the Germans but that a Resistance member had marked each mine with a small white cloth. Dumais would lead the way by the light of a hooded flashlight, and everyone was to follow in his exact footsteps down to the beach about seventy-five metres below.
“Many lives have been risked to bring you this far,” Dumais warned. “There is just a mile left, and it is the most dangerous you will ever travel. You will maintain absolute silence and do exactly as you are told. There are enemy sentries and patrols in the area. If it becomes necessary to kill any of them you are expected to help — use knives or your hands. Be quick and above all be quiet. Your lives and ours depend on it.”
With LaBrosse bringing up the rear, the men moved stealthily down the small hillside to the beach. Shivering in the damp cold, they strained their eyes and ears for some sign of their rescuers. The minutes dragged by. Suddenly, out of the darkness, the silhouettes of four small rubber boats appeared, each manned by two paddlers. The craft nosed silently up onto the sand and the eight crew members of the gunboat, which was anchored about two kilometres out in the channel, jumped ashore.
An officer snapped: “Okay, get aboard fast.” At the same time, the crew began off-loading arms, money, and supplies desperately needed by the French Resistance.
Within a few minutes the four rubber dinghies were relaunched, disappearing into the gloom. Dumais and LaBrosse watched them go, then picked up the delivered goods and carefully made their way back to the stone hut, retrieving the pieces of cloth that had identified the placement of the German mines.
While awaiting the 6 a.m. lifting of the German curfew so they could move about the village freely, Dumais raised a wine glass in a toast: “Eh bien. To our first success. It went like clockwork. But we have a busy season ahead.” By the time the Allies landed in Normandy with their D-Day offensive of June 6, 1944, Operation Bonaparte had, in the space of six months, saved 135 Allied fugitives from right under the noses of the Gestapo without losing a single man. Dumais and LaBrosse had certainly proven their worth.
“Our judgment of both men was fulfilled, and they produced magnificent results,” Airey Neave, chief organizer of M.I.9 during the last two years of the Second World War, said in his book Saturday at M.I.9.
After D-Day, Dumais and LaBrosse worked with the French underground to fight the retreating Germans. Following the Nazi surrender in May of 1945, Dumais was assigned to root out German collaborators in deep cover. He retired with the rank of captain at the end of the war and proudly wore such decorations as the Military Cross, the Military Medal, the Efficiency Medal, and the Freedom Medal.
LaBrosse rejoined the Canadian Army after the war, eventually serving with the Third Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment — the Vandoos — in Korea. He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1971. Among his awards were the Military Cross, the Legion of Honour, the French Croix de Guerre (avec palme et étoile de vermeille), and the U.S. Medal of Liberty with silver bar.
Unfortunately, the crew of the gunboat — MGB 503 — that had been used for each rescue didn’t fare as well as the two Canadian spies. The boat hit a floating mine in the English Channel — sadly, just after hostilities had ceased — and the entire crew of thirty-six was killed.
Another casualty was the House of Alphonse. After Operation Bonaparte had been disbanded, the Germans belatedly suspected that the small cottage was being used as a Resistance hideout and torched it, with only the stone walls surviving as witnesses to a clandestine operation.
Due to its nature, Operation Bonaparte received little publicity during or after the Second World War. In fact, when orders were issued to turn papers over to the public archives in Great Britain, it was discovered that several volumes of records about the project had disappeared.
But some of the ninety-four American airmen who had been spirited out of occupied France showed their appreciation by holding a special ceremony in Buffalo, New York, in 1964. LaBrosse and Dumais were on hand, along with two former Resistance members, when William Spinning, vice-president of the newly formed Air Forces Escape & Evasion Society said: “Theirs were calculated feats of audacious, rash fearlessness — carried out under the very eyes of the German occupational forces. The odds against success were staggering. The penalties for failure were almost incalculable. We of America can never repay these noble people. Nothing can ever balance the score, and nothing will ever dull the glory.
“In greatest humility we say: We will never forget!”
Two spies who did not return
Frank Pickersgill: The brother of long-time federal cabinet minister Jack Pickersgill, Frank was arrested by the Gestapo after making his fine parachute jump into Nazi-occupied France on the night of June 15, 1945. He underwent excruciating torture, then was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Paris where he was told that if he co-operated by betraying his fellow agents he would be treated well for the rest of the war.
Incensed, Pickersgill grabbed a bottle of Vichy water off the interrogator's desk, smashed it against the head of one of the German guards, and used the shards from the broken bottle to cut the throat of a second enemy soldier. He leapt from a second-story window and was shot four times. He survived but was immediately recaptured. Months later he was executed at Buchenwald by slow strangulation — he was hanged from a wall by a length of piano wire attached to a meat hook.
Guy Bieler: A Swiss who emigrated to Canada in the 1920s, Bieler badly injured his back in a parachute jump into France on November 18, 1942. He managed to direct raids against German installations from a forest hideout even though still in great pain and barely mobile.
As soon as he was back on his feet, Bieler joined his fellow Canadian saboteurs and members of the French Resistance in destroying strategic German targets. On the night of January 15, 1944, Bieler was relaxing in a café near the village of St. Quentin when two cars screeched to a halt outside the building and a dozen German soldiers stormed through the doors. The Canadian spy was whisked away to Gestapo headquarters. After months of torture, Bieler ended up at the dreaded Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he was shot by firing squad.
Most Allied spies were garrotted, shot in the back of the head, or slowly strangled with piano wire. Death by firing squad was considered an honour, bestowed by a camp commandant who respected Bieler's courage and calm demeanour while undergoing terrible torture and deprivation.
And one who did
Gabriel Chartrand: Known as Gaby to his friends, he was the third Canadian parachuted into France in 1943. He was picked up returning to Tours by bicycle after helping an American pilot escape.
Realizing he had to make a break for it before he was swallowed up in the Gestapo interrogation centre he was being taken to, Chartrand threw his bicycle at the German agent who had arrested him, then took off at a run. Zigzagging to dodge the bullets fired from the agent’s pistol, Chartrand returned to his small apartment and picked up a set of false identification papers he had squirrelled away earlier.
He managed to contact a fellow agent and was put in the pipeline to Plouha, Brittany, where two Canadian spies were able to help him escape across the English Channel to freedom. The spies aiding him in his escape, he learned after the war, were Lucien Dumais and Raymond LaBrosse.