On a summer’s day, the usual quiet over a commune in northern France was disrupted. A Spitfire soared overhead… and then began to fall, disintegrating as it went. It landed in a cornfield, throwing up vegetation and mud. The pilot was no stranger to air disasters – he was famed British pilot Douglas Bader, who had lost both legs in 1931. Now, he was on the ground again, but alarmingly, on French soil. It was August 1941. And there were few worse places for a British pilot to land than an area under German occupation.
A Frenchwoman saw the plane come down. She said, later, it landed near the main road between Aire-sur-la-Lys and Saint Omer. She knew the roads and the fields in that area well – indeed, she cycled 75 miles every day in that area, carrying food and clothes in a basket. She passed members of the Gestapo daily, and they paid her little mind. But she noticed them.
On the day Bader crashed, she was in the area with food and civilian clothes. Her instincts were to help. But the Gestapo were already lurking nearby, and they too saw the aircraft go down. As she said later: “I managed to escape, as I know that part well.”
The woman – Lucille Hollingdale – had reason to escape. The food and clothes were not for her, but for the British and American servicemen she was rescuing and helping return to England through Spain. She was a member of the underground French Resistance, and she knew the dangers the Gestapo posed.
Bader would later become Lucille Hollingdale’s hero.
Lucille Hollingdale, born Lucille Gantier, was one member of the French Resistance, and as many as 250 British and American airmen owed their lives to her and her husband.
Their story – of true heroism and terrible tragedy – can be finally be revealed in full for the first time.
Lucille Gantier, who referred to herself as Lucy in later life, was born in February 1895. She married Harry William Charles Hollingdale in 1921, when she was 26. He was from Fleet Street in London, 14 years older than her, and carried the scars and memories of fighting in the trenches in World War One. He had spent 17 years in the army, including eight years in India. But it was his time during the First World War which caused him to suffer; he had bronchitis and asthma as a result of his time in the trenches.
He was discharged from the army between 1919 and 1920, and was employed by the War Graves Commission in France. The couple lived together there until 1927, when they returned to London for a short spell, where he worked for the Evos Company in Grosvenor Gardens, London.
They returned to France two years later, where they remained when war broke out.
From the moment her home country fell under German occupation, the couple rebelled. They kept a picture of Winston Churchill in their home; a reminder of Harry’s loyalties. Neither of them were content to merely obey the occupying force. It was in July 1940, two months after the occupation began, that the couple began to assist British airmen. Harry’s Englishness proved a benefit. They both knew the language and they were well equipped to help the British airmen who landed nearby.
Exactly when and why Lucille took it upon herself to cycle the 75 miles every day is unclear, but when Bader landed near her in 1941, she was already hard at work. “I was there with some food and civilian clothes,” she said many years later, “but sorry the Germans were in the village already.”
She returned to the crash site later, where she took a piece of Bader’s aircraft. She recalled later that everyone in the district had to show their legs to the Gestapo, who were checking Bader was not escaping in disguise.
Bader, himself, had found a place to stay after escaping from a hospital in Saint Omer. He spent a day waiting for Harry Hollingdale to return from work. Bader wrote in January 1980: “I spent the next day waiting for Hollingdale to return from work so that I could speak to him as my French was non-existent. Before he came home, the Germans recaptured me.”
Lucille knew the dangers she faced. At a time when it would have been far easier for her to go about her daily life, she committed herself to helping allied airmen instead. “All what I have done for the soldiers I have done it of my good heart and humanity,” she wrote in 1954. “I was ready to give my life to save the boys’ life. Every day I used to cycle 110-120kms loaded with food and clothing for the soldiers, also parachutes.
“My service was of them and for three years I gave all my possessions to help these poor men. I used to leave in the morning not knowing whether I should return at night. I could have been arrested en-route but God always protected me as my services were of value.”
As well as providing food and clothing to allied soldiers, she provided important information to be sent back to England. She also sent parcels of food to the soldiers and airmen she helped.
But the risks of being caught were ever-present. She remembered one gentlemen, a Mr Neale, who she sent food to. He sent her cards as a thank-you, but she burned them all. She wrote: “Two weeks after, the Gestapo came with the French police to search my house and ask questions. It was a good job I burned all his cards but I was just as clever as the Gestapo.”
On another occasion, a Scottish soldier, whom she had given food and clothes, was arrested. The soldier had the names of 21 people who had helped him written down. Lucille had given him a false name, and so was not discovered.
The couple helped between 200 and 250 British and American airmen in total.
But she could only run for so long. In 1943, she admitted to a woman that she supplied clothing to airmen. For three years, Lucille Hollingdale had been so careful. The woman she spoke to must have been someone she trusted greatly. But the woman told the Germans. “The woman who had betrayed me to the enemy revealing [sic] completely the contents of papers in my possession,” Lucille said. “Troop movements, plans of German aviation etc.”
Lucille had already destroyed all her letters and papers before the Gestapo descended on the couple’s house. But they could not hide themselves.
The two Gestapo agents arrived on August 22, 1943, and they found the photograph of Winston Churchill. The couple struggled against them, but the men turned on Harry Hollingdale, and kicked him and beat him with sticks and coshes. “My poor husband was struck down with a truncheon, blows and kicks and pummelled all over,” Lucille recalled. They beat him until he lay unconscious on the kitchen floor. “These are memories which for me will live all the time,” she added.
That was the last time Lucille Hollingdale ever saw her husband.
The Gestapo arrested her and took her away from her home and her husband. She thought he was dead – in fact, he died in a hospital in Armentieres, Nord, six months later.
She was taken to various prisons in France, and shut in small cells with no lighting and nothing to eat and drink. The charges against her, she said, were very grave indeed. She explained: “I was subjected to atrocious treatment to compel me to speak and to admit my aid to fighting men. And two big toenails were extracted to force me to submit but I was at all times prepared to die having sworn to do without betraying anybody.”
She was beaten and burned and condemned to death three times.
Lucille was taken before a military tribunal. She said: “[I was] condemned to slow death in the German concentration camps. I was dragged in and out of 15 camps.”
The camps included Belsen, Buchdenweld, and Waldheim, where she was tortured. “Under the torture I was ready to die but never gave the name of any soldiers or a name of the underground movement,” Lucille said. “I was sentenced to death. The Germans told me that I was a great criminal to send the air force boys back to England and come again to throw bomb on their troops. When I hear the sentence, I say thank you. Sentence to death only to have done a charity. Only almighty God knows all of what I have done and I was safe by him.”
Somehow, despite everything, Lucille Hollingdale survived the war. “It needed great strength to resist all these things,” she said. “I did my best but according to many people there was no need for such work, but I am happy that so many lives were saved.”
In May 1945, she finally found out what had happened to her husband. She was given the British Empire Medal and the American Medal Of Freedom as a result of her work.
Suffering with her health as a result of torture, she found herself a home in Nord, alone. Among her possessions was a picture of Bader and a small part of Bader’s plane. “I kept it preciously,” she said.
She lived in constant pain, and could not work as a result – something she found difficult, as she had worked all her life.
Despite all she had gone through, she discovered she was not entitled to a pension in France because the authorities believed her husband had not died as a result of war. She had to fight to prove he was killed by the Gestapo, and not the asthma and bronchitis he suffered from. She turned to Britain to help.
Sir Basil Embry, who set up the RAF Escaping Society, took her case on personally. “I will do my utmost to obtain for you a pension on which you may live,” he promised her.
Marjorie Craig, secretary of the society, added: “We know of the wonderful work you have done for British soldiers and airmen and at what cost to yourself and the loss of your husband. We know that nothing can fully repay you for this tremendous sacrifice and we are indeed sorry to learn of the long and dreary struggle you have had to obtain justice.”
Lucille preferred no-one know about her finances, though it took many years before she received any help from Britain and France. She loved her garden, and planted it with vegetables and flowers. She went to church often, and wrote letters about her experiences while she fought to get the pension she was owed.
In her later years, she found letter-writing hard, as the distress of having her fingers broken in the concentration camps had caused rheumatism.
Those horrendous memories lived with her forever. “My story would be interesting to you,” she wrote in one letter. “But I have no wish to relive it more fully. It’s enough for me to have lived it and believe me I do not spend a single good night. I always relive the horrors.”
Lucille Hollingdale died in February 1984. She left her medals to the RAF Escaping Society, and they later went to the Imperial War Museum in London. She had only one family member left – a niece, who was at the funeral along with a friend, Anne Hoffman, and other members of the church.
The Escaping Society paid for the plaque on her tombstone, and members of an English church, based in Calais, donated £19 to the society. Anne Hoffman, said: “We felt that she would have appreciated a gift to the fund on her behalf, as it were, instead of a wreath on her grave.”
[Source: Private Papers of Mrs L M E Hollingdale BEM, Imperial War Museum, London].