Most people hearing of an English woman who had fought with the French Resistance might expect to read about one of SOE’s lethal females, an expert in explosives who could paralyse you with one jab of her little finger.
But the resistance agent I knew best – a woman who spent the entire war in Occupied France and was eventually decorated with the Medaille de la Resistance - was a peaceable and quietly-spoken lady, born in Suffolk in 1899. She was brought up as an orphan and she left school at the age of 14 to work as a children’s nurse. Her name was Nesta Cox.
In 1925, Miss Cox was employed by an Anglo-French family who lived in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley. To pay for their horses and hunting, they welcomed English students en pension and taught them French. (It was the world evoked by Anthony Powell – who had once been a student in a nearby establishment - in A Question of Upbringing).
The house was called Nanteuil and it became extremely fashionable. ‘Les paying-guests’ came from the privileged world of Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. They included a Howard from Castle Howard, a Portman from Portman Square and a young man called Valerian Wellesley, who to his own surprise would later become the Duke of Wellington. Among other guests were Dick Seaman, later Hitler’s favourite racing driver, and several Mounts, including the editor’s grandfather.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, Nesta’s English employer, William Gardnor-Beard died and his widow, Anne-Marie, remarried a neighbour, Comte Pierre de Bernard. By then, the two children Nesta had been employed to look after were teenagers, but she had become part of the family. She never learnt to speak French but communicated with everyone in a franglais of her own invention, a dialect the villagers soon learned to understand. When war broke out, it never occurred to ‘Nanny Cox’ to return to England. She spent the entire war in Occupied France and, in due course, she with other members of the Bernard family was drawn into resistance.
It happened as a result of the pre-war English connection. One of their former students, Bill Bradford, a junior officer in the Black Watch, escaped from a German POW column after Dunkirk and made his way across France to the only house where he knew he would be safe. He was welcomed and given shelter, and before leaving he enjoyed a picnic in the woods with Nanny and his French hosts. Then he was helped on his way with money, a bicycle and a map. When he eventually got back to England he was debriefed and identified the house.
Shortly after that an SOE agent called and invited the Bernards to work under British orders. They accepted this invitation even though German troops had been quartered on the house and its park since the start of the Occupation.
Nesta Cox made a point of treating the German soldiers politely, and the terrier she walked every afternoon in the park became friends with the German police dogs. She said after the War that the Germans were no trouble, ‘as long as you polished their boots’. So far from ‘polishing their boots’, she was actually risking her life listening to an illegal wireless set that she had hidden at the back of her bedroom cupboard. She monitored the coded BBC messages that carried instructions for SOE’s trained saboteurs and became the network’s communications centre.
In War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France I tell the story of that local resistance group which had been absorbed into ‘Prosper’, the biggest SOE network in France, until it was broken by the Gestapo in June 1943. The countess and her husband were among the hundreds of resisters who were arrested by the Gestapo and deported. Nesta Cox then took over running the house, confronting the German soldiers when necessary and protecting ‘her’ teenage girls as they in their turn started to work with the Resistance. She lived through the dangerous months of the German retreat and the blood-thirsty settling of accounts that followed. She was denounced to the Gestapo but escaped arrest, and she said that she never went for a walk in those days without taking her New Testament with her.
After the war, Anne-Marie de Bernard once again started to take in English students, which was how - 20 years later - I got to know Nesta Cox, although nobody called her that - she was always ‘Nanny’. For an English student between school and university she was a wonderfully reassuring presence. I can see her now, a short, stout, indomitable figure in a flowered dress and wellingtons, with her pudding basin hairstyle, thick spectacles and twinkling eyes, setting off through the park to walk the dog or feed the chickens, before returning to the house to preside over afternoon tea – ‘the only time’, as she always said, ‘when we are allowed to speak English’. She was all of a piece. Just before the Gestapo arrived, the girls had wrapped an SOE wireless transmitter in a waterproof cover and lowered into the river which ran past their house. Two years later they fished it out and switched it on. To general astonishment it still worked. ‘Well of course it works’, sniffed Nanny. ‘It was made in England’.
One of ordeals that confronted her in 1945 had been the confirmed report that Anne-Marie de Bernard had died in Ravensbruck. In fact she just survived, her life saved by the Swedish Red Cross. And she returned - like all the other resisters who had survived with their health wrecked - absolutely determined to find out how their network had been broken. In the official history of SOE, by MRD Foot, the disaster was attributed to the incompetence of ‘Prosper’s British officers, but for the French doubts remained. They knew they had been betrayed by an SOE-Gestapo double agent, but they suspected that he had been part of a deception operation to mislead the German High Command about the date of D-Day.
Following the summer I spent with Anne-Marie de Bernard and Nesta Cox in the Loire Valley I remained friends with the family and many years later, by a strange chance, I became involved in that search for the truth, and found myself following a trail leading from the Loire to London and then back through wartime Europe to rank and file Resistance in lost corners of France, entangled in a complex pattern of deception that took years to untangle.
Nesta Cox died in 1993, at the age of 94, still living in the same beautiful house, having cared for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her original employers. She never talked of the war and brushed aside her own remarkable contribution. Her wartime adventures form part of the story I have told in War in the Shadows.
(War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France by Patrick Marnham is published by Oneworld - £20).