The Chalke Valley History Festival is the biggest history festival in the UK, and runs for a week of lectures, talks, living history events and more, in a beautiful valley in the Wiltshire countryside. In 2019, former French Resistance fighter Jean Jammes was invited to talk about his experiences.
The white marquee doors flapped in the soft summer breeze as Chalke Valley History Festival goers found their seats amongst a hubbub of greetings and chatter, using their programmes or panama hats as fans as the humidity built up around us. Two men walked onto the stage, Professor Peter Caddick Adams in his jaunty checked shirt and blue trousers, and John Jammes, in his early 90s, soberly dressed, but clearly with as much lively intelligence as the Professor. The crowd hushed and the Professor introduced John, once Jean, to us, as a torch bearer for his generation with so very few of them left.
The audience collectively settled back into their seats to listen. With a clear unhesitating voice, remarkable self-possession and composure, and with only minimal prompting from the Professor, the story unfolded.
And what a story it was.
In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War when he was only 13, John and his mother and sister were living in Le Mans, in north western France. His father, an officer in the army, had been sent with his regiment to the Belgian frontier, where he stayed for the duration of the Phony War, until May 1940. John’s grandmother came from Paris to join the family. She could remember the Prussian War of 1870, the First World War of 1914 and the invasion of 1940, which was the third time her country had been invaded by Germans. As John wryly told us “she wasn’t well disposed towards the Germans and she had good reason, or two, or three.”
The family tried to flee south, but the civilians were strafed by German fighter planes and forced to hide in ditches “which weren’t very comfortable”, next to the roads. They were stopped by a German patrol near Nantes and forced to spend some time there, with John sleeping in the hay barn of a local farmer. While there, they heard the pronouncement of a German commander demanding a curfew for all civilians, accompanied by the threat of being shot for any disobedience. John told us how he saw grown men cry real tears, both in shame and shock at the realisation of what was happening to them. “They stole our freedom”, he said with emphasis, “and that is unforgivable”.
The family returned home and it wasn’t long before German officials arrived at the house, looking for suitable billets for the officers. The locals all knew that the Germans were terrified of tuberculosis; the family had rehearsed their parts, and John’s grandmother “walked down the corridor coughing”, So, fortunately, they never had this particular violation forced on them.
The intrepid 13 year old soon became involved in low level but important resistance to the invader. At his lycée (school), the masters would give him leaflets to distribute. These carried pictures of de Gaulle so that people would know he was real, not a myth, and that someone, somewhere, was working to get the Germans out. In a local café the Germans would hang their bayonets on the coat rack. He and other boys hung their bicycle pumps alongside – a small but significant gesture of mockery and defiance.
On 18th June 1940, as the French government were preparing to sign an armistice with the Nazi invaders, De Gaulle issued a call to arms to the French people, a speech which John remembers clearly and is still of great historical significance to the French. “Honour, common sense, and the interests of the country require that all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may.”
L: General de Gaulle giving his famous speech, known as ‘The Appeal of 18th June’ from the BBC in London, 1940.
R: An example of leaflets printed by the Resistance in Occupied France. ‘Long live the French Resistance!’
John’s memories of these years are of being hungry and angry, very angry. In 1941, his Father was finally able to send word and this was the first they knew that he was still alive. The family went to see him, travelling “illegally” to Tours, where they crossed the border at night, timed exactly to leave between two German patrols, as forewarned by locals who reconnoitred the German movements, and John finally got to see his father.
By now two of his teachers had been arrested, were sent to Buchenwald and never returned. They were heroes to the boys and their fate had a big impact on him. In the summer of 1942, John and his family again managed to pass German patrols with false papers to see his father, this time in Loches. They travelled as a grieving local family in a hearse, with a real corpse in the coffin. Their papers were checked by an elderly German soldier which was very fortunate, as John’s mother was wearing a maroon hat when the local custom for funerals was to wear black, head to toe. A more observant soldier would have noticed this and they were very lucky to get away with it.
The family settled in Loches where John was sent to boarding school. There was barely any food and they lived off Jerusalem artichokes which have no nutritional value at all, because the Germans took all of the potatoes. The boys called the Germans, ‘Colorado beetles’, a particular species which attacks potatoes.
The Headmaster of this boarding school, who was unfortunate enough to be called Adolf, came from Alsace-Lorriane, an area of France which has long been contested between the French and Germans. He hid Jews and young conscripts from Alsace to prevent them being forced into the German army, the Lycée being a stepping stone as they moved from safe house to safe house. 30,000 men from Alsace were conscripted into the German army and died on the Russian Front. John asked us with real horror in his voice, “Can you imagine being forced into the enemy’s uniform and made to fight your allies?”
The luckier escapees were hidden in the school and had to pretend to be younger and still of school age. Not one was ever betrayed. The Headmaster asked John to run messages for the resistance, which he keenly did, even though he was still just a schoolboy and it involved going out after curfew, where the risk of capture would result in death. John’s father was running an undercover resistance unit nearby at the time, so John found himself doing many clandestine jobs. He would cover hundreds of miles on a bicycle, taking messages from headquarters to farms, cycling all across the countryside spending hour after hour on his bike. John told us he hasn’t ridden a bike since 1945.
By 1944, when John was 17, he joined the Maquis, the armed guerrilla units, and their job was to ambush German convoys which were heading up through France from South West France to Normandy after D-Day. The Germans who were travelling through his region included the Gestapo, Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), OVRA (Italian Secret Police) and the regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich (who massacred 600 civilians in the village of Oradour).
L: Youthful members of the Maquis – the armed rural guerilla bands of the French Resistance
R: The Maquis recruiting and instructing local men in the arts of Resistance
John’s unit would fell trees to bring the German convoys to a standstill, then attack. On one foray, three of their men were captured and buried alive by the Germans. John returned the next day to take photos of this atrocity, photos which were later used in the Nuremburg Trials. The units started wearing armbands, to try to emulate a uniform, thinking that if they were captured by the Germans then they would be treated as prisoners of war rather than terrorists. Of course that was not the case, and when fighters were captured they were tortured and usually killed.
These armbands, and here John held up his to show us, were made by women across France, thousands of them and if they had been caught then they too would have been tortured. John paid testament to their bravery, telling us how these women are not in the history books and get very little credit for the risks they took.
They had to learn to recognise German uniforms, such as green piping on epaulettes meaning infantry. The Maquis originally thought the British mad for wanting to know this but realised it was to learn about troop movements. There were no Allies in the area until much later, as they had all gone northwards after D-Day, so units like Johns were an important source of information.
He would receive a message that there was a parcel for him to collect, which meant that he was to receive another shot down airman. Over 55,000 men of Bomber Command were shot down and killed in the days after D-Day, their sacrifice often neglected as people think more of the work done by the Spitfire pilots.
The unit would rescue, feed and clothe the ones who survived, provide false papers and send them on through the network of safe houses. John told us how the British airmen were much easier to pass off as Frenchmen, being of a similar size and build, whereas the Americans were not just ‘enormous’ but would walk differently too, meaning it was a real challenge to keep them safe.
This car was parked near the entrance to the festival. John told us how he’d had a shock when he walked in and saw it that morning, as this was the preferred car of the Gestapo, who would always drive these around Occupied France. John explained that after D-Day, the Maquis would steal these cars and paint a white star on the roof, in the hope that they then wouldn’t be targeted by Allied aircraft.
John told us that he had been so young, with no children to worry about; his only real fears were capture and torture. He said he was obsessed with, and haunted by, what would happen if he was captured and being forced into giving away the names of his fellow fighters, as he just knew far too much. One of his lieutenants was captured and sent to Buchenwald. He came back as a living skeleton but John knows he did not betray them, otherwise he and the rest of his unit would be dead.
That summer, in August 1944, he heard of three Germans hiding in a nearby barn. The 15 year old daughter of the farmer had snuck out to tell his unit, despite the Germans threatening to kill them if she did so. John and his father went out in the curfew, burst in shouting “Hände Hoch” (hands up) and captured them. He had only had a little Sten gun and so ‘borrowed’ the far superior German machine gun that one of the soldiers had. He took them back to woods and by the end of the war, he had rounded up and captured over 80 Germans. They did not mistreat them, just interrogated them and then handed them over to the Americans when they were eventually liberated.
At the end of the war both John and his father got a Croix de Guerre for their heroism, John at this point still only 17 years old. After the war, in 1947, they both met de Gaulle. John remembers how tall he was and with a Leica “borrowed” from a German soldier he took photos of de Gaulle which he still has.
As the Americans advanced, John wanted to continue the fight corralling Germans but was sent back to school by his father. He was furious at the time but with hindsight sees that his father saved his life, as friends who kept fighting were killed. At the age of 18 he was exempted from National Service due to his time in the Resistance. John told us with much humour how in later years he applied for a war pension, but was told “service in the resistance under the age of 18 doesn’t count”. He quite rightly seemed rather unimpressed.
The audience laughed with him, as tensions released and we all breathed for what felt like the first time in an hour. We had been swept up in his tale of incredible bravery and courage, told with such humility and dignity, that we had barely moved or fidgeted in our seats. “I saw the worst of man and the best of man in those years”, he said, and we were all humbled by his moving story. We took to our feet to applaud, programmes and panamas falling to the ground in a long standing ovation as this exceptional man sat there looking slightly nonplussed.
Emerging into the warm air, the sound of applause ringing in our ears, the horrors of his story dissipated as we took in the green fields and trees, the sounds of other visitors laughing and joking; they were unaware of the dramatic journey we had been on, the resistance of a young boy through the war in Occupied France and out again.
It was an enormous privilege to have listened to John Jammes, and his tale will undoubtedly stay with all of us there for a long time to come.
Read more about the Chalke Valley History Festival >>