In the summer of 1943, a middle aged Frenchman in blue overalls pushed a wheelbarrow past German sentries into a construction site at Bonnetot, between Dieppe and Rouen in Normandy.
The man, Michel Hollard, did not look extraordinary but he was. Audacious and brave, Michel’s actions that day would go on to save many thousands of lives.
The building site was not close to any railway lines and away from the coast and its purpose was not clear. Michel knew from his contacts this was one of many similar sites being built in northern France.
Looking around he saw a number of single floor buildings connected by cement paths. Blue rope was being used to mark new tracks that stood alone. Intrigued, Michel bent down as if to tie a shoelace and discretely lay a compass on the ground. He noted the direction of the blue rope.
Calmly he then left the site and made his way back to Paris. Back in his apartment Michel took out a map of northern France and southern England. Using the coordinates what he saw worried him very much indeed.
The tracks were clearly aimed at London.
Michel was a fierce patriot. Born 10 July 1898 near Paris the son of a brilliant scientist, he ran away from home at 16 to join the French army fighting the German invasion of 1914. During the terrible years of WW1 he rose in the ranks to infantry officer and for valour was awarded the Croix de Guerre. His courage would never leave him.
After the war Michel trained as an engineer, married and became the proud father of three children.
How he felt when France capitulated to Germany in 1940 can only be imagined. Michel had tried to join up at the beginning of the war in 1939 but had been told he was too old. As the German army marched into Paris he had taken his family south. But soon southern France became the Vichy ‘Free Zone’ ruled by President Petain’s German friendly government. It was not a ‘freedom’ Michel could respect.
He could have remained there, uneasy but safe, working in his company’s head office, but then he discovered the company would be supplying armaments to the German army. Michel resigned.
He took a job with the Dijon gasogenic factory making cars fuelled with wood gas. With hardly any petrol available for civilians, it was an effective if inelegant solution. The gas was extracted from wood or charcoal and this fuel was sourced from across France and Switzerland. This gave Michel an idea. Travel was something the occupying army did not generally encourage, but he knew enough about the business to pretend to be a buyer sourcing fuel. He had decided to fight the war in the only way he could, as a resistant.
Réseau AGIR – Network ACT
Having created a reason to travel, however false, Michel carefully started to build a network of like-minded people. Passionate for France’s liberty, intelligent and brave, Michel was also a very good judge of character. His network was made up of ordinary people, many of them railway workers. Independent from other resistance networks, Michel’s network had no name until after the war when it would become known as Réseau AGIR (Agir means ‘to act’ in French).
From the beginning Michel insisted that all communications were by personal contact, whether passing on information or materials. He didn’t trust telephones or radios and wherever possible checked out information for himself.
Michel and his agents began to record everything about the enemy occupiers they saw; German troop movements, factory contracts, new buildings, overheard conversations. They knew nothing was insignificant in their silent battle against the enemy.
Michel’s next move was to find a way to speak the British and tell them about his very well placed network. He would have to travel across the forbidden zone.
Across the forbidden zone
With a permit to travel to the east of France in search of charcoal supplies, Michel made plans to cross over into Switzerland and make contact with the British embassy in Bern.
After an unsuccessful first attempt he made for Morteau in the forbidden zone about 10km from the Swiss border. Nearing the border he finds a saw mill and after watching for a while decides to introduce himself to the owner. His instincts are good. César Gaiffe is keen to help and takes him to meet local carter Paul Cuenot who agrees to take Michel close to the frontier.
Slowly the cart with Paul and Michel rolls towards an alpine pasture. At the edge of the pasture he slides from the cart and runs down the valley and across a small brook. The way looks clear but the Germans are known to take shots at people escaping into Switzerland across the meadow. Hiding by a wall he waits for darkness. Then he walks. It is 22 May 1941.
Now in Switzerland, Michel follows a road and soon reaches the Swiss customs post. He hands over his identity card. The official asks what business he has in Switzerland. ‘Family business.’ ‘I’m going to Berne’. He could face arrest, he could be turned away. But the official simply takes his ID card and tells him it will be returned when he comes back. And so Michel Hollard walks the 80km to Bern.
A cold reception in Bern
Much later that day a very tired, dirty and dishevelled Michel Hollard presents himself to Brigadier Cartwright, the British embassy military attaché in Bern. As a show of goodwill he has with him information on France’s automotive manufacturing capabilities.
Suspicious that anyone could find their way over the tightly controlled border and unimpressed by Michel’s dirty, dishevelled appearance, the Brigadier tells him coldly they ‘do not deal with spies’ and shows him the door.
Michel vows to return while Brigadier Cartwright does some research into this very ordinary looking Frenchman.
An ally convinced
One month later Michel returned to Bern. By now the British were very excited to see him. Trustworthy agents had vouched for his integrity and rumours of his resistance network interested them very much.
The British explained what they needed to learn from occupied France and Michel began to regularly cross the border in all weather and seasons, each time bringing incredible information.
Michel didn’t just bring information to Switzerland. In Paris Joseph Brocard, a member of the resistance, was locked four floors up in a Gestapo prison. Knowing well what the future held for him he chose to jump out of the window. Half paralyzed and with broken vertebrae he was somehow taken to safety and his upper body put in plaster by Dr Monod, a cousin of Michel. They knew Joseph had little chance of recovering in occupied Paris so Michel determined to take him to Switzerland.
The Gare de Lyon train station in Paris was packed with German soldiers. A SNCF official requested their permits to board the train. They have none then Joseph says ‘But here are my papers…’ He proceeds to unzip his jacket to reveal his plastered chest and on it, a purple painted cross of Lorraine, symbol of the resistance.
Without so much as a flicker of his eye the SNCF office says ‘Pass’. They board the train.
The journey is a torment for Joseph and at Morteau Michel supports him, near dragging him towards the pasture that marks Swiss territory. There he hoists Joseph onto his back and staggers across. At the small wall he pushes Joseph over. Just one metre inside Switzerland Michel, a strong Protestant, kneels to pray. Joseph has his own view;
“Michel, he is very pretty your good God. But I do not believe in him at all. If the Germans pass, they will shoot us like rabbits. It is absolutely necessary to take a few more steps in Switzerland…” And so they go on.
Joseph survived the war and told this story in his 80’s saying of Michel “He refused to see obstacles. He saw only the goal”
Suspicious activity in Normandy
During the summer of 1943 railway construction worker Jean-Henri Daudenard shared some intriguing information. The Germans were building odd structures in heavily camouflaged, often wooded sites. Particularly between Rouen and Dieppe.
To gain a permit for travel Michel disguised himself as a pastor and explained to an official he would like to take bibles and religious tracts to the railway workers around Rouen. A man of great faith, his knowledge of the bible clearly impressed and he is given the permit.
Taking the train from Rouen he changes into blue overalls and a workman’s hat and, arriving at Auffay, explores every road from the station. Then near Bonnetot-le-Faubourg he sees a lot of activity. Getting closer he sees the entrance to a construction site. Picking up a discarded wheelbarrow Michel Hollard walked in.
Enemy construction site
A number of low buildings were linked by concrete paths. Separate but close by, pairs of long tracks were being laid out, guided by pegged blue string. Near the string Michel bent down, as if to tie a shoelace. He quickly placed a very small compass on the ground and noted the layout.
Back home he laid out a map that showed northern France and southern England. He plotted coordinates taken in the forest and what he saw filled him with dread. The long tracks were aimed straight at London.
In Michel’s carefully prepared report of September 1943 to the British Secret Intelligence Service he personally identified six sites at Bonnetot, le Faubourg, Auffray, Totes, Ribeaucourt, Maison Ponthieu and Bois Carré.
It was a plan of launch pads for Hitler’s new, merciless weapon, Vergeltungswaffe 1 ‘Vengeance Weapon 1… V-1. Known to the English as the Buzz bomb or Doodlebug.
But Hitler had underestimated the determination of the resistance.
Undercover agent uncovers
Michel arranged for a young engineer André Comps to be given the job of draughtsman at the Picardy Bois Carré construction site. André managed to make a plan of every building under construction. He even managed to make a copy of plans for the base and rails of what were clearly launch ramps, by taking the drawing from the coat pocket of a German contractor when he hung it up to go to the toilet.
Michel and four comrades then bicycled from Pas-de-Calais to Cherbourg searching for exact locations of the sites. In the first 3 weeks they discover more than 60 buildings. By mid-November they have found more than 100.
Michel smuggles the information to the British Military attaché in Berne.
Knowing the British were desperate for information about the weapon to be used at the precise new sites across northern France, Michel’s network was on high alert. News came back from SNCF worker André Bouguet that an unusual amount of rail transport was going north from Rouen. It was all destined for the goods yard at Auffay, close to the new construction site at Bonnetot-le-Faubourg.
With the help of SNCF workers René Bourdon and Pierre Carter, Michel Hollard was smuggled into the goods yard to see for himself. Inside the shed under tarpaulin he found all the parts to a top secret weapon. He measured and drew what he saw, then made the perilous journey back to Switzerland.
Rumours of a secret weapon being developed by the Nazi’s was already worrying British intelligence when Michel’s information reached them in London. They saw how similar Michel’s drawings were to single rocket found crashed in Denmark in August that year. The RAF stepped up reconnaissance of the area. Then in December 1943 Churchill instigates Operation Crossbow and the the RAF begin bombing, very precisely, launch sites across northern France.
When the network got word back that a senior German rocket scientist was staying at a certain chateau, it was bombed within five hours of the intelligence reaching London.
Michel Hollard and his network continued to gather information until 5 February 1944. On that day, unknowingly betrayed by a double agent, he was sitting in a café near Paris Gare du Nord station with 4 resistance comrades when they were arrested. The Gestapo interrogated him, starved him, used intense water torture and violence but Michel refused to give up a single name. Initially sentenced to death, Michel experienced appalling imprisonment including forced labour at the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany, but survived.
On liberation Michel spent some months in hospital in Switzerland. In May 1945 King George VI of England travelled to Switzerland and met Michel. He awarded him the Distinguished Service Order.
The DSO citation stated: Hollard, at great personal risk, reconnoitred a number of heavily guarded V-1 sites and reported on them with such clarity that models were constructed which enabled effective bombing to be carried out.
Michael was also awarded the Légion d’Honneur and the British army gave him the rank of Colonel.
Michel never fully recovered from his injuries, but he was able to return to the modest life of family and work, that he had fought so hard for.
Then, like many others who fought the silent war, particularly those who did it their own way, Michel Hollard was rather forgotten. He died in 1993 at the age of 95
V-1, a terrible threat slowed, if not stopped
V-1s caused the destruction of over 80,000 homes in Britain between June and September 1944, but British air raids destroyed nine V-1 sites, badly damaged 35 and partially damaged another 25 out of the 104 located in the North of France across North-Eastern Normandy to the Strait of Dover.
Although many V-1 rockets did reach London, it was considerably less than the 5000 a month Hitler had planned, thanks to the bravery of Michel Hollard and his network.
Not completely forgotten
General Eisenhower said that if the V-1 sites had not been discovered and so many destroyed, Operation Overlord, D-Day, would have been impossible.
Sir Brian Horrocks, regarded as one of the most successful generals of WW2, called Michel Hollard “the man who literally saved London”. There are books, rather out of print about Michel including his own rather modest autobiography.
Our postcard match is V-1 site no 685 at Val Ygot near Ardouval, Normandy. It was bombed and never put into use.
The site is open year round and has a small car park. Information boards in English and French.
Val Ygot is free to visit, the history is priceless.
A big thank you to reader Dennis Whitehead, who tipped us off about the fascinating V-1 Val Ygot site near Ardouval.
View aerial reconnaissance photography of the site following RAF bombing in July 1944 on the NCAP website
About the V-1 on wiki
Read more about WW2 in Normandy
Note: we aim to use reliable sources for our stories and be as accurate as possible, but if you see any mistakes, please let us know!