GERMAN U-BOATS TRAWLED THE NORTH ATLANTIC, sinking American troop carriers and merchant ships delivering vital supplies to Britain. Allied aircraft could not bomb them underwater, but they could attack the bases where submarines returned for maintenance on the Bay of Biscay at Lorient and Saint-Nazaire. Of the two, Lorient was larger, but Saint-Nazaire with its sixty-two torpedo workshops and twenty-one submarine pens was better protected. A picturesque town on the northern bank of the Loire estuary, Saint-Nazaire endured regular bombing missions by the Royal Air Force and a suicidal raid by British commandos on 28 March 1942. Although the raiders did considerable damage, almost all of them were killed or captured. The result of their sacrifice, in which five won Victoria Crosses for gallantry, was that the Germans reinforced the work bays with ten feet of solid concrete. During one raid on 28 February 1943, the American Eighth Air Force destroyed half of the town of Saint-Nazaire but lost six Flying Fortresses with all their crews. The New York Times called Saint-Nazaire ‘the toughest target of the American and British Air Forces’. German air defences took a large toll of British and American bombers, and Allied intelligence could not tell what effect their bombs made on German naval operations. Aerial photographs taken from the bombers were often obscured by cloud cover and revealed only the damage to the surface of the concrete over the submarine pens. They did not show how deep the bombs went or the exact dispositions of the German anti-aircraft guns. Meanwhile, the U-boats continued cruising out to sea from Saint-Nazaire to disrupt supplies to American troops in Britain and North Africa.
By the summer of 1943, the Allies needed reliable information from Saint-Nazaire more than ever. General Charles de Gaulle’s French Committee of National Liberation instructed the Resistance in France to get it. This delicate mission was given to a 38-year-old former gendarme named Paul Kinderfreund. His code name was ‘R’ for Renaudot, a common French name. R, the operational chief in Paris of the Goélette-Frégate network, needed someone to enter Saint-Nazaire through the German security cordon, take the photographs and smuggle the film to a developer without being detected. Access to Saint-Nazaire was restricted to its inhabitants, workers at the port, cheminots on the trains that served the town and German troops. Saint-Nazaire lay within the Forbidden Zone, where Germany was constructing its Atlantic Wall against Allied invasion. Anyone caught there with a camera would be shot for espionage. An agent could not simply blend into the local population, because almost everyone in Saint-Nazaire had fled to the countryside for safety from the air raids.
R went to Nantes, upriver from Saint-Nazaire but outside the Forbidden Zone. It was as close as he dared travel to investigate the feasibility of the mission. In Nantes, he contacted another Resistance operative code-named Dorsal. This bicycle shop owner told R how Saint-Nazaire was protected by anti-aircraft batteries and Luftwaffe fighter squadrons. To get into the town, a visitor needed a special Ausweis from the Germans. Although few people were permitted, the Germans allowed students to visit the seaside town on school holidays. R’s solution was to send a schoolchild.
In Paris, R went to see Sumner and Toquette Jackson. They had worked with his Goélette network for more than a year and were used to unusual requests. But the proposal R put to them was startling even to these veteran résistants: R wanted to borrow their son. Until then, his parents had shielded 15-year-old Phillip from danger and had once reprimanded him for painting anti-German graffiti. The boy was unaware that Allied airmen took shelter in the hospital and that his avenue Foch home was a Resistance mail drop. Whenever Resistance members met at the Jacksons’ home, Phillip was sent to his Aunt Tat at Enghien. His parents had taken every precaution to protect the boy. Yet, when R told them that London needed Phillip’s help in Saint-Nazaire, Sumner and Toquette agreed.
R’s plan was to smuggle Phillip into the port town with a camera, but he would first need a safe place to stay. Toquette remembered an old friend from Saint-Nazaire, Marcelle Le Bagousse. Marcelle and her husband, a railway cheminot, had moved from Saint-Nazaire to the countryside nearby at Pontchâteau to avoid Allied bombs. Their farmhouse was just outside the Forbidden Zone, and Phillip knew the family already. He would be welcome there, but he would still have to get into the port town and back again with the photographs. R arranged for Verdier, the Goélette courier whom they knew from his visits to collect and drop off Resistance messages, to accompany Phillip on the train to Nantes.
Phillip and Verdier left early in the morning by train from the Montparnasse station with sandwiches, a container of wine mixed with water and a forged Ausweis. When they arrived in Nantes, they went to the house of agent Dorsal. Dorsal gave the boy a Kodak box camera, a simple device with a fixed lens, to hide in his lunch bag. Phillip then rode in the backseat of Dorsal’s old Citroën, while Verdier sat in front holding a machine pistol in case the Germans stopped them. It was, Phillip recalled, a dramatic, fast drive on a dangerous road. The two men dropped him at the train station in Pontchâteau, where Mme Le Bagousse met him and took him to their farm. Phillip gave M. and Mme Le Bagousse the presents his mother had wrapped for them: salami, a bottle of claret and some gabardine cloth. To their teenaged daughter, Erika, he presented a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables.
While Phillip was unpacking, M. Le Bagousse saw his camera and immediately seized it. Possession of a camera so close to Saint-Nazaire could get them all shot. He hid it somewhere in the house. Deprived of his camera, Phillip had no idea how to complete his mission. He could not tell the truth to his hosts, who might send him straight back to Paris. The family gave the boy lunch. Afterwards, Erika took him on the train to Saint-Nazaire with her father’s railway worker’s pass clearing them through the German security checks. For an afternoon, they were two kids wandering around the old port town and enjoying the remaining sights of Erika’s old neighbourhood. They went into the main church of Saint-Nazaire and climbed its belfry. Beside the mostly ruined town lay the docks, which had made Saint-Nazaire a shipbuilding centre in the nineteenth century, the submarine repair base and the anti-aircraft defences. In the harbour, tantalizingly for camera-less Phillip, was a U-boat. Dejected, he went with Erika on the train back to Pontchâteau.
Phillip went to bed feeling he had failed his first test as a résistant. He was about to sleep, when Erika slipped silently into his room and gave him the camera. The two youngsters spent the rest of the night together, but Phillip did not tell her why he needed the camera. The next day, she took him back to Saint-Nazaire. They revisited the church, again climbing the stairs to the top. He snapped one picture after another, until the roll ran out. If the Germans had seen him photographing their installations, they would have executed him on the spot. Phillip and Erika went back down and walked unobserved to the train station. At Erika’s house, Phillip removed the exposed film. Erika replaced the camera in her father’s hiding place. All Phillip had to do next was get the film to Paris.
The courier, Verdier, met him again in Pontchâteau and rode beside him on the Paris train. They cleared the German checkpoints and arrived safely at the Gare de Montparnasse. There, R met them and retrieved the film to send the priceless photographs to London. Phillip was now the third member of the Jackson family to be a fully fledged partisan in la Résistance.