Mary Lindell and the Lives She Saved
When I was researching Operation Suicide in 2010 I came across one of the great characters of the war, a remarkable woman involved in the early escape networks from France. Mary Lindell was an aristocratic Edwardian matriarch living in Paris who became the Edith Cavell of the Second World War, but with a happier ending. She set up, and ran for MI9 (the escape and evasion section of MI6), the ‘Marie-Claire’ escape line which rescued, among many others, Blondie Hasler and Marine Sparks from the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on Bordeaux Harbour in December 1942. Many scores of men owe their lives to this amazing woman.
With her teenage son, Octave (‘Oky’), murdered at Mauthausen, another son (Maurice) beaten up by the notorious sadist Klaus Barbie in Fort Montluc prison in Lyon, and herself a survivor of Ravensbrück concentration camp, Mary Lindell was one of the French Resistance and MI9’s most remarkable characters. Mary kept alive a spirit of passionate, unashamedly patriotic resistance to tyranny throughout the longest and darkest days of the occupation. Forty-five years old at the time the Germans entered Paris, she soon found herself swept into the whirlwind of resistance, through life first as a passeur (passing evaders and escapers from one safe-house to the next) and then as head of her own réseau (network).
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At the onset of the First World War One she had attempted to serve her country as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment but, unwilling to spend the war cleaning bed pans (with which she had once assaulted an over-bearing matron), she travelled to France and joined the Secours aux Blessés Militaires, a division of the French Red Cross. Lindell was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1916 for her selfless ministrations to wounded French soldiers, the youngest nurse (she was twenty-one) ever to receive this honour. Her heart now in France, but always fiercely British, Mary remained in Paris, marrying into French society to become the Comtesse de Milleville.
She fell into the business of the réseaux by accident when in 1940 she happened upon British evaders in Paris attempting unsuccessfully to blend into the local environment. Very quickly she found herself finding, hiding, feeding and escorting these men across the demarcation line via the little town of Ruffec, north of Angoulême, to the relative safety of Vichy France, and into the arms of one of the organisations of passeurs (such as the Pat O’Leary Line), who would guide the men across the Pyrenees. From the start her sons, Maurice and Octave, together with her young daughter Mary Ghita, were all fully signed-up members of her réseau. Her methods were simple, if brazen. Wearing her French Red Cross uniform, with her First World War medal ribbons displayed prominently on her chest (her British decorations characteristically worn ahead of her French ones), Lindell would secure permits and scarce fuel rations from the German authorities in Paris under the pretence of escorting children separated by the war across the demarcation line to be reunited with their desperate parents in the Zone Libre. The evader would often be the ‘mechanic’ accompanying her.
Relying on the upper-class courtesies practised by the overly-polite Prussian officers in the Wehrmacht’s Paris HQ, Lindell charmed and bullied them all (one of whom was Count von Bismarck, great-grandson of Germany’s first Chancellor) into acceding willingly to the humanitarian demands of the forceful, elegant, Anglo-French aristocrat, their patrician sensibilities blinding them to the truth of her deceit. A woman used to getting her own way, Lindell’s aristocratic hauteur was nonetheless underpinned by great reserves of courage and resourcefulness. The fact that she was able to march determinedly into the Paris HQ in Paris of the German commander of France, General von Stülpnagel – who had already published orders threatening to shoot men who helped evaders and send women who did likewise to concentration camps – and walk out with permits and petrol coupons to take her car out of the occupied zone powered with German fuel, suggests some measure of her courage and nerve. ‘My mother had a very narrow channel of interest,’ Maurice later said. ‘Her heart was in getting people out of France. There was no other thing.’
Mary’s approach, while flattering the social sensibilities of the Wehrmacht, did not have the same effect on the Gestapo, however. Her strident Englishness (she always carried her British passport), high-profile campaigning in her Red Cross uniform, and her loud, authoritarian approach ensured that she was soon in the sights of the counter-intelligence authorities in Paris. Arrested in 1941 on no more than suspicion of wrongdoing of one kind or another, she was held in solitary confinement in Fresnes Prison, where she was repeatedly questioned about her activities by sceptical intelligence officers who suspected that she was up to no good, but who could not put their finger on it. Perhaps with the intention of following her, she was released. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before she was rearrested Mary, disguised as a governess, followed her own escape route to Ruffec before making her way over the Pyrenees to Spain. In Barcelona she so impressed Sir Henry Farquhar, the British consul in Barcelona, that he gave her a note which allowed her to contact MI9 when she arrived in London in July 1942.
Mary’s biography was written by Barry Wynne in 1961, who interviewed his subject extensively. When questioned in 1980 about the accuracy of this biography, Mary said that it was ‘mostly’ true. No Drums, No Trumpets told the story of a woman who from the earliest days of the German occupation of France in the summer of 1940 set out single-handedly to create her own war against the occupiers by rescuing lost soldiers and downed airmen and repatriating them to Britain through Spain. She built up a terrific reputation for refusing to kow-tow to any authority – British, French or German – as well as a fierce and unrelenting loyalty to Britain.
Returning to France, she continued to work in the escape lines business but was eventually re-captured in 1943. She was shot whilst attempting to escape, and ended up being sent to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived – just – getting to Sweden in the last of the famous White Buses arranged by Count Folke Bernadotte in the dying days of the war in Europe.
She was one of the subjects of Peter Morley’s television series Women of Courage in the 1980s and in 1991 she was the subject of a Hollywood film, One Against the Wind.
But is everything Wynne was told scrupulously true? In 2014 the archives of the Paris Prefecture of Police were opened for the first time since the war. They contain some revelations which gave rise to a book in 2015 by a French journalist Marie-Laure Le Foulon. Le Foulon accused her of not being the Edwardian aristocrat she claimed to be, but the child of lower middle class parents who lived in a semi-detached house in Marlow. Nor was she legally married to the Comte de Milleville, and so was not the Comtesse de Milleville. The real Comte de Milleville was a convicted fraudster who had close links to the Germans during the war, her daughter Barbé had a Nazi lover. The killer accusation was that when eventually despatched to Ravensbrück she had an affair – to save her own life – with the half-British camp doctor, Percy Triete. Indeed, Le Foulon concluded that Lindell was a ‘false heroine’.
Are these accusations true? Do they violate her claim to be an anti-Nazi resistant? It is true that she had a common-law marriage with the Comte de Milleville and bore three of his children, but is clear that by the time of the war she was no longer in a relationship with him. She was not from an aristocratic British family, but seemed to spend her life in France passing herself off as one. She also had a love-hate relationship with France. She despised her adopted country for collapsing so easily in 1940, and hated the fact that when she was ferrying escapees to the South of France in 1940-43 she had to go through barriers manned by Frenchmen. As a result those with whom she worked in France hated her, and still do: they regard her achievements as suspicious, with the implication that her husband was closely involved with the Germans, and enabled her to get away with much. At the Nuremburg trials she aroused considerable hostility among survivors by defending Dr Percival Treite, one of the SS doctors, who she believed saved her life. Consequently many scurrilous accusations developed which accuse her of being Treite’s secret lover, emanating from one or two envious French female prisoners in the camp. The truth is that she had promised in prison to help him after the war, and she remained true to her word, despite the clamour against her.
What is undeniable was her bravery. Airey Neave and Jimmy Langley in MI9 thought extremely highly of her, Airey Neave providing a forward to Barry Wynne’s biography. So too did the many men whom she saved from Nazi incarceration, whose files sit today in the National Archives, all providing direct testimony to the courage and sacrifice of the woman whom, to a man, they regarded to be their saviour. She spent nine months in Fresnes prison in 1941/2, and was shot in the face and head whilst trying to escape in 1944, before being incarcerated in Ravensbrück. She earned the undying loyalty of scores of British servicemen who managed by her help to escape back to Britain. Two of her most famous evaders were Bill Sparks and Blondie Hasler, the surviving Cockleshell Heroes, who made a successful home run in 1943 thanks to Mary and the réseau she had created.
The two men who have done the most to research her live and resistance activities, Barry Wynne and Peter Hore are convinced of her authenticity. Barry Wynne lives today in Cyprus. I have spent several hours with him talking about Mary: he holds strongly to Mary’s truthfulness and courage.
Then Peter Hore stepped forward in 2019 with a thoroughly researched and calmly analytical book – Lindell's List: Saving British and American Women at Ravensbrück – that carefully lays out Mary Lindell’s story, warts and all. It convincingly re-establishes her reputation as one of the most extraordinary British heroines of the war. Although not Hore’s primary purpose, his book demonstrates that none of the Le Foulon allegations stand objective scrutiny. For instance, Mary acknowledged her marital irregularity to MI6 in 1942, and the Dr Percy Treite calumny had been dismissed by British Intelligence as early as 1945. The essential truth of Mary Lindell’s role as a Second World War version of Edith Cavell – one who against the odds, survived (she was shot three times; run over by a car, and nearly died in Ravensbrück) – is firmly established. By any measure Lindell was an extraordinary woman, one of those rare creatures seemingly destined to flower under extreme adversity.
She was a fantastically robust woman. Subservient to no one, her self-belief, insistence on independence of action and fierce loyalty to Britain caused her endless difficulties, and more than once served nearly to get her killed. Arguably her greatest triumph was in ensuring the survival of most of the British and Americans held in Ravensbrück in 1945, the ‘List’ that gives Hore his title.
The book is a finely crafted and balanced analysis of her unusual and complex character. She is not presented as a paragon, but a woman of her time, caught up in extraordinary events that first began when the Great War began in 1914. Hore’s work is also important in that it includes, for the first time in English, a thorough examination of the Swedish records.
Hore successfully establishes Mary as a genuine heroine of the war, the various challenges to her supposed saintliness, perhaps arising from ill-considered post-war adulation (which she never endorsed) being carefully interrogated. It is clear that although she regularly fell out with people and made a clutch of errors but those who knew her best, in Ravensbrück and before, never doubted her. Nor should we.
After the war Mary became the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society’s representative in France. She died in France in 1986, aged 92.
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