Marguerite Garden (Vourc'h)
Scottish Grandmother who as a 14 year old schoolgirl in occupied Brittany, risked her life daily helping Allied airman escape and also worked as a courier for British military intelligence
Born: January 25th 1926 at Plomodiern. Died: May 5th 2010. Age 84.
In August 1940 Marguerite Vourc’h, as she then was, returned home from boarding school in Paris to find her home village of Plomodiern, in western Brittany, occupied by German troops. Though the Resistance was virtually non-existent at the time, her father, Antoine, the local doctor, sought out sympathisers on his rounds; meanwhile Marguerite, in pretended innocence, established from her friends where their families’ sympathies lay.
When her brother Jean returned home from the war, she helped him and some friends escape to England disguised as fishermen. They soon returned to Brittany, trained and with a couple of radios.
Perched on a hillside, about three miles from the coast, Plomodiern was the perfect spot from which to track the movements of German boats in the Bay of Dournenez, and Marguerite soon showed her true potential.
For days on end she would cycle round the local coastline, gathering intelligence on soldiers, boats and mines, which was duly relayed to MI6. Increasingly, her work brought her into contact with the Resistance as she helped deliver false identity cards to the networks. No one took a 14-year-old schoolgirl on holiday for a spy, and she managed to continue her work even after part of the family home was commandeered to billet Gestapo and Wehrmacht officers in January 1941.
One day she was going to collect eggs and spotted a tall mast with strange wires in a local field. The farmer’s wife, assuming she was just a nosy child, told her it was for sending messages to the German submarines. Within three days the RAF had destroyed the mast.
During term time Marguerite continued to study in Paris, but at half-term and holidays she would resume her spying. School provided her with perfect cover for carrying messages and parcels between her local Resistance network and another in Paris. When she returned to Paris, hidden among her school books were folders bulging with military information. “There was no reason to suspect me,” she recalled. “I was a young girl, travelling to my school. I was never arrested.”
As the war progressed, Marguerite became involved in helping Allied airmen escape to Britain by hiding them in lobster boats. She also passed on information about German ship positions which a family friend, a Madame Le Roux, managed to extract from an unsuspecting harbourmaster.
When Madame Le Roux was arrested at the Vourc’h family home, the Germans at first failed to make any connection. But, fearful of what she might say under interrogation, Marguerite’s father made his escape, eventually finding his way to North Africa. When the Gestapo eventually turned up on the family doorstep Marguerite’s mother informed them that he had abandoned his family. They believed her and Marguerite did not come under suspicion.
As the war approached its denouement Marguerite and her mother were joined by Jean-Claude Camors (code-named Raoll), a Resistance friend of her brother.
Together they planned an operation to repatriate some 40 Allied airmen who were then hiding in Brittany.
The airmen were duly assembled, but before they could put the plan into action, Raoll was recognised by a German double agent and shot. His death meant Marguerite and her mother had to find a place to hide the airmen and a way to feed them. They approached the local priest, who agreed to hide them in his church. The men hid there for days, while the Resistance waited for a chance to get them home.
The successful escape of the airmen, however, was to be the undoing of Marguerite as, when the men arrived in Britain, the BBC broadcast a coded message that the “fourth son of a doctor of Brittany” had arrived. It was too obviously a reference to Marguerite’s family, and the Gestapo soon came calling once again.
Marguerite was at school at the time and her mother was visiting the Breton town of Quimper. Warned by friends not to come home, they hid in a run-down apartment in Paris.
But Marguerite’s younger sisters, aged four, six and eight, were left behind and had to face the wrath of the Gestapo: “They’d wake the girls up in the middle of the night, holding their rifles to the girls’ faces,” Marguerite recalled. “They would do anything they could to terrify them into saying where mother was. But it didn’t work.”
A few months later Paris was liberated.
The sixth of nine children, Marguerite Vourc’h was born on January 25 1926 at Plomodiern, in the Finistère department, where her father was both the village doctor and a local councillor. A veteran of the First World War, he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’honneur. Marguerite was educated locally and at the Maison d’education de la Légion d’honneur at St Denis, just outside Paris.
After emerging from hiding during the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Marguerite had the harrowing task of locating and bringing back to her mother the body of her brother Jean, who had been mortally wounded at Versailles during the battle for Paris.
After the war she went on to study Architecture at the Beaux Arts in Paris, but cut her studies short when she met James Garden, a Scottish army surgeon visiting Paris on holiday. She followed him to Scotland against the wishes of her father, and they married in 1949, eventually settling in Lanark, where her husband became a prominent orthopaedic surgeon.
A keen amateur naturalist, Marguerite Garden was a prime mover in founding the Corehouse Nature Reserve, which is now run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and supported many other conservation projects in South Lanarkshire. She served for many years in the Red Cross and worked tirelessly in collecting funds each year for the Poppy Appeal for the Royal British Legion.
After the war she received a handwritten letter of thanks from the Air Chief Marshal for her help in securing the freedom of many of his men, but for many decades her story went untold for the simple reason that she had remained true to her orders to remain silent.
In 2003, however, her contribution was recognised belatedly by the French government and she was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. In the same year she was nominated for a “Woman of the Year” award, and in 2004 her story formed part of a BBC2 documentary, Crafty Tricks of War. “It wasn’t bravery, it was necessity,” she recalled. “It was sad and frightening. But there was something about those days, maybe it was the adrenalin. I have never been so alive.”
Marguerite Garden’s husband predeceased her in 1992, and she is survived by her seven children.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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