We often think of spying in World War II as something that is done alone by one intrepid and very courageous individual. The movies and spy novels have created a myth of James Bond and other cartoonish spies that are able to do amazing things working alone. But in almost all cases, the spies who were able to do serious damage to the German and Axis war efforts were working with an underground network of secretive operatives, any of which could be considered just as amazing and courageous as any movie hero you ever met.
In 1940, the German occupation of France was massive and overwhelming. But an underground network of operatives worked to undo the efforts of the occupying army and it was their effort that in many ways made the difference in the final liberation of France and then all of Europe. That underground army later became known as the French Underground.
The names that got attached to this coordinated network of resistance fighters were as diverse as they were legend. They varied from being called partisans, freedom fighters or the maquis. But with the allied attack on France in 1944, the scattered nature of dozens of small pockets of insurgents coalesced into what became known in popular circles as the French Resistance.
These bold partisans became skilled at acts of espionage and insurgency even though for the most part they were routine citizens who simply would not allow their country to be dominated by the Nazis. It is amazing to think that an event such as the occupation of France could turn normal citizens like you and I into literally an army of spies against the occupying force but that is exactly what happened. At first the Gestapo was able to combat the French Resistance fairly easily by simply infiltrating and then breaking up small cell groups.
It didn’t take long for the underground to develop sophisticated methods to communicate and to foil the effort of the Nazis to make headway in stopping the network. A well design methodology of communicating across the country using coded messages placed in public places like newspapers became a hidden telegraph system that seemed to go completely unnoticed by the Nazis. It is worthwhile to observe that it was group that we currently look down on such as the communists and the socialists who became partners with the underground even using their publications to broadcast coded resistance messages. They all had one thing in common which was a deeply held dislike of the Nazis.
Next to their ingenious communications system, the pyramid structure of authority of the French Resistance became a nightmare for the Gestapo to defeat. Each level of the resistance only knew of the existence of the next level. That meant that it was not possible to capture one freedom fighter and learn about the entire underground infrastructure. And because the resistance was highly mobile and changeable, by the time the Gestapo seemed to be ready to lay their hands on the resistance, it slipped out of their grasp again.
The French Underground has become a classic study in how to develop an internal system of espionage in any situation. While some who are up to no good have used this knowledge as well, that does not take away from our admiration for what the French Resistance was able to do to help liberate France and defeat the Nazis nor our gratitude for their courage in continuing the fight until victory was achieved.