Bonnier

Claude Bonnier by Monique Bonnier Pitts

Claude Bonnier was born on November 4, 1897, a long long time ago, more than a hundred years ago. Many people who knew him thought he was an exceptional man, very courageous and of strong convictions. When he thought that something was right, he would do it, even if it was very difficult. If he thought something was wrong, he would oppose it, no matter what.

His father was a doctor, a specialist for nose, throat and ears. His mother was also a doctor, at a time when very few women were accepted as medical students, and this is how they met, during their studies. As a child he was interested in music, in writing stories, in drawing. He loved the sea and later loved aviation, planes, and motors. Once he wrote about aviation: " It is impossible not to love aviation once you have been near it. It represents audacity in sports, military heroism, intelligence applied to the worst nature challenges; it implies a permanent risk in the physical and spiritual realms... It requires a minute technical precision and has the prestige of an ideal."

He was an aeronautical engineer, and in 1937 he was director of a large factory near Paris, fabricating plane motors. He also built a station in the mountains on Mont Lachat, in the Alps, not far from Switzerland, near the Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe), to test the motors at high altitude, as if they were flying in a real plane in the air. Since it is still there, perhaps one day you can visit the station.

Claude Bonnier married Therese Renaudel and they had two girls: Nicole and Monique.  (After the war, Nicole became an attorney in Paris. Monique married Jesse Pitts, a B17 pilot, and moved to the United States. They both became professors and had four children.)

THE WAR

Everything was fine, but one day, in September 1939, when he was almost 43 years old, a bad thing happened. A war started, Germany on one side, France and England on the other. Switzerland had a long policy of remaining neutral so it did not enter the war, but a lot of people found refuge in Switzerland, sometimes having to hide while they crossed the border. Claude Bonnier was called to service by the French government, like many other French and English men, most of them younger. For a while nothing happened, but in May 1940 the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and France with a lot of tanks, planes and soldiers. They were so strong that it was very difficult to resist.

DUNKERQUE

Claude Bonnier found himself in Gravelines, near Dunkerque in the north of France (not far from where they have that tunnel under the sea that links England and France today.) The French officers and soldiers were encircled by the German troops, fighting fiercely to defend themselves. On May 28 they received the order to go to Dunkerque and be taken to England. On the beach there were French and British soldiers, all trying to leave in whatever boats were available, while the Germans were shooting at them. The British people, in order to help, put out to sea in all sorts of boats, fishing boats, military ships, small, big, and a lot of men left their homes for several days to help. They sailed to Dunkerque and rescued as many soldiers as they could and sailed back to England. They were very brave. The group commanded by Claude Bonnier finally got on a boat, loaded with men, but later, in the sea, they struck a mine and the boat was damaged. They caught fire and were brought back to Dunkerque. Soon after they left on a submarine and made the crossing to Dover, England. Eventually they returned to France in another harbor and retreated little by little all the way to the southwest where they stayed for a while. Meanwhile the French government negotiated an armistice (to stop the war) with the Germans.

THE GERMAN OCCUPATION

The Germans occupied France and people were not free anymore to do what they wanted. People could not travel anymore. Those who did had to obtain special authorizations. The only cars allowed were those belonging to doctors, shopkeepers who had to get food to sell in their shops, and of course the Germans themselves. Many French people rode bicycles or walked a lot. Buses, metro and trains were crowded. Food was scarce and you had to give tickets to buy bread, meat, sugar, milk, etc.

Because I was only 14 then, I was allowed a chocolate bar and I treasured it. At school we were given every day special cookies with vitamins. No more oranges. The bread had to be eaten right away or else it became very hard, and we had to stand in line outside the stores to wait for our turn. We ate potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, and beans, beans and beans. When you were invited, you would bring sugar and coffee or tea in small bags so that the hostess could have enough to serve everybody. We would also give her some of our meat and bread tickets.

The Jews had to wear a yellow star on their coat and were not allowed to go the movies, or concerts, or to the theater. They had to ride in the last wagon of the metro. There was a curfew between midnight and five o'clock in the morning: that means that nobody should be in the street during the curfew (except doctors) or they would be arrested. No more than three persons could chat on the sidewalk, because the Germans would think that they were plotting something.

The Germans also forced young people to travel to Germany and work in factories. Those who refused (the refractaires) had to leave their homes and hide somewhere. We set our clocks in France at the same time they did in Germany. It means that it could be daylight in Berlin, but still night in Paris. (You know that Wintertur is six hours ahead of Charlottesville; actually Paris was really two hours behind Berlin.) In winter, when we went to school in the morning, it was still dark. Electricity was cut so we started in our classrooms in the dark. The streets were not lighted anymore because of what was called the "Black Out." No lights would show anywhere at the windows so that English planes flying above France had no visible lights to guide them. Once, coming back from the movies with my mother and sister, I walked on the sidewalk straight into a wall made of sandbags that I had not seen. It hurt!

THE RESISTANCE

Claude Bonnier and others all over France thought that they just had to work at throwing the Germans out of France and be free again. That was a difficult thing to do when you have German police watching what you do all the time. On June 18, General De Gaulle, a French officer who went to London, decided to declare that France had lost a battle, but France should continue to fight. He called every Frenchman who could to join him and work alongside the British. Some responded and sailed in small fishing boats, or managed to fly away.

There is an island, the Ile de Sein, where all the men (except those too old) sailed away to England and joined De Gaulle. After the war, the whole island received the "Croix de Liberation", a very special high decoration which was also awarded to Claude Bonnier. This is what Claude Bonnier decided to do. Until then he had lived in Neuilly at home and had obtained the authorization to start a small business in Algiers (North Africa). He knew in 1942 that the Americans were going to invade North Africa, so he went to Algiers and tried after a while to join De Gaulle in London. It was not easy, but from Algeria he managed to go to London, a very long trip, made in cars, trucks, planes.

It was now June 1943. The Americans had also declared war to the Germans. They had been fighting the Germans in the deserts of Africa, as the British and the French did. They were sending troops and material to England. Arriving in England on June 11, 1943, Claude Bonnier learned how to use a parachute, with Polish instructors and was taught how to be a secret agent. He was now ready for action: in October it was decided that he would be sent to Bordeaux to organize the Resistance in the southwest region. People there were already fighting the Germans secretely, but they needed arms and support from the London headquarters.

Claude Bonnier was named Military Regional Delegate, with the code name Hypotenuse, and the rank of Lt. Colonel. He could not come back in France under his real name, that would be too dangerous for him and his family, so he took the name Templeuve (Templeuve was the name of the village where the Bonnier family originated and where the family house still stands today.) He had to reach France, either by parachuting, or by being transported by plane. The British used a small plane called Lysander, which could reduce its speed very fast near the ground and land on a very small field and take off quickly on a small distance. It was painted dark green and pale grey so as not to be seen by German planes. It had to be by moonlight. The Lysander could carry one pilot and as many as 4 passengers (very squeezed). They would land at night (they were nicknamed the "moon people"), drop their passengers from England by a small ladder on the side, take on other passengers going to England) and take off right away. Once they landed, discharched their passengers and picked up new passengers, it took less than three minutes!

On the ground in France, the resistants had to find a field big enough, on a flat and firm ground, no big trees nor deep ditches close to the landing or take off area. The ideal ground was a field where sheep or cattle grazed the grass very short. Above all: no mud. The resistants had to turn on lights at the limits of the field in three places. They had to recognize the direction of the wind.

They had to first light one lamp (point A), and once the Lysander had sighted this light and signaled with a code light, they would light the other two lights to give the outline of the field (points B and C.)

Such a field was prepared in Angeac (Charente), near Angouleme, registered as Albatros by the Royal Air Force. In order to warn the Resistants, the London BBC radio announced the operation with this message: "L'oiseau des mers prendra son vol ce soir (the sea bird will take flight tonight.)

On the night of November 14 1943, two Lysanders took off from England. The flight was named WATER PISTOL and one Lysander was piloted by Lt. Bathgate and the other by Lt McBride. On board was Claude Bonnier, Jacques Nancy and two other passengers. On the ground, waiting for the planes, were Guy Chaumet, his brother Dany, Charles Franc, Jean Mensignac, Pierre Barrere and Guy Margariti. All these men risked their life because if the Germans caught them, they would be arrested, perhaps killed. They have since, after the war, become our dear friends, forever. Guy Margariti and two other men assured protection, armed with pistols, sub machine guns and hand grenades. They watched the surroundings of the field, listened carefully for any suspicious noises. Pierre Barrere was in charge of eight passengers hiding in the bushes: one Frenchman, six British aviators and one Canadian who had been hidden in the house of Charles Franc and were waiting to return to England. Ren‚ Chabasse and Charles Franc at points B and C. Jean Mensignac was in charge of the lamp at point A.

Everything went as planned except that Claude Bonnier fell going down on the small ladder but was caught by Pierre Barrere. No one was hurt. Immediately, he and Jacques Nancy were taken to the house of Charles Franc by car, in the dark, no lights on, and they started very soon to reorganize the operations against the Germans.

THE MAQUIS  - THE ARREST

This was very dangerous work. The Germans were looking for anyone who opposed them, and when they found the resistants, they arrested them, put them in prison, tried to make them say everything they knew about the Resistance so the Germans could arrest more people. Some were killed, others were sent to Germany in camps so terrible that very few came back alive. Sometimes they would arrest a man, threaten him, offer him money if he would be on their side, and unfortunately some people agreed and became traitors. That means they pretended to still be on the side of the French and the British (we now have to add also the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes and Norwegians whose countries were occupied by the Germans) but reported everything to the Germans and took orders from them.

There was such a man close to Claude Bonnier, his radio man, whose job was to send messages to London and to receive messages from London, like the one we saw for the landing of the Lysander:" The Sea bird will take flight tonight."

But a lot of others were working with Claude Bonnier, known to them as "Hypot‚nuse". They also visited several MAQUIS, which were camps hidden in the country where resistants could live, organize operations against the Germans like exploding trains and trucks carrying munitions, practice with material they received from England, getting ready for the time when the Allies would invade France and defeat the Germans. They trained like soldiers. They also hid those young Frenchmen, the refractaires who refused to work for the Germans.

One such maquis, near Cherves-Chatelard was visited by Claude Bonnier on February 5, 1944. As he arrived, the men welcomed him with a song: Le Chant du Maquis. They stood at attention, very straight, all wearing a blue sweater, very proud. "Hypotenuse" was so impressed the he had tears in his eyes. He gave the name BIR'HACHEIM to the maquis. This name evoked a battle that the French had won against the Germans at Bir Hakeim in Africa (Lybia). Later, in the night of the 10th of February, arms were parachuted in containers in the maquis to equip the men.

It is said that because of his actions and character, many men had renewed their hope of an end to the war and belief that the Germans could be pushed back to Germany.

The Germans in Bordeaux had a secret police called Gestapo. The head of the Gestapo in Bordeaux and the whole southwest region was a very intelligent man named Dhose. His aim was to crush all resistance to the Germans and he tried to discover all the resistants. He knew of the existence of "Hypotenuse" and he wanted very much to arrest him and put a stop to his activities. Thanks to the radio man who turned traitor, they set a trap on February 9 and Claude Bonnier was arrested at the house of that traitor. He was taken to the prison of the Gestapo, interrogated. All that Claude Bonnier would answer was:" I am a French officer!" (We now know that Dhose had thought that Claude Bonnier was an English spy.) He was then locked in a cell, with his hands tied behind his back.

What follows in not a pretty story, but it has to be told. Claude Bonnier had a pill of poison concealed in his belt, and he had orders to swallow it if caught by the Germans, to insure that he would not be obliged to reveal the names of other resistants, tell where the maquis were, where the arms were hidden. That meant that this was the end of his life, that he would not see Mame and his daughters, his mother, his sister, his friends, anymore, ever. This is how we know that he was a true patriot, that he placed his duty to his country and his fellow men above his own life. He did swallow that pill, after many efforts to put it out of the belt. His hands being tied made it very difficult. When Dhose learned of what happened, he said: "He was a leader!" He meant that Claude Bonnier had behaved as an exemplary citizen of France and was someone that other men would trust and willingly obey his orders.

In June 1944, on a very rainy lousy day, the Americans, the British, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes, the Norwegians and a few Polish soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, thousands and thousands of them, helped by lots of planes who bombed the Germans, preceded by paratroopers who landed at night, silently dropped by gliders (planes without motors). It was a fierce battle and it was not sure that they could go beyond the beaches for a while. Finally they did it and that was the beginning of the end for the Germans. Little by little the Germans retreated all the way to Berlin and Peace was declared on May 8 1945. By then a lot of people had died in many countries.

Much later, in 1954, after that war that the Germans lost (it is called World War II), Claude Bonnier was buried in the crypt of the National Memorial of the Resistance, in Chasseneuil (Charente). On August 31 1984, there was a ceremony at Angeac-sur-Charente, on a corner of the field Albatros, to inaugurate a monument explaining that this is where he landed in a Lysander.

He gave his life for his country so that we could all be free. All of us who live in freedom owe some gratitude for all the people who, like Claude Bonnier, sacrificed their life so our way of life could exist. The people of France to show their gratitude, dedicated a 62 km road (more than the distance between Zurich and Winterthur). The road is called ROUTE CLAUDE BONNIER, Chemin de la Liberte‚ (Freedom Road), which starts at Angeac, goes through Angouleme, and ends at Chasseneuil. Every kilometer there is a marker with his name on it.

There is a lot more to say, but that can wait for your questions. But remember that Claude Bonnier still lives in the heart and the mind of many people who respected him, admired him and loved him.