16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

NICOLA TRAHAN, aged 97

SCHOOLGIRL SECRET AGENT

Born Nicole Trahan in Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais region of France, her mother was English teacher Jeanne Marie Bourzes. Her father was Andre Trahan, supposedly an insurance agent but in reality, a wheeler dealer businessman who was involved in many ‘ventures’.

The family were of Hugenot origin, with ancestors in the silk trade. There was a connection with Liverpool (some predecessors had fled there to avoid persecution in France). Andre also claimed some Scottish blood.

Nicole grew up bilingual – fluent in both French and English.

She was sent to a pacifist school in the Haute-Loire, a region in south central France. The area had a reputation for resistance to political and religious persecution. Tolerance of everybody was the school’s core value and Nicole adopted similar beliefs.

She was still at school when the Nazis invaded France. Her parents immediately fled to England, going initially to Cheshire. They sent for Nicole.

After a short while, her parents decided it would be beneficial if Nicole continued her schooling in France, so they sent her back. She went to a school in Valencay, between Poitiers and Orleans. This was carefully chosen as it was in Vichy France – in other words, not occupied by the Nazis.

She volunteered to drive an ambulance but was told she was far too young.

Nevertheless, Nicole joined the FFI (Forces Francais de l’interior), a Gaullist French resistance organization based in London. They were known as the ‘Armee Secret’. Nicole was just 13 years old.

She got to know the area in and around Valencay extremely well, acting as a courier.

In November 1942, German and Italian troops moved in and occupied the area, supported by the local Gendarmerie. Nicole’s parents pulled her out of her school and brought her back to England.

By now, they had moved to the Lancashire coast, so Nicole was sent to school in Fylde.

Nicole was determined to be active in the French Resistance. She heard about the SOE (Special Operations Executive).

This organization had been created by Winston Churchill when the Nazis invaded most of western Europe. The aim was, “to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants in sabotage and subversion.”

Churchill put it more succinctly – “Set Europe ablaze!”

Nicole was determined to join them and pestered her parents to allow her to do so. Eventually they just gave in.

She was interviewed in Manchester by a mysterious man named ‘Major Tom’. Nicole was just 15 years old. The SOE were clearly bending the rules (which they often did). Being fluent in French, the SOE snapped her up.

Nicole started parachute training on her sixteenth birthday. It was at RAF Ringway (which is nowadays Manchester Airport). She absolutely loved it. She said she was so young that she knew no fear. There were other types of training as well.

She later reflected, “A teenage girl was far less likely to arouse suspicion than a brawny young man.”

In the first week of December 1943, just before a full moon, Nicole was sent on her first mission. She was given the codename ‘Teddy’.

Nicole was sent to Valencay because she knew the region so well. She had no idea what she carried with her (typically for SOE agents, it was codebooks and money).

Valencay was in the SOE area nicknamed ‘Wrestler’, handled by a lady called Pearl Witherington. The French Resistance name for the area was ‘North Indre’.

Pearl Witherington (courtesy History Hit))

Nicole’s mission was successful, and she was there for two weeks before being recalled – the other side of the full moon.

She was home in time for her 17th birthday.

Nicole was sent back to her parents’ home in Blackpool for ‘a holiday’. It was unpaid leave.

Six weeks later, her parents received a mysterious phone call asking for ‘Teddy’. Her parents had no idea who Teddy was – so she was forced to tell them. Nicole was recalled to service.

She was picked up at a chosen rendezvous and driven to an unknown destination, prior to her next flight to France. It was a long, uncomfortable journey in the back of a truck  because all the road signs had been taken down for the duration of the war.

Unbeknown to Nicole, the destination was a country house called Tempsford (in Bedfordshire), which had been commandeered by the SOE. There, she was briefed on her next mission, given parcels to deliver and was checked over to ensure she looked truly French.

She was dropped in Champagnole, 250 miles east of the Wrestler/North Indre area.

The pilots of the planes that dropped SOE operatives into France, called their passengers ‘Joes’ (be they male or female). They had no idea who they actually were.

One pilot said, “We sometimes dropped agents in the dark period with no moon…what we called blind drops. There was no reception committee on the ground.”

The planes were known as the ‘Moon Squadron’.

Champagnole was close to the Swiss border. There, Nicole was involved in smuggling Jews out of France and into Switzerland. She paid two more trips to this area. Whilst there, she also helped Allied airmen find safe houses.

Everything changed after D-Day (6th June 1944). The French Resistance (Maquis) started working closely with British forces and the SOE.

“All of the work that was being undertaken by the networks in France was to disrupt the German occupation, but also to disrupt their advance to the north of the country.”

Nicole was sent back to the Valencay region (the Wrestler area). She became a courier between two command posts, delivering messages on her bike twice daily. On the way, she collected information from behind German lines.

One commander noted, Nicole was always late. The other pointed out she stopped by the roadside to have lunch, watching German soldiers. “Don’t worry. It provides us with valuable information.”

She said, “I passed as a young French girl because I was a young French girl.”

As the situation in France got more desperate, Nicole found herself in charge of a small group of resistance fighters. She loved a fight. “I really liked ambushes: when we put together a team and went off in full truck load. I had a revolver and a machine gun.”

On one occasion, her section overpowered a bigger group of Nazi soldiers. She personally wounded two of the enemy with her Sten gun. However, Nicole realised she was not a military leader and continually asked for a more experienced soldier to co-ordinate the struggle.

Finally, Pearl Witherington was able to send the North Indre Maquis, a former French army officer, Francis Perdriset.

“Finally, after I had asked repeatedly, to my great relief an officer had arrived.”

Perdriset led a bitter struggle against the notorious  Second SS Panzerdivision das Reich, who were trying to work their way towards Normandy. The Germans were fresh from the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, where they had murdered everybody.

They virtually destroyed all Valencay as well. Nicole was in the town when it was attacked – and flattened.

Francis Perdriset was captured and put against a wall. He expected to be shot but inexplicably was released.

Meanwhile, Nicole shifted over to work for the Maquis’ medical team.

She was once stopped by a German patrol. She managed to scrunch up her FFI (Resistance) papers into a ball and eat them, before being searched.

At peril to her own life – FFI certificate (courtesy BBC)

When the war was over and France was liberated, Nicole was immediately awarded the Croix de Guerre (with palm). She had been recommended by Francis Perdriset. She was asked why she had courted such danger. “It was what I had to do.”

Perdriset also sent Nicole’s mother a letter, explaining exactly what her daughter had done in the war. He wanted her to know that Nicole was a real hero.

Nicole went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. She was to abandon her course, saying, “Philosophy does not cure toothache.”

Instead, she trained to be a nurse, firstly in Paris, then in Manchester and finally worked at Brighton Hospital.

Her next job was as a health visitor in Cumbria, followed by nursing at the American hospital at Neilly in Paris.

In 1957, she was awarded British citizenship. She immediately anglicized her first name to become ‘Nicola’.

As Nicola missed the military life, she joined the SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors and Airman’s Family Association). Nicola worked for them for the next thirty years as a midwife, in Germany, Belgium and Hong Kong. She never married.

She was awarded the MBE in 1989.

When she retired, she looked for somewhere to live. “It had to be in army country after such a long relationship with the services.”

Nicola moved to the village of Orcheston, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. There, she spent another twenty years volunteering with the SSAFA.

Orcheston Church (courtesy Expedia)

Nicola loved swimming and walking her dog, carrying a “magnificent heavy stick.” A close neighbour said, “If I met Nicola in a dark alley so to speak, it wouldn’t be me coming out alive at the other end.”

For 28 years, she was a volunteer at Salisbury Cathedral, working in the gift shop (mainly on Fridays).

Nicola was delighted when her village of Orcheston, appointed a French curate, the Reverend Stephane Javelle. The two became extremely close friends.

Having been a secret agent and always in disguise, Nicola had never been given her parachute ‘wings’. To her delight, she was presented with these in 2017, at the Army Air Museum in Hampshire.

That same year, she was awarded the Medaille de la Reconnaisance Francaise, given to, “anyone without legal or military obligation who had come to the aid of the French nation.”

Nicola died aged 97 and is one of the last survivors of the Special Operations Executive (it is believed she might be the last one to have been parachuted into France). However, there is very little evidence of what she actually did. She rarely spoke about her wartime experiences.

Women of the SOE (courtesy Goodreads)

Her ‘P’ file (personnel), at the SOE headquarters at Kew, cannot be found. Many files were  were destroyed in a fire in 1945. Others were ‘weeded out’ after the war.

However, her French file does still exist – which is how we know part of her story.

Her friends said she was very humble, but also ‘a dark horse’.

One close friend said, “She was given things to take, messages to take and sometimes she took a suitcase of what she believed was money.”

The churchwarden in her parish said, “She was arguably part of one of the biggest influences on the Allies keeping their hold on the Normandy beaches.”

He added, “She had a humanity, humbleness, vast generosity, absolute toughness – but also a real sense of humour for one who appeared so serious.”

The manager of the Cathedral gift shop said, “She was a great character. Very dry sense of humour, very no-nonsense, crack on with it sort of person. I’m not at all surprised that she did so many great things. She was a very strong character.”

Amongst her effects, a newspaper from 1947 was found. It showed the Nazi destruction of Valencay. On the front page, Nicola’s mother (Jeanne Marie) had written (in English), ‘The fact that my girl saw the horror of it all and that she might have been through martyrdom had she been discovered, makes these views look more tragic to me than any other ones.’

There is a memorial in Valencay, to the 91 Special Operations Executive members who sacrificed their lives for freedom. Nicola always considered herself lucky not to be on it.

Valencay SOE memorial (courtesy Wikipedia)

At Nicola’s funeral, Canon Eleanor Rance from Salisbury Cathedral said, “Nicola was so unassuming in life that many of her neighbours and fellow parishioners knew little of her wartime experiences until she died.”

Nicola left her body to science – “Still contributing to society.”

RIP – Resistance Involved Parachutes

 

 

 

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