“THE GIRL PARTISAN OF CHARTRES”
Born in Thivars, a small village near the French city of Chartres. She had three brothers. Her father, Robert, a decorated hero from the First World War, had become a farmer.
Simone left school aged 14 to work on the family farm.
Shortly after the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Simone (aged 17) met ‘Lieutenant Roland’, a member of the French Resistance -and he recruited her. His real name was Roland Boursier. He was from Caen and had escaped from a German labour camp.
During his escape he had killed a German soldier and was in hiding in her parent’s farm (her father was aiding the Resistance). Roland asked her if she would be his ‘runner’, carrying messages for him. He then asked Simone if she was scared. She replied, “No, it would please me to kill the Boche.”
Roland was a member of the ‘Francs-Tireurs et Partisans’, the communist part of the resistance. From then on, they had their meetings at the Segouin farm. There were 40 people in his resistance group and he split them into 4 groups of 10. Simone was delighted to be involved. “My father fought for France against the Germans and now I can do the same.”
Her mother and brothers were not active in the resistance.
She was given the nom-de-guerre of Nicole Minet and was supplied with false papers. It said she had come from Dunkirk. This town had been so badly bombed by the Nazis, that all its records had been destroyed. If anyone tried to check up on her fictitious past they would have been unable to do so.
Roland taught her how to use weapons, especially the machine gun. Up to the moment she joined the Resistance she had never held a gun, let alone fired one.
She stole a bicycle from a Nazi patrol who had stopped for a drink in a hotel. She slashed the tyres of all the other bikes belonging to the patrol so she could make a getaway. She resprayed the bike (it was khaki, she painted it blue), so that it wouldn’t be recognised and used it as her transport for the rest of the war, calling it her ‘reconnaissance vehicle’ whilst pretending to be delivering baguettes around the neighbourhood. The reality was she was delivering messages.
There was a weapon shortage amongst the resistance, so she stole a German sub machine gun – and used it for the rest of the war.
She was initially given small jobs but quickly graduated to a higher level – blowing up trains, sabotage (particularly blowing up bridges) and assassination. Later on, near the end of the war, she captured a group of 25 Nazi soldiers. “It felt good as we knew we would have our country back from occupation”.
She was involved in an attack on two German soldiers on bikes – both were killed. Years later she was asked if she had killed them. She said she was one of three people shooting at them so it could have been any of them. But she did express remorse. “You shouldn’t have to kill someone like that. It’s true the Germans were our enemies and it was the war but I don’t draw any pride from it.” Nevertheless, she took the German’s papers and hid them at the farm.
Meanwhile, she had fallen deeply in love with Lieutenant Roland (who was 20 years older than her). They would ultimately have six children but never got married. All their offspring bore her surname.
Simone insisted on attending the funerals of other people who had been killed resisting occupation, despite the risk of capture. She attended 38 such funerals throughout the war.
As France was being liberated in 1944, the American ‘Life’ magazine sent journalist Jack Beldon and photographer Robert Capa into the country.
In Chartres, Capa spotted Simone. She was wearing her usual shorts and cap (her standard attire throughout the war) and was eating a jam baguette. She was holding her machine gun. He thought she would be the perfect subject for an article. He invited her to dinner but as they were talking another resistance member shouted that they had found some Nazis hiding in the woods. Simone was immediately spirited away. Capa had lost her.
But he saw her again the next day, trading guns with American soldiers. They wanted French guns as souvenirs, she wanted more efficient American guns to keep fighting the retreating enemy.
And Life magazine got their article and pictures (published 4th September 1944).
Beldon’s article was entitled ‘The Girl Partisan of Chartres’. He said, “I could find no trace of what is conventionally known as ‘toughness’ in Nicole. After routine farm life she finds her present job thrilling and exhilarating. Now that war is passing her beyond her home district, she does not think of going back to the farm. She wants to go on with the partisans and help free the rest of France.”
The photographs of Robert Capa made Simone famous throughout the world. She was just 19 at the time. She instantly became the most famous woman in the French Resistance, but was keen to make it clear she was just one of many women fighting for the freedom of her country.
What nobody realised was she had been caught on film by Hollywood director George Stevens. He was employed as official war photographer with General Patten’s ‘Third Army’. He was charged with making an official (black and white) film of the American Army’s progress – but he also secretly filmed scenes he saw on a colour camera. In 1980 his film was discovered – and there are pictures of Simone, in action.
She was present at the liberation of Chartres on the 23rd August 1944 and at the liberation of Paris just two days later. “I was proud to march into Paris as a resistance fighter.” Even at this stage the partisans were fighting street by street and were being attacked by German snipers.
She was particularly delighted to find herself walking into the liberated city next to the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle.
As soon as the whole of France was liberated from occupation, women were given the vote, as a thank you for their wartime contribution.
After the war she was immediately promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and also won the Croix de Guerre.
She then became a paediatric nurse in her home city.
In the 1950s, Simone and Roland split up.
She lived in the nearby village of Courville-sur-Eure, where a street was named after her. She said, “I’m very glad to know that people are not indifferent to that period of my life.”
She would quite happily take people on a tour of the city of Chartres, pointing out the bridges she had previously blown up.
In 2016, she was awarded the ‘Soldiering On’ International Award by the British organisation of the same name. Her citation said, “You showed exemplary courage and devotion to the vital work carried out by the French Resistance during the Second World War and were an inspiration to your fellow countrymen and women – and to us in Britain, helping us to continue the fight – and you remain an inspiration to this day.”
She was thrilled by this award but her acceptance speech was very short. “This is very kind. Merci beaucoup, Britain.”
In 2020, the village hall in Thivars was named after her.
The following year there was a documentary about her on French television, and once again she became a national hero. She was made a Knight of the Legion d’Honneur, the highest possible award in France.
She said, “I was a Resistance fighter, that’s all. But if I had to do it all again I would, because I don’t regret anything.”
When Simone died, French President Emmanuel Macron issued a statement from the Elysee Palace. “The President of France salutes the memory of a woman who risked everything to defend our universal values and liberate France.”
She was the last surviving French Resistance member in the Eure-et-Loir region.
RIP – Resistance Images & Photographs