In the late fall of 1943 Virginia D’Albert-Lake and her husband Phillipe were contacted by a local baker in the town of Nesles, France where they were living at the time. He asked the couple if they would come to his shop to meet some strangers.
Virginia was a young American teacher who met Philippe d’Albert-Lake in 1936 while traveling in France. Philippe was from a family of substantial means with two apartments in Paris and a home in Brittany. They were married in 1937 and moved to a small cottage in Nesles, north of Paris.
The strangers the baker asked them to meet were several downed American pilots that he was hiding until he could arrange their return to England. He asked the young couple if they could help. They agreed to do what they could.
Virginia and Phillipe contacted the French Resistance to organize their return to England via the Comet escape line, a key part of the Resistance that transported downed airman through France, across the Pyrenees, into Spain and eventually back to England where they could resume their missions.
Returning military servicemen to England was a crucial part of the wartime effort since it took considerable time and money to train new airman. It is estimated that 4,000 Allied airmen were successfully returned to England by means of the Comet escape line before the D-Day landings in 1944. It is also believed that at least 12,000 individuals took part in this highly risky wartime activity.
Virginia was one of three American women who participated in the French Resistance and is thought to be the only one who has provided a first-hand account of her experiences in her diary and memoir An American Heroine in the French Resistance.
In this account she makes it clear that she did not join the Resistance out of any deep political conviction, but rather because she “was simply doing the right thing.” No matter her motivation, she “had a share” in helping to ensure the successful escape of approximately 200 downed Allied airman. Much of this work involved providing the aviators shelter and assistance in Paris, moving them to secret hideouts in apartments there, or at a hidden forest encampment south of Paris.
It was on one of these risky journeys south of Paris that the Germans captured her. At the time she was on a scouting expedition ahead of the group of airmen she was escorting to the hideaway. She spent the next eleven months in one German camp after another finally ending up at the “infamous” Ravensbruck concentration camp where she almost died.
In her memoir Virginia describes a premonition she had just before she was captured:
“Something broke inside me. I knew somehow that it was all over. There was no more reason to hope. The sun that only a few moments ago was so bright and warm, now seemed eclipsed by a grey fog….I had no choice but to stand there in the center of the dusty road, grip my [bicycle] handle bars, and wait.”
While she participated in the Resistance barely a year, the tasks she undertook were both dangerous and significant. After the war was over, she received numerous awards from the Allied governments including the United States Metal of Honor, the Order of the British Empire and the Legion of Honneur, France’s highest honor.
I imagine of equal if not more personal importance to her was the gratitude expressed by the many airmen whose life she had saved, as well as those concentration survivors who after the war testified to her “courage” and “generosity.”
Note: I am grateful to Judy Litoff for the background information she provided in the Introduction to An American Heroine in the French Resistance.