French Resistance heroine Andrée Peel 'Agent Rose'
French Resistance heroine Andrée Peel ‘Agent Rose’
Born: February 3 1905. France. Died: March 5th 2010 Age: 105
Right: Andrée Peel (photo courtesy SWNS)
Andrée Peel, who died on March 5 aged 105, was a much-decorated heroine of the French Resistance, known as Agent Rose, she helped dozens of British and American pilots escape from occupied Europe and only escaped death at the hands of the Nazis by the skin of her teeth.
When the Germans invaded France, Andrée Virot, as she then was, was in her mid 30s and running her own beauty salon in the Breton port of Brest. Her first act of defiance took place as German troops entered the town, when she gave shelter to a group of fleeing French soldiers and begged her neighbours for civilian clothes for them so they would not be captured. She was subsequently amazed – and disconcerted – to find that German soldiers of all ranks had been taught fluent French and that some even spoke Breton.
When General de Gaulle declared in his famous broadcast of June 18 1940 that “France has lost a battle, but she has not lost the war,” Andrée and some friends got together to type out the message and slip copies through people’s letterboxes. She soon became involved in the Resistance, circulating the organisation’s clandestine newspaper. Within weeks she was made head of an under-section of the organisation, responsible for sending information to the Allies.
Brest was an important naval base, and information about shipping movements was vital to the Allied war effort. By establishing contacts in the dockyard, Andrée was able to pass on information about naval installations, as well as about troop movements and the results of Allied aerial attacks.
These were mainly directed at the harbour area, but many bombs missed their target and fell on the town. No one blamed the Allies. She recalled one man whose house had been destroyed leaping with joy when he found that his precious radio, on which he listened to the BBC, had survived intact. On another occasion she came across a group of teenage boys singing “What joy, Tommy, now that we are united at last” to a well known tune, as British bombs rained all around.
During her three years with the Resistance – during which she was known first as Agent X and then as Agent Rose – Andrée helped save the lives of more than 100 Allied pilots. Her team used torches to guide Allied planes to improvised landing strips and smuggled fugitive airmen aboard submarines and gunboats on remote parts of the coast, often feeling their way in the dark past German coastal shelters.
The work was extremely dangerous. Any family found harbouring an Allied airman risked being shot and in 1943 Andree herself was forced to leave Brest after a comrade (who had been forced to watch his family being tortured by the Gestapo) informed on her.
She fled to Paris and assumed another identity, but a week after D-Day she was again betrayed by a comrade, who confessed under torture. She was arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters where she was stripped naked, interrogated and subjected to a series of tortures, including simulated drowning and being savagely beaten around the throat. As a result her gullet was displaced and her tonsils crushed. She continued to suffer pain for the rest of her life.
Eventually she and other prisoners were transported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück where, on arrival, they were forced to strip and frogmarched into what she later realised was a gas chamber. She never discovered why they were released since many others lost their lives. She noticed later that the camp did a brisk trade with local farmers who bought the ash from the camp crematorium to spread on their fields.
Andrée narrowly escaped death on several more occasions. She fell ill with what a doctor told her was meningitis, but recovered. Then, during the daily roll call, she was selected for the gas chamber but was saved by a Polish fellow inmate who crept up to a table and snatched up the piece of paper with Andrée’s number on it without being seen by the SS.
Eventually she was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp where life seemed easier, initially at least, and she was able to send messages to her family in Brest via French prisoners-of-war working in the fields outside.
But, as the Allies closed in towards the end of April 1945, it became obvious that the Nazis were determined to obliterate evidence of their crimes. By the time she and a group of fellow prisoners were lined up against a wall, they had heard that some prisoners had been shot and others killed with flame throwers, so they had little doubt what was in store.
As a firing squad drew near, she wrote later, the terrified prisoners heard a telephone ringing in the camp commandant’s office. It was a message from the Americans to the effect that the firing squad had been seen entering the camp and that if they wanted to live, they would spare the lives of the prisoners. The soldiers fled.
Andrée Peel was awarded the Croix de Guerre (with Palm), the Croix de Guerre (Silver Star), the Cross of the Voluntary Fighter, the Medal of the Resistance, the Liberation Cross – all French awards – as well as the American Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Eisenhower, and the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, given by George VI.
After the war she received a personal letter from Winston Churchill congratulating her on her work. Much later, at age of 99, she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, receiving the award from her own brother, General Maurice Virot, a retired four-star general.
After her release from Buchenwald, Andrée returned to Paris where she was welcomed by crowds singing the Marseillaise, and fulfilled a promise made in 1944 to make a pilgrimage to the Sacré Coeur church in Montmartre to thank God for her deliverance.
Andrée Marthe Virot was born on February 3 1905 into a religious and deeply patriotic French family. Her father was a civil engineer who specialised in building bridges. When she returned to a devastated Brest after the war, she learned that he had been killed after walking too close to a German soldier who was fishing using hand grenades. A brother had also lost his life in Germany while fighting in the ranks of the Free French.
She returned to Paris where she became the manager of La Caravelle, a restaurant near the Luxembourg Gardens specialising in “first class cuisine at acceptable prices”. News that she was a former Resistance worker attracted many clients including leading politicians and former Allied servicemen.
One day a young English student called John Peel came into the restaurant. He was supposed to be learning French, but his accent was so comical that Andrée offered to give him lessons. Though he was 20 years her junior, a relationship developed, and they ended up getting married. Her husband made his career as a neuropsychologist at Barrow Gurney mental hospital in Bristol and they settled in a village nearby.
Andrée always felt she had been born with a special gift: “Very often I could feel a kind of electric current at my fingertips, sometimes extremely hot, and this current passed out of my hands into the air. When I wanted to concentrate it and intensify it, my wish was granted”. In Bristol she laid her “electric” hands on a woman who had been injured after stumbling on the stairs and discovered she had the gift of healing. “My future path had opened in front of me as if I had been guided thereto by some divine order,” she recalled. She established herself as a healer and dietitian, building up a faithful list of clients.
Though Andrée Peel always kept the striped blue-and-grey tunic she had been forced to wear in the concentration camps, she never intended to write a book about her experiences until it was suggested that by doing so she would be telling the stories of those who had not survived. Her autobiography, Miracles Do Happen, appeared in 1999.
When she celebrated her centenary, Andrée Peel said: “I still feel like a woman of 50. I think that time has forgotten me.” The secret to a happy life, she observed, was a good companion – and eating the main meal of the day at lunchtime.
Her husband predeceased her.
We salute the immortal memory of a true heroine and of the heroines and heroes of the French Resistance!
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.