The Story Of Michael Trotobas

Margie Hofman

(Photograph taken from ©Danièle Lheureux,
 La Résistance "Action-Buckmaster".
Sylvestre-Farmer with cpt Michel, Le Jay bleu,
editors, 2002)

(c) Copyright 1998 by Margie Hofman
(Photograph taken from ©Danièle Lheureux, La Résistance "Action-Buckmaster". Sylvestre-Farmer with cpt Michel, Le Jay bleu, editors, 2002)

Who was the hero Michael Trotobas?

He was born in France , his mother was English and father French. He spoke both languages fluently and finished his education in a religious school in Northern France.

He joined the British Army in March 1933 and was sent to the depot of the Middlesex Regiment at Mill Hill London. The Middlesex was made up of Londoners so Michael with his slight accent stood out from the rest. Under the care of his sergeant he quickly became proficient and was recognised as a born leader. He achieved things quickly although not always in the regular way. He was a good machine gunner and always wanted to be better at everything.

In 1937 Trotobas was promoted to sergeant. The Middlesex Regiment (nicknamed The Diehards) were in camp at Marlborough when war was declared and were soon sent to France. Trotobas and his company took over a large disused factory at Gondecourt and, being French speaking, he soon became friendly with many local people and with others as far away as Lille , these contacts were later to prove valuable.

In January 1940 Trotobas' platoon was deployed in front of the Maginot Line and spent a month on roving patrol. When the Germans invaded Belgium the battalion moved up to Louvain where Trotobas' platoon of machine gunners took up positions in the Station Square. Trotobas sent Alf Thomas and another man with an anti tank rifle the other side of the railway with orders to fire on German tanks and block the road.

Next day, fighters strafed the position ignoring the hundreds of refugees. He ordered a machine gun to be mounted on a vehicle for use as an ack ack gun. Shortly after the German fighters returned on another strafing run and one plane was shot down.

Forced back from Louvain and chafing under the German pressure, Trotobas asked Thomas to go with him on a raid into the outskirts of Louvain. Thomas was getting his fighting gear together when Trotobas said "You won't need that" and gave him a longbow and arrows he had found in a local house. Thomas did sling his rifle across his back and Trotobas had a revolver. They fired three arrows at Germans, killing two of them. What the local German commander thought about soldiers being killed by an arrow can only be imagined.

As enterprising as he was daring, Trotobas took over an abandoned car, a large black saloon, had the rear window knocked out and mounted a machine gun in the back. A Jewish Diehard, Private Izzar, was detailed as driver; Trotobas, unconventional himself, did not object when Izzar gave himself a gangster outfit of fur coat and a bowler hat.

Alf Thomas remembers: "We kept moving back towards the beaches and took up positions in an old farm house north of Furnes. Hundreds of planes passed overhead to bomb Lille. A thousand yards away was a German held village and Michael took over a machine gun and shot everything in sight. He must have created havoc because later we took a terrific beating from enemy mortars. We then moved on"

In difficult circumstances Trotobas extricated his platoon and rejoined his company on a beach leading to Dunkirk. Here he and Thomas were wounded by roving enemy fighter planes. They were separated but both reached England and joined their reformed unit. When Thomas last saw Michael Trotobas he was sitting in the churchyard of Wimborne Minster making a painting of the church. Trotobas was mentioned in dispatches for his work during the retreat to Dunkirk.

At this time he came to the attention of Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French section of SOE. Buckmaster was seeking five hundred officers to be trained to help the growing French Resistance and Trotobas with his fluent, unaccented French made him a natural selection. He was trained in the arts of clandestine warfare, particularly the sabotage of factories, railways and military stores. The French needed all the help they could get, for they had no access to explosives, no money and no expertise and no links with Britain, the only nation still fighting the Germans. In groups and as individuals, Frenchmen were striking back but their efforts were amateurish and many were caught. A young man called Steve Grady, whose father was a gardener with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, damaged a Luftwaffe plane, was caught and spent three months in Loos Prison, Lille and was lucky not to be executed.

Trotobas began his resistance career on the night of 6th September, 1941 when as 'SYLVESTRE' he was one of six agents dropped from a Whitley bomber near Aargeton. Some of these agents as well as other teams who arrived on 19th September and 10th October were fairly quickly scooped up by the Gestapo. An agent called Andre Bloch was tortured and then executed.

Trotobas reached Lille where he met among other resistance people a 23 year old French girl Madeleine Damerment (known as MARTINE and LATER dancer) who became one of his assistants. During a visit to the Unoccupied Zone he was caught but neither the Vichy police nor the Gestapo found out that he had been operating in Lille.

He was first sent to Perigueux prison and then to the Vichy concentration camp at Mauzac in the Dordogne. Here he met some men who were to play a significant part in his later Resistance operations.

Life was constantly hazardous for all SOE agents. While Trotobas was in prison at the end of 1941, Madeleine Damerment met Monsieur Paul, who told her he was a British captain and leader of an escape organisation of British Intelligence. He was in fact, Corporal Harold Cole who worked for the Pat organisation of Dr. Albert Guerisse, but later he became a traitor and betrayed the organisation to the Gestapo. In great danger because of Paul's treachery, Madeleine escaped to England but returned to France in 1944. She was executed with three other women SOE agents at Dachau on 12 September that year.

In July 1942 Trotobas escaped from Mauzac with ten others, all of whom established important circuits the following year. Two women helped in this escape, one of them being Virginia Hall, the famous 'Marie of Lyons', an American citizen and correspondent of the New York Post. She helped Trotobas and his friends by smuggling duplicate keys to them. According to one source SOE paid a million francs in bribes to enable Trotobas and others to make their escape.

Trotobas led a party of escapers towards the Pyrenees and the Spanish border.

In November 1942 Trotobas reported back to SOE in Baker Street and was at once considered for further duty in France. To send a previously arrested agent back to France was risky but Buckmaster needed a good man in Lille. It was a great and tough industrial city with a tradition of militant trade unionism and strong communist elements. The Resistance organisations were controlled by left wing leaders who had declared war to the death on the Germans after Hitler attached the soviet Union in June 1941.

Trotobas though only 28 was quite as tough as the men he had to induce to follow him. It called for a very tough man indeed to fight the Germans in an area where their policy was ruthlessly oppressive. The whole economy of this major industrial region was driven to the limit for the German war effort. Picked Nazi officers were in charge of every industrial undertaking and SS troops, Field Police and Gestapo were everywhere.

Trotobas was dropped with a radio operator, Albert Staggs in the Yonne area in November 1942, arriving in Lille with little money, nobody to trust and nowhere to hide. These were desperate circumstances in this city of a thousand dangers. Still, with his fair hair and moustache dyed he looked different from the photograph the Nazis had of him.

In a small cafe he met Denise Gilman, an attractive young woman of 23, she had recently arrived in Lille and almost at once became his close collaborator. In another cafe he was introduced to Emmanuel Memercier, a former army sergeant, Trotobas revealed his identity and asked for help. Within three weeks, Lemercier, now code named Manu, brought Trotobas at least six recruits, all of whom turned out to be good material. Lemercier obtained for him an authentic identity card as an inspector of prisons.

Through Lemercier, Trotobas met Marcel Fertain formerly of the French navy. Now a maker of window shutters, Fertein could therefore be in many places without arousing suspicion. An incisive man, eight years older than Trotobas, he had a wide circle of friends and became Trotobas' main recruiter. A French colonel and patriot was approached, commandant Georges Bayart who was in the police force. Bayart 'appointed' Trotobas as an inspector of police. He was equipped with a uniform armed with a pistol and given a job in the supply department at police headquarters. Trotobas' group became known as the Sylvestre Farmer network.

Trotobas needed somewhere to live and had heard that a telephonist at Lille Central Exchange had an apartment to let in Boulevard de Belfort, he asked to rent the flat and said he was a British Officer. "If you rent me the flat you know what you are risking" "Yes" she answered. "After the war I will come to visit you in London" and indeed she did visit his parents in 1947.

Trotobas' communications were disrupted in December when his radio operator, Staggs, was arrested on some minor charge - though the Germans did not discover who he was. They even released him but he then had to disappear, so Trotobas used the radio systems of the Hercule network to contact London.

Locally one of Trotobas' principal couriers was Pierre Gerard. While out cycling Gerard would stop outside Trotobas' apartment, lean his bike against the wall and pretend to pump up his tyres. Trotobas would then pass him any messages.

On one occasion Trotobas ordered three men to execute a Nazi working at the rocket launching site of Eperlecques. Two of the men did not turn up at the rendezvous but the third man, the youngest, carried out the mission himself. He found the German, in uniform, in a cafe, shot him in broad daylight and then made his escape. This young Resistance man was Steve Grady and the weapon he used was a Luger given him by Trotobas.

On 13th June a young British engineer lieutenant code named Olivier was parachuted into the area and went to Lille to join Trotobas as sabotage instructor. Trotobas made good use of the explosives. He and his men, who included determined Polish working in the mines and factories of the Lille region, inflicted great damage on the installations which were so important to the Germans, Ignoring the German guards with almost contempt, they destroyed machine-tool factories at Armentieres, textile mills at Roubaix, locomotive sheds at Tourcoin and the largest tannery at Cambrai. A good many German sentries died in the rubble of these raids, clear indication of the skill with which the plants had been penetrated.

Steve Grady met Trotobas about four times and was deeply impressed with him. Trotobas was the link with the still-fighting world outside. Grady was carrying a lot of family responsibility on young shoulders. His father had gone into hiding in his own house to avoid internment. He was to spend four years in that one house, cooped with his wife, his mother in law and sister in law, unable even to go for a walk at night as the Germans had a border post at the end of the street. On one occasion Trotobas visited the Grady house as 'a friend' of Steve.

On another occasion Grady travelled with Trotobas to Arras to collect 40 containers of arms which were transported in two old lorries which had no German police permits to be on the road. The containers were supposed to be covered over with turnips but there were not enough of them to conceal the containers properly. Pretending to be farm labourers, young Steve Grady and three other Resistance men draped their bodies over the suspicious load. Grady at the rear, held a concealed sten gun. Near Lille their lorry broke down and Trotobas had no option but to leave his men to fend for themselves, he was too vital to the Resistance movement to take the risk of being caught with such compromising material.

By a mixture of luck and good management Grady and others got the consignment to a farm at Nieppe. The consignment included magnet grenades and Mills grenades, sten guns and revolvers. It was here that Trotobas gave Grady the Luger with which he shot the German in the cafe.

The disposal of containers and parachutes from airdrops was always a problem. Sometimes they sank the containers in rivers and sometimes under great mounds of potatoes and even dispose of them in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries which Grady, of course, knew well.

For some time Trotobas used the back room of a Lille cafe as his headquarters. Dozens of shot-down airmen spent a night or two there while being smuggled home along an escape route but they were not allowed to meet 'Le Capitaine Michel' . Through others he organised groups in Arras, Bethune, Saint Omer . His greatest moment was yet to come.

In the summer of 1943 the chiefs of staff in London wanted the French locomotive works at Lille destroyed. At this time the RAF and USAF bombing of Germany was so destructive that the Germans had to rely increasingly on production and repair depots in France and Belgium to maintain the German system. The railway works at Lille was one of the most important plants. The airmen had tried to knock it out but the approaches to Lille were defended very well and had some of the heaviest anti aircraft defences in northern France and no plane was able to score a direct hit.

At a conference in London an SOE representative was asked if his agents could do the job which the air force was failing to do. The question was put to Trotobas by radio. In a way his mind was made up for him by what the people of Lille were enduring. In their gallant but futile efforts to blow up the railway sheds the RAF pilots were dropping bombs on French working class districts and casualties among civilians were mounting and hundreds of houses were destroyed. This proved good propaganda for the Germans showing how the British were bombing their 'friends' Trotobas radioed back that he would take out the Lille works.

A sabotage operation of such magnitude required a lot of explosive. Drops were arranged north-east of Paris and Trotobas carriers went to work. Some were discovered to be carrying munitions and were shot. Trotobas then came through with the message that he was ready.

He and his groups had done a lot of preparatory work that London could only guess at. Many helpers for the raid were auxiliary policemen, respectable looking men with an air of authority. False identity cards were made for Trotobas as Police Inspector. Trotobas could not use his normal police inspector's identity as this would have compromised him after the raid.

Trotobas explained to each man what he had to do. On the night of 26/27th June they were ready to go. The real 'help'were the magnet explosive charges prepared by Trotobas and carried in brief cases. About 12 men were involved. They entered the factory and the duty superintendent asked why they were there. One of the group speaking German and in German uniform asked to go to the transformer room as they had heard there were terrorists in the factory. They planted magnetic bombs while 'making their inspection' While this had been going on, others had sabotaged the telephone exchange. The group of French foremen were taken to a room at one end of the factory and told to wait there until they were told to come out. All the factory workers were given ten minutes notice to leave the factory.

The saboteurs then hurried off in groups.

The tremendous blasts destroyed 22 transformers, most of them irreparably and the fire which followed caused much more damage. The entire railway workshops became an inferno. Lille fire brigades turned out and the SS brought in slave labour fire-fighting units, forcing them into buildings so unsafe that the professional firemen would not enter.

Trotobas radioed his success to London. The RAF did not believe him and asked for a photograph. THE RAF probably did not understand that getting photographs was more difficult than planting bombs. In Lille the German commandant and Gestapo leaders were furious, patrols were rounding up railway workers and SS guards smashed their way into houses to drag out women and children as hostages. The German commandant threatened to shoot every 10th employee of the Lille works.

Despite this SOE still wanted photographs.

Trotobas returned to the destroyed works armed with a forged pass issued by French National railways which described him as a senior inspector. He was also openly equipped with a camera. The place was swarming with officers of the SS. Trotobas was stopped several times but the pass got him through. The photographs got to London via a plane that landed in Normandy to pick them up .

The Germans offered a reward of 1 million francs. Despite the reward, the sabotage around Lille continued.Two informers tried to work their way into the group. Trotobas suspected them and they were made to talk and confess and then shot. The bodies were dumped at the back entrance to Gestapo HQ in Rue Leon Gambetta.

Through his sabotage expert 'Olivier' the Gestapo caught up with him. When in Arras 'Olivier' lived with a baker, another leading resistance man. Some men of Lille say today that Olivier was too fond of talking about his exploits and it was this which invited Gestapo attention. Agents raided the baker's house and caught Olivier. Under torture he confessed and gave the address of Trotobas' house - though he had every reason to believe that his chief would not be present at that house at that time. Although after a passage of 50 years some say that Olivier was tortured only a little and that the Gestapo did no more than jump on Olivier's toes.

On the 23rd November 200 Germans with machine guns arrived and walked on both sides of the little corner house. There was shouting and the door was knocked down. Trotobas flung open a door and fired his revolver until he fell. A friend of Trotobas Denise Gilman was in the hall and had a stomach wound from which she died.

One person who learned about the disaster soon after was his courier Pierre Gerard. Cycling towards No 20, Boulevard de Belfort, Gerard saw Trotobas laying in the gutter. People had by now gathered. Within five minutes some resistance workers knew of his death and made their own efforts to leave their houses.

Shortly after Trotobas death a few of his comrades made a clandestine visit to No. 20 Boulevard de Belfort to search for anything the Germans may not have uncovered. All they found was Trotobas' black cat. Ever since then the symbol of the Sylvestre Farmer group has been the head of a black cat. This emblem appears on the memorial.Margie with SOE Flag.

For many years a delegation of the Middlesex Regiment has made an annual pilgrimage to the scenes of Michael Trotobas' gallantry to coincide with the Resistance ceremony which now follows a traditional pattern. The first part is held at the house where Michael Trotobas fought his last battle.

The second part of the ceremony is a banquet with surviving members of the Resistance of the area. Virtually every French person present served time in prison or was in hiding from the Gestapo. Some of the resistance men and women hold the US Presidential Certificate for helping American airmen to escape.

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