The Hiller Story – a Tale of Liberation July 1944, by Rudi Lea

In the hamlet of Magnagues
“Well done!” Judith said as I managed to park the car in a tight spot in front of the presbytery. There is nobody in all of creation who can say those two words with greater positivism and complimentary affect than Judith Hiller.

Whenever she says them it sounds as though she is rewarding an RAF Spitfire pilot in World War II for having shot down three Luftwaffe bombers. Perhaps the analogy is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Judith’s husband, George Hiller, was a hero of the war and she worships his memory. We were visiting her at her place, formerly the presbytery next to the church in Magnagues, where the climactic act of the George Hiller drama took place in 1944. After the war, the locals enabled George to own the small presbytery in gratitude for what he had done, and as his keepsake for what had happened there. His widow Judith still goes to live there several times each year, and she keeps in contact with the aging veterans of the French Resistance and visits them in hospitals when they are ill. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of what happened here, she arranged to have them invited to England to meet Queen Elizabeth who bestowed belated honours and recognition on those who still survived. Each year their ranks dwindle as the hero generation of the war is gradually disappearing. But on July 14th of each year, on Bastille Day, one can still see those who are left, gathering at the local monuments to lay wreaths to remember the great events and to honour the fallen, and Judith is always present as an honoured participant.

Mysterious Quality 
“Judith Hiller is a tall and imposing English lady, upright and regal, with short auburn hair. There is a directness and an intensity about her that draws others to her and that wins her admirers. She exudes a mysterious quality that has you approach her with respect and cordiality all twisted together. The regal fits too as to her bearing and her impeccably good English. Before she met George Hiller, she had served a stint as a Lady-in-Waiting for the Duchess of Kent, who, as the Princess Marina of Greece, had married George, the Duke of Kent, in 1934, and then had lost him during the war in 1942. Judith was in her late twenties when she met the handsome George Hiller later, after the war. They were married in 1963. Their romance was torrid and solid but her married life with him was far too short. He died in 1972, leaving a devastated Judith with three young children to raise. George was the love of her life and still remains so. But there was no choice but to prevail and prevail she did. For those who have known her, it would be quite inconceivable to think of Judith Hiller not measuring up to whatever she had to face. “Well done, Judith!” Now, when we are privileged to see her, she radiates good cheer and she is a delightful friend and companion and an enthusiastic participant in the things she has time to do. And one thing she has kept doing above all is to be the keeper of memory and of record of what George Hiller did in 1944 and of the price he paid.

Everyone who has been around the beautiful and busy corner of French paradise in the northern edge of the Department of Lot, where the Dordogne River makes a pronounced right turn and shifts its direction from south to west, and who knows about the local Resistance lore, knows about George Hiller. Even tourists get inklings of it because of the several commemorative markers that beckon drivers to stop and to look. The main one is near Magnagues on the road to Miers at the very spot where he landed when parachuted onto the plateau above the Dordogne River. There is another one on the front wall of Judith’s presbytery home where he had lain near death, and there are others on adjacent roads nearby with tantalizingly few words about related events that clearly mark this area of the causse as one of prime activity of the French Resistance during the Second World War.

Captain George Hiller was parachuted into occupied France on the 7th of January, 1944, five months before D-Day. It was one of several actions taken that winter and spring by the SOE, Britain’s Special Operations Executive, to organize and spark the fighters of the French Resistance to sabotage Germany’s capacity to resist the Allies before, during, and immediately after the Normandy invasion. Hiller was a young handsome British Army captain who had been born in Paris and who understood and spoke French fluently. He was parachuted onto the causse along with one other SOE agent, radio operator Cyril Watney, at a spot about one kilometer from the edge of its steep descent to the Dordogne River valley below, above the village of Carennac. Hiller’s immediate mission was to put a propeller factory in Figeac out of action and his extended mission was to organize local maquisards so they would be mobilized to disrupt the German military in France during the coming Allied invasion of the continent.

For the Figeac action. his order was to blow up the factory without loss of French life. Figeac is a good-sized town in the center of the Lot, made famous as the birthplace of Champillion who deciphered the famed Rosetta Stone that was found by Napoleon’s Army during their invasion of Egypt in 1809. The British knew that the maquisards were in a relatively robust position in the region, very ambitious, though still few in number, and that George Hiller would have at least an even chance of linking up with these Resistance fighters and of organizing their active help. They also knew that the Nazi occupation forces that included Gestapo and SS elements, had a tight hold of the major towns like Figeac but that they did not control the wild causse nor did they operate in force in the small villages and rural by-ways.

Maxime in France
George Hiller was to be Maxime in France and the code name for the network he was to organize, was Footman. He floated down safely, was met by a reception committee that included another remarkable SOE agent, Harry Peulevê, and was taken to the village of Quatre Routes and to the home of a local résistant leader, Jean Verlhac. They were members of the Groupe Vény, the then small Resistance force in the Lot organized by Jean Vincent renamed Colonel Vény. In an amazingly short time, in a mere two weeks, George Hiller and these men managed to do the first job he had come to do, to disable the La Ratier factory in Figeac. It was producing three hundred variable pitch propellers a week for the German airplane manufacturers, Heinkel and Focke-Wulf. On January 19th, with the help of a foreman sympathetic with the Resistance, they got in at night and with explosives prepared by George Hiller, they blew up key machinery and put the factory out of production for the rest of the war. (FN Perrin’s book, p 102 or Foot’s book on the SOE p 379) There were no French casualties.

After that first complete success, Hiller worked to establish himself solidly in the Lot. He was a highly sensitive and intelligent person who had to learn the myriad ways the local folks managed to do the dangerous work of resistance. Their lives and their actions were laced with elements of risk, romantic bravado, disorganization, and hatred of the German occupiers. But the activists were a small minority in contrast to many of the locals who wanted to play it safe and who did not look kindly on those who, as they saw it, stirred up trouble and danger. Therefore, nothing came easily, especially the work of unifying the disparate Resistance groups who too often acted in rivalry rather than in cooperation. Serious disputes between the FTP, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, the leftist branch that was dominant in the Lot, the AS, the Armée Secrète, the unified Resistance Army the SOE worked to raise, and de Gaulle’s FFI, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, made whatever Hiller and the SOE tried to do unnecessarily difficult. He needed all of his considerable diplomatic skills to persuade Colonel Véni, a French socialist with a large following in the south of France and commander of the military wing of the French Socialist Party, to fight for the common Allied interest. Hiller used the force of his personality, the advantage of his bilingual and  dual-national origins, and his familiarity with the French and their ways to make a go of it, to push the Allied cause successfully.

He merged softly into the local scene where acting natural, not showing off, living unobtrusively, characterizes the inbred behaviour of the people. He had to put up with the considerable risk of too many people knowing about planned actions. George Bru of St. Céré turned out to be a key helper because he was the headmaster of that town’s lycée, the upper school that is today named the Lycée Jean Lurçat. He mobilized older pupils to be runners and to help with communication. Hiller objected at first but Headmaster Bru insisted that the pupils should have a chance to be involved in resistance work, to do their part. In spite of the great risk of too many who got in on secret missions, no single Frenchman, adult or adolescent, either purposely or unintentionally, ever leaked information to the Nazis or to their French collaborators. That in itself was something of a miracle that made the Hiller missions unique.

Wild Limestone Plateau 
The Hiller/Footman activities were planned and executed under the noses of the Germans who stayed in their outposts and who were not in the habit of venturing onto the causse, the “Causse Gramat,” the wild limestone plateau stretching south from the Dordogne River. It is honeycombed underground with caves, caverns, and rivers and, above ground, is criss-crossed by ancient stone walls dating back to Celtic times. It was ideal maquis territory and the Germans liked to avoid it, an area where they were not in control and where the potential danger of maquis ambushes lurked behind every wooded thicket and behind every stone wall and down the labyrinthine passages of its scattered medieval stone villages. By D-Day on June 6, 1944, and by hook and crook and sheer perseverance, George Hiller, with the aid of influential author and flamboyant résistant André Malraux, had managed to build up an Armée Secrète of 600 men, ready to act. But the little army was badly in need of weapons.

On a flat rocky spot on that wild causse, near the beautiful 13th Century village of Loubressac, on an area overgrown with moss, ferns, and scrub grass, the kind of land the French called a maquis, an amazing event took place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1944, some five weeks after the Normandy invasion. More than three hundred American Liberator bombers roared overhead in broad daylight and dropped over five hundred containers with arms and ammunition. The gigantic drop was called “Operation Cadillac.” The British SOE organized it, George Hiller’s role having been instrumental in the Lot, but because of shortages of British planes at the time, American planes carried it out. On the ground, Groupe Vény under the logistical command of résistant Raymond Picard, gathered at the drop place in force. They worked all day and night to collect the arms, to load them into whatever was available, and to spirit them away to secret places. There was general exultation and the Bastille Day blue, white, and red parachute silks were on celebratory display afterward. There is now a stone marker at the spot commemorating the famous drop.

It is a wonder that the largest arms drop of the war was done without the Germans knowing and reacting. One reason may well be that it happened five weeks after the major German military unit in the region, the 2nd SS Panzer Division, namedDas Reich, had already passed through the area. This was the tank division that was ordered by the Wehrmacht to hurry north to help counter-attack the Allies on the Normandy beaches, but that was constantly delayed by Resistance attacks and by its own retaliatory killings and horrid atrocities on its fateful trek through southwest France. It left the names of Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane indelibly inscribed in French history. However, even with that Division gone from the area, the Germans still had occupation forces, including Gestapo and SS, operating in the Lot, especially in Cahors, Figeac, and Brive. When the Germans found out later about the big Bastille Day parachute drop, it was already too late for them to react.

Badly Wounded
On July 22nd, not long after the big drop, George Hiller’s luck ran out. While riding in a Citroen car with four other men, he ran into a German roadblock outside of the market town of Gramat. There was an exchange of gunfire; Hiller was seriously injured, the driver Marius Loubiéres was killed, and André Malraux was shot in the leg and captured. Themaquisards eventually chased off the Germans who left the scene believing they had killed the English officer. But George Hiller, badly wounded in the abdomen, managed to crawl into the underbrush and to hide. The other Resistance officer in the car, Colonel Henri Collignon, and the fifth man, Emilio Lopez, a bodyguard, both survived uninjured and also hid in a cornfield where they shielded Hiller. They did what they could for him, Lopez stemming the bleeding with a tourniquet from Hiller’s own emergency first aid kit, but they had to leave him there for the night and to go for help. The German patrol had remained in Gramat for the night and utmost care was needed to avoid detection. The charismatic André Malraux, though captured, was not shot on the spot. Apparently, the German officer in charge had recognized the name of the writer, had hesitated and, instead, had him eventually imprisoned in Toulouse. He was freed on August 19, 1944, when that city was evacuated by the Germans.

On the next day after the ambush, on July 23rd, Cyril Watney and others made it back to Hiller with a young medical intern, Dr. Lachèze, who tried to do what he could, but lacked the means and the equipment. They transported Hiller away to the village of Magnagues on the edge of the causse overlooking the Dordogne below, and went straight to its little church and laid him down in the small unobtrusive presbytery attached to the church. He was in bad shape and they knew it was touch and go. Cyril Watney mobilised a team that raced down to the valley, to the larger town of Vayrac, to fetch an excellent physician there, Dr. Mézard, because they hoped he could possibly save Hiller’s life. Dr. Mézard said he would go but on the condition that the résistants would take him at gunpoint and blindfolded. That is how they brought him up to the presbytery. When he examined Hiller’s wounds he concluded that the only chance he would have to save this man’s life would be to have access to the new miracle drugs he knew had been developed in England, especially the new penicillin, the new magic anti-biotic.

Cyril Watney, on the morning of July 24th, promptly radioed his contacts in London, told them of the critical condition of George Hiller, and relayed the doctor’s request.

This is the message he sent:

“Envoyez Bouleau serum antigangréneux et antitétanique pour Maxime et autres blessés en attendant équipement medical. STOP. Colonne de environ 270 véhicules de transport est dans Figeac. STOP. Opérations guerilla redoublent. STOP. 6-8 STOP. André Malraux légérement blessé à la jambe et prisonnier a été emmené avec la colonne à Figeac. Reste en contact avec son chef d’état-major.” 

In English:

Send anti-gangrene and anti-tetanus serum to Bouleau drop location for Maxime and other wounded waiting for medical equipment. STOP. A column of about 270 trucks is in Figeac. STOP. Guerilla operations increasing sharply. STOP. 6-8 STOP. André Malraux lightly wounded in the leg and taken prisoner and has been taken away in a convoy to Figeac. Stay in contact with his chief of staff. 

The SOE, with the help of Section 7, the contraband unit of British Intelligence, invoked top priority to set up an immediate lightning rescue mission. They obtained the sera and medical supplies and had them flown to France and parachuted down to the designated field, the orchard at the presbytery, at 11 p.m. on the same day. The good doctor did his job and did it well, saved the life of George Hiller, who went down in the history of medicine as the first patient on the European continent, evidently, to have been treated with the new wonder drug penicillin. A few days later, Watney persuaded the SOE to send another Lysander, the small English light plane used famously for many clandestine missions to France because of its ability to land and take off on the shortest of flat stretches, and to pick up George Hiller and fly him back to England.

Hiller recovered and recognition came his way. The British Army had promoted him to the rank of major after the Figeac mission, and after his return, awarded him a gallantry medal the DSO or Distinguished Service Order. The French honoured him with their Croix de Guerre and with the Medaille de la Resistance Francaise. Later he was also awarded the CMG, the British Order of Chivalry of a diplomat designate.

Foreign Office
After the war, George Hiller served in the British Foreign Office. He was stationed in several places and ended his career as British counsellor to NATO in Brussels where he died in 1972 of motor neurone disease, known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He left a group of younger associates who served with him and who became devoted followers. Tony Morgan was his aide in Brussels and remembers him well. His wife became a close friend of Judith and after they visited her in the presbytery one summer, they decided to retire in the same area because they loved it and because they wanted to be near where George had had his great adventure. Others followed Tony’s example and there are now several Foreign Service officer friends of Hiller who came to spend their retirement years in the northern Lot.

Tony Morgan told me that George Hiller came back frequently after the war to visit his Resistance chums. Judith still attends ceremonies the French hold annually for the heroes of the Resistance. George had come by his French roots naturally. He was born in Paris in 1916, a British citizen because his father was British, but raised there by his French mother. He spoke only French until the age of six, then learned English to become fluent in both languages. He went to school in the posh Lycée Janson in Paris’s 16th arondissement, then went to England in the 1930s to study for a diplomatic career at Oxford’s Exeter College, and to graduate with a degree in “PPE,” that is, in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. When war came, he joined the British Army with a commission in the Reconnaissance Corps, and, in May, 1943, was tapped by the SOE. With his background and personality, he was the ideal candidate for the SOE’s French Section. George’s French mother outlived his English father to reach the age of 99, having followed abroad wherever the son she adored was stationed and, after he died, having come to live with Judith in England and cared for by her in her last years. She was laid to rest in Paris’s famed cemetery, the Père Lachaise.

George Hiller is remembered as a hero in the northern Lot. The little presbytery in the hamlet of Magnagues above the much visited town of Carennac is still a summer refuge and a family shrine for his wife, Judith Hiller. The memorial tablet on the front of the presbytery reads:

Ici fut soigné GEORGE HILLER CMG DSO Major britannique auprès des Groupes Vény, blessé par les SS En Juillet 1944.

Here was treated GEORGE HILLER CMG DSO British Major while attached to the Group Vény, wounded by the SS in July 1944.

There are no doubt many more details of this story remembered by aging participants who were eyewitnesses to the great events, some details that will be lost and some that will be reconstructed and retold in the future by historians. Judith Hiller knows many of them herself and many more about her husband than others can ever know. When I showed her my first draft of the famous story and asked her some questions, and after we came to agreement about this brief account of what happened, she looked at me with that wide open countenance and said, “well done.”

Rudolph Lea, is a writer and an ex-serviceman who served with the US Army’s 99th Mortar Battalion, (attached to the US Seventh Army) during World War II. Born in Berlin, he and his wife Ruth live in Philadelphia, Penn. In France their home is at Lacam, near Loubressac, in the Lot.

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