A Tale of Derring-do, WWII and the Lot

What do Dönitz, David Coleman, the Count de La Pérouse and Waldheim have in common? Read on.

Doenitz's adc

David Coleman at the surrender of Admiral Doenitz’s ADC

When he was featured in the WWll photo above after the surrender of Großadmiral Karl Dönitz’s aide-de-camp, David Coleman was a long way from imagining he and his French wife Elisabeth would one day own a home in the heart of the Lot departement — itself the focus of fierce French resistance to Nazi occupiers during WWII.

David Coleman

David Coleman

Elisabeth Coleman

Elisabeth Coleman

Born in 1909 in Derby in the UK, David Coleman (above left) married his second wife, Elisabeth de Laperouse (above right) in 1979 just a few years before his death.

David Coleman was educated at Malvern College and went up to Oxford to read classics. Earlier he spent a year in France learning French and then headed to what was then East Prussia to become fluent in German. Later he acquired Spanish, Portuguese and some Turkish, all of which stood him in good stead in his career as an intelligence officer during the War. His wife – Elisabeth de la Perouse-Coleman who now lives at Thémines in the Lot – hails from an Albigeois family and is a direct descendent, the niece five times removed, of Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse, Count of La Pérouse, who was born at Manoir du Gô Albi in 1741.

A highly decorated French naval officer, Jean-François Galaup was chosen by the Marquess of Castries, Minister of the Navy under King Louis XVI, to lead a scientific expedition to complete the voyage of discoveries through the Pacific left unfinished by Captain James Cook, R.N., and reflected by the Column at Botany Bay, Australia, (shown below) that bears the inscription: “To La Perouse and his companions. This place visited in 1788 is the last whence an account of him have been received”.


Monument to de la Perouse, Australia

Elisabeth, who herself spent many years in the US, first met David Coleman in New York where he was raising horses.

Recently, sitting in the garden of her Thémines home just a few kilometres from the village of Loubressac, which in late 1944 was the site of the largest Allied parachute supplies drop to French resistance fighters of the whole war, she recounted some of the espionage escapades of her late husband.

Parachutes Over Quercy

July 14 1944 and the skies above Loubressac, Lot (dept 46), high on the heavily forested Causse in Quercy, are dark with parachutes and filled with the drone of USAAF transports and fighter planes in one of the allies’ largest ever arms drops to the maquis – the Free French resistance in southwest France. Full Story, click here

David she said was at one stage sent to Liberia on an intelligence mission involving the German embassy there. She produced a letter translated by her late husband, written in 1966 by the former Nazi German ambassador in Monrovia, one G. Waldheim, brother of Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian career diplomat who served two five-year terms as UN secretary-general from 1972 to 1981 and later also as President of Austria. (A global scandal erupted in 1986 while Waldheim was running for the latter post after it emerged that he had not fully disclosed his activities during World War II).

Elisabeth said: “My husband was sent to gather intelligence about German codes from the embassy in Liberia because he spoke German and local African languages. He befriended some of the African staff at the German embassy and by deception gained entry to the ambassador’s office after one of his staff doctored the ambassadorial cocktails that evening with a sedative, enabling my husband to remove the wallet containing the codes and other important official German documents which British intelligence was after”.

She said that many years after the war David felt he should return the wallet to the former ambassador and in 1966 sent a letter to Waldheim in Valparaiso, South America.

Waldheim responded and in his letter, said that David was welcome to the wallet as a souvenir but he (Waldheim) was “rather keen” to know if the British authorities might return to him other papers and scientific writings the ambassador had made on his own account and which had been stolen during David’s raid.

In his letter Waldheim writes: “should we not together request your ex colleagues and archivists from the secret service to search for these papers which most certainly still lie dormant classified in some of Her Majesty’s archives. In 1948 in Madrid I was given back private property from members of your intelligence services which I had “lost” in a far more fantastic manner (than that used by yourself in the Monrovian library).”

Elisabeth still has the Waldheim wallet, the translated letters, the Danish newspaper and other important documents related to her husband’s wartime escapades. Today surrounded by her memories she takes paying guests at her bed and breakfast and gite in a beautifully restored old barn in Thémines. La Boussole straddles the pilgrim route between Rocamadour and Santiago de Compostela in Spain and attracts many walkers on the pilgrim way.

Pictures of her gite are here

Meanwhile astute Australian tourists sometimes stop by to meet this direct descendant of a French discoverer whose exploits are remembered at Botany Bay and in a special museum in his home town Albi.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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