A quiet, forgotten hero: Le Train de Michel

Le Train de Michel,

Jed Falby,

Halsgrove Publishing

le_train_michel_jed_falby_halsgrove_coverIt’s 1944, and after years of desperate struggle, the tide is finally turning in the battle against the once seemingly invincible Nazi hordes – Russians advance in the east, the Allies are working their way up Italy, liberating Rome and then comes D-Day, the greatest amphibious armada in history, the bloody beaches marking the start of the eventual liberation. In Great Britain, endlessly battered by Nazi bombs in the Blitz, there’s a sense of excitement and relief – it’s not the end of the war, but they can feel that end getting closer, perhaps the worst is over… And then something new appears in the world, the first proper guided missiles, the new “vengeance” wonder weapons, in the shape of the V-1, the notorious Doodlebug. And once more bombs shatter homes and lives in the British Isles. A terrifying new robotic weapon, capable of much destruction.

And yet, terrifying as this new technological killer was, it would have been much, much worse, if not for a French man most people in the UK or France have heard of these days, and the brave group he organised. Jed Falby was a wee lad in London when the V-1s started falling on the city, and this book is his record and also his tribute to Michel Hollard and the vital role this unassuming, forty something husband and father took upon himself. Like many of the best heroes Hollard is not some highly-trained superspy, or skilled man of action. He’s just an ordinary man trying to look after his family in a France now occupied by the victorious Nazis. And that’s an aspect of the Second World War we don’t often think of – once the Battle of France was over, what did the ordinary citizens of the defeated France do? Despite everything, despite the occupation of the hated Nazis, life still had to go on – people still had to make a living, go to their jobs, open the schools, run the railways… And against this background Hollard and his family settle in, he gets new work, like many ordinary people they hate what is going on, but what can they do, except keep their heads down and endure?

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But this simply won’t suffice for Hollard. He cannot bear the fact that his homeland is now under the rule of the German conquerors, and that while the Allies hold out in nearby Britain (with help from others, including Free French forces helping the RAF resist the onslaught, as Falby makes clear), he has to go on as normal? No, it’s not right, others are fighting and dying for the freedom of all of Europe, and this very ordinary man does that thing which takes them from being an ordinary, everyday person to being that extraordinary thing, the hero – he decides whatever he can do, he will do, despite the enormous risks. His new work for an automative parts company allows his free travel, and like many industries the occupying forces are placing orders with that company for their war effort. Perhaps if he can get that information to the Allies and anything else he can pick up on his travels, it might help? But how?

And that’s a damned good question – I mean, with no training in ‘trade craft’ as intelligence agencies call it, how do you know what information to gather and how do you get it to the right people? Slowly Hollard starts working some ideas out, often having to take a chance and trust to luck, fortunately for him often encountering others who feel as he did – these are not members of the famed Resistance, just normal citizens, all doing little bits here and there to help, some graduating to much more dangerous missions as Hollard not only works out a dangerous but do-able route over the border into neutral Switzerland to pass information to the British Embassy, but starts to prove his worth to British intelligence, so they start requesting he and those he has recruited start trying to gather more information. Naturally every new attempt to gain new information to feed back to the Allies puts them at huge danger of discovery, capture, torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo (not to mention a chance their families may also suffer in retaliation). And yet, despite this, Hollard and his friends start to gather information, fragments at first, of major operations happening all around coastal France.

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(cutaway diagram of the V-1 Flying Bomb, borrowed from the Wiki entry)

As they build a larger picture with more and more information, they’re still not sure what they are discovering, and no wonder, because nobody has seen anything like this before in the history of the world. These are launch sites and ramps for the forthcoming V-1 rockets, like something from one of the Flash Gordon movies of the period, science fiction, about to become a horrible, death-dealing science fact. Unsure what they are but knowing they are important, and, worse still, taking compass bearings and realising the ramps for whatever this new device is are all aimed in the direction of London, Hollard and his friends get more information to the Allies, and soon the bombers come, starting with the mighty Lancasters and others, but they are too high to hit these small targets precisely, so in come the remarkable De Havilland Mosquitoes, those amazing balsa-wood framed fighter-bombers with an amazing turn of speed, executing a strategy the RAF would become famous for doing for decades (indeed they still did it during the first Gulf War), low-level, high-speed, precision strikes. Insanely dangerous, of course, roaring across the countryside, practically on the deck, at huge speed with massed enemy fire pouring up at you? But the precision this gave in strikes in the years before laser guided missiles was incredible, and despite casualties the Mossies hit the sites Hollard and his group identified, and hit them again, and again. The Germans rebuild and the RAF strike them once more.

We know from history that this did not stop the V-1 menace. That’s not the point of this story. But what the airstrikes on Hollard’s targets did achieve was to identify a mortal threat early and to cause such damage to it that for all the damage those launched did, it was a fraction of what the Nazis could have unleashed, if not for the bravery and inventiveness of Hollard and his friends, and the air crews who acted on their hard-won information. Imagine the carnage if those wonder weapons had been launched en-masse at the D-Day invasion fleet? And as Falby notes, he was a boy when those V-1s started hitting London. For all he knows one of those missiles stopped because of Hollard could have been the one that hit his family home – he himself may have lived to grow up because of this unbelievable bravery and heroism behind the lines.

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In a rather touching move Falby uses those personal memories, injecting himself into this history, both as his younger self, out for a picnic with his mother when a Doodlebug attack happens, but also as “Old Jed”, retracing some of Hollard’s routes and locations, talking to locals about the events (often making some good friends who are clearly delighted that this piece of admirable resistance took place on their patch and that it was being honoured and remembered). Remarkably he even finds the barn Hollard used before his hugely dangerous crossing of the border to pass on his latest intelligence, still there (now converted into a friendly auberge). While most of the narrative history here follows Hollard’s growing espionage efforts, with some glimpses of young Jed to show life on the British home front, as the story unfolds Falby also starts to put himself directly into the story “talking” with Hollard, asking him questions, about why he did something so fraught with peril, how he managed it, and these all combine to give this slice of history a very personal quality that’s often lacking from heavier tomes written by professional historians, and it’s that personal quality that makes this not just a slice of history, but a personally engaging tale – Falby makes Hollard not a historical character but a real person we can identify with.

The artwork and the book’s format (looking very much like a Franco-Belgian bande dessinee album) are clearly inspired by the European classics such as Tintin. Falby himself carries sketchbooks and those form the basis of some of Le Train de Michel. The artwork is fairly simple, I think, and the flow of the panels isn’t always quite right – in some ways some parts feel more like sketches lined up than a linear sequence of the art panels that allows a comic story to flow naturally. However, that’s a fairly minor criticism, and in fact I think this slightly more basic art approach works very, very well here – this is a hugely compelling story of immense bravery during desperate times, and frankly a much more detailed, fancier artwork approach would have likely detracted from the story. And Falby takes those simple sketches and in several memorable scenes delivers some powerful moments.

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The unmistakable drone of a V-1 overhead, that old adage that “as long as you can hear it, you’re safe” given a starkly simple but powerful visualisation, “a Doodlebug!” goes up the panicked shout”. That distinctive engine noise burbling overhead, then sudden silence. And silence means it is about to drop. It means imminent death. Panel after panel, each a second ticking by as the V-1 drops, each a panicked face, running in fear, trying to reach a shelter, death coming from the skies and nobody can stop it… 10, 9, 8… Each panel ticks down to the inevitable detonation of a one ton bomb among innocent civilians. Or in an earlier case a mother, singing to her baby, unaware of what that engine noise means, thinking it a passing motorbike, but not, it’s one of the brand-new vengeance weapons… It’s simply done and it is powerfully horrifying.

Early on we see older Falby with his family, walking through the St Denis area of Paris. He wants to pause by a cafe which he tells them is a location in the story he is researching (the great Emmanuel Guibert inspired him in this and also contributed a double-page of art), there is a small historic plaque by the cafe, but it is closed and his family see no point in lingering and instead continue to the nearby Gare du Nord for the train home. It’s just a few panels, but it’s a reminder not just of the many hidden histories in our cities that most folk – natives and tourists alike – walk past regularly without every noticing (I know my city well, taken thousands of photos of it, but I am still discovering histories hidden in areas I passed a thousand times), but of how often those almost forgotten histories had a vitally direct impact in shaping the future that became our today. As with all history, this isn’t just about the past, it’s about how the events and people of that past influenced the future; history isn’t a static past, it’s alive and interactive because it breathes directly into today and beyond.

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In that respect Falby’s wonderfully personal, highly engaging book isn’t just celebrating the bravery of a much-overlooked hero, it’s reminding us of how many individuals, all but forgotten to the bulk of “big history” and the acts they committed shaped the events that in turn shaped the world. How many of those ordinary people did something extraordinary in those dark days, putting the hope of a better tomorrow when the lamps would be re-lit across Europe ahead of their own safety, giving their today for our tomorrows? ¬†An unusual and compelling slice of history, remembering an almost forgotten hero, and a reminder that there are some, like Falby himself (and his children, and their children in turn and so on, a chain of ongoing life), who may only be alive today because of Hollard’s wartime work. No bad thing to remember and honour such courage.