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A Schoolmaster’s War:
Harry Rée, British Agent in the Resistance
Edited by Jonathan Rée Yale University Press, 2020
Jonathan introduces his father’s work with literacy and a tender sense of filiality, for this is an assembly of Harry’s writings during and after WW2. An ‘idealistic socialist’ at school he erred towards pacificism. He was working as a teacher by the time war broke out, but the fall of France in 1940 spurred him to join the Army - in the ranks as a gunner. But his French language skills saw him recruited into F Section of the SOE. He was in due course parachuted into the Franche-Comté region, and set up the Stockbroker resistance group.
One of the most striking aspects of this lovely book is that Harry clearly had a profound (positive) impact on many of the French he met, and who gave him succour. Unlike many agents, Rée was a perpetual motion machine, rarely staying more than one night at a time with his hosts, contributing to his safety. The reader will therefore find the several maps of great use.
The contents were written by Harry at various times, and for various audiences. The style is not therefore uniform, and one of one’s few niggles with this volume is that some of Harry’s escapades are related more than once. His officer training would have been short, and very fortunately Rée writes with the literacy and sensitivity of an English teacher rather than a professional soldier who has been imbued with the service writing style.
Unlike many colleagues dropped into the possible embrace of Vichy France, Rée was no carefree bachelor, he left a pregnant wife back in England. He suffered two aborted attempts to be dropped. But once in France he enjoys some very warm hospitality, and on several occasions remarks that he feels as though he is on a paid holiday.
Nonetheless he is soon made aware of the perilous nature of his survival, and has some extremely close shaves. He notes the great warmth and support of some French families, yet with collaborators and traitors to be found close by. There are some delightful descriptions of a rural mode life that has largely disappeared from France.
It was fortuitous that his patch was quite near the Swiss border, and he retreated there several times when life became too hot. When colleagues or friends were arrested, usually through betrayal, the author does not spare us the horrors inflicted on them by the Nazis. Jonathan tails the narrative with some harsh statistics: more than a quarter of the F section agents in France lost their lives, and of Harry’s 12 closest SOE colleagues, only half survived.
One of the most touching memoirs to emerge from this dark part of WW2. Highly recommended.
After the war Harry was Head of French and German at Bradford Grammar School. He must therefore have been a colleague of the wonderful Kenneth Grose , head of the English department (and who taught David Hockney there). Ken went on to attempt to teach me English at another educational establishment.
The end of Rée’s career was spent as Professor of Education at the then quite young York University. That is where I first heard of him, and had no idea of his illustrious war record.