Rex and the Resistance: Lyon During the Second World War

You can still feel like a member of the French Resistance in Lyon.  Treading in the footsteps of its leader Jean Moulin (codename Rex or Max) through the secret passageways (les Traboules).  Or sitting in the back corner of a bustling café and eavesdropping on conversations in the ornate public squares.  Romantic as notions of the French resilience in the face of Nazi occupation sound, the history of the struggle is an emotional and dramatic one.

The Nazi war machine reached Paris on the 14th June 1940 and was in Lyon just five days later on the 19th.  President Charles de Gaulle retreated to London and a puppet French government was then set up at Vichy (150km from Lyon), with Hitler pulling the strings.  Via British radio broadcasts, de Gaulle was able to rally support and eight resistance movements were already in action by 1940.  It was Jean Moulin who, under de Gaulle’s orders, set up the National Council for the Resistance (Conseil National de la Résistance) in 1943 to unify these separate groups.  De Gaulle himself regarded the city as the heart of the combined French Resistance.

The exit of one such traboule

Jean Moulin, instantly recognisable in his iconic fedora hat and scarf combination has become the figurehead of the Resistance.  And along with his secretary, Daniel Cordier, he coordinated the actions and funding of the Resistance between the varied groups in Lyon and de Gaulle in London.

Secrecy was paramount (Cordier didn’t even know Rex’s real name until after his death) and Lyon provided the perfect location to hide, being over-populated with refugees during the war.  Meetings were arranged via message-drops in specific letter boxes throughout the Traboules, and would take place in a busy places so as not to draw attention.  In the squares: Place Carnot and Place des Terreaux.  As well as in the discrete yet well-renowned restaurant, Le Garet.  Or Brasserie George, just over the river from the Gestapo Headquarters.  Which, as the Head Waiter will delightfully explain, was the unofficial head office of both the Resistance and the Gestapo.  That sweet taste of beer whilst plotting the downfall your enemy right under his nose.

mmm, dissent

One for the fans of spy novels: the BBC in London broadcast daily encoded radio messages that could be heard by anyone, but only understood by the Resistance.  Short phrases such as ‘l’abbé est nerveux’ (the abbot is nervous) and ‘le chien du jardinier pleure’ (the gardeners dog is crying) in fact indicated parachute drops of weapons and ammunition.  As well as an astounding twenty clandestine printing presses that were hard at work throughout the occupation in Lyon, distributing leaflets and newspapers.  Written under the name of collaborationist papers like ‘La Nouvelliste” the resistance would turn up at news-stands with their fake copies, changing them with the real ones under the pretext that they had to be censored.

Jean Moulin was arrested on 21st June 1943 whilst attending a Resistance meeting, along with fellow members Lucie and Raymond Aubrac.  Today you can walk around the cells of Montluc prison where Moulin and the other members were held.  Whilst the Gestapo attempted for days to force the prisoners to unveil Jean Moulin, the Aubracs managed to daringly escape and successfully reach England.

It is saddening to see the original wooden prison-cell doors, engraved with numbers and names, counting off the lonely days.  And envisaging the resolute faces of the young men and women, fully aware of their impending interrogation, torture and deportation.  For just down the road lay the passive walls of the Gestapo Headquarters, behind which sat Klaus Barbie, ‘the butcher of Lyon’.  Now the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (Centre for the History of the Resistance and Deportation – CHRD) it is not difficult to imagine the screams emanating from the cellars beneath the blood-red courtyard.

Artwork on the prison wall

Moulin died at the hands of his Gestapo torturers, to whom he divulged no information despite enduring hot needles being placed under his fingernails.  With the end of the war in 1945 it took a further forty two years for the hands of justice to catch up with Barbie.  Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 at the Cour d’Assises in Lyon, bringing a much delayed full-stop to this tale.

David Cordiers shamelessly admitted crying throughout the film-adaption of his Resistance memoir ‘Alias Caracalla’.  Knowing even a little of the Resistance history brings the streets of Lyon to life with a startling clarity, giving a soul to places that haven’t much changed since the War.  It will challenge you not to be moved to tears yourself as you emerge into the peaceful Lyon daylight, with a line from the CHRD museum still in your mind: “you can hold a bee in your hand until it suffocates, but it won’t suffocate without stinging you”.


2 thoughts on “Rex and the Resistance: Lyon During the Second World War

  1. Very interesting post. Thank you for writing. I wrote a post a while ago about my husband’s family and the resistance. You might find it of interest.


    1. Thank you, and thanks for suggesting your post, very moving


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