Mary Lindell’s remarkable career spanned two world wars. As a nurse on the Western Front she was decorated for her bravery under fire. She married a French count and brought up three teenage children in Paris, where she took the German occupation of Paris in 1940 as a personal affront. She started an escape line, was arrested, and when released she went down her own rabbit hole to reach London. Volunteering to return to France, she helped Blondie Hasler to escape after the ‘cockleshell’ raid on Bordeaux, and smuggled his coded message to Switzerland. After running another escape line, she was re-arrested and thrown into the Women’s Hell at Ravensbrück. There she saved the lives of a score of American and British women by getting them on to the second-last of the Swedish White Buses to leave the camp before the Germans finished their final, evil solution.
A friend, Annie Hamilton, CO of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – the FANY – wanted me to write more about ‘her girls’. She introduced me to Yvonne Baseden, a young female SOE agent parachuted into wartime France and now one of the oldest survivors of Ravensbrück. Yvonne told me about ‘her friend’ who had saved her life several times in 1944 and 1945. Annie also introduced me to MRD Foot, the historian of the SOE, and Michael told me over several meetings at Wanborough and at the Special Forces and the Savile clubs, about the things he had written about and the things he had not written about. I was intrigued.
My work has been done through interviews and research in archives in Britain, France, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the USA. In southern Sweden I found the records of the police who interviewed the women refugees when they arrived in Malmö. In France I found original footage in a 1960s TV documentary not in any archive. In the USA I found a forgotten, hours-long recording of an interview with Mary Lindell. At the Imperial War Museum, I unearthed uncatalogued papers, and, of course, many new files have been opened at the National Archives Kew in the last few years. I also explored on foot the escape routes which Mary used across the Pyrenees, and I spent some time at Ravensbrück in contemplation of the horrors which had been committed there.
Yes, I was surprised to discover the extent to which the US embassy in Paris collaborated in the escape line in 1940, I was able to put flesh – names and dates – on some of Mary’s anecdotes, and names to the Allied servicemen from Australia, Britain, Canada, Greece, New Zealand and South Africa who she helped to escape across the Pyrenees to Spain and freedom. And I can reveal the identities of Michèle, ‘Sutton’, Major Higgins, and many others who only have a passing and incomplete mention in previously published works.
Yes, I was sceptical from the beginning about Mary Lindell, about the stories she told, and the obvious hyperbole of her first biographer, Barry Wynne, but at every twist and turn in her story, when I thought the trail would run cold, I found corroborating evidence. Since I completed the manuscript I have found evidence, even for some of the anecdotes which I disallowed when writing Lindell’s List, and wish now that I had given her more benefit of the doubt.
According to her brother ‘Mary wasn’t just difficult with the Gestapo, she was difficult with everybody’. Her strong character made many enemies, and her family in wartime France became dysfunctional. Later she was falsely accused of being too close to the part-English camp doctor, Percy Treite. Nor was she young and beautiful like some of the heroines who bagged the headlines in the postwar years. Most recently a false controversy has been stoked up in which she is accused by a French author of having been a German stooge. Nevertheless, she was awarded the French Croix de guerre after both world wars, and in 1969 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work in France for the RAF Escaping Society.
Mary Lindell took Edith Cavell as her role model, and that’s not a bad example for all to follow. Mary’s heroism was not some brief moment when the red mist of anger fell over her and she did something outstanding. Rather her courage was sustained over months and years despite all odds, and her steadfast, principled obstinacy is an example too. If all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, Mary is a paradigm of what a good woman can in the greatest adversity achieve. I hope this book will be read by and will inspire young men and women everywhere.