It was November 1942. Brothers Alfred and Henry Newton, former cabaret artists who had once thrilled audiences across Europe with their crazy comedy and tap-dancing act, had been back in France for four months. Consumed by revenge after their family – their parents, their wives, and three children - had all been lost at sea while making their way to Britain, the victims of a German U-boat attack, the brothers had been recruited by the Special Operations Executive. Simply known within the SOE as the Twins, even though they had been born more than ten years apart, they had returned to France to set up a resistance circuit and to wage their own personal war against the Nazis. The fact that the Germans had just moved into the south of France simply played into their hands. They had, after all, joined the SOE and returned to France to seek revenge on the Nazis and not so much on the Vichy regime, although they had no time for them as well.
Leaving Lyon behind the Twins first took the train to Saint-Étienne where they decided they would break their journey to go out into the hills to the west of the town to look for any suitable areas for dropping supplies. As was usually the case, they were armed and carrying a couple of hand grenades and a small amount of plastic explosive.
While resting on a ridge overlooking the main road, they could hear a car approaching in the distance. A small black Citroën appeared and came to a stop just a few hundred yards away. Four men in civilian clothing got out of the car and then disappeared into the woods on the far side of the road.
With pistols cocked, the Twins took cover to see what happened next. A few minutes later the four men reappeared and got back into the car. At first, they guessed the Citroën’s occupants had stopped for a comfort break. But then, having travelled only another hundred yards or so up the road the car stopped once more. And, again, the four men got out.
The car was now closer than it had been before. The Twins could clearly see the men deliberating over something, presumably a map. From the way they were dressed it was obvious that three of them were German, probably Gestapo, while the fourth was probably French. And as before, the four men crossed the road and went into the woods.
Seeing the car had again been left unattended, the Twins had just one thing in mind. It was too good an opportunity to miss. They stuck some plastic explosive into their empty flask with a primer bound by a length of fuse and a ten-minute time pencil. Then, as quietly and stealthily as they could, they made their way towards the car, expecting at any moment for its occupants to reappear.
Just as soon as Alfred had pressed the time pencil and screwed the cup on the flask, Henry stowed it under the near-side front seat of the car, and within seconds they were making their way back up the ridge. Once back under cover, they waited for the explosion to go off, hoping the occupants would reappear and set off again in the car before it did. Blowing up the car would be good but killing its occupants as well would be even better.
Although they had set a ten-minute time pencil, it was a cold day and so it could easily take longer for the car to blow up. The minutes passed. Five, then six. The men now appeared out of the woods and for a while they stood around chatting amongst themselves. Seven minutes had now passed, then eight and then nine. Finally, the four men got back in the car and it moved off.
Ten minutes had now passed. It could not be long before the car blew up, but then another minute went by. And then another. Then it happened. Just as the car was about to disappear in the distance, the peace and quiet of the countryside was suddenly shattered by the sound of the explosion, followed immediately by the sight of the Citroën lifting off the ground. It all happened in one seemingly choreographed movement, before the car swerved across the road and crashed into the trees.
There was no sign of any movement from the car, or any sound coming from it. The Twins could not have timed it better. In that one moment everything they had trained for came to fruition. They could never fully avenge their family, but at least this went some way towards it. At last, they had got some revenge. And it felt sweet.
By Peter Jacobs