Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tattered Remnants #020: Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens

(Read all about the Tattered Remnants by clicking {here}.)


"What I did was so little." - Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens, 1998

Earlier in this series I praised the highly morally questionable work of Richard Sorge, the German communist who very probably saved the Western world through his actions as a spy on behalf of the Soviet Union.

This is the story of a much different kind of spy.

French. Multilingual. Brilliant. Charming. Gutsy. A photographic memory. A superhuman ability to generate plausible falsehoods in defense of her friends in the face of the enemy. The toughness to survive years in Nazi concentration camps.

And, my God, was she beautiful.

The perfect spy. And since she acted in defense of her nation against an invasive enemy, a much less ambiguous character than Mr. Sorge.

Her name during the war was Jeannie Rousseau (later, de Clarens) and, while she may not have saved the Western world from Naziism single-handedly, she certainly played a key role in saving many tens of thousands of lives in London and elsewhere from being blown to bits by Nazi rockets.

Her story was told in 1998 in one of those Sunday-special-section articles in the Washington Post and it is a story that is well worthy of retelling.

Her father was a soldier in the Great War. After he survived to the end–as only half of all French men his age succeeded in doing – he became a diplomat and, later, mayor of one of Paris's most fashionable arondissements, the 17th.

When Paris fell in 1940, and the mythical Rick Blaine was fleeing on the last train to Marsailles, Jeannie's very real family were themselves fleeing: to Brittany, the westernmost point of France, where, they thought, the Germans would leave them in peace.

They had not figured on the Battle of Britain. Or "Operation Sea Lion," the planned Nazi invasion of the British homeland. German soldiers soon swarmed the region and began barking orders. Local officials became desperate for someone to translate the needs and orders of the local military occupation to them. Jeannie volunteered.

Twenty-one years old, very presentable, personable, and with almost-native German linguistic abilities, she was perfect for her role. At a time when most German military forces still wanted to be liked by the conquered, the German officers would have found her almost irresistible-–had she not placed herself physically off limits to them. "I never played Mata Hari games," she said.

Nevertheless, lonely German officers in remote cafes in the presence of a lovely French maiden tended to talk. And Jeannie proved a rapt listener.

She began to take notes and pass them along to the underground. German spies in Britain noted that the intelligence coming to England from her region was excellent. The local German authorities in Brittany started adding two and two.

The Gestapo arrested her and threw her into the Rennes prison on suspicion of being a spy. Her friends among the German officers came to her defense; they could not believe she was spying (or that they had given her so much information). And so –- remember this was still early in the war, when the Germans sometimes still kept a pretense of obeying the rule of law -– they decided there was insufficient evidence to charge her, and she was released.

The Germans, however, ordered her to leave the coastlands, an order that she was more than pleased to obey. She returned to Paris, and found a job with the local equivalent of the industrial chamber of commerce, and burrowed in.

Within weeks, in a scene right out of a Hollywood spy movie, she encountered an old teacher on a train one evening. A quiet conversation, an invitation, and she was in contact once again with the French underground.

She was given her orders: hang out with the Germans, and .... listen.

And soon some of her old German "friends" from Brittany reappeared in Paris as well. And they introduced her to their friends. And they, to their friends. And so on.

By early 1943, she started hearing about something strange, new, fantastical. The Germans in the East were studying a new form of weaponry, a weapon that her friends chatted about endlessly. She began to hear words in German that she had never heard before–what were raketten?

She soon found out. She managed, through simple passive listening, and a God-given gift of a photographic aural memory, to obtain detailed and specific information on two programs being carried out on an island on the Baltic Sea. The island was Peenemünde, and the programs would become known to the world as the V-1 "Buzz Bomb" and the V-2 ballistic missile.

By mid 1943, she was able to assemble a significant amount of information on this program and transmit it to England: its import was recognized immediately by an alert analyst, Dr. R.V. Jones, and it reached Churchill within days.

Churchill took this information and, using it and certain key independent data (provided by two Polish slave laborers on the island itself whose names have been lost to history) ordered that the island be bombed.

In the course of the next year, four crippling bombing raids were carried out against Peenemünde, killing hundreds of workers and significantly delaying the rocket program. When the time came, Hitler was still able to reach London with his "Vengeance" weaponry, killing thousands, but the rocket program as it turned out was not nearly effective as he had hoped, or as it could have been.

(One of the great imponderables of history: what if the buzz bombs and rockets had been directed at the D-Day landings instead of London? And another: what if they had been armed, not with TNT, but with an atom bomb?)

Tens of thousands were killed by these primitive but for the time high-tech horror weapons, but the number could easily have been doubled, but for Jeannie Rousseau's remarkable ears -– and courage.

After Jeannie's report was received, the word went out from British intelligence: they wanted this woman in England for a debriefing. She was ordered, once more, to the Brittany coast to be evacuated.

Alas, she was betrayed and arrested the morning she was to be picked up by a British boat, and she was returned to prison.

Amazingly, however, in a mistake that in today's law enforcement world would likely never happen, she was not identified as the same "Jeannie Rousseau" who had been arrested as a spy in 1941. They had her listed under a different name, and as a result of the confusion she was able to survive.

Her experience in the camps that followed can be summarized: first sent to Ravensbrueck, where she performed menial labor, she was later sent to a labor camp in Eastern Germany, where she was able, through bluster, to avoid being put to work manufacturing munitions. She came down with tuberculosis, was returned somehow to Ravensbrueck, where she hid out until she was released at the end of the war.

She was starving, weighing little over 70 pounds. She would not have survived the camp but for the arrival of a Swedish Red Cross team shortly before the end of the war. She was evacuated to Sweden and slowly recovered.

She returned to France in 1946, where she married a survivor of Auschwitz. She continued to use her linguistic skills over the course of the following years, working for the United Nations and other international organizations. She dodged publicity and refused to talk to reporters.

On October 27, 1993, at the age of 73, she was granted a special CIA citation for her war work, where, together with the analyst to whom she reported, R.V. Jones, she was honored for what the Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Wolsey, called her "embodiment" of the "ideal of human intelligence."

It is today almost 2010. She would be over 90 years old if she is still alive. And, aside from a dinner and an award in 1993, her sacrifice, suffering, devotion and bravery are largely forgotten to history.

Largely forgotten, yes. But not completely.

The Washington Post reporter that told her story asked her why she acted, and she "scoffed." "I just did it, that's all ... [i]t wasn't a choice. It was what you did. At the time, we all thought we would die. I don't understand the question. How could I not do it?"

The reporter put her bravery down to the fact that it was a "simple reflex.... It's a property of the central nervous system, not the higher brain."

For those who have ears to hear, however, the answer is much clearer: she acted as she did because she was one of the Tattered Remnant.


Let me take a moment to comment on a key player in this story: the developer of the Saturn 5 rocket, the man most responsible for our successful moon landing, the great and celebrated Dr. Werner von Braun.

Famous, oh so famous he was. Were it not for him we would not have beaten the Soviets to the moon–a key event in history, and (to his credit) one that may have helped avoid the Third World War. While he lived he was covered in accolades and awards, honored with titles and rank and world fame. When he died in 1977 at the age of 65, it was front page news around the world. And it was an event that this shameless teenaged (at the time) space geek followed closely, intently, for he was a hero: a scientist who acted and advanced human knowledge in its first step into space.

Yes, he became a United States Citizen. But he was granted such through a special dispensation, for he was also an SS-Sturbannführer, a key actor in one of history's great criminal conspiracies.

And remember also: his facility at Peenemünde was staffed by slave laborers; every rocket he flew for his Nazi masters was handmade by the kidnaped, the terrified, and the enforced. He was, in fact, a slave master.

He needn't have been. He did act bravely, to an extent, to save certain of his workers from being killed. He showed by doing that that he was not entirely lacking in moral courage. But he never let his moral courage get in the way of his commitment to completing the program. In short, it seems that he could have been one of the Remnant, but refused the commission.

For his efforts, however, thousands of his slaves died building the rockets: one estimate holds that for every rocket launched at England, six slave laborers died, possibly more than were harmed by the rockets' detonation over London. Twenty thousand laborers died, including 200 hanged for sabotage.

And do not forget: his rockets also killed innocent British civilians. The U.S. Air and Space Museum states that the V-2 killed 5,000 people in London. The V-1 buzz bombs killed about the same number.

And also: the very rockets that put us on the moon, which he built, could one day burn the cities of our enemies to ash. And cost us our own. (Do not forget that the first rocket built for the Soviet strategic rocket forces was the R-1, a direct copy of the V-2; while no longer Soviet, those rockets are still aimed at us.)

Yes, Werner von Braun was a great man. But he was also a technological murderer and a great war criminal, a willing instrument of grave evil. For all his achievements and honors, the bitter and mocking lyric of Tom Lehrer forever, and most justly, mars his memory: "'Vanz ze rockets go up, who cares vere zey come down? Zat's not my department!' says Werner von Braun."

He was the very embodiment of the amoral mad scientist, a Viktor Frankenstein of space.

Remember his scientific achievements, which were great. But when so remembering him, do not forget for a moment that he was also a moral monster, less than the dust beneath the chariot wheels of the forgotten Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens.


Source: This retelling of Jeannie's story is derived from "After Five Decades, a Spy Tells Her Tale." by David Ignatius, which appeared in the Washington Post, 28 Dec. 1998). The full text can be found here.

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Keep it clean for gene.