Charles de Gaulle's time in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 16:41 30 January 2017 | UPDATED: 16:41 30 January 2017
© Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Picture postcard Little Gaddesden has a secret. Seventy-five years ago, as Germany occupied France and bombs fell on Britain, the leader of the French government-in-exile was holed up in the village leading the French Resistance
The leafy lanes of the Home Counties hide a myriad secrets from the Second World War that are still coming to light to this day. From stately homes where codes were broken and woodlands where whole tank regiments were hidden to cottages that housed spies, we are fascinated by these tales of derring-do on the Home Front.
One of the lesser-known facts from this period is that the future leader of France, Charles de Gaulle, spent months in a quiet country villa near Berkhamsted, from where he led a government in exile and its Free French forces.
Born in Lille in 1890, de Gaulle had a distinguished record in the First World War. He fought at Verdun, where he was wounded three times. He was then captured by the Germans and held in prisoner-of-war camps, where he made five attempts to escape.
In the Second World War, he was first a brigadier-general before rising to under-secretary for defence for war. He had some success against the German forces as they swept into France in 1940, but, appalled by Marshall Pétain’s collaborative deal with Hitler, he fled in 1940 with other French officers to London.
From there, he made a key radio broadcast in June of that year, urging the French people to resist the Nazi occupation. ‘The flame of French resistance must not and shall not die,’ he declared.
Relatively unknown to the French public before this time, his broadcasts were soon listened to by millions. In response to this danger, the newly-formed Vichy government condemned him to death.
In 1941, with help from the British government, de Gaulle moved with his wife Yvonne and their 13-year-old Down’s Syndrome daughter, Ann, into the newly-built Rodinghead House, home of a Colonel Johns, in the village of Little Gaddesden next to Ashridge Estate in west Herts. Yvonne described it to her niece as ‘an attractive, modern, pleasant villa’.
De Gaulle immediately set about strengthening the cellar to use as an air raid shelter, while in July, Winston Churchill dispatched the press to the house to photograph and film the couple in an attempt to boost support for the Free French cause. Oddly-domestic photos and cine film that belie the wartime setting and the nature of de Gaulle’s work were taken, with the couple strolling in the gardens, playing the piano or taking the sun on the terrace. Some of the images are now held at Berkhamsted Museum and the Hertfordshire County Archives.
Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society chairman Jenny Sherwoord says details of de Gaulle’s stay at the house are sketchy, in large part because his presence there was kept secret. She suspects he was taken to the village because it was close enough to London for him to continue his radio broadcasts to France while being out of danger from German bombs that were falling relentlessly on the capital. She also thinks he had bodyguards with him, ‘as he would have been a potential subject for assassination’.
While relatively safe from bombing, Ashridge Estate and Berkhamsted could not avoid the effects of war. Jenny, who lived through the conflict in Rickmansworth, says in the latter years of the war the Chilterns was chosen for military exercises and for hiding regiments of armoured vehicles. Statues from London’s parks and buildings were also hidden in the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle.
Ashridge House itself became a war hospital while evacuees poured into the area from London, meaning some of the local schools had to work shift patterns. Occasionally, Jenny says, stray bombs would hit, like those that destroyed the railway bridge in Berkhamsted.
A staunch Catholic, de Gaulle attended mass regularly with his family at the Church of the Sacred Heart at Park View Road in Berkhamsted (after the war it became a nursery school which Jenny’s youngest daughter attended). He was also pictured on Remembrance Sunday, 1941 taking the salute from the Home Guard at Potten End. The patriot was apparently furious on the day because a French flag could not be found anywhere.
The following month, Colonel Passy, the Free French head of intelligence, was invited to spend the weekend at Rodinghead. He recorded in his memoirs his meeting with de Gaulle. ‘We came back from a long walk and sat down in armchairs in the drawing room. The general switched on the radio. The Japanese had just taken Pearl Harbour. The general said “Now the war is certainly won… the future has two phases, the first, the salvage of Germany by the Allies, the second, war between the Russians and Americans”.’
He was proved right on the victory, Germany’s rise again to respectability, and the Cold War.
It was the American forces and the British resistance in France, the Special Operations Executive, as much as de Gaulle’s Free French movement that aided his eventual triumphant return to France and his rise to the presidency of the Fifth Republic. He strode into Paris on August 25, 1944, with the liberating US Army and his own 4th Armoured Division, as a conquering hero. Cheering crowds on the Champs-Élysées waved banners declaring Vive de Gaulle and Vive la Republique. Many wanted to touch the general or kiss him.
Three months later, he was elected head of the provisional French government, a position he resigned from in 1946. He returned to power in 1959, holding the office of president for a decade.
While Churchill had supported de Gaulle in his exile, the SOE had little love for him and other Allied leaders found his manner prickly and arrogant.
In the years that followed the Second World War, relations between de Gaulle and his former hosts were often strained. Churchill accused him of helping to sour French attitudes towards the British and the general repeatedly showed an anti-English stance, for example, blocking British attempts to join the European Union. It seems de Gaulle’s time spent in his Hertfordshire hideaway had done little to soften his fierce nationalist attitude.
His one-time home is still very much intact and in private hands. As Jenny says, it’s ‘a very English country house in a very English part of England’. Small wonder then that de Gaulle never returned.
Rodinghead is a private house. It can be seen from the road to Ashridge House and the public footpath alongside.
Ashridge Estate is owned by the National Trust and has miles of footpaths and bridleways through beautiful countryside, plus a visitor centre, all free to visit.
The Roman Catholic church in Park View Road, Berkhamsted, where de Gaulle attended with his family is still there, although no longer a church.
The Berkhamsted Museum and History Society are online at berkhamsted-history.org.uk
Some of the content of this article is sourced from Hertfordshire Secret and Spies by Pamela Shields.