I can't take any credit whatsoever for this story - it was written by Robert Wernick and published on his own website at www.robertwernick.com. John Clinch had also published Bob's story on his site, and since I was already a 'fan' of Johnny Hopper from seeing brief mentions of him in various accounts, I wanted this story read by as many others as possible. I contacted Bob Wernick and he has kindly allowed me to republish it here. My aim is to remind those of us who weren't there, and who can't possibly understand, that almost anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
Johnny Hopper
His War against the Germans
"Mauthausen was the worst of my camps," said Johnny Hopper. "And the worst bloody part of it was the Jewish block at the south end. They had nothing to eat down there. It was separated from the rest of us by a no-man's-land where you had better not be caught. I had a friend down there, a wealthy man I had known in France, and I used to go down to see him when it was dark enough and foggy enough and I had something to give him. Things they never saw down there, a bit of margarine, a bit of jam. We were there one night, and we were crouching together by a wall, and he said to me, 'They're going to kill me tomorrow, Johnny.' There wasn't anything more either one of us had to say, we just crouched there in the dark for a while. Then I had to go back, and he said to me, 'I'll miss my jam, Johnny.'"
My friend Christopher Burney, an English secret agent who spent more than two years in Buchenwald [Burney, Maurice Southgate, Henry and Arthur Newton were the only four British agents to survive Buchenwald after Yeo-Thomas escaped. See Solitary Confinement (1952) and The Dungeon Democracy (1945) both by Christopher Burney and reissued together in hardback by Macmillan and paperback by Papermac in 1984] once explained to me that the theory behind the Nazi concentration camps was that, with a proper dosage of brutality, cold, hunger and fatigue, all human beings could be systematically reduced to the level of animals in a driven herd, each one of them concerned with nothing but its own survival. But he discovered that the theory was not infallible, that in the most atrocious circumstances there could be spontaneous gestures of human solidarity: a man standing in one of the hours-long roll-calls who could take the coat off his own back to cover the shoulders of the man next to him shivering in his thin tattered pyjama-striped prisoner uniform and save him from pneumonia (as a French West Indian did for Burney one day during a snowstorm in Buchenwald); a man who after spending endless hours carrying hundred-pound stones up the endless stairs in the side of the quarry at Mauthausen would find an extra hour at night to risk torture and hanging to bring a friend a spoonful of jam.
There was nothing remarkable in the background of Ian Kenneth (Johnny) Hopper. He was born in 1913 of solid East Anglian stock, one grandfather a brick-maker, the other a farmer. When he was 11, his parents moved to France. He ran around with bigger and tougher kids, and learned how to hold his own. He did a little semi-professional boxing and learned how to handle himself with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. In 1940 he was living in a village near Caen in Normandy, happily married to a vivacious girl named Paulette, with a little boy, Jean-Claude, and running a moderately prosperous business selling and repairing radios and electrical equipment over a wide territory. By all accounts, he was a big, good-looking, fun-loving, popular, exceptionally strong young man.
When I met him a half-century later, he had recently retired after 40 years of modest success growing mushrooms in Norfolk. He was happily married to a wife named Diana. When I called him to arrange our first meeting, he said, "Don't come here, it's the North Pole, nothing but yuppies," and suggested a pub across from Liverpool Street Station in London where he used to unload his produce. I asked how I might recognize him, but I need not have. When he came out of the station, every one in the street was aware of him; when he came into the pub every pair of eyes swivelled to look at him. Close to 80 and suffering from the cancer which would kill him a few months later, he was still a commanding figure, tall and gaunt, with a confident stride, piercing gunmetal eyes, and a deep voice which he assured me would not inflect whether he was talking to Jack the Plumber or Lord Whoever.
Between his two uneventful law-abiding careers in radios and in mushrooms lay the years which began in June of 1940 when the German armies overran France and ended in April of 1945 when the surviving prisoners took over the concentration camp of Dachau from their guards. During those years Hopper discovered that he had another calling: he was a killer. For two years before he was caught he roamed the roads of German-occupied Normandy and the streets of German-occupied Paris, committing acts of armed robbery, arson, forgery and murder. He derailed trains, he blew up oil and ammunition depots, he assassinated French policemen and German Army officers, he shot his way out of ambushes laid for him by the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst and the French Gendarmerie. When he needed money to buy provisions for himself and the associates he acquired as he went along, he robbed a bank. Or he robbed a department store of its supply of silk stockings, a more reliable currency than the ever-devaluating thousand-franc bills of the Bank of France. When he needed a German colonel's uniform so that he could walk unimpeded into a local German headquarters and talk his way (he was good at languages, and good at barking out commands) into picking up some documents that interested him, he waylaid and killed a German colonel.
The war he fought was his own war. He wore no uniform. He reported to no Commanding Officer. He planned and executed his own actions. Like all but a handful of his neighbours in Normandy he might have passed a quiet and not too uncomfortable life through the years of the German occupation, plying a peaceful trade or working at odd jobs and doing some black-marketing on the side, neither collaborating openly with the Germans nor doing anything that might offend them. But from the day the Germans came, he knew that he would have to take up arms against them. "I don't believe in taking things lying down," is all he ever said to explain why. "It was the Germans who set the rules, don't you see. I did terrible things, things as bad as the Germans did. I was responsible for the death of innocent people. But when you meet an aggressor, you have to aggress back, aggress, aggress all the time." A priest who had a great influence on him when he was a little boy had drilled two rules into him: Never complain. Never give up.
He had no illusions about the efficacy or the tactical or strategic significance of whatever he or any other lone fighter might do. "The Germans" he said, "could lose more men in traffic accidents in a day than I could kill in a year." But he had no choice: the defiance had to go on.
Once a friend asked him, as they hid in a hedge by a roadside in Normandy, "Look, Johnny, suppose the Shleuhs (a Moroccan tribe, a French slang name for Germans) win this bloody war. What will we do then?" "We'll go on doing then what we are doing now," said Hopper, and pressed down a plunger to set off a mine that blew up a German staff car imprudently keeping to its strict daily schedule.
There is little documentation of his time underground. He kept no records, for records in the wrong hands could kill you. You will not find his name in the official history of British secret operations in France, his photograph does not hang on the walls of the Special Forces Club in London. Indeed when survivors of his devoted band of followers presented themselves to British officials after the war was won, expecting some gesture of gratitude to the Hopper Network on the part of His Majesty's government, they were brusquely told that there was no such thing as a Hopper Network which had ever cooperated with the Allied forces, and they were shown the door. Fortunately one of them, Dr. Chanel an ophthalmologist, had, most imprudently, kept records of some of the operations he had taken part in, and was able to show that BBC broadcasts describing damage to factories in the Paris region by RAF bombing raids were taken word for word from reports they had handed to Hopper so that he could deliver them to one of those planes which on dark nights landed in French fields to bring in arms and agents and to take back information to London. And in due time Chanel and his comrades received the thanks of His Majesty's government.
Outside of Doctor Chanel's notes, which cover only a small portion of the Hopper career, there are pathetically few remaining contemporary documents. There are brief references in the files of old newspapers from occupied Caen and occupied Paris to a "a tall thin man" who robbed a bank in Caen of two million francs, to a police net which was inexorably closing around the "de Gaulle agent and murderer Jean Hopper." His name turns up briefly in a couple of books about the Resistance and the concentration camps. One day in Norfolk, after the war was all over, he received from an American cousin a newspaper clipping from her local Virginia newspaper that she had saved, an AP dispatch from Vichy dated August 5, 1941, headlined "Germans Hunt Bold De Gaullist," telling of an Englishman named Hopper who, in defiance of a German ban against celebrating the French national holiday on July 14, had put on a French colonel's uniform and deposited a huge wreath of flowers on the monument to the war dead in Caen, directly in front of the German Army headquarters.
It was Hopper's first act of open resistance against the German occupation of France, and, except that no blood was shed - not a single German headquarter officer was killed or wounded, not a stone of the headquarters building was scratched, it survived the war intact and eventually became a Holiday Inn - it was a model for all his future operations. It was a spontaneous personal gesture, boldly conceived, carefully planned, neatly executed. Every detail - including finding the right French colonel (there were many who would be willing to make a small contribution to the national cause, but where would he find one whose uniform would fit his six-foot-three-inch frame?), the close but inconspicuous reconnoitring of the spot to make sure that the Germans would all be eating lunch or be otherwise engaged when he drove up, the stealthy stealing of a truck to drive up in, the choice of a secret hiding-place to retire to after the operation - had to be precisely calculated. And it was designed for maximum impact, it was meant to be talked about. It was only a symbolic gesture, but as a symbol it resonated, all the way to Vichy and Virginia, a faint suggestion that there might be a spark of life left in defeated demoralized shell-shocked France.
The French people had passed almost overnight in May and June of the year before, from being the centre of a mighty empire, a centre of world culture, a major player in the great game of geopolitics, to a mere spot on the map like Poland or Denmark, their lives controlled by a ruthless and efficient army of occupation, nothing to do with their lives except find ways to live from day to day, learn how to acquire enough food on the black market to keep their families alive, listen to BBC broadcasts and hope for the best. What they needed was some kind of dramatic reminder that there was a war on, that they were defeated but not dead, that there could be fire in the ashes. And Johnny Hopper was there to provide it.
He had no formal military training. He had no superior officers to give him commands or instructions, to teach him the protocols of what the British called Special Operations. He was alone in the underground and he had to learn all the arts of underground warfare from the ground up. Dr. Chanel was convinced to his dying day, as were all the other French who worked with Hopper during the war, that he was an agent of the mythical organization known to continental Europeans as the British Intelligence Service. In fact he was part of no organization, owed no allegiance to the British Army or the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (the Gaullist resistance) or the Franc-tireurs et Partisans (the Communist resistance). Officers of the British SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which was responsible for underground operations in France, only knew of him as an elusive maverick operator; sometimes, after they had spent months training a team of agents to be dropped by parachute and blow up some strategic target, they would find that the unpredictable Hopper had already figured out how to do it, and had done it on his own.
He had to learn all the arts and dodges of the underground operative by himself. This kind of warfare is only intermittently spectacular and violent. Most of the time it is a game of hide-and-seek, of bluff and counter-bluff, a deadly game where one bit of carelessness, one false move, one miscalculation of a colleague's or an enemy's character, can mean torture and death. The French resistance was a very small world - especially in the early years of the occupation before the Germans started rounding up your men for forced labour in Germany, in which every one knew or at least was aware of every one else, though it was best not to know too much; aware too that at any moment yesterday's loyal friend and brave collaborator might by bribery or torture be turned into today's traitor.
As someone familiar with delicate radio equipment, Hopper had no difficulty in learning how to pick locks. He became an expert at using pen and ink to imitate the uneven pressure of a rubber stamp on paper or photograph, and not one of the scores of identity cards and passes he forged for himself and his associates was ever challenged. He had no formal military training whatever; they had taught him how to use a gun in school, but he had never killed so much as a rabbit. "But you see," he once explained to me, "I worked at close quarters, and at close quarters you don't need technique, you need nerve. I learned a great deal the first time I ever shot a man, a French policeman named Bernard. He had stopped my car and ordered me to drive him to police headquarters, and when he saw that I was heading for open country, he pulled out his gun. I was quicker, I shot him in the head. It was a small gun, a 7-millimetre, and it only wounded him. I dropped him off at a hospital with a word of advice about keeping his month shut."
"The reason I was quicker was, at the moment he started reaching for that gun, I noticed a kind of tightening about his jaw - I would see that tightening many times afterwards, I saw it in some of the best killers the Gestapo put on my trail. What it means, don't you see, is that at that moment when their lives are on the line, no matter how professional they are, there is just a moment when they can't help thinking of what might happen, what might happen to them and their careers and their families. It might last only a fraction of a second. But that was a fraction of a second I could use. Because it was different with me. I knew, I knew, that as one man against so many I didn't have a chance of' surviving in the long run. Betrayal or bad luck, something was bound to catch up with me. And I was determined that they would not get me alive. It was understood among whoever went into action with me that if there were any wounded who could not be taken safely away, they were not to be left to be tortured by the Gestapo and have all their secrets torn out of them before they were allowed to die, they were to be finished off then and there."
He learned the arts of stealing ("organizing" as it would be called in the concentration camps, or "liberating" as it would be called in the American army) the guns and explosives and vehicles he needed, and how to conceal then. The arts of continually changing your identity, not just forging new papers with new names and addresses but changing your whole physical appearance - a natty German officer one day, a slovenly French bum the next - so that you would not attract attention by appearing too often in the same place. You had to look the part, act the part: if your papers said you came from Arras or some other town where all the records had been destroyed by bombing, you had to know at least a little of the geography of Arras, the names of some churches and neighbourhood bars, in case one of your interrogator was familiar with Arras. If the papers said you were an insurance agent or a longshoreman, you had to know how such people dressed and walked, and what was their taste in liquor. It is a tribute to Hopper's skill in all these domains that he could roam the roads of Normandy and the streets of Paris with impunity for more than two years while his face was well known to the authorities (one of little Jean-Claude Hopper's earliest memories was of coming out of his grandmother's house where he had been taken in, and seeing men putting up on wall after wall of Caen, posters with his papa's picture on them with an offer in big letters below it of a reward of one million francs for his capture dead or alive); not to speak of the fact that, no matter how he slouched, he was at least a head and a half taller than any Frenchman who was apt to cross his path, and in a crowded street you could see him coming blocks away.
And he had to learn the arts of finding associates who could be trained to act quietly and efficiently, and above all who could be counted on not to betray him, to hold up under torture for forty-eight hours to give the other members of the network time to change residence and identity papers when they knew that someone had missed a rendezvous.
Other early memories of Jean-Claude circle around some of these associates in the form of mysterious visitors who would come slinking at all hours of day or night into the house in the little village of Mouen where Papa and Maman were running a milk collection and delivery business (because milk trucks could go practically anywhere practically any time without raising suspicion). They would have their hats pulled down over their eyes, they would talk in whispers, and they spent most of their time disassembling and cleaning guns. The little boy was fascinated by a swarthy brute named Mario who used a long stiletto to pick at a shiny gold tooth.
His liveliest memory is of the day he came out of his bedroom and Papa shouted to him to get back inside pronto and shut the door. He was too curious not to wait and watch Papa set up a machine gun at the head of the stairs. A moment later four German soldiers came rushing through the front door. Perhaps they had been driving by and noticed something suspiciously odd about the house. Perhaps they had simply lost their way and wanted to ask for directions. At all events they were not well trained in this kind of operation, for they all came in at once, and Papa mowed them all down with one burst of his gun. Later the mysterious visitors began to drift in silently, they washed off the bloodstains on the floor, they stripped off the field-grey uniforms, they dragged the bodies deep into the woods to bury them, they took apart the car they had driven up in and buried it too except for the useful pieces they could take to one of the two garages in Caen which Hopper used for stockpiling guns and gasoline and equipment.
Over the course of time he built a circle of associates out of which he could pick trained men and women for any particular operation. They included highly respectable people like Doctor Chanel, and less respectable ones like an old chum from his boxing days, Robert Perrier, known as Le Kid, a skilled operative when it came to stealing and driving any kind of vehicle from a motorcycle to a moving van.
It is a tribute to Hopper's keen eye and keen judgment that not one of these associates ever betrayed him, or at least got away with betraying him, for that million franc award. The Hopper network acquired a considerable and often exaggerated reputation for its ruthless efficiency. Giselle Guillemot, who now lives in Paris, remembers the days when she was 19 and a member of a Communist-led network that considered itself the only force actively fighting the Germans in the Caen area. Whenever they beard of any exploit that they had not carried out themselves - a bomb thrown into Gestapo headquarters, a supply depot set on fire - they automatically attributed it to Hopper and his group.
His enemies did likewise. When it was Dr. Chanel's turn to be arrested and hauled off to a Gestapo torture chamber, his interrogator began by barking at him "Your god-damned Hopper has killed so many of our best men."
It was always touch and go. Once he picked the lock of a government building in Caen when every one was out to lunch, and walked out with his pockets full of gasoline ration coupons. The next day a month's supply of gasoline for the region was arriving at the railroad station, and he drove up in his milk truck to join the line of trucks waiting for their share. It was a slow operation, papers were carefully examined, the gasoline was carefully measured out, one can at time. He was counting on the legendary French bureaucracy to have either not yet noticed that tickets were missing or to have sent on a report by mail to a higher headquarters which would have to write and mail instructions to the proper police authorities who would not necessarily know where to start looking for the thief. But he could not be sure that some eager-beaver clerk anxious for a promotion had not raised a general alarm, and every passing hour increased the chance that the sirens of a police car might be heard approaching. But no one was in a hurry, and he could not be in a hurry, so he sat all day in his truck as it slowly moved forward, and in the end he got his gas.
But Caen was getting too hot for him, he was too well known, there were too many people looking for him, too many neighbours who might remember an old grudge and turn him in. One day he was about to visit one of his garage depots when he heard a suspicious noise - it was a gun being loaded - warned him that he had walked into an ambush mounted by the local chief of police and a number of underlings (a dozen according to Hopper, three according to one of them, who years later wrote a letter to a local newspaper to say that though the police were aware of his underground activities they were only interested in arresting him for burglary of silk stockings) who were waiting for him a little further up the street. He strode on nonchalantly, suddenly pulled out both his guns and started firing. The police chief fell dead, the others ran for shelter and began firing wildly into the void while Hopper jumped on a bicycle conveniently parked at the curb in front of a café and raced downhill (the brakes didn't work) through a crowded market place and out into the open country where the authorities would be looking for him in vain for weeks to come.
Johnny and Paulette, their cover now definitively blown, lived for the next two weeks in the woods, keeping a plentiful supply of pepper to discourage dogs from following their scent. "The net is closing around the bandit Hopper," announced the local press, but it never closed tight enough. They spent a night near an airfield which the Germans were enlarging, and the next day slipped in with the construction crew when it was going off work, walked to the nearest railroad station and took a train for Paris, where Johnny had established some reliable connections.
For the details of what he did in Paris, we have to rely mostly on the stories of Johnny Hopper himself, and by the time he told them to me they were an old man's memories. When he had come back, broken in health, from Dachau in 1945, the last thing he wanted to do was talk about what he had been through. Later on, when he was ready to talk, people were beginning to be tired of war stories. "The things we did every day then, people simply can't believe now. Sometimes I start talking, and they listen politely, and after a while their eyes begin to glaze over."
Tell me one of the things you did then, I asked him, and he began, as he usually did, in the middle. It was a spring afternoon in 1942 and there had just been a deadly shootout in a café on the rue Beaubourg, where the Pompidou Museum now stands. "I had been shot in the arm, you see. Luckily I was wearing a jacket with sleeves that fastened tightly at the wrists, so that the sleeve ballooned up and there were no drops of blood to leave a trail on the sidewalk. I walked as fast as I dared, and I found a public telephone and I put in a call to my friend Dr. Chanel to meet me in a safe house I knew on the boulevard Bessières. The house belonged to a very wealthy woman, an artist, who was also a drug addict, and reckless and wild but very loyal and very brave. God knows why she had to pick this particular day to take too much of that stuff and take her car out for a drive (you had to be very rich and very well-connected to dare to use precious gasoline driving a private car around Paris in those days) and she ran right into a car full of some German, and when they started bawling her out she called them the worst names she could think of. Naturally they arrested her."
"Chanel had just finished bandaging my arm in the library upstairs when we heard a great racket in downstairs, and it was five or six soldiers announcing to the maid that they were going to search the house from bottom to top. I never travelled without at least three guns on my person and I gave one of them to Chanel. He had never held a gun in his hand in his entire life. I told him to do nothing till he saw me start shooting and then to shoot whatever he saw moving as fast as he could. It was not a pleasant situation to be in, with me having only one arm available, but by good luck those Germans were just ordinary soldiers, not Gestapo or anything like that, and this house was full of papers that they kept pulling out of drawers but they couldn't read a word of French, so they decided they needed someone to help them out. So they left a sentry at the door and marched off to find that someone."
"Now the front door was the only way we could get out, because with my arm I couldn't climb over the garden wall. We pushed the door open a crack. The sentry was leading against the wall and looking bored as hell. We could have taken a shot at him, but with dozens of witnesses walking up and down the street that would not have been a good idea. We decided to wait a while and hope for another stroke of luck, and sure enough a squad of German soldiers happened to go by, marching down the other side of the street. Our friend recognized one of them, he yelled at him and he trotted over to bum a cigarette or to have a little chat, and it gave us our chance to slip out into the sidewalk. It was night now, and people were hurrying to get home before curfew. We had gone a good fifty yards before we heard 'Halt!' Then we ran, and there was gunfire, and we dodged through side streets and alleys till we sure they had lost our trail. By now it was long past curfew, the subways were closed, every window was now shuttered tight, we had to feel our way in the dark. We were a long way off from the nearest safe house we could use, which was somewhere near the Eiffel Tower. And we couldn't afford to get caught in a big empty avenue, we had to dodge around in the dark little side streets. We didn't need to worry so much about dodging the German patrols, they always made a lot of noise. The French police were much worse, much sneakier, they were oh so anxious to show the Germans what good little boys they were. So we agreed on a plan. If we suspected they were sneaking up on us in the dark, we would start rolling around like a pair of drunks, and I would recite German poetry, of which I knew a good deal, and Chanel, who didn't speak a word of the language, would just say Ja, ja. It sounds simple-minded but it worked. At least nobody interfered with us, and we got all the way to the Eiffel Tower safely, and then we discovered that our safe house wasn't a safe house any more, and we had to keep walking in the dark, another mile or so to the rue d'Alésia."
Perhaps my own eyes were beginning to glaze slightly at this point. Perhaps he was yielding to the old soldier's perennial temptation to add new bright threads to the tapestry of the story as he retells it over the years. It was an unworthy suspicion. A couple of weeks later I was visiting Dr Raymond Chanel in his home town of Nevers, where he had just retired from practice. He was a hale 85, with not only precise memories of the distant past but pages of notes he had scribbled down in 1945, at the end of the war, when his memories were fresh. His account of that night-time stroll through Paris was identical to Hopper's, except for a few minor details, such as that Hopper, who knew the house well, had abstracted three guns from their hiding places and given them all to Dr Chanel. If they were aggressed and had to aggress back, they were going to do it in style.
"I have never seen anything like Hopper preparing for action," said Dr. Chanel. "He was a perfectionist; he had to be sure that everything and everybody would be in the right place at the right time."
Sometimes these plans worked out beautifully. Once he assigned himself the job of liquidating a high-ranking SS officer a "nasty piece of goods" who knew altogether too much, who had made a specialty of infiltrating Resistance groups and getting them liquidated. His base of operations was a fashionable Paris hotel, where he would check in as a prosperous German businessman looking for contacts and contracts, and where the staff was too well trained to ask why he would disappear without notice for days or weeks at a time and then come back looking pleased with himself. Apprised of these comings and goings, and of the tastes and habits of this businessman by the night clerk, who was in touch with the friend of a friend, Hopper could set up a quietly efficient operation demanding exact timing and of course total discretion. The German officer was an orderly man who always had a bottle of brandy sent up to his room before he went to sleep between eleven and eleven thirty. One night Hopper slipped in through a side door a few minutes before eleven o'clock with a gun and a bottle of brandy in his coat pockets, borrowed a waiter's jacket and a tray and a glass and a napkin and a small pillow from the night clerk, waited till the expected call came down for room service, went upstairs and with the quiet dignity of a well-trained servant, poured out a drink, put it on the night table, put the pillow over the man's face and emptied his gun into it. He dragged the body to the big old-fashioned fireplace, and signalled with a cigarette lighter to a pair of confederates - Robert le Kid and another man - who had just taken up positions on the roof in the blacked-out Paris night. They lowered a rope attached to a sack into which he stuffed the body, the brandy bottle and the pillow, and while they were raising it, he phoned the desk clerk to come up and remake the bed, clean up any spare feathers that might be lying around, and take down the tray, and also the room key which would be put in its proper cubby-hole as the room's occupant did every time he left the building. The rope came down again and hauled Hopper up, and he and his friends quietly went through the well-rehearsed routine of tossing the sack on to the roof of the adjoining building, to which they had acquired the necessary keys. They carried it down the stairway and out into the blacked-out street, tossed it into the trunk of a stolen car with German license plates and drove on to a house in the suburbs where a pit in the garden was ready, half filled with quick-lime.
Sometimes it was the other side which made the careful complex plans. They laid six (or seven, "after a while you stop counting,") ambushes for him, and he shot his way out every time. The most spectacular was the one he walked into when he had a midnight rendezvous a street behind the Opera with a man he described as "a Jewish gangster, a man who gained enormous respect because he was the only man in Paris who went around the city through all the years of the occupation with a forty-five stuck into his belt." There was a whole carload of Germans waiting for him instead, and they jumped on him and pulled two guns out of his pockets with squeals of triumph and were jovially kicking him and beating him and describing the joys that awaited him in the dungeons of the Gestapo when the gangster, who had been hiding in a doorway, began firing at them and they scattered, giving Hopper all the time he needed to reach for the third gun strapped to his leg which had been overlooked by his unskilled captors, and could join in the fire fight, from which none of the Germans emerged alive.
Sometimes the plans could go tragically awry. On April 12, 1942, the one date in all that time burned irrevocably into his memory, the day on which he got the wound in his arm on the rue Beaubourg, he and Paulette had gone to a café to keep a rendezvous with a Doctor Mineur who had promised to give him some information about a double agent known as Monsieur Paul. This was [Harold] Paul Cole, a former British Army sergeant who was captured by the Germans in 1940, escaped, joined the fledgling French resistance, did many brave deeds, then was bribed or beaten into turning traitor [in December 1941] and selling out more than 200 men and women to the Gestapo. (Cole would later sell out his Gestapo employers to the Americans at the end of the war) Mineur had recently disappeared from view for a couple of weeks, and Hopper had a nagging suspicion that he, too, might have turned double agent. But any information leading to Paul Cole was too important to be neglected, and the rendezvous had to be kept.
Hopper chose his seat with his usual care, at the end of the long narrow café, with his back to a wall and a clear view of the entrance door. Mineur came in on schedule, and right behind him came two Germans in uniform and another in civilian clothes. Soon there was firing all over the place, chairs being overturned, customers diving for safety under tables or behind the bar. "I had to shoot around Mineur, who was a big man," said Hopper. "If I had known then what I later learned about him in Mauthausen, I would have shot through him."
"I didn't know at first how badly I was wounded. I ducked back through a door next to our table, to take stock and to get a fresh gun unstrapped from my leg. It was only a sort of closet back there, but the Germans must have assumed it was a rear door to the alley. I had hit all of' them more or less badly, and when I kicked my door open, they were all running out the front door to get help. All the customers and the bartender were still on the floor. I looked around to the table where we had been sitting, and there was my wife with her head on the table. Blood was gushing from her mouth. In a single instant Hopper judged that the wound was fatal, but that she might live long enough to be tortured by the Gestapo and to tell them all she knew. He did what he would have expected her to do to him in the same situation: he put the muzzle of his gun to her right eye and pulled the trigger."
"I have relived that moment every day of my life," he told me 48 years later, "always asking myself the same question."
But neither then nor later was there time to stop. As soon as his arm healed, he was back in action.
The shooting in the rue Beaubourg had rated headlines in the Paris press, and both the German and the French police were more than ever on the lookout for the giant form of the "English assassin" lurking in the streets. He continued to elude them, his hiding places were not found, the identity papers he forged were not challenged, his friends never betrayed him, till one day in August he was caught by pure accident. He had gotten off a subway train at his intended stop, the Alésia station, but he had been without sleep for several dramatic days and hardly knew what he was doing, and only when the doors closed and the train took off did he realize that he had left a package of compromising papers on the seat beside him. He knew that at the next stop, the Porte d'Orléans which was the terminal of the line, they would make a routine check of the cars, and find his papers, but if he got there in time he had a chance of getting them before they found their way into the hands of the police. He grabbed the next train, got off and bluffed his way into the Lost and Found room, retrieved the papers, tore them into tiny pieces and dispersed them on the stairway as he was going up, then came out into the air to find there were policemen all over the place, making one of the random identity checks which were one of the deadly nuisances of those days. He jumped on an unattended bicycle, as he had done successfully the year before in Caen, but this time a conscientious cop was there to stick his club through the spokes of the rear wheel and send him crashing down. They piled on him and searched him and found his guns and kicked him around and took him off to a large white room where they kept beating him and shouting at him to tell them who he really was till past midnight, when he finally said, "My own mother wouldn't recognize me now. But if you hadn't been in such a bloody hurry you could have looked over there on the wall at that poster, and you would have recognized me right away."
They kicked him around a bit more, and then they handed him over to the Germans. The Germans put him into the prison of Fresnes in the southern suburbs of Paris, where he was kept in solitary confinement, chained hand and foot, for the next eight months. A notice nailed to his door read: "Achtung! This prisoner is extremely dangerous. It is forbidden to enter the cell unless accompanied by two guards."
On the first day of every month a car would come to take him, with two armed guards, to Gestapo headquarters on the Rue des Saussaies in Paris, where they would beat him in the way they knew best, to inflict the maximum of pain without causing loss of consciousness. They would plunge him into icy bathtubs, prick him with needles, jab random parts of his body with lighted cigarettes, keep bright lights shining close to his eyes, pull out a tooth or toenail or two, and go through the same old round of questions. They knew as well as he did that when he did talk he would tell them of things he had done which they knew all about already, or give the names of friends and acquaintances in the resistance who were already dead. Or if the pain grew too great and he lost control of his tongue, the information he would blurt out was hopelessly out of date: as in every well-disciplined underground organization, all the members of the Hopper network changed their residences and identities forty-eight hours after one of them did not turn up at a scheduled meeting. But orders were orders and every month the orderly interrogators sent back a voluminous valueless report to add to the Hopper file in the archives in Berlin.
Johnny Hopper was orderly in his way too, and on his regular ride to the rue des Saussaies and back to his cell, he had memorized every lurch to right or left and every pothole over which they jolted (Paris streets were full of potholes, repairing them was a very low priority during the occupation) and transpose them to a map of Paris in his mind. He concentrated in particular on one sharp turn with a giant pothole in it because it was near an apartment he had used as a safe house, and if he could survive a car wreck at that point he could soon be back in action again. He knew that the two guards who accompanied him used this monotonous ride on a familiar route, which they took almost every day, as an opportunity for a restful snooze He knew that as they jolted around that curve he would be thrown against his right hand neighbour, and if he slipped out of his handcuffs (another art he had learned from experts) he would be able to grab his gun out of its holster, and shoot both the guards and the driver before they knew what was going on. The car would be going slowly through the blacked-out streets and there was a good chance he would not be hurt too badly when it banged into a lamp-post or a building. On the night he put the plan into operation, everything went according to schedule, it was the right street corner and the right pothole, but when he grabbed for the gun he suddenly realized that he had no feeling at all in any of the fingers of his hands, and he would not know if he was pulling the trigger or not. There was nothing to do but leave the gun alone and sink back into his place in the seat while his companions continued to snore peacefully all the way back to Fresnes.
In the morning the guard who brought him his food took one look at him, and silently gave him double rations. Some days later he spotted a ladder which had been carelessly left in a corridor, and since he could use his fingers again he figured a way to use the ladder to get over the prison wall and out into the suburban streets where he knew he could find a friendly door not too many blocks away. But to get to the ladder he would have to kill the guard, the only German who ever did a decent thing to him in all the years of the war, and somehow he could not do it, and by the time the guard had gone off duty the ladder had disappeared.
One day when they moved him from his cell, they sewed on his jacket the letters NN, for Nacht-und-Nebel, the "night and fog" into which Goethe had made the ancient Germanic gods disappear in a famous poem and into which a Nazi law commanded dangerous enemies of the Third Reich to be sent. This time the dangerous Hopper was not to go in a car to Paris but in a freight train for a long ride with no food or water to the concentration camp of Neue Bremm in a suburb of the German city of Saarbrücken. At their first roll-call at the camp gate, the SS commandant tramped noisily down the line of famished exhausted prisoners standing at stiff attention and read out their names and crimes. "You," he shouted at the man standing next to Hopper, "You! English officer! Do you know what you English did last night to Saarbrücken, you English gentleman, you English swine? You killed our women and our children, you burned our city, what do you call this, English officer?" "I call it Coventrieren," he quietly replied in a gentlemanly tone - the word the Germans had boastfully coined when they started their bombing Blitz of England by wiping out the city of Coventry in 1940. The commandant's eyes bulged: no one in his memory had ever talked back to an SS Sturmbannführer. He called up two aides and they knocked down the insolent prisoner and gave him the worst beating Hopper had ever seen anyone undergo and live.
This man lived. He was a famous man in the tiny world of the French resistance, he was Lieutenant-Commander Patrick O'Leary of the Royal Navy, a secret agent who had won one of the great victories of the war by setting up the Pat Line, a network of French patriots (including pretty girls who could distract the attention of train conductors and policemen when occasion required) who provided shelter to Allied fliers whose planes had been shot down over France but who had parachuted to safety, and shepherded them by road and train to the Pyrenees, where they could be smuggled into Spain and eventually back to their bases to fight again. (There were some five thousand of them. The number of German fliers in similar circumstances who escaped from captivity was one [Fighter pilot Hauptman von Werra finally escaped from Canada into the then neutral USA] .) O'Leary was a Canadian from Quebec and "the bravest man I have ever met," said Hopper, who for the next two years would be his daily and devoted companion, and remain his lifelong friend thereafter. Pat was a charismatic leader, and when he had recovered from his murderous beating he became the centre of a little group of five, known as the English Officers (though one of them was Australian and Johnny Hopper was not an officer) who managed to stay tightly together in the successive circles of the Nazi hell through which they were to pass - the daily deadly monotony of blows and screams and backbreaking labour and hunger and lice and the stench of shit and the clouds or wisps of black smoke which were sent constantly drifting across the sky by the giant crematorium chimneys - first at Neue Bremm, then Mauthausen in Austria, then, when the Russians got uncomfortably close to Austria, Natzweiler in Alsace and finally, when the Americans got uncomfortably close to Alsace, to what Hopper called the "charming Bavarian resort" of Dachau. Pat O'Leary was the first human being to whom he was able to tell the story of the death of his wife, and the first to assure him, with the weight of someone who knew what he was talking about, that he had done what he had to do.
To survive in the camps required exceptional qualities of physical and moral endurance, as well as a good dose of luck and an ability to take advantage of slight cracks in the well-ordered Nazi extermination program, find ways of cheating and lying and outwitting the guards to get some illegal extra food or warm clothing or to find some excuse to stay in the camp itself without going off in one of the labour battalions to die of beatings and under nourishment and overwork. Brian Stonehouse, a member of the O'Leary group, escaped the killing work in the quarry at Mauthausen because, having done fashion drawings for Vogue before he became a secret agent, he could make flattering portraits of the SS officers who ran the camp. Bob Sheppard wangled his way at Dachau into getting himself appointed manager of the Canteen, because back in the 1930's when the camp was built it had a Table of Organization which called for a canteen, and though it had been years since there had been anything to sell on its shelves, regulations still required the presence of a Canteen Manager.
Hopper had the good fortune to run into his old friend, Robert le Kid, the boxer. The SS, who needed some rest on Saturday after a week of killing people, offered themselves various diversions, including boxing matches. Since relatively healthy prisoners were needed to do the boxing, Robert le Kid and others were given cushy jobs in the camp kitchens where they could "organize" all the food they wanted. Le Kid loyally shared his loot with Hopper, and Hopper in turn could pass it on to others, like his friend in the Jewish block. Also in Mauthausen was Doctor Chanel, who was in charge of what was known as the Revier, the camp hospital. Mostly it was a place to die in, and nowhere did the prisoners die more quickly or in fouler surroundings than in its contagion ward. Chanel was appalled to learn one day that his friend Hopper had checked into this ward complaining of dysentery. The only available treatment was opium, and only minuscule amounts were available for ordinary prisoners. But Hopper was far from ordinary, if only because as a Nacht-und-Nebel he could be killed only on direct orders from Berlin, so Chanel was able to wangle several substantial doses for him. In a day or so the patient sat up on his filthy straw mattress, said he was better and walked out of the ward. Only later did Chanel learn that Hopper had never had dysentery at all. But there was a prisoner named Gaston Pateau who did. Hopper had known him as part of a Resistance group in Paris and had deep suspicions of his loyalty, but in Mauthausen they had become good friends. When Pateau took sick, there was only one way for a friend to help him. The help came too late; Pateau died and was tossed with the rest of the daily batch into the crematorium.
In Dachau other friends connived to get Hopper a job as a medical orderly. One day he was helping unload a cattle car crammed with 80 people who had been en route for several days. It took him half an hour to find a live one. On a wheelbarrow being trundled past him he saw a heap of stinking rags with a pair of blue eyes faintly blinking out of them, and he recognized them as belonging to a Norwegian boy, Arne Brun Lie, whom he had met and befriended some months before in Natzweiler.
Lie had joined a resistance organization in Oslo and had promptly been arrested and deported. He was 19 years old at the time. (Decades later he would come to visit Hopper in England and recall, "I was half dead when you found me." "Ninety-five percent," corrected Hopper) He plucked Lie out of the wheelbarrow, washed him, fed him, joked to him, nursed him back to health, and several times arranged to scratch his name off a list of prisoners marked for infection with tropical diseases in an experimental medical program. It would take Lie almost 50 years to be able to write about his experiences, in a moving book appropriately called Night and Fog. Hopper is the only unalloyed hero in it. It was, says Lie, his "cheeky, desperate, insane fighting spirit that saved us." No one but Hopper, he says, would have dared to taunt concentration camp guards, putting his hands around his own neck to show what would happen to them after the war.
In the spring of 1945, as the Third Reich lurched toward its final collapse, orders were issued in Berlin for all Allied secret agents in the concentration camps to be killed. At some camps, such as Buchenwald, the orders were at least partially carried out. But at Dachau, a dumping ground for prisoners from camps all over the Reich, where typhus and starvation were overtaxing the crematorium and the SS administration was totally demoralized, the orders never arrived. Pat O'Leary's men were still alive and reasonably vigorous as the time came for what they expected would be the climax of their captivity, the moment when the SS would try to destroy the camp and all its inmates so that there would be no evidence against them when they came to trial. Pat was one of the founding members of an international committee which did its very limited best to steal arms from the demoralised guards and plan tactics for the day of reckoning. A handsome young Australian lieutenant [Tom Groome, O'Leary's radio operator, had a French mother] who was part of the O'Leary band, had retained enough of his good looks to be able to seduce a young typist in the camp commandant's office, then threatened to expose her shame and blackmailed her into stealing a pistol and some ammunition.
It was a nervous time. Everyone was aware of the thousand-year Third Reich falling to pieces around them, but no one, including the SS officers, knew what the SS officers were going to do about it. At the last roll call, with all the prisoners lined up as usual, a pair of officers marched down the line as usual, checking off the names as each prisoner identified himself. The rule was to give name and number and function in the camp. Bob Sheppard, as he had done so many times, said, Sheppard, then his number, then Kantinist. Next in the line was his good friend General Delestraint who had been commander-in-chief of the Free French underground army, a very brave but not a very efficient man - he was captured because at a routine checkpoint he had been found to have two different passports in his pockets. When it was his turn, he gave name and number as usual. But then, instead of saying Clerk or Carpenter or whatever, he said, General. The SS men almost dropped their checklists in amazement, and began whispering to each other. They ran through the rest of the roll call, then ran back to the headquarters building. A couple of hours later an order came over the camp loud speaker for the prisoner Delestraint to appear at camp headquarters. It was generally assumed in the camp that the SS had understood the signal and was ready to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the camp to a general. Instead they hanged him.
There were two days left before the insurrection of the prisoners was scheduled to begin. Happily, the American Seventh Army arrived first [29 April 1945] and instead of killing SS, the first job of O'Leary's organization was to keep the released prisoners from lynching their guards. (One particularly nasty one named Wernick was literally torn to pieces, but the rest were saved to be turned over to the international justice system for post-war trials.)
And so the war ended for Johnny Hopper. For him and so many others, the moment of freedom was almost a greater trauma than the moment of imprisonment.
Brian Stonehouse, back in London shaved and handsome and in a clean uniform, was invited to dinner by some girls, old friends of his from his Vogue days who had served in the ambulance corps. They had pooled all their precious ration tickets to grill him some lamb chops, English-style. He ran out before the meal could start, saying only, "I can't stand the smell of burned flesh."
Even Johnny Hopper, the iron man who had come unmoved and joking through so much ("They had knocked out all his teeth, and his whole body was covered with cigarette burns," noted Arne Lie), had a kind of nervous breakdown when he came marching home to England on legs that his son described as blackened sticks. For months his hands shook uncontrollably. Eventually he settled down to a humdrum civilian life in a picturesque provincial village. He ran his mushroom farm successfully until he felt that union demands had become too outrageous, and he shut the business down. He also kept up intermittent contact with friends from the underground and the camps. He regularly went to Brussels to visit Pat O'Leary who, free at last, could make public what relays of the most experienced and sophisticated of Gestapo interrogators (another of the little mysteries of a great war) had been too thick-headed to remark, that it was odd for a Canadian named Pat O'Leary to speak English with a French accent and still odder that it should be the singsong (very funny to French ears) accent of Liège in Belgium. In fact, Pat O'Leary was a pseudonym chosen by Albert Guérisse, a doctor from Liège, when he volunteered for the British secret services, because he was afraid that there might be terrible reprisals against his family if the Germans caught him and discovered his true identity.
lan Kenneth Hopper died in 1991 of cancer, having at last met a foe he could not outsmart or out-shoot. When I last saw him for lunch at a hotel in London, he was very thin and in considerable pain, but he had other things to talk about. "Do you know the latest?" he said indignantly. "They have turned Mauthausen into a bloody museum. As you know, the centrepiece of Mauthausen was the quarry, and it had 186 steps up which we used to carry those big rocks on our shoulders. I used to say it was getting me in shape for my escape. The rule was that anyone who fell down on the steps would be beaten till he got up or he died. If he died, they threw back down into the quarry, and they had a horse and a cart that came every afternoon and waited till the work day was over and then collected the bodies. Now the bad thing about those steps was that they were uneven, no two the same height or breadth, and when you were going up at the fast pace the authorities recommended, it was the devil's own work to keep your balance, you had to change your rhythm all the time. And now, as I say, it's a bloody museum, it's a monument to man's inhumanity to man, and they have evened off all the steps, to make them comfortable for the bloody tourists to walk up."
Over dessert he talked more or less at random of things that came floating up from the dark pool of his memory. The overflowing typhus ward at Dachau. A neat trick he had played on the authorities in French authorities in Normandy. A plot for a mass escape from Mauthausen, foiled because there was a single man he could not trust.
He had some more recent memories too. There was the time he was travelling on business in some city in the Midlands and found he would not be able to make the last train connection to back home. So he went to a phone booth to call his wife and say he would be spending the night in a hotel. The connection was slow in getting through, and by the time he had hung up the shades of night were falling and what had been a bustling street was now silent and empty except for a couple of unprepossessing young men who were circling and slowly approaching the booth. While he was taking this in, one of them suddenly ran up, pushed open the door, pointed a knife at him and demanded his wallet. Of course, he said. "Of course," he told me, "if it had been a gun, I would have handed it right over, as meek as I could be. As it was I reached my right hand into my breast pocket to pull out the wallet and I jammed the thumb of my left hand into his right eye. He went down bleeding and screaming, and I stepped over him, and his friend was running off screaming, and I walked down to the nearest hotel to check in. The next day at the station I picked up a copy of the local paper, and there was a news item: UNPROVOKED ASSAULT ON A YOUTH."
After coffee, as we were saying good-bye, there came a moment of silence when the clatter of cups and the conversations around us chanced to reach a dead point simultaneously, and out of the silence Hopper's voice arose - as always, resonant, self-assured, matter-of-undoubted-fact - to give me a last bit of friendly advice ..
"Never shoot a man in the head with a small-calibre gun," he said.
©1993 Robert Wernick
Portions of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in September 1993