French salute to city ‘safe house’

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HEROES of the French resistance are to reunite in Edinburgh tomorrow to mark the anniversary of a "safe house" opened by their country’s most famous Second World War general, Charles de Gaulle.

The building in Regent Terrace, now home to the French consul general, was opened by General de Gaulle in 1942 as a place for members of the Free French movement to recuperate between missions.

After the war, the French government declared that the house was to be the permanent residence of its representative in Scotland.

During the conflict the building was particularly popular with members of the French naval forces, and tomorrow senior members of the French Admiralty will join resistance heroes at a special anniversary celebration organised by the Consul General of France for Scotland Michel Roche.

"There has always been a strong link between France and Scotland," said Mr Roche. "War time was very difficult and it was vital at that time to stress the importance of historical links, because the Free French had to impose their existence on the world’s attention.

"We had long-term links with the Scots, but it is easy to forget about such connections when things are going well. But it is in difficult times of war that the strength of these connections is really tested."

Second World War veteran Zygmunt Nowak, 83, will receive the Legion d’Honneur - France’s highest decoration - at the event.

Mr Nowak was born in Poland, but moved to France when he was five.

A member of the Highland French division, he volunteered for SAS training and was sent to France as a radio operator, sending and receiving coded messages for London and the resistance in France. Captured by the Germans in 1944 he was shot in the stomach and lay for weeks as a prisoner in Lyons.

As the German army retreated, Mr Nowak was discovered and rescued by the Swiss consul.

Mr Norwak, who now lives in Cowdenbeath, said he was surprised and delighted by the honour he is to receive.

"After 50 years I did not expect that," he said. "I am really quite chuffed after such a long time for people to remember me."

Mr Nowak added he was very fortunate to still be alive today.

"We all carried a cyanide pill," he said. "On the night I was captured I had been upstairs sending a message. The Germans caught me when I came down, but the pill was in my jacket that I had left upstairs, which, as it turns out, was just as well."

Another resistance worker to attend the event will be Margaret Gordon. At 14, when she was known as Margaret Vourc’h, she would spend her school holidays in Brittany carrying out work for MI6.

The schoolgirl would cycle with messages to fellow resistance fighters in nearby towns and help her family arrange for French airmen to be sent to Britain for training.

On one occasion her vigilance led to planes from Britain being sent to bomb a transmitter the Germans were using to contact submarines.

Mrs Gordon, 76, who lives in Lanark, said: "It is awfully nice of the consul general not to forget us. Msr and Mme Roche are very hospitable and I am looking forward to meeting all these people and talking in French."

The Free French forces were led by General de Gaulle who opposed the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France and fled to London where he organised the movement.

During a visit to Edinburgh in 1942, when he opened the Free French House, he made a speech during which he said: "I do not think that a Frenchman could have come to Scotland at any time without being sensible of a special emotion. Awareness of the thousand links, still living and cherished, of the Franco-Scottish Alliance, the oldest alliance in the world, leaps to his mind."