Obituary: Franck Bauer, Free French broadcaster whose voice was known to millions

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Franck Bauer, radio broadcaster, PR pioneer, government adviser, theatre manager. Born: 2 July 1918, Troyes, France. Died: 6 April 2018, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, aged 99.

Franck Bauer was the last surviving member of Radio Londres, the voice of the French wartime resistance broadcaster based in ­London, designed to boost morale throughout occupied France, but also to send coded messages to the French Underground networks.

Established by General Charles de Gaulle, following the fall of France in June 1940, the station was staffed by de Gaulle’s Free French forces and served not only to counter the propaganda broadcasts of German-controlled Radio Paris and ­Marshall Pétain’s Vichy government Radiodiffusion nationale, but also to appeal to the French to rise up.

By October it was illegal to listen to Radio Londres, ­punishable by a fine and a prison sentence or being sent to a concentration camp. The populace also became very wary of the Milice, the ruthless Vichy French militia. They were native Frenchmen who understood local dialects fluently, had extensive knowledge of the towns and countryside, and knew local people and informants. They were known for snooping at doors to catch people tuning in to broadcasts, so many ­listened hiding under blankets or tablecloths.

Broadcast from a BBC studio at 8.30pm, Radio Londres became a daily event for millions of French people, as well as the Gestapo, who would try to block transmissions while also trying to decode any messages. It always started with the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, sounding V for Victory in Morse code followed by, “Ici Londres! Les Français parlent aux Français...” (“This is London! The French speaking to the French...”). In order to counter German propaganda and to guarantee authenticity, the same elite team of presenters was used so that their voices became familiar.

Bauer had escaped France and found himself in London, where he was soon recruited by the painter and journalist Jean Oberlé, who encountered him playing jazz piano in a Soho club. Soon Bauer’s voice became well known to French audiences. Denouncing the occupation and collaboration with the enemy, the programme was a source of hope; it included not just news but also sketches, songs and jokes designed to build confidence and optimism.

From 28 June 1940 onwards, mysterious cryptic sentences were slipped into the “messages personnels” programme, initially reserved for escapees who wished to reassure their families. It was clear to nearly everyone that they were coded messages, often amusing and completely without context.

Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the French section head of Special Operations Executive (SOE), devised the idea of broadcasting coded messages, such as “Tante Amelie fait du vélo en short” (Aunt Amelie cycled in shorts), and “Le cheval envoie ses voeux à Polydore, sa filleule et ses amis” (The horse sends his wishes to Polydore, his godchild and his friends) as a means of communicating with the Resistance to identify SOE agents, announce acts of sabotage, equipment shipments, arrests, future threats or any other resistance operation.

Bauer recalled: “We played our part by holding the French people’s hand, as it were, helping them and sustaining them.”

After more than 500 broadcasts, Bauer resigned because he did not agree with de Gaulle’s dialogue with Admiral François Darlan, who had been pro-Vichy.

Bauer was sent to Madagascar to establish Free French radio broadcasts. Other postings to Algiers and Scotland meant he didn’t land on French soil until July 1944; he then ­started working for French Services radio.In 2010, he joined remaining comrades and President Sarkozy in London to mark the 70th anniversary of de Gaulle’s call to arms.

Born in Troyes, south-east of Paris, in 1918, Franck Adolphe Edouard Bauer was from a middle class family; his father, Jacques, was a respected architect, while his mother, Marguerite Duprat, was a professor of philosophy.

He enjoyed jazz and learned to play the piano and drums; as a young man, he enjoyed jamming in the clubs around Saint-Germain and even played alongside Belgian-born legend Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt. He also received an invitation from Louis Armstrong to visit him in New York.

Aged 15, Franck decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He went to ­Germany in 1933 to intern at the practice of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s favourite architect, who later became the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production.

Bauer was invited by Speer to assist on his design for Germany’s pavilion for the 1937 World Fair in Paris, which culminated with a tall tower crowned with the symbols of the Nazi state – an eagle and the swastika. Bauer’s father, however, ordered him to stop working for the Germans.

Bauer then studied architecture at the prestigious l’École nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris, but this was interrupted by the invasion of France.

He and his sister, Denise, headed south on bikes, but en route she injured her knee and was unable to ­continue. He finally arrived in Bordeaux where he sailed to Liverpool aboard a Polish ship crowded with British and Polish troops.

Upon joining the Free French, he was sent back to Brittany on two secret missions before going to the US to conduct counter-intelligence work for Admiral Émile Muselier, head of the Free French navy; he was also responsible for their insignia, the Cross of Lorraine, to differentiate them from the Vichy navy. He was offered the post of Naval Commissioner for the Free French but turned it down to concentrate on Radio Londres.

While in New York, Bauer met Armstrong, who introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Back in London, Bauer played with the violinist Stéphane Grappelli and aviator René Mouchotte; later he started a jazz programme, Radio Swing Club.

Post-war, Bauer enjoyed a plethora of jobs. First, he became a war correspondent for AFP, the French press agency, reporting from the Philippines and Indochina.

In 1947, he was appointed chief of staff to former ­colleague Pierre Bourdan, minister for youth and the arts, before becoming an advisor, in 1953, to Eugène Claudius-Petit, the minister of reconstruction.

Concurrently, he was secretary-general of France’s most prestigious state-run theatre, the Comédie-Française, which during his tenure hosted world stars including Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.

After a sabbatical to New York in the mid-1950s to learn about public relations, Bauer founded France’s first PR company, Franck Bauer & Associés. Within a few years, it became the French affiliate of the multi-million dollar US consultancy firm Hill & Knowlton, which was branching out across Europe. He ­later helped organise Concorde’s first visit to America.

He went on to lecture on PR at the Sorbonne, Paris, and was appointed commissar of the French pavilion at the 1967 Expo in Montreal. In the early 1990s, he worked as a consultant on Euro Disney near Paris, before later building a smaller theme park in central France.

He enjoyed the finer things in life and on occasion was frivolous with money; he attributed this ‘living for the moment’ to his time in London during the Blitz.

Bauer married twice. His first marriage to Monique Fichter was short-lived and ended shortly after the war. Years later, he married his brother-in-law’s niece, Marie-France Crochet, and the couple had two children, Cédric and Axel. They too divorced.

Bauer died in a nursing home and is survived by his children.

MARTIN CHILDS