Robert Wernick has kindly allowed me to reprint his article on Johnny Hopper. Johnny would almost certainily have met Alfred Jones as they were two Englishmen in the same concentration camps and mixing with the same prisoners. JAC
Johnny Hopper, and his war against the Germans
i. Johnny at Large"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, 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 wrong, 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 who was shivering in his thin tattered
pajama-striped prisoner uniform and save him from pneumonia (as a French West
Indian did for Burney one day during a blizzard 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 (Johnny) Kenneth 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 learned at school how to shoot
a gun, but never shot so much as a rabbit. He did a little semi-professional
boxing and learned from the underworld characters, who in France as elsewhere
cluster around the ring, the arts of avoiding the attention of the authorities.
In 1940 when the French army collapsed, and the Germans suddenly arrived, 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 down the street, every
one 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 an imposing figure, tall and gaunt, with a
confident stride, piercing gunmetal eyes, and a deep voice which would not
inflect whether he was talking to Jack the Plumber or Lord Whoever.
his two long 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 demoralized 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.
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 the
residents of Normandy he might have passed a quiet, uneventful, 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.. 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 all the time."
A priest he had known when he was a little boy
had drilled two rules into him: Never give up. Never complain.
He had no
illusions about the efficacy or tactical or strategical significance of whatever
he or any other lone fighter might do. "The Germans lost more men in traffic
accidents in a day than I could kill in a year," he said.
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.
For security reasons, he kept no
records. You will not find Hopper's 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 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,
whichcover 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 the misdeeds of the "English
assassin Hopper." His name turns tip parenthetically 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 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
It was Hopper's first act of open resistance against the
German occupation of France, and it was in many respects a model for all his
future operations.It was a spontaneous individual gesture, boldly conceives,
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 stealthy stealing of a truck to
drive up in, preparing a hiding-place know only to himself for afterward - had
to be precisely calculated. It was only a symbolic gesture, it was not going to
harm a single German soldier or a single stone of the German headquarters [which
is today a Holiday Inn]. But as a symbol it resonated, all the way to Vichy, a
faint suggestion that there might be a spark of resistance in defeated
demoralized shell-shocked France.
He had no formal military training. He had
no superior officers to give him training or instructions. 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 lie was an agent of the
legendary British Intelligence Service. He was not. Officers of 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 operativeby himself. As someone
familiar with delicate radio equipment, he 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 lie forged for himself and his associates was ever
challenged. He had no formal military, training whatever, but they had taught
him how to use a gun in school, though 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
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-millimeter, 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 saw that tightening many times
afterwards, 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 the 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, they were to be finished off then and there."
He learned the
arts of stealing (or "liberating" as it would be called in the American army),
the guns and explosives and vehicles he needed, andhow 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. It is a tribute to Hopper's
skill in this domain 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 Hoper's earliest memories was of coming
out of his grandmother's house where he had been taken him and seeing men
plastering the walls of Caen posters with his papa's picture on it 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 he was at least a head and a half
taller than any Frenchman who was apt to cross his path.
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 him time to change his residence and
his identity papers when they did not turn up at a rendezvous.
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-gray uniforms, they
dragged the bodies deep into the woods to bury them, they took apart the car
they had driven up in and took 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 his 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.A friend of mine named Giselle Guillemot
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 Hopper
has killed so many of our 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 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
But Caen was getting too hot for him, there were too many people
looking for him, too many neighbors 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 dozen underlings who
were waiting for him a little further up the street. He strode on nonchalantly,
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 caf´ 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. 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 he had established some reliable
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.."
The first story he told me began, as his stories
almost always did, in the middle. It was a spring afternoon in 1942 and there
had just been a deadly shootout in a caf´ on the rue Beaubourg, where the
Pompadour 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 we had on the
boulevard Bessiéres. 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.
:"She had to pick this particular way 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 into a car with some German officers in it, 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 he 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 traveled 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 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.
front door was the only way we 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 miles away 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
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
"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."
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 was an orderly man who always had
some 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 signaled 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 cubbyhole 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 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 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 firefight, 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 caf´ 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 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 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
caf´, 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
But neither then nor later was there time to stop. As soon as his
arm healed, he was back in action.
ii. Johnny in Chains
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 would 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 within forty-eight hours after he 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 the 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 ride as an opportunity for a restful snooze He knew that as they jolted around that curve he would 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 to 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 whenl 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 seen the ancient Germanic gods disappear 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 Sturmbannfüaut;hrer. He called up two aides and they knocked down the insolent prisoner and gave hin 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.) He 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 center 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 labor and hunger and lice and stench and the clouds or wisps of black smoke which were sent constantly drifting acorss 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 labor battalions to die of beatings and undernourishment and overwork. Brian Storehouse escaped the killing work in the quarry at Mauthausen because, having done fashion drawings for Vogue before he became a secret agent, he could paint flattering portraits of the SS officers who ran the camp. Bob Shepherd 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," the camp word for steal, 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 came to visit Hopper in England and recalled, "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 and 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 acquire and hide a cache of arms and plan tactics for the day of reckoning. A handsome young Australian lieutenant who was part of the O'Leary band, who had retained enough of his good lucks to be able to seduce a young typist in the camp commandant's office threatened to expose her shame and blackmailed her into stealing a pistol and some ammunition. Happily, the American Seventh Army arrived two days before the insurrection was scheduled to occur. Instead of killing the SS, the first job of O'Leary's organization was to keep the released prisoners front 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 postwar 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 who had served in the ambulance corps. They had pooled all their precious ration tickets to grill him some lamb chops, English-style. He left early, remarking, "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 borne 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 lie 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 French Canadian to be named Pat O'Leary and still odder that he should speak French with the characteristic singsong accent of Liège in Belgium. In fact, Pat O'Leary was a pseudonym chosen by Albert Guérisse, a Belgian doctor, when he volunteered for the British secret services, because he was afraid that there might be terrible reprisals against his family
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 centerpiece of Mauthausen was the quarry, and it had 186 steps up which we used to carry rocks. 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. 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 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 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 French authorities in Normandy. The fate of General Delestraint, who had been the commanding officer of the underground Free French forces but who never understood the rules of underground fighting: he had been caught with two different passports in his pockets; and in the last days of Dachau, when the Americans were approaching and they were all lined up for a last rollcall to give, as always, name and number and function in the camp organization, instead of saying Clerk or Carpenter or whatever, he said, General. The startled SS men began to whisper among themselves and abruptly ended the rollcall. Later the loudspeakers boomed out an order for the prisoner Delestraint to report immediately to the camp headquarters. Every one assumed that they wanted him to work out a deal with the approaching Americans. But they hanged him instead.
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-caliber gun," he said.
©1993 Robert Wernick
Excerpts published in Smithsonian Magazine, October 1993
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