Johnny Hopper, and his war against the Germans

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 authorities in 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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