What happened to Michael Hollard, the man who saved London

00:00 Mon 18th Jun 2001 |

A. Excellent question there from CaptCrummond. Michel Hollard was the French secret agent who ran the Reseau Agir and whose espionage and sabotage forced Germany to abandon plans to unleash 5,000 flying bombs a month on London.< xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Q. A real hero then

A. Yes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1945 and the citation read: 'Hollard, at great personal risk, reconnoitred a number of heavily guarded V1 sites and reported on them with such clarity that models were constructed which enabled effective bombing to be carried out.' Hollard's work became so celebrated that he became known as The Man Who Saved London - title of Georges Martelli's book about him, which was published in 1960 and adapted for television. (For a separate feature of the Nazi flying bombs, click here)

Q. So what did he do

A. Michel Louis Hollard was born on 10 July, 1898, son of a chemistry professor. At 16 he ran away to fight in the First World War. He became a captain and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He then went into business as an engineer. When the Second World War broke out he volunteered for military service, but was considered too old. When France capitulated in 1940, Hollard decided to offer his services to Britain and got to the British Embassy in Berne, Switzerland.

Q. And welcomed with open arms

A. Decidedly not. Hollard had walked most of the way and looked bedraggled. The assistant military attache was cool and fobbed him off. Hollard decided to prove his worth and within a fortnight he returned with his first report. The British were impressed and Hollard became a Secret Intelligence Service agent, with the rank of colonel.

Q. So he set about his cloak-and-dagger stuff

A. Yes. After the fall of France, Hollard had been working in an factory, manufacturing car engines fuelled by gas, extracted from charcoal made in the Franco-Swiss border zone. While on a business trip there, in the summer of 1943, he heard two contractors discussing an unusual construction job. It turned out to be a V1 rocket site. He got on to the sites, once wheeling in a barrow found in a ditch, once distributing religious tracts to workers.

Q. Any success

A. With the aid of his pocket compass, Hollard then checked the alignment of the mysterious concrete strips on every site. Each pointed towards London. The Scientific Intelligence department in London alerted Churchill and within three weeks, Hollard and his team reported 60 sites parallel with the Channel coast. A full set of plans was needed urgently so Hollard planted a draughtsman, on a site at Cormeilles-sur-Veau. He stole a blueprint from the pocket of his German boss, while he was in the lavatory, and Hollard delivered it to Berne.

Q. But no sign of a weapon

A. Eventually. When his spymasters asked for details of the weapons, Hollard found one in a goods station at Auffay. Disguised as a railway worker, he measured every part of it. Later, after the first Allied strikes on the flying bomb sites, Hollard got word back that a senior German rocket scientist was staying at a certain chateau. It was bombed within five hours of the intelligence reaching London.

Q. Did the Nazis catch him

A. Yes. Hollard refused to use a radio, believing that it would be tracked down. However, he was betrayed and ambushed in a Paris caf in February, 1944. The Gestapo took him to an interrogation centre, where he was starved, flogged and immersed in water. But torture failed to break him, and he was sentenced to death. Hollard was later reprieved and imprisoned in the hold of a merchant ship that the Germans intended to scuttle. The ship was bombed and Hollard managed to escape, although most perished.

Q. And then

A. The French also decorated him for bravery. He returned to engineering after the war and to take care of many former network agents. Another book by Martelli, Agent Extraordinary (1960), told his story modestly. Hollard was married and had two sons and a daughter. He died, aged 95, on 16 July, 1993.

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By Steve Cunningham

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