The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cécile Rol-Tanguy, who helped liberate Paris from the Nazis, dies at 101

Cécile Rol-Tanguy. (Daniel Giry/Sygma via Getty Images)

From a clandestine underground bunker among the stinking sewers of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, young mother of two Cécile Rol-Tanguy would climb 100 steep steps and emerge onto the city’s streets carrying her infant daughter while pushing her baby son in his stroller.

Her faked flirtatious smile, as well as forged documents, allowed her to pass Nazi soldiers and checkpoints with little more than wolf whistles. What the Germans didn’t know was that she had hidden pistols, grenades, ammunition, anti-Nazi leaflets, attack plans and often a light machine gun in the bedding of the baby carriage. The underground bunker was a command center of the French resistance.

Described as “a respected freedom fighter” by French President Emmanuel Macron in a tweet honoring her this week, Mrs. Rol-Tanguy died May 8 at her home in Monteaux, France, at 101. Her death was exactly 75 years after V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, when the Nazis surrendered in Berlin, and World War II came to an end in Europe with only the Japanese to defeat. Her son Jean Rol-Tanguy announced her death but did not disclose a cause.

Her husband, Henri Rol-Tanguy, one of the most-revered heroes of the French resistance, died in 2002.

Only in later years was Mrs. Rol-Tanguy vaunted for her role in the Allied liberation of France in August 1944. Henri led resistance fighters during a bloody six-day battle for Paris that allowed regular French army forces and the Allies to take over the capital, a key breakthrough on the road to Berlin. Mrs. Rol-Tanguy, a fervent communist like her husband, was his “personal liaison agent.”

In the run-up to the Battle of Paris, an American infantry division had advanced close to the French capital after the Normandy invasion — along with Free French Forces (FFF) sent by London-based resistance leader Charles de Gaulle. For symbolic reasons, de Gaulle was eager for the FFF under Gen. Philippe Leclerc to enter Paris before the Americans.

However, Henri Rol-Tanguy’s internal resistance — the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) — with a large proportion of his fellow communists, had brought the German garrison in Paris to its knees and sent Hitler’s Gestapo packing before de Gaulle’s troops and the Americans arrived. Up to 1,000 of Rol-Tanguy’s men and women were killed in the Battle of Paris and 1,500 wounded.

The long-exiled de Gaulle was determined to take the glory and was wary of Henri Rol-Tanguy and his communist supporters getting the upper hand, given the post-war political implications.

On Aug. 26, 1944, after the Germans surrendered in Paris, de Gaulle made his renowned march down the Champs Élysées, the capital’s prominent boulevard, to rapturous crowds, Rol-Tanguy’s guerrillas were pushed into the background even though “Colonel Rol,” as he was known to his combatants, had been one of the signatories to the German surrender just before de Gaulle had hit town.

The following day, Cécile Rol-Tanguy was the only woman invited by de Gaulle to a meeting to thank the FFI for its role in the liberation, but she later said she and her comrades had been swiftly fobbed off by the general “without even a glass of wine.”

Marguerite Marie Cécile le Bihan was born in Royan, a seaside resort on France’s Atlantic coast, on April 10, 1919. Her father, an electrician, was an early French Communist Party member.

“I was born into an anti-fascist family, or to be more precise, a communist family,” she recalled. She was brought up in Paris, where her parents often hosted left-wing exiles and refugees from across Europe. Leaving school at 16, she joined a female youth branch of the French Communist Party and was still a teenager when she met Henri Tanguy, a foundry worker and union official.

In 1936, he crossed into Spain to join the International Brigades alongside Spanish Republicans against fascist leader Francisco Franco. He was wounded in the 1938 Battle of the Ebro (River), the biggest and longest battle of the three-year Spanish Civil War, returned to Paris and married Cécile in 1939.

His friend Théo Rol was killed alongside him in the battle, and Henri honored him by adding Rol to his surname. After World War II began in 1939, he served in the French town of Sarrebourg, near the German border, but was soon forced back in 1940 when the Germans invaded and occupied France.

The couple’s first child, Françoise, was born in 1940 shortly before the Germans arrived but died of dehydration within a few months. Cécile’s father was arrested by the occupying forces as a communist and was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he died.

“I had nothing left,” she told the Times of London in 2012. “My father had been arrested, I didn’t know where my husband was, and I had lost my little girl. What could hold me back?”

She decided to resist the Nazis.

“My strength was always in remaining cool,” she added in the interview. Hence, on Aug. 19, 1944, using her children as cover, she plastered posters of her husband’s message around as much of Paris as she could. The posters called for immediate insurrection: “Patriots able to carry arms … France is calling you! To arms, citizens! To arms!”

Parisians had been awaiting the signal and they rose up against the occupiers that same day.

After the liberation of Paris, Henri fought in the new French army and fought his way to Germany. Postwar, he continued to serve, never retracting his communist views, but he and his wife received little recognition for their wartime resistance, largely because of their political beliefs.

When he died, Cécile’s role became more widely publicized. She became a leading former-resistance figure, giving lectures at schools and conferences. She was decorated as Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest award, by then-French president and Socialist Party member François Hollande in 2014.

In addition to Jean Rol-Tanguy, survivors include another son, Francis, and her daughters Hélène and Claire.

Last year, the underground sewer bunker where Mrs. Rol-Tanguy had typed out so many political tracts — including her husband’s call to Parisians to take up arms against the Nazi occupiers — was turned into a museum to the resistance, La Musée de la Libération. It lies 100 steep steps below a street now known as L’Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.

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