Herts at War battlefield tours to reveal our towns’ hidden links to wartime heroes like Madeleine Damerment
While battlefield tours are de rigeur on the continent, we don’t have much of the sort in Hertfordshire – but a group of community historians are set to change that.
Volunteer history group Herts at War, which has been commemorating the centenary of the First World War for the past three years, plans to hold a pilot battlefield tour of North Herts within the next four weeks.
The historian-led tours will take visitors around sites relevant to wartime events and figures, with the goal of shining a light through the mists of time to reveal the hidden histories of the streets we live and work in.
Planned focal points include the location of the German prisoner-of-war camp at Baldock, the site of a major Zeppelin raid on Willian, and the Vodafone shop in Hitchin’s Bancroft – where grocer WB Moss’ decision to hike prices on the outbreak of war in 1914 prompted the famed Hitchin riot.
But one of the more surprising links to our area comes in the shape of Madeleine Damerment, a Special Operation Executive agent executed by the Nazis at Dachau concentration camp.
Former French resistance member Madeleine, originally from Lille in northern France, spent about a year at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Hitchin – now the residential Convent Close – after fleeing to England in 1942.
And Herts at War volunteer Dan Hill – who lives just up the road from where the convent once stood – has told how she not only gave the site as her home address when volunteering for the SOE’s F Section, but also listed the convent’s mother superior as her next of kin.
“We don’t know exactly what brought Madeleine here, but her father was postmaster of Lille and we think it’s likely there was some link between the convent and the church there,” said Dan.
“This convent had French nuns, so she would probably have felt it was a good place to find some safety. People were generally more religious then, but she seems to have been more so than most – we know that when the Germans put her in prison she had a Bible with her.
“She was here for some time – certainly at least six months, and perhaps more than a year.”
Madeleine trained as an SOE courier and in February 1944 parachuted into France near Chartres, south-west of Paris – but the network they had hoped to join had been betrayed, and they were detained on landing by the Gestapo.
“She was literally dropped into their waiting hands,” said Dan. “She never had a chance.”
Madeleine was transported to Gestapo headquarters in Paris before being examined and tortured. In May 1944 she was taken to a women’s prison at Karlsruhe in Germany, where she was held in horrific conditions until being transferred to Dachau in September alongside three other British agents – Eliane Plewman, Yolande Beekman and Noorunisa Inayat Khan.
At dawn the next day, they were taken to a courtyard beside the crematorium, forced to kneel two-by-two on the ground and each shot through the back of the head. They were then cremated in Dachau’s ovens, four of the camp’s 32,000 victims.
The personal effects of brave Madeleine, just 26 years old when she died, were returned to the Hitchin convent’s mother superior after the war.
“They included a watch and a novel,” said Dan. “I think it was Vera Atkins who brought them back in 1946.”
A plaque on the south wall of the Dachau crematorium has paid testament to the heroism of Madeleine and her three comrades since 1975.
Dan said: “I think it’d be very good to have a plaque like that here in Hitchin as well, because I think it’s a really moving story. Convent Close would be a perfect place. I’d like to think the relevant authorities here might consider commemorating her connection in some way.”
Other SOE figures with Herts links include George Cross recipient Violette Szabo, who received part of her training near Stevenage at Aston, and prominent French resistance commander Francis Cammaerts – a pacifist who grew up in Radlett and later headed Alleyne’s Grammar School in Stevenage for nine years.
Herts at War’s planned battlefield tours will cover not just the two world wars but also periods back to the 1800s.
Good progress is also being made on the group’s new state-of-the-art online archive A Digital Legacy, which is backed by a £99,800 National Lottery grant. Launched at the University of Hertfordshire’s Hatfield campus on May 3, it is set to be operational within the next two months.