My studio is situated along the Route Claude Bonnier – a frontier of France’s resistance movement which helped the Allies defeat the Germans during the second world war. This history, which seeps into the fabric of the villages and barns, still affects attitudes and behaviours, and is a source of pride and sometimes shame for locals of the region. My neighbours recount personal tales of trembling and defiance, like having their grain stores demanded by the German soldiers and how they were able to hide and thwart the regime; others tell of collaborations and betrayals which have marred families for generations to the present day. These stories have taken root in my imagination and have become one of many sources for my paintings which are in no particular order and are an ongoing research into the psychologies of freedom, resistance and occupation.
This abridged version of Claude Bonnier’s life is drawn from an extract printed in Living Magazine 2011.
‘He was born in 1897 and although both parents were doctors his love of aviation, planes and motors led him to study Engineering which was to help him in his resistance role later on.
After serving in the First World War he lived a relatively peaceful and normal life. He married Thérèse Renaudel in 1923 and they had two children. He became a Doctor of Science and continued research at the National Research Station until 1936 when he was appointed CEO at the SNCM government aero engine factory near Paris. Claude was considered one of France’s leading engineers – among his achievements was the building of a station high in the Alps to test engines at high altitude, as if they were flying.
But then came the Second World War and September 1939 saw Claude back with the military, this time as Commandant de l’Armée de l’Air based at Chartres, north France. He was a part of the force that delayed the German army encircling Dunkerque to protect the Allied evacuation. Ordered to embark with his men his boat hit a mine and caught fire. Rescued and returned to Dunkerque, this time Claude and his men successfully escaped to England but quickly returned and retreated to the south of France.
In order to travel to North Africa, Claude established a company in Algiers and was there when the Allied forces invaded in November 1942. He enlisted with the Forces Français Libres and by June 1943 had travelled a long and arduous journey through North Africa, eventually making his way to London. General de Gaulle appointed him Lt Colonel and Délégué Regional Militaire for Region B covering an area that included the Charente, Charente-Maritime, Gironde and Dordogne.
This meant rigorous training – Polish instructors taught him how to jump with a parachute while British instructors trained him in the guerrilla tactics that became part of the resistance movement’s modus operandi. Five months later he and his assistant Jacques Nancy, were ready for action. On the night of 14 November 1943 Claude, now code-named ‘Hypotenuse’, and his partner Jacques Nancy, pseudonym ‘Sape’, landed by Lysander plane in a field alongside the River Charente at Angeac-sur-Charente.
Over the next couple of months Claude and Jacques met with various resistance leaders, linking the groups, lifting morale, arranging supplies and training and equipping more than 70 saboteur groups including the Special Section of Sabotage (SSS) in the Charente and Charente-Maritime that destroyed railway lines, slowed down the German army and softened the way for the Allies to take Angoulême on 31 August 1944.
Claude was eventually betrayed – an informer within the Resistance ( probably previously captured, threatened and tortured ) arranged for him to be lured to a meeting in Bordeaux. Imprisoned, his hands cuffed behind his back, he knew he too would face torture. Realising that the information he held was so valuable that he couldn’t risk yielding under extreme pain, he decided he had no choice but to kill himself. A cyanide pill had been sewn into his clothing and the final act of heroism of this exceptional man was to get the pill to fall to the floor where it broke into pieces. Unable to swallow the pill at once, he suffered painfully. All this overheard by another prisoner in the next cell.
Thérèse herself was engaged in separate underground activities including an escape network for Frenchmen wanting to go to North Africa or England. In 1954 Claude Bonnier was buried in the crypt of the National Memorial of Resistance at Chasseneuil-sur-Bonnieure and Thérèse was buried with him in 1991.’