Herbert Brill - An American in the Charente and Dordogne Résistance

Rédigé par Alain dans la rubrique Brigade RacPortrait

Herbert Brill was born in New jersey in 1920 and aged 23 had become a Lieutenant Navigator with the U.S. Air Force and assigned to the 92nd Bomb Group, 407th Squadron based at Podington in Bedfordshire in the South of England.

Herbert Brill - France 1944
On the 31st of December 1943, along with a large formation, his ten man crew flew a B-17 bomber out over France with the mission of bombing air bases used by the Germans in the South West of France.

Many bombers were lost on the raid and Brill’s B-17 was hit by enemy fire over Cognac and was forced to make an emergency landing at Experimont near Montendre in the Charente Maritime. The Pilot, Lt. Coleman Goldstein managed to land the plane in a field and all ten aircrew survived and torched the plane so it could not be used by the Germans. They decided to split up into groups of two. Four headed south and eventually escaped over the Pyrenees into Spain and four were captured by the Germans. Brill teamed up with the crew’s Engineer William Weber and they decided to head East. They took a small break in nearby woods to plan their route and then continued east and covered about 20 miles in 24 hours.

It was now New Year's day and later that evening, tired and hungry they walked into a small village to the west of Montmoreau and decided to risk knocking on a villager’s door to ask for help. They were in luck, the occupant of the house, after much persuading that they were really Americans, called over a friend, who also needed convincing, and the Americans were fed and given beds for the night.
In the morning they were given clothes to help them stand out less and some food and maps for their journey onward. They left and headed north east and after 30 miles of walking they approached Grassac to the south east of Angoulême.

Luck was again on their side as they had been over heard and their accents noticed by a 17 year old local boy called Roland Mappas who could speak English. He took them to his family home and contacted his cousin René Rispard alias "Blaireau" and a member of the local résistance. He came over and after grilling the Americans took them out of the town to some woods nearby where René Chabasse "Jean Louis", Chef des Opérations aériennes in the Charente and head of a local résistance group was camped.

Below is an extract from the book Nous les Terroristes by Marc Leproux and published in 1947 which talks of the day Brill and Weber were picked up at Grassac. I have included the page which mentions the story of an Englishman Michael Mcpartland "Mitchell" who had joined Chabasse's Maquis group, this is a link to his story (link)

During Brill and Weber’s stay at the Maquis camp he kept hearing the name Jacques Nancy mentioned. Nancy along with Claude Bonnier had been sent over by Général de Gaulle to the South West of France in November 1943 to set up sabotage groups. In February 1944 Bonnier was denounced and arrested by the Gestapo. He was severely tortured and when left on his own was able to take his cyanide pill and suffered a drawn out and painful death.
Jacques Nancy took over command and set up the sabotage group S.S.S. – Section Spéciale de Sabotage. Brill began to work closely with the group and was given a false identity card in the name of Jacques Robert Litaud, with the profession of quarry worker.

The S.S.S. operated around the South of the Charente and in the North of the Dordogne and were responsible for blowing up electrical towers, railway lines and German run factories, in total around seventy acts of sabotage.
During March, attempts were made to link Brill and Weber to an underground escape group to get them to Spain but to no avail. In the meantime Brill and Weber worked on farms and were moved from one safe house to another. Brill remained in contact throughout his life with many of the families he had stayed and worked with.

In mid July René Rispard and Jacques Nancy visited the farm where Brill and Meyer were being sheltered. Weber decided to stay on at the farm but Brill asked to join the Résistance full time. They agreed and le left with Rispard and Nancy and together they drove East in to the North of the Dordogne and stayed at the Maquis camp set up by the Brigade Rac A.S. Dordorgne-Nord. Soon there were so many men camped there that Jacques Nancy ordered his men over to the empty chateau Puycharnaud close to Nontron. Brill went with them and was amazed to find that other Americans, who had also been evading the Germans, were staying there.
In the early hours of 24th July 1944 word came through that around 400 hundred German soldiers and Milicienne had left Angoulême with the intention of destroying the town of Nontron which had been liberated back on June 10th  by the Brigade Rac. Around 30 maquisards of the groupe Manu, part of the 2e compagnie Brigade Rac quickly set up a road block 2 miles out of Javerlhac on the route from Angoulême to Nontron. As the Germans approached they ambushed them and a fierce battle ensued. A few hours later around 30 of Jacques Nancy’s men along with 6 Americans including Herbert Brill arrived and for a while the Germans were held back. The fighting went on the entire day and reinforcements arrived from the S.S.S. stationed at the chateau along with other members of the Brigade Rac. By the end of the day the Germans finally retreated, they had lost 56 of their men. Nontron was saved. 7 maquisards were killed in the fighting, amongst them was the leader of the groupe Manu Manuel Ecébès.

Throughout August Brill remained with the S.S.S. and was involved with the sabotage of an oil factory and the derailment of a German train in a tunnel near Charmant in the Charente.
On the 31st August he participated in the Libération of Angoulême. A few days later, with the Allies now in the region, a plane was organised to take Brill and Meyer back to England. Two planes landed in the evening in a remote field near Limoges, each one able to take 22 homesick aviators. Within two hours they had landed in an air field just outside of London.

Back on the 31st December 1943 Brill and Weber had been told that their mission would be just a “quick milk run, you’ll be back in a few hours”. But here they were, finally returning, 9 months later. By the end of September they were back in the States and brill remained with the U.S. Air Force until the end of 1945.
After the war the French awarded Brill the Croix du Combattant Volontaire 1939 – 1945. He worked for many years as a Director in PepsiCo and lived in various places around the world. His passion was painting and in 1989 he and his wife Millicent bought a town house in Nontron and spent long summers there. Brill participated each year on the 24th July at the commemoration of the battle at Javerlhac and on each 1st September he attended the commemoration of the liberation of Angoulême. He was also involved with the Musée de la Résistance et Déportation in Angoulême.

Photo above taken by 'Séraphin'.

In 1947 Guy Berger 'Antoine' would write :

“Avec un grand appareil monté sur trépied, nous photographie dans une ‘charbonnière’. Nous sommes en groupe : Jacques, René Clovis, Blaireau et moi debout, mitraillette à la main, avec devant nous Mitchell, assis sur une souche.”

In July 2005 at Nontron he was made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur and was made a Citoyen d’Honneur of the town.
Sadly in April 2009 he passed away. The people of France will not forget him.

Herbert Brill's painting of the Libération of Angoulême

Recommended reading :
  • Herbert Brill's paintings (link)
  • Histoire Simple et Vraie de la 2e Compagnie Brigade Rac by Marcel Belly (2003) 
  • Nous, les terroristes by Marc Leproux (1947)
  • Their Deeds of Valor  by Don Lasseter (2002)
  • DVD et tapis de souris du film "Les Saboteurs de l'Ombre et de la Lumière" (lien)