Neuvic-sur-l'isle Dordogne 1944 : The great train robbery

Rédigé par Alain dans la rubrique Document et livre 

By the middle of June of 1944 and less than two weeks after the D day landings in Normandy it was becoming clear that it would be impossible to feed, arm and shelter all the new recruits joining the Résistance in the South West of France. The courage of these men was not lacking but the funds were. On the 10th June General Koenig, Commander of the French Forces and operating from London, sent out a message to Résistance leaders to hold back on attacks on the Germans until more arms could be provided. It was even suggested that the new recruits should be sent home, an idea not particularly popular with Résistance leaders. This message, not received by every maquis group, made its leaders fear that their men would become demoralised.

The maquis in the Dordogne decided to take the matter in their own hands. The head of the Résistance in the Dordogne, André Gaucher (Martial) discussed the problem with Jean Callard, the préfet of the departement and head of local government and Police who had been appointed back in May by the Vichy government. Knowing that the Banque du France was holding 8 to 10 billion francs in its vaults at Périgueux, Callard suggested that they should organise a hold up of the train that regularly transported money from the vaults to Bordeaux when requested by the German naval authorities. Callard (described later as a Vichysto résistant) was possibly trying to make amends for his involvement in the killing of three résistants back in March and promised to let Martial know when the next train would be transporting funds to Bordeaux.

He didn't have to wait long, on the 26th July a train, expected to be heavily armed, would be carrying 2,280 million francs, the equivalent these days of about 310 million pounds, 370 million euros or 400 million US dollars. They would be in 150 sacks and weighing in at six tons.

Martial set about planning the heist which would be carried out by local Maquis groups : A.S Valmy, A.S Paul-Henry and A.S Ancel along with the groupe franc Roland. The railway station at Neuvic-sur-Isle was chosen as the best location to stop the train. The station was on the outskirts of the town and away from the Route Nationale used more and more at this time by the Germans as the smaller roads had become too dangerous for them. Also, there were quite a few minor roads near the station in case a quick exit was required and these lead to small villages sympathetic to the Résistance, as were probably most of the staff at the station.

The maquis groups Valmy, Ancel and Paul-Henry were charged with protecting the station and barring the local population any access and the groupe Roland were given the task of controlling the station, the passengers on the train and loading the money into their vehicles. They got ready two trucks, one that ran on petrol and another that had been converted as a gazogene. They would be driven by two of Roland's men, Gilbert Boissière and Roger Rougié.

The information received was that the train would be transporting the money in a wagon attached to a number of passenger carriages. It would probably be heavily guarded. The groupe franc Roland had been given a week or so to plan the heist while the maquis group Valmy, who were camped at La Taillandière, were only given a few hours notice of their mission. Martial had proposed to Gandoin, the leader of Valmy, that if the mission was successful each maquisard would receive 1000 francs. Gandoin was having none of it, "we are soldiers, not pirates !" 

As the groupe Valmy drove from their camp making their way to Neuvic they passed through the small town of Vergt and as was their tradition they sang La Marseillaise. They arrived at the station at 7pm and set about barring the route into the station. Dormoyer set up his Piat rocket launcher but was not at all happy that he only had three missiles. He mentions to Gandoin that he wouldn't be able to do much with only three. Gandoin replies "If you can't hit a tank at 100 yards with two missiles then why would you need a third ?!" 

Some of the résistants hid in a ditch along the railway track, others hid in a vineyard behind the cargo hangar next to the station. Word goes around Neuvic.
- They're going to attack the train.
- No, they're helping some enforced STO workers on their way to Germany escape.
- No, the train is full of Miliciens.
- Have you seen the maquis, they're all in khaki uniforms, surely it's the French army !.

Onlookers, all well behaved, were told to keep moving and to keep away from the area. It is now 7.45pm and back in the station, smoke is spotted on the horizon and the train is then in view. As the train slows down into the station it is thought that the information about its "cargo" were incorrect as it looked just like a regular passenger train. 

Roland Clée, head of the groupe franc Roland (Brigade Rac) jumps up onto the train and walks down its corridors ordering all its passengers to stay on board and not to open doors or windows. Legrand jumps up into the cabin of the loco, the train driver, with a wry smile on his face, tells him, "first wagon".
The doors of the unmarked wagon, placed conveniently at the head of the train, are opened and inside are four guards, one armed with a pistol, guarding the 150 sacks marked "Banque du France". A few of Roland's men jump in and a fight is simulated and the gun fired to make it look like there had been some resistance. The wagon is then decoupled from the passenger carriages and with the help of the Station Master the loco manoeuvres the wagon into the hangar next to the station.

They then start to load the sacks into the two trucks. At the same time Roland goes through all the carriages checking everyone's ID. In the Station Master's office two maquisards are standing guard over one of the station's new employees Gilbert Duchose, aged 17 and as the phone rings, first from the Station Master at Mussidan and then at Saint Astier, he is told to tell them that the train would be delayed due to shoes from the neighbouring factory and destined to the Germans were still being loaded onto the train.

Christophe Raoul "Krikri" an Officer of the O.R.A (Organisation Résistance de l'Armée) who had help plan the heist was approached while waiting in the station by a representative of the Banque du France who asked him to sign a bon de requisition for the 2,280,000,000 francs, he did and both men were happy.

After fifteen minutes the trucks are loaded with the sacks, Roland's men jump in the back and the trucks are driven slowly out of the hangar and pull round in front of the station.
Some station employees including Gilbert Duchose are watching them leave. Gilbert notices that two sacks have fallen from the back of one of the trucks. He shouts to the driver to let him know and the two sacks are thrown back in the truck. A few days later Gilbert decides to join the Résistance but admits later in life that it was because he was in fear of his life if he returned to work at the station. The trucks flanked by various vehicles being used by the Résistance, including Krikri in his side car, drove out from the station. Many people lined the road cheering and singing "Le Chant du Départ".

Away from Neuvic some maquisards guarded the crossroads at Théorat where the route crossed the RN89 Bordeaux-Lyon, the point judged to be the most likely spot where they could have bumped into a German patrol. All went well, except the gazogene was having trouble keeping up with the other truck. The route being taken was along badly maintained back roads and after about 10 miles the truck driven by Rougié broke down. To make matters worse the heavens decided to open. The truck had to be abandoned and all its sacks loaded onto the other truck driven by Boissière, who, looking at his tyres was a bit concerned with having six tons plus extra men aboard. As he drove off he looked to the heavens every time the truck jolted over a pot hole.

It was close to 2am in the morning that the precious cargo arrived at the HQ of the F.F.I. situated in the woods at Cendrieux, 30 miles from Neuvic. The sacks were counted in, 149, one had probably fallen off en route, no one knew, and it was too late and dangerous to go back and look for it. For years after, if a new restaurant or hotel opened in the area people would say it had been financed by the 15 million francs in the missing sack ! Once the sacks had been counted a meal was provided for all those who had taken part, a simple meal of bread and sardines and due to their numbers most of them slept outside under the stars.

The next day Maxime Roux, the treasurer of the Résistance in the Dordogne, along with members of the Comité Départemental de Libération took delivery of the money. For safe keeping it was decided to distribute the money to people in the area who could be trusted. Over the next few months the money was allocated to various heads of maquis groups in the R5 region (Limousin, Périgord and Quercy). It was used to arm and feed the Résistance and their families, pay for hospitals working for the Résistance in regions R5 and R6, pay ransoms to liberate résistants including André Malraux "Colonel Berger" who had been arrested on the 21st July 1944 at Gromat. Some of the money was even paid back to the Banque du France once the region had been liberated. 

Over the years, what exactly happened to all the money has become the stuff of legend. In 1952 an enquiry organised by the French authorities under the name "Rapport Clappier" found that, barring the lost sack, most of the money could be accounted for. After months of clandestine life and a surge in new recruits after the D day landings on the 6th June, the Résistance desperately needed funds for arms, food and shelter to continue the fight against the Germans. The heist, surely the greatest of all time, was carried out by the Résistance with information provided by government officials and pretty much helped along by the Banque du France and the money helped liberate the region. Within a month there wasn't one German left in the Dordogne.

Over the years several emanent historians in the South West of France have written books on the subject :
  • Le Partage des Milliards de la Résistance by Jean-Jacques Gillot and Jacques Lagrange (Pilote24 2004),
  • Les Milliards du Train de Neuvic by Guy Penaud (Fanlac 2001),
and recently two novels based on the story have been published :
  • De l'Or et des Sardines by Hervé Brunaux (Rouergue 2013) (lien)
  • The Resistance Man by Martin Walker (Quercus 2013)

DVD et tapis de souris du film "Les Saboteurs de l'Ombre et de la Lumière" (lien)