An Amazing Week End In France

Margie Hofman Ceremonies in Lille, France.
(c) Copyright 1998 by Margie Hofman

55th Anniversary of the Death of
Captain Michael Trotobas of the Middlesex Regiment

On Sunday 29th November, representatives of the Middlesex Regiment, several from the London area, including myself (the daughter of a wartime Middlesex soldier), together with French and Belgian resistance survivors placed wreaths at a small suburban house in Lille, France, where Captain Michael Trotobas, former soldier of the Middlesex Regiment was killed during a battle with the Gestapo in 1943.

They later attended a large ceremony at Lille military cemetery where a wreath was laid by the Middlesex Regiment, The British Consul General, the War Graves Commission, and members of the resistance units. The flags flying above the large memorial were French, British and Belgian in honour of the people killed or deported at this sad time. 45 people were arrested when Michael Trotobas was shot. By the liberation, this group had lost 50 members shot, 85 deported and assumed dead, 200 killed in action out of an estimated membership of 7,000.

Word spread that the wireless operator dropped with Michael Trotobas, Arthur Staggs, had returned for the first time since 1945 and was going to be at the dinner that evening. Arthur was presented with a medal by the Mayor of Lille and thanked for his services to France and especially to the people of that region.

Arthur had lived in France since he was 13, learned French in the Lille area and had acquired the local accent perfectly, which was how he survived. He came back to England just before the war and was trained in morse code and explosives at a large country house near Manchester.

He was parachuted into France via a Whitley bomber on 18th November, 1942, with Michael Trotobas and arrested in December, 1943.

They both helped to organise the French and Belgians into groups. The group in Lille went under the name of SYLVESTRE-FARMER.

FARMER'S origins dated back to November, 1942, when Michael Trotobas(SYLVESTRE) and Arthur Staggs had been dropped into France and established a sabotage network in Lille. They had problems straight away as a fellow agent landed in a tree and injured his back. He had to be secreted away as he could not be taken to a hospital.

Their speciality was derailing trains with the enthusiastic help of the local railway workers and the underworld, which handicapped the enemy's ability to move its troops. Trotobas, who had a French father, had been born in Brighton, England, and was to become a daring leader of the local resistance, renowned for walking into his proposed targets in a well cut suit with a Gestapo identity medallion. After much of the railway had been blown in a massive sabotage operation by the FARMER group, the RAF who didn't manage to hit the railways, did not believe the destruction had been achieved by people on the ground and asked for photographs. Michael Trotobas walked in with a camera, posing as a claims assessor for an insurance company, asked German soldiers to hold the lights while he took photographs. The rolls of film were then hastily smuggled away to a lonely field next to a farm where a Lysander plane picked the photographs up later that week and the pictures were on the desk of the RAF top brass the next day.

During the evening meal, men and women, French and Belgian came up to talk to Arthur, putting their arms round him and kissing him. They had not seen him for over 50 years. Arthur never had time to say goodbye to them as he had to leave the area quickly. A sympathetic policeman warned him that a huge reward had been put out for him by the Germans and somebody was soon going to try and kill him to collect the money.

Arthur had already been imprisoned by the Germans for six weeks in the general round up after the death of Michael Trotobas but talked his way out, despite the Germans putting another person in his cell in the hope that he would talk to him as a friend.

Arthur told me that he survived because he changed houses every night and he had warned Michael Trotobas that he had stayed too long in the same house.

When he left Lille, he went to Paris, knowing nobody, but got in touch with a lady called Vera Atkins, second in command to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the British SOE (Secret Operations Executive). She was surprised to see him and greeted him with the words "We all thought you were dead."

Arthur Staggs continued to do excellent work in another part of northern France, sometimes collecting American pilots who had bailed out and who had to be passed quickly 'down the line' to the next house. On one memorable occasion Arthur was in the front, the two American pilots were walking behind and another Frenchman was bringing up the rear. Suddenly the Americans were lost. On retracing their steps they found the young Americans talking to two French girls in English, even though other people were passing by. Arthur said "If you do that again, I will shoot the pair of you." The pilots eventually reached the UK via a long route to the south.

Although Michael Trotobas was killed in his house in November, 1943, when it was surrounded by more than 100 German soldiers, the circuit continued to be operated by his subordinates throughout the period of the invasion and the important months following D-Day.

Arthur returned to England with no recognition from his own government and for five years after the war suffered from ulcers and nerve problems. I asked him how he had survived mentally in France when he never knew when the knock on the door would come. He told me he was very alert and aware of danger around him all the time, but accepted that if he was caught it was fate and there was nothing he could do about it. But, whether he realised it or not, he lived his days surrounded by extreme anxiety. When he came home and was able to relax he had a nervous breakdown.

This is a story of brave men, Arthur Staggs, who survived, and Michael Trotobas, who did not. Trotobas is remembered every November by members and friends of his old regiment, the Middlesex Regiment (known as the Diehards). He has been forgotten by most people in England, but not by the French and Belgians.

What a compliment to Captain Michael Trotobas that 55 years later 100 members and friends from resistance days, many of whom spent months in concentration camps, returned to honour his memory.

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