Johnny Hopper, and his war against the Germans
i. Johnny at Large
"Mauthausen was the worst of my camps," said Johnny Hopper."And the worst bloody part of it was the Jewish block at the south end. They had nothing to eat down there. It was separated from the rest of us by a no-man's-land where you had better not be caught. I had a friend down there, a wealthy man I had known in France, and I used to go down to see him when it was dark enough and foggy enough and I had something to give him. Things they never saw down there, a bit of margarine, a bit of jam.We were there one night, and we were crouching together by a wall, and he said to me, 'They're going to kill me tomorrow, Johnny.' There wasn't anything more either one of us had to say, we just crouched there in the dark for a while. Then I had to go back, and he said to me, 'I'll miss my jam, Johnny.'"
My friend Christopher Burney, an English secret agent who spent more than two years in Buchenwald, once explained to me that the theory behind the Nazi concentration camps was that, with a proper dosage of brutality, cold, hunger and fatigue, all human beings could be systematically reduced to the level of animals in a driven herd, each one of them concerned with nothing but its own survival. But he discovered that the theory was wrong, that in the most atrocious circumstances there could be spontaneous gestures of human solidarity: a man standing in one of the hours-long roll-calls who could take the coat off his own back to cover the shoulders of the man next to him who was shivering in his thin tattered pajama-striped prisoner uniform and save him from pneumonia (as a French West Indian did for Burney one day during a blizzard in Buchenwald); a man who after spending endless hours carrying hundred-pound stones up the endless stairs in the side of the quarry at Mauthausen would find an extra hour at night to risk torture and hanging to bring a friend a spoonful of jam.
There was nothing remarkable in the background of Ian (Johnny) Kenneth Hopper. He was born in 1913 of solid East Anglian stock, one grandfather a brick-maker, the other a farmer. When he was 11, his parents moved to France. He ran around with bigger and tougher kids, and learned how to hold his own. He learned at school how to shoot a gun, but never shot so much as a rabbit. He did a little semi-professional boxing and learned from the underworld characters, who in France as elsewhere cluster around the ring, the arts of avoiding the attention of the authorities. In 1940 when the French army collapsed, and the Germans suddenly arrived, he was living in a village near Caen in Normandy, happily married to a vivacious girl named Paulette, with a little boy, Jean-Claude, and running a moderately prosperous business selling and repairing radios and electrical equipment over a wide territory. By all accounts, he was a big, good-looking, fun-loving, popular, exceptionally strong young man.
When I met him a half-century later, he had recently retired after 40 years of modest success growing mushrooms in Norfolk. He was happily married to a wife named Diana. When I called him to arrange our first meeting, he said, "Don't come here, it's the North Pole, nothing but yuppies," and suggested a pub across from Liverpool Street Station in London where he used to unload his produce. I asked how I might recognize him, but I need not have. When he came down the street, every one was aware of him; when he came into the pub every pair of eyes swivelled to look at him. Close to 80 and suffering from the cancer which would kill him a few months later, he was still an imposing figure, tall and gaunt, with a confident stride, piercing gunmetal eyes, and a deep voice which would not inflect whether he was talking to Jack the Plumber or Lord Whoever.
Between his two long law-abiding careers in radios and in mushrooms lay the years which began in June of 1940 when the German armies overran France and ended in April of 1945 when the surviving prisoners took over the concentration camp of Dachau from their demoralized guards. During those years Hopper discovered that he had another calling: he was a killer. For two years before he was caught he roamed the roads of German-occupied Normandy and the streets of German-occupied Paris, committing acts of armed robbery, arson, forgery and murder. He derailed trains, he blew up oil and ammunition depots, he assassinated French policemen and German Army officers, he shot his way out of ambushes laid for him by the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst and the French Gendarmerie. When he needed money to buy provisions for himself and the associates he acquired as he went along, he robbed a bank. Or he robbed a department store of its supply of silk stockings, a more reliable currency than the ever-devaluating thousand-franc bills of the Bank of France. When he needed a German colonel's uniform so that he could walk unimpeded into a local German headquarters and talk his way (he was good at languages, and good at barking out commands) into picking up some documents that interested him, he waylaid and killed a German colonel.
The war he fought was his own war. He wore no uniform. He reported to no Commanding Officer. He planned and executed his own actions. Like all but a handful of the residents of Normandy he might have passed a quiet, uneventful, not too uncomfortable, life through the years of the German occupation, plying a peaceful trade or working at odd jobs and doing some black-marketing on the side.. But from the day the Germans came, he knew that he would have to take up arms against them. "I don't believe in taking things lying down," is all he ever said to explain why. "It was the Germans who set the rules, don't you see. I did terrible things, things as bad as the Germans did. I was responsible for the death of innocent people. But when you meet an aggressor, you have to aggress back, aggress all the time."
A priest he had known when he was a little boy had drilled two rules into him: Never give up. Never complain.
He had no illusions about the efficacy or tactical or strategical significance of whatever he or any other lone fighter might do. "The Germans lost more men in traffic accidents in a day than I could kill in a year," he said.
But he had no choice: the defiance had to go on.
Once a friend asked him, as they hid in a hedge by a roadside in Normandy, "Look, Johnny," suppose the Shleuhs [a Moroccan tribe, a French slang name for Germans] win this bloody war. What will we do then?" "We'll go on doing then what we are doing now," said Hopper, and pressed down a plunger to set off a mine that blew up a German staff car imprudently keeping to its strict daily schedule.
For security reasons, he kept no records. You will not find Hopper's name in the official history of British secret operations in France, his photograph does not hang on the walls of the Special Forces Club in London. Indeed when survivors of his devoted band of followers presented themselves to British officials after the war was won, expecting some gesture of gratitude to the Hopper Network on the part of His Majesty's government, they were brusquely told that there was no such thing as a Hopper Network which had ever cooperated with the Allied forces, and shown the door. Fortunately one of them, Dr. Chanel an ophthalmologist, had, most imprudently, kept records of some of the operations he had taken part in, and was able to show that BBC broadcasts describing damage to factories in the Paris region by RAF bombing raids were taken word for word from reports they had handed to Hopper so that he could deliver them to one of those planes which on dark nights landed in French fields to bring in arms and agents and to take back information to London. And in due time Chanel and his comrades received the thanks of His Majesty's government.
Outside of Doctor Chanel's notes, whichcover only a small portion of the Hopper career, there are pathetically few remaining contemporary documents. There are brief references in the files of old newspapers from occupied Caen and occupied Paris to the misdeeds of the "English assassin Hopper." His name turns tip parenthetically in a couple of books about the Resistance and the concentration camps. One day in Norfolk, after the war was all over, he received from an American cousin a newspaper clipping that she had saved, an AP dispatch from Vichy dated August 5, 1941, headlined "Germans Hunt Bold De Gaullist," telling of an Englishman named Hopper who, in defiance of a German ban against celebrating the French national holiday on July 14, had put on a French colonel's uniform and deposited a huge wreath of flowers on the monument to the war dead in Caen, directly in front of the German Army headquarters.
It was Hopper's first act of open resistance against the German occupation of France, and it was in many respects a model for all his future operations.It was a spontaneous individual gesture, boldly conceives, carefully planned, neatly executed. Every detail -- including finding the right French colonel (there were many who would be willing to make a small contribution to the national cause, but where would he find one whose uniform would fit his six-foot-three-inch frame?), the stealthy stealing of a truck to drive up in, preparing a hiding-place know only to himself for afterward - had to be precisely calculated. It was only a symbolic gesture, it was not going to harm a single German soldier or a single stone of the German headquarters [which is today a Holiday Inn]. But as a symbol it resonated, all the way to Vichy, a faint suggestion that there might be a spark of resistance in defeated demoralized shell-shocked France.
He had no formal military training. He had no superior officers to give him training or instructions. He was alone in the underground and he had to learn all the arts of underground warfare from the ground up.Dr. Chanel was convinced to his dying day, as were all the other French who worked with Hopper during the war, that lie was an agent of the legendary British Intelligence Service. He was not. Officers of the Special Operations Executive, which was responsible for underground operations in France, only knew of him as an elusive maverick operator; sometimes, after they had spent months training a team of agents to be dropped by parachute and blow up some strategic target, they would find that the unpredictable Hopper had already figured out how to do it, and had done it on his own.
He had to learn all the arts and dodges of the underground operativeby himself. As someone familiar with delicate radio equipment, he had no difficulty in learning how to pick locks. He became an expert at using pen and ink to imitate the uneven pressure of a rubber stamp on paper or photograph, and not one of the scores of identity cards and passes lie forged for himself and his associates was ever challenged. He had no formal military, training whatever, but they had taught him how to use a gun in school, though he had never killed so much as a rabbit.
"But you see," he once explained to me, "I worked at close quarters, and at
close quarters you don't need technique, you need nerve. I learned a great deal the first time I ever shot a man, a French policeman named Bernard. He had ordered me to drive him to police headquarters, and when he saw that I was heading for open country, he pulled out his gun I was quicker, I shot him in the head. It was a small gun, a 7-millimeter, and it only wounded him. I dropped him off at a hospital with a word of advice about keeping his month shut.
"The reason I was quicker was, at the moment he started reaching for that gun, I noticed a kind of tightening about his jaw I saw that tightening many times afterwards, saw it in some of the best killers the Gestapo put on my trail. What it means, don't you see, is that at that moment when their lives are on the line, no matter how professional they are, there is just a moment when they can't help thinking of what might happen, what might happen to them and their careers and their families. It might last only a fraction of a second. But that was the fraction of a second I could use.
"Because it was different with me. I knew, I knew, that as one man against so many I didn't have a chance of' surviving in the long run. Betrayal or bad luck, something was bound to catch up with me. And I was determined that they would not get me alive. It was understood among whoever went into action with me that if there were any wounded who could not be taken safely away, they were not to be left to be tortured by the Gestapo, they were to be finished off then and there."
He learned the arts of stealing (or "liberating" as it would be called in the American army), the guns and explosives and vehicles he needed, andhow to conceal then. The arts of continually changing your identity, not just forging new papers with new names and addresses but changing your whole physical appearance - a natty German officer one day, a slovenly French bum the next - so that you would not attract attention by appearing too often in the same place. It is a tribute to Hopper's skill in this domain that he could roam the roads of Normandy and the streets of Paris with impunity for more than two years while his face was well known to the authorities (one of little Jean-Claude Hoper's earliest memories was of coming out of his grandmother's house where he had been taken him and seeing men plastering the walls of Caen posters with his papa's picture on it with an offer in big letters below it of a reward of one million francs for his capture dead or alive); not to speak of the fact that he was at least a head and a half taller than any Frenchman who was apt to cross his path.
And he had to learn the arts of finding associates who could be trained to act quietly and efficiently, and above all who could be counted on not to betray him, to hold up under torture for forty-eight hours to give him time to change his residence and his identity papers when they did not turn up at a rendezvous.
Earlier memories of Jean-Claude circle around some of these associates in the form of mysterious visitors who would come slinking at all hours of day or night into the house in the little village of Mouen where Papa and Maman were running a milk collection and delivery business (because milk trucks could go practically anywhere practically any time without raising suspicion). They would have their hats pulled down over their eyes, they would talk in whispers, and they spent most of their time disassembling and cleaning guns. The little boy was fascinated by a swarthy brute named Mario who used a long stiletto to pick at a shiny gold tooth.
His liveliest memory is of the day he came out of his bedroom and Papa shouted to him to get back inside pronto and shut the door. He was too curious not to wait and watch Papa set up a machine gun at the head of the stairs. A moment later four German soldiers came rushing through the front door. Perhaps they had been driving by and noticed something suspiciously odd about the house. Perhaps they had simply lost their way and wanted to ask for directions.. At all events they were not well trained in this kind of operation, for they all came in at once, and Papa mowed them all down with one burst of his gun. Later the mysterious visitors began to drift in silently, they washed off the bloodstains on the floor, they stripped off the field-gray uniforms, they dragged the bodies deep into the woods to bury them, they took apart the car they had driven up in and took and buried it too except for the useful pieces they could take to one of the two garages in Caen which Hopper used for stockpiling guns and gasoline and equipment.
Over the course of time he built a circle of associates out of which he could pick trained men and women for any particular operation. They included highly respectable people like Doctor Chanel, and less respectable ones like an old chum from his boxing days, Robert Perrier, known as Le Kid, a skilled operative when it came to stealing and driving any kind of vehicle from a motorcycle to a moving van.
It is a tribute to his keen eye and keen judgment that not one of these associates ever betrayed him, or at least got away with betraying him for that million franc award. The Hopper network acquired a considerable and often exaggerated reputation for its ruthless efficiency.A friend of mine named Giselle Guillemot remembers the days when she was 19 and a member of a Communist-led network that considered itself the only force actively fighting the Germans in the Caen area. Whenever they beard of any exploit that they had not carried out themselves - a bomb thrown into Gestapo headquarters, a supply depot set on fire - they automatically attributed it to Hopper and his group..
His enemies did likewise. When it was Dr. Chanel's turn to be arrested and hauled off to a Gestapo torture chamber, his interrogator began by barking at him, "Your Hopper has killed so many of our men."
It was always touch and go. Once he picked the lock of a government building in Caen when every one was out to lunch, and walked out with his pockets full of gasoline ration coupons. The next day a month's supply for the region was arriving at the railroad station, and he drove up in his milk truck to join the line of trucks waiting for their share. It was a slow operation, papers were carefully examined, the gasoline was carefully measured out, one can at time. He was counting on the legendary French bureaucracy to have either not yet noticed that tickets were missing or to have sent on a report by mail to a higher headquarters which would have to write and mail instructions to the proper police authorities who would not necessarily know where to start looking for the thief. But he could not be sure that some eager-beaver clerk anxious for a promotion had not raised a general alarm, and every passing hour increased the chance that the sirens of a police car might be heard approaching. But no one was in a hurry, and he could not be in a hurry, so he sat all day in his truck as it slowly moved forward, and in the end he got his gas.
But Caen was getting too hot for him, there were too many people looking for him, too many neighbors who might remember an old grudge and turn him in. One day he was about to visit one of his garage depots when he heard a suspicious noise - it was a gun being loaded - warned him that he had walked into an ambush mounted by the local chief of police and a dozen underlings who were waiting for him a little further up the street. He strode on nonchalantly, pulled out both his guns and started firing. The police chief fell dead, the others ran for shelter and began firing wildly into the void while Hopper jumped on a bicycle conveniently parked at the curb in front of a caf´ and raced downhill (the brakes didn't work) through a crowded market place and out into the open country where the authorities would be looking for him in vain for weeks to come.
Johnny and Paulette, their cover now definitively blown, lived for the next two weeks in the woods, keeping a plentiful supply of pepper to discourage dogs from following their scent. They spent a night near an airfield which the
Germans were enlarging, and the next day slipped in with the construction crew when it was going off work, walked to the nearest railroad station and took a train for Paris, where he had established some reliable connections.
For the details of what he did in Paris, we have to rely mostly on the stories of Johnny Hopper himself, and by the time he told them to me they were an old man's memories. When he had come back, broken in health, from Dachau in 1945, the last thing he wanted to do was talk about what he had been through. Later on, when he was ready to talk, people were beginning to be tired of war stories, "The things we did every day then, people simply can't believe now. Sometimes I start talking, and they listen politely, and after a while their eyes begin to glaze over.."
The first story he told me began, as his stories almost always did, in the middle. It was a spring afternoon in 1942 and there had just been a deadly shootout in a caf´ on the rue Beaubourg, where the Pompadour Museum now stands. "I had been shot in the arm, you see. Luckily I was wearing a jacket with sleeves that fastened tightly at the wrists,, so that the sleeve ballooned up and there were no drops of blood to leave a trail on the sidewalk. I walked as fast as I dared, and I found a public telephone and I put in a call to my friend Dr. Chanel to meet me in a safe house we had on the boulevard Bessiéres. The house belonged to a very wealthy woman, an artist, who was also a drug addict, and reckless and wild but very loyal and very brave.
:"She had to pick this particular way to take too much of that stuff and take her car out for a drive [you had to be very rich and very well-connected to dare to use precious gasoline driving a private car around Paris in those days].and she ran into a car with some German officers in it, and when they started bawling her out she called them the worst names she could think of. Naturally they arrested her.
"Chanel had just finished bandaging my arm in the library upstairs when he heard a great racket in downstairs, and it was five or six soldiers announcing to the maid that they were going to search the house from bottom to top. I never traveled without at least three guns on my person and I gave one of them to Chanel. He had never held a gun in his hand in his entire life. I told him to do nothing till he saw me start and then to shoot whatever he saw moving as fast as he could. It was not a pleasant situation to be in, with me having only one arm available, but by good luck those Germans were just ordinary soldiers, not Gestapo or anything like that, and this house was full of papers that they kept pulling out of drawers but they couldn't read a word of French, so they decided they needed someone to help them out. So they left a sentry at the door and marched off to find that someone.
"Now the front door was the only way we get out, because with my arm I couldn't climb over the garden wall. We pushed the door open a crack. The sentry was leading against the wall and looking bored as hell.We could have taken a shot at him, but with dozens of witnesses walking up and down the street that would not have been a good idea.. We decided to wait a while and hope for another stroke of luck, and sure enough a squad of German soldiers happened to go by, marching down the other side of the street. Our friend recognized one of them, he yelled at him and he trotted over to bum a cigarette or to have a little chat, and it gave us our chance to slip out into the sidewalk. It was night now, and people were hurrying to get home before curfew. We had gone a good fifty yards before we heard 'Halt!' Then we ran, and there was gunfire, and we dodged through side streets and alleys till we sure they had lost our trail. By now it was long past curfew, the subways were closed, every window was now shuttered tight, we had to feel our way in the dark.. We were miles away from the nearest safe house we could use, which was somewhere near the Eiffel Tower. And we couldn't afford to get caught in a big empty avenue, we had to dodge around in the dark little streets. We didn't need to worry so much about dodging the German patrols, they always made a lot of noise. The French police were much worse, much sneakier, they were oh so anxious to show the Germans what good little boys they were. So we agreed on a plan. If we suspected they were sneaking up on us in the dark, we would start rolling around like a pair of drunks, and I would recite German poetry, of which I knew a good deal, and Chanel, who didn't speak a word of the language, would just say Ja, ja. It sounds simple-minded but it worked. At least nobody interfered with us, and we got all the way to the Eiffel Tower safely, and then we discovered that our safe house wasn't a safe house any more, and we had to keep walking in the dark, another mile or so to the rue d'Alésia..."
Perhaps my own eyes were beginning to glaze slightly at this point. Perhaps he was yielding to the old soldier's perennial temptation to add new bright threads to the tapestry of the story as he retells it over the years. It was an unworthy suspicion. A couple of weeks later I was visiting Dr Raymond Chanel in his home town of Nevers, where he had just retired from practice. He was a hale 85, with not only precise memories of the distant past but pages of notes he had scribbled down in 1945, at the end of the war, when his memories were fresh. His account of that night-time stroll through Paris was identical to Hopper's, except for a few minor details, such as that Hopper, who knew the house well, had abstracted three guns from their hiding places and given them all to Dr Chanel. If they were aggressed and had to aggress back, they were going to do it in style.
"I have never seen anything like Hopper preparing for action," said Dr. Chanel. "He was a perfectionist; he had to be sure that everything and everybody would be in the right place at the right time."
Sometimes these plans worked out beautifully.Once he assigned himself the job of liquidating a high-ranking SS officer a "nasty piece of goods" who knew altogether too much, who had made a specialty of infiltrating Resistance groups and getting them liquidated. His base of operations was a fashionable Paris hotel, where he would check in as a prosperous German businessman looking for contacts and contracts, and where the staff was too well trained to ask why he would disappear without notice for days or weeks at a time and then come back looking pleased with himself. Apprised of these comings and goings, and of the tastes and habits of this businessman by the night clerk, who was in touch with the friend of a friend, Hopper could set up a quietly efficient operation demanding exact timing and of course total discretion. The German was an orderly man who always had some brandy sent up to his room before he went to sleep between eleven and eleven thirty. One night Hopper slipped in through a side door a few minutes before eleven o'clock with a gun and a bottle of brandy in his coat pockets, borrowed a waiter's jacket and a tray and a glass and a napkin and a small pillow from the night clerk, waited till the expected call came down for room service, went upstairs and with the quiet dignity of a well-trained servant, poured out a drink, put it on the night table, put the pillow over the man's face and emptied his gun into it. He dragged the body to the big old-fashioned fireplace, and signaled with a cigarette lighter to a pair of confederates - Robert le Kid and another man - who had just taken up positions on the roof in the blacked-out Paris night. They lowered a rope attached to a sack into which he stuffed the body, the brandy bottle and the pillow, and while they were raising it, he phoned the desk clerk to come up and remake the bed, clean up any spare feathers that might be lying around, and take down the tray, and also the room key which would be put in its proper cubbyhole as the room's occupant did every time he left the building..The rope came down again and hauled Hopper up, and he and his friends quietly went through the well-rehearsed routine of tossing the sack on to the roof of the adjoining building, to which they had acquired the necessary keys. They it down the stairway and out into the blacked-out street, tossed it into the trunk of a stolen car with German license plates and drove on to a house in the suburbs where a pit in the garden was ready, half filled with quick-lime. . .
Sometimes it was the other side which made the plans. They laid six (or seven, "after a while you stop counting,") ambushes for him, and he shot his way out every time. The most spectacular was the one he walked into when he had a midnight rendezvous a street behind the Opera with a man he described as "a Jewish gangster, a man who gained enormous respect because he was the only man in Paris who went around the city through all the years of the occupation with a forty-five stuck into his belt." There was a whole carload of Germans waiting for him instead , and they jumped on him and pulled two guns out of his pockets with squeals of triumph and were jovially kicking him and beating him and describing the joys that awaited him in the dungeons of the Gestapo when the gangster, who had been hiding in a doorway, began firing at them and they scattered, giving Hopper all the time he needed to reach for the third gun strapped to his leg which had been overlooked by his unskilled captors, and could join in the firefight, from which none of the Germans emerged alive.
Sometimes the plans could go tragically awry. On April 12, 1942, the one date in all that time burned irrevocably into his memory, the day on which he got the wound in his arm on the rue Beaubourg,He and Paulette had gone to a caf´ to keep a rendezvous with a Doctor Mineur who had promised to give him some information about a double agent known as Monsieur Paul. This was Paul Cole, a former British Army sergeant who was captured by the Germans in 1940, escaped, joined the fledgling French resistance, did many brave deeds, then was bribed or beaten into turning traitor and selling out more than 200 men and women to the Gestapo. (Cole would later sell out his Gestapo employers to the Americans at the end of the war, ) Mineur had recently disappeared from view for a couple of weeks, and Hopper had a nagging suspicion that he, too, might have turned double agent. But any information leading to Paul Cole was too important to be neglected, and the rendezvous had to be kept.
Hopper chose his seat with his usual care, at the end of the long narrow caf´, with his back to a wall and a clear view of the entrance door. Mineur came in on schedule, and right behind him came two Germans in uniform and another in civilian clothes. Soon there was firing all over the place, chairs being overturned, customers diving for safety under tables or behind the bar. "I had to shoot around Mineur, who was a big man," said Hopper. "If I had known then what I later learned about him in Mauthausen, I would have shot through him.
"I didn't know at first how badly I was wounded. I ducked back through a door next to our table, to take stock and to get a fresh gun unstrapped from my leg. It was only a sort of closet back there, but the Germans must have assumed it was a rear door to the alley. I had hit all of' them more or less badly, and when I kicked my door open, they were all running out the front door to get help. All the customers and the bartender were still on the floor. I looked around to the table where we had been sitting, and there was my wife with her head on the table."
Blood was gushing from her mouth. In a single instant Hopper judged that the wound was fatal, but that she might live long enough to be tortured by the Gestapo and to tell them all she knew.. He did what he would have expected her to do to him in the same situation: he put the muzzle of his gun to her right eye and pulled the trigger.
"I have relived that moment every day of my life," he told me 48 years later, "always asking myself the same question."
But neither then nor later was there time to stop. As soon as his arm healed, he was back in action.
©1993 Robert Wernick
Excerpts published in Smithsonian Magazine, October 1993