Captain Pierre Louis Le Chêne MBE
Concentration Camp Survivor
Of British and French lineage, but British to the core, Pierre Louis Le Chêne joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London in 1941, then aged 41, and trained as a wireless operator. He was allocated the code name ‘Gregoire’.
After training, Lieutenant Le Chêne was parachuted into the Vichy-held area of France near Lyons as the radio operator for the Spruce Circuit, an SOE-mentored resistance group led by Robert Boiteaux.
On his arrival in May 1942, his resistance contacts advised him that his SOE-supplied identification papers were incorrect, which could lead to his arrest so a new, genuine, Monaco Principality ID Card was obtained for him.
Agent 'Gregoire' established and maintained communications with the home station in London, always at great risk of being tracked down by the highly efficient German 'goniometer' direction finding vans operated by German military intelligence, the 'Abwehr'.
At one point he was the sole 'free' SOE radio operator in the entire region and as a result was probably on his radio set too often. He was eventually tracked down and captured in November 1942 whilst transmitting to London. The young French resistance worker placed to act as a warning lookout had failed to warn him of the approaching French Fascist police, the 'Milice', who were supported by the Gestapo.
Captured with his fingers literally on his morse transmission key, he was bundled away and spent the following weeks being brutally tortured by the Milice before being handed over to the Gestapo following the Germany occupation of the Vichy area of France.
He was then interrogated by Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, who was to become known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’.
Despite appalling treatment he maintained his silence, undoubtedly saving the lives of the many French partisans he would have known.
Having become bored of his uncooperative prisoner, Barbie handed Le Chêne to the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence branch of the infamous SS, who took him to their interrogation centre in Paris. Months of mental and physical abuse followed before they too tired of their attempts to make him talk so he was transported to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria.
Captured SOE operators were considered to be political prisoners by the Nazi regime and were not treated as prisoners of war or offered any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Despite his injuries, he was put to work in the Gusen quarry for the rest of the war. When the camp was finally liberated in 1945 he had to be carried out on a stretcher weighing just 38kg and sick with Typhoid. Being told that he was a British officer by other inmates, the American troops quickly took Lieutenant Le Chêne to a nearby German military hospital for emergency treatment.
His concentration camp clothes were then removed and he was then dressed in whatever was available for transport back to Britain for further treatment. What was available in the German hospital turned out to be a German desert Luftwaffe (Air Force) jacket previously removed from a wounded German.
The previous wearer of the jacket had suffered serious life-changing wounds that are evident, although Lieutenant Le Chêne would have had no interest in that person's unknown fate as he was unconscious much of the time.
10 months of rehabilitation followed before newly promoted Captain Le Chêne could begin to resume anything approaching a normal life.
Captain Pierre Louis Le Chêne MBE died in 1979 and is interred in the military section of Gravesend Cemetery in Kent where the ‘Memorable Order of the Tin Hats’, an Ex-Servicemen’s Association, created a branch in his memory.
In 1987 Klaus Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes against humanity. Pierre’s widow, Mrs Evelyn Le Chêne, represented her husband and the United Kingdom at the trial.
At the end of the war, his Morse key and ID Card were recovered by the Americans along with the Gestapo case files, which confirmed that Pierre Le Chêne had not revealed anything under interrogation.
They were later presented to him and are now on displayed in the museum along with his medal and other artefacts , generously donated by his widow, Mrs Evelyn Le Chêne.
Captain Le Chêne's medals are, from left to right:
Member of the British Empire (MBE)
France and Germany Star
War Medal 1939-45 with Mention in Despatches Oakleaf
Legion d'Honneur (Officer)
Legion d'Honneur (Chevalier)
Croix de Guerre with Palm
Croix du Combatant
Medaille de la Deportation et l' Internment pour faits Resistance
Combatant Resistance Volontaire Cross.
Below these is the Decors Au Peril De Lieu Vie (DPV), an award made to a select group of exactly 3000 Legion d'Honneur holders by their peers. Captain Pierre Louis Le Chêne MBE is one of only two British officers ever to have been inducted into this highly selective and prestigious cohort.