Thursday, July 19, 2012

World War II Assassin and Wyatt Earp

In the Smithsonian magazine of September, 1993, is an article by Robert Wernick, on the wartime activities of an amazingly efficient British assassin working in Occupied France from 1941 to 1943.  Fascinating reading.


There was nothing remarkable in the background of Ian (Johnny) Kenneth Hopper.  He was born in 1913 of solid East Anglian stock. 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.

His reasons for becoming a killer were that, "I don't believe in taking things lying down.  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."

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 friend Dr. Chanel was convinced to his dying day, as were all the other French who worked with Hopper during the war, that he 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.


A priest that Johnny Hopper had known when he was a little boy had drilled two rules into him: 'Never give up. Never complain'.


For two years before he was caught, he roamed the roads of German-occupied Normandy and the streets of German-occupied Paris.  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.

A newspaper from Caen, 1941, wrote 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 conceived, 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 known 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.


"Nerve, not technique" - compare to Wyatt Earp's thoughts on gunfighting!

"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.

"I was quicker."

"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."

" was different with me. 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. "


First gunfight.

One day he was about to visit one of his garage depots when he heard a suspicious noise - it was a gun being loaded - warning 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 cafe 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.


Another gunfight.

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.


A gunfight gone wrong.

"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 had an appointment with a traitorous double agent.  He and his wife were waiting in a cafe.  The agent 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 (the agent), who was a big man," said Hopper.  "If I had known then what I later learned about him in Mauthausen (concentration camp), 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 the reporter 48 years later''


A perfectionist

"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 took 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. . .


An old man reminisces.

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 the reporter, 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.."

Sounds like Wyatt Earp in his later years speaking of his legacy.


Bad luck.

He was captured and spent the last two year in the camps.   Despite the dehumanization of the camps, he discovered 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 another prisoner one day during a blizzard in Buchenwald).  The smithsonian article gives many details of his life in the concentration camps.

One day when they moved him from his cell, they sewed on his jacket the letters "NN," for Nacht-und-Nebel, the "night and fog" into which Goethe had seen the ancient Germanic gods disappear and into which a Nazi law commanded dangerous enemies of the Third Reich to be sent.

So that's where 'Night and Fog' comes from.

But he survived. ("They had knocked out all his teeth, and his whole body was covered with cigarette burns".)

For the latter part of his life he was happily married to a wife named Diana.  He settled down to a humdrum civilian life in a picturesque provincial village.  He ran a mushroom farm successfully until he felt that union demands had become too outrageous, and he shut the business down.   He died in 1991 of cancer, having at last met a foe he could not outsmart or out-shoot.


An imposing figure.

"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."

- could be a description of Wyatt Earp.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.