x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Schoolgirl heroine of the Resistance

Marguerite Garden underplayed her daring during the Second World War, when, still a schoolgirl, she worked with the French Resistance, assisting hundreds of local men in escaping occupied France.

Marguerite Garden around the age of 14.
Marguerite Garden around the age of 14.

In typically unassuming fashion, Marguerite Garden, in the later telling of it, underplayed her daring during the Second World War, when, still a schoolgirl, she worked with the French Resistance in her hometown of Plomodiern in Brittany, assisting hundreds of local men in escaping occupied France. In April 2003, on the recommendation of the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, she was awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, for her contribution to the war effort.

In August 1940, Garden (née Vourc'h) returned home from boarding school in Paris to find her doctor father, Antoine, canvassing opinion as he went on his rounds on the subject of the German occupation. He had himself openly denounced the Vichy government, seemingly with little fear for the repercussions from his outspokenness. He was something of a local hero, awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur for his bravery in the First World War.

His daughter soon joined her father in determining where the locals' sympathies lay and the return of her brother Jean from the war, and his subsequent escape to England with friends, disguised as fishermen, was her first real taste of subterfuge. From then on, holidays from her Parisian school, the Légion d'Honneur School at St Denis, were spent cycling the coastal paths, scanning the Bay of Douarnenez for German boats and helping to deliver false identity cards to the networks of Resistance members. For Garden, it was a thrilling period in her life, though she never considered herself anything more than her father's daughter, discharging her duty as wartime required. "The most difficult thing was to be completely silent," she later said. She could not let her schoolmates know what she was doing. "It was a matter of life or death. But there was no reason to suspect me. I was a young girl travelling to school and I was never arrested."

By January 1941, however, Gestapo and Wehrmacht officers were billeted at the family house. Though their presence concluded the use of the house as an interim post for Allied airmen awaiting repatriation, it continued to serve as a hub for information. But with danger so close to home, Antoine was forced to flee after the Germans linked him to active members of the Resistance. He ended up in North Africa. But his wife convinced the Gestapo members who turned up to investigate his whereabouts - and smelled distinctly of Turkish cigarettes, Garden recalled - that he had abandoned the family for a destination unknown.

In his absence, the family continued to plan for an operation to repatriate 40 Allied airmen. All did not proceed smoothly, and Garden and her mother were forced to appeal to the local priest to hide the men in his church while the Resistance waited for an opportunity to get them home. The operation was ultimately successfully, but it came at a cost to Garden. The BBC's allusion to the arrival of a "fourth son of a doctor of Brittany" in their coded message heralding the return of the men to Britain, was too obvious a reference to Garden's family. The Gestapo came to call once again. Fortunately, Garden and her mother were not at home at the time and received warnings from friends to stay away. Her three younger sisters, however, were at the house, but despite interrogation, did not reveal that their two sisters and mother were hidden in Paris.

Of the tasks Garden performed during and after the war, by far the most dreadful was to bring back to her mother the body of her brother Jean, who had been mortally wounded at Voisins-le-Bretonneux. With the end of the war, she began a course in architecture at the Beaux Arts, Paris. There, at age 20, she met a Scottish army surgeon. Though her father opposed the union, Garden abandoned her studies and married, settling eventually in Lanark, where the couple raised seven children.

A keen naturalist, she became passionately involved in various local enterprises, including the Corehouse Nature Reserve, now run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. On her death, her son, Professor James Garden, said: "My mother said she was over five feet tall - we as children doubted that, but she punched well above her weight." Marguerite Garden was born on January 25, 1926; she died on May 5. * The National