Jean-Gabriel Castel

French Resistance fighter

Jean-Gabriel Castel is a man who has lived an exciting and varied life, filled with unique stories and experiences. Born in Nice, France in 1928, he spent part of his youth as part of the French Resistance in WWII, challenging Germany’s wartime occupation of his homeland. He and his family survived all the difficult experiences of the war years – the hunger, the deportations, the tension that filled each day.

With the Battle of France lost the French Third Republic collapsed dividing the country into two. On one hand was the Free France led by general Charles de Gaulle, on the other Marshal Phillippe Pétain’s French State. More commonly the rump state was known as Vichy France after its seat of government in the city of Vichy.

Vichy France was officially independent, but with half of its territory occupied under the harsh terms of the 1940 armistice with the Nazi regime, it adopted a policy of collaboration. Despite heavy pressure, the Vichy government never joined the Axis powers and even remained formally at war with Germany. In practice, however, Vichy France became a collaborationist regime that most of the French public first supported, but then turned against it as was progressed.

Jean-Gabriel Castel had not even turned 13 years old when the Vichy regime came to power. He recalls that his parents supported de Gaulle from the very start and how they even in school were divided into two groups based on who they supported, Pétain or de Gaulle.

In response to Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa, Germany and Italy invaded the free zone during Case Anton on 11 November 1942. All of France was now effectively occupied and the Vichy regime severely curtailed becoming a puppet government. The area where Castel lived had been fairly calm, despite bordering to the Italian zone of occupation since 1940, until the Nazi rule was extended to the free zone and towards the end of 1942 the area became fully occupied by Italian forces.

With the Armistice of Cassibile, the Italian surrender, on 3 September 1943, the Italian occupation of French territory came to an end. As the Italian troops withdrew there was a narrow gap where former positions were no longer occupied. Seizing the opportunity before positions were re-occupied by German troops on 8 October 1943 Castel collected weapons and equipment left behind by the Italians and hid them on his family’s land.

Now being occupied by German troops the French resistance starts to gain true momentum in the area. Many young men were sent to Germany as labour to work in factories, those that refused were arrested and imprisoned. With the Nazi occupation also came antisemitic propaganda and persecution of Jews. Castel recalls seeing Gestapo officials pulling people off trains in pursuit of Jews or Resistance fighters.

“Défense Passive (DP)”

Even before the Second World War began and because international relations were becoming rapidly and highly dangerous, the French Government passed, on April 8, 1935, a new law allowing the protection of civilian populations against air attacks; Défense Passive (DP)[3]https://fortitude–

By 1944, at the tender age of sixteen, Castel was part of the Defense Passive and tasked with assisting casualties of allied bombings. Due to the inaccuracy of bombing in this period French civilians were often killed or wounded in these attacks. The Défense Passive service dealt with the destruction caused by such bombings.

In the capacity of a ‘Défense Passive’ member Castel was issued papers permitting him more freedom of movement through the area. He recall once having a close call being stopped at a checkpoint while carrying weapons in the packs on his bicycle.

La Resistance

When the German occupation commenced in Nice, following the surrender of Italy, the Castel home itself was not taken over by Germans. Castel’s grandfather had been a military commander with the Allied troops that suppressed “Boxer Rebellion” in China 1899-1901. For his distinguished service his grandfather had been awarded a prominent Prussian award (referring to the award as “The Great Eagle of Prussia”) as both France and Germany at the time were part of the eight nation alliance. A portrait of his grandfather wearing the award impressed the German commanding officer who allowed Castel and his mother to stay in the villa.

Just by sheer coincidence the Castel home was right next to a German DCA (anti-aircraft) command post. Having had a German governess (a woman employed to teach children in a private household) as a young boy he was fluent in the German language. This well kept secret presented him with an unprecedented opportunity to hear German orders being received and given. From his bedroom he could comfortably listen to communications and relay them to his Resistance leader.

In 1953 the Company Commander of ‘Corps Francs de la Liberation Groupe Alexander’, René Issaurat, issued a letter of commendation. The letter certifies how Castel was formally part of the group since 16 January 1944. It was however pointed out that:

“Jean Gabriel Castel was already part of the Group prior to this date, but given his young age, at the time he could not be officially included.”[4]Letter of commendation by René Issaurat, dated 10 June 1953 (see image gallery at bottom)

Castel has in interviews described his actions of cutting communication lines and performing other various supportive actions. His words are as humble as they are soft spoken and unassuming.

In the words of Company Commander René Issaurat his actions was described as follows (freely translated from French original):

I would like to point out that the functions of J.C. Castel were, in particular:

  • Distribution of leaflets in favor of the resistance
  • Destruction of enemy telephone lines connecting the German DCA battery to the place called Russian Battery in Caucade. These wires crossed in particular the property inhabited by J.G. Castel and which, not without risk, Castel regularly destroyed.
  • Contact with the German officer commanding this battery in order to obtain information.
  • Liaison agent for various missions
  • Helped with the material supply of the Maquis Du Vercors

René Issaurat, 10 June 1953[5]Letter of commendation by René Issaurat, dated 10 June 1953 (see image gallery)

Orders for his arrest

At one time Castel was denounced as a member of the resistance – to this day he does not know who turned him in. Luckily he was warned before the Gestapo arrived at his home to arrest him. Hiding in the basement while the house was searched he only just avoided detection as the basement had no electricity and the search there was made by a flash light. To this day Castel cannot understand how they missed hearing his pounding heart where he stood pressed up against a wall.

Having made his lucky escape out of the house Castel left Nice heading for Claviers by train where he had some friends. Spending several days and nights in the woods he then proceeded south to join the local resistance group in the Le Muy area.

During his escape with a friend towards Le Muy area the above photographs are taken of Castel trying to blend in with some people cutting trees along the way.

Not long after reaching Le Muy the much awaited message of imminent invasion, at last, came from London to the Resistance. Asked to initiate disruptive activities against German communication lines and military infrastructure they spring into action.

Operation Dragoon

With the D-Day landings in the north of France being successful the plans for an invasion in the south were revived and approved. Operation Dragoon commenced on 15th August 1944 and Castel was very much involved in resistance activities prior to the actual landing.

The Resistance were blowing up bridges, disrupting military railway traffic and communications to aid the imminent Allied landings. Castel recalls removing the bolts holding the railway tracks down, just enough to derail a train but not enough raise suspicion from patrolling German soldiers.

In youthful innocence Castel has his picture taken on one such occasion, an incredibly risky endeavour should the picture have been fallen into the wrong hands.

Perhaps while fully confident that the liberation was a success Castel also took a picture of a group of resistance fighters posing. The picture is in the Le Muy area and was taken around 17th or 18th August 1944; unfortunately none of the men can be named as this was not his usual resistance cell.

The allied landings were made over a 45-mile stretch of the Cote d’Azur between Cavalaire sur-Mer and Agay, the targeted beaches being east of the German-held fortress of Toulon. Hindered by Allied air supremacy and the large-scale uprising by the French Resistance, the weak German forces were swiftly defeated.[6]

Around the Le Muy area the short lived 1st Airborne Task Force, consisting of both British and American paratroopers, had landed in three Drop/Landing Zones.

Chapelle Sainte-Roseline

In the Castel collection of photos there are several taken of American paratroopers having made some sort of a command post or aid station of the Chapelle Sainte-Roseline.

Built in 1200 it was owned by several religious orders including the Templars, Benedictines and Carthusians. During the Revolution the chapel was deconsecrated. Today, as the Château de Sainte Roseline, the buildings stand in a private vineyard. The monastery buildings are closed to the public, but part of the abbey is today a wine shop and tasting room[7]

Castel’s images show paratroopers resting in the the shade within the inner courtyard of the monastery as well as outside. To see these photographs from August 1944 is a blessing; cameras were not as readily carried then as they are today. With our modern interactive map technology one can literally be in this location at a press of a button.

The below video sequence blends a then-and-now view of a photograph taken of some paratroopers outside the chapel. Seeing the soldier sit on the distinctive box shaped outcrop of the Chapel it truly creates a then-and-now time capsule.

In another photograph from Castel’s collection the distinctive features of the Chateau Sainte Roseline particularly stand out. Taken from above it shows paratroopers washing in a pool-like fountain that still exists at the Chateau today.

Liberation of Nice

In a letter dated 7 December 1944 Mr Jean Robert, the former local manager of the Youth Civic Service in Nice, expresses praise for young Castel’s courage and faithful service in the resistance. The letter was issued to explain young Castel’s absence from school in order for him to continue his studies. Freely translated from the original letter of commendation by Jean Robert dated 7 December, 1944 (see image gallery):

I, the undersigned, Jean ROBERT, ex-departmental chief of the E.N., certify that the young CASTEL Jean, residing at 14 avenue de Caucade, participated in an SOS section in all the clearings of the rubble caused by the bombings suffered by NICE and the Alpes –Mmes.

He accomplished with faith and courage all the often perilous missions entrusted to him.

In addition, he contributed by participating in the liberation of Nice by fighting on August 28 in our ranks at the Lycee de Nice.

We are delighted to have had such a team member in our ranks.

Jean Robert, 7 December 1944[8]Letter of commendation, Jean Robert 7 December 1944 (see image gallery)

The above citation also makes reference to Castel active participation in the liberation of Nice. History simply records the event as American paratroopers entering and liberating the city on 30 August, 1944. This is true but leaves out the part where citizens of Nice liberated themselves two days earlier by forcibly evicting the remaining German troops.

As the Allied advance progressed and advanced, pushing German troops north, the American army had stopped at the river Var, just short of Nice. The Army and Resistance were in contact through messengers who would sneak across the river. Learning that the American troops had decided to turn in another direction instead of crossing the river to liberate Nice, the Resistance fighters took matters into their own hands.

In the early morning hours of 28th August 1944 there was a violent uprising against the about 2000 German troops in the area. About 350 Resistance fighters performed simultaneous attacks all over Nice and through the element of surprise a munitions storage near Gasetta-Cessole was taken which helped rearm the group. Through the day the numbers increased to about 1500 as the fighting intensified.

Confused over what was happening, and with Allied forces just down the coast, the Germans evacuated after blowing the port up on their way out. By 11pm it was over, the German soldiers left Nice in a long convoy towards Villefranche.[9]

Somewhere in the above skirmish was 17 year old Castel performing actions earning him such praise.

Post war

When the war concluded, Castel went on to become one of the first scholars of the Fulbright program and an intern at the United Nations.

He also taught law at McGill University and the Osgoode School of Law, and they have an annual lecture named for him at York University.

Facilitated by Scott Masters of the Crestwood Oral History Project, who we are incredibly indebted to for his continuous support, Mr Jean-Gabriel Castel signed The Log Book on 21 May 2022. (And yes, that is indeed a picture of Mr Castel and Eleanor Roosevelt.)


About Lars McKie 73 Articles
An ordinary Swede with a passion for history and just grateful to be given the chance to participate and contribute to the project.

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