September 7, 1941. SOE agent Michael Trotobas and 5 other agents parachuted into central France. Trotobas was a perfect candidate for the SOE. He was an excellent athlete, a small arms instructor, had led a platoon at Dunkirk, and he spoke French. For the next 6 weeks he and his team explored ways to support the fledgling French Resistance. But the Vichy police were on to him, and he and 11 other agents were arrested in late October.
Assisted on the outside by SOE agent Virginia Hall and Gaby Bloch, Trotobas and his team made a spectacular escape from the internment camp less than a year later. Avoiding an intense manhunt, they made their way back to England via Spain and Portugal. Trotobas would return to France with a new mission–instead of espionage, it would be sabotage. His priority would be railroads.
Trotobas parachuted into central France in November 1942. He made his way north to the town of Lille armed only with a small pistol. And 250,000 Francs. A confirmed bon vivant, Trotobas hit the local bars and gambling dens and spent money freely, recruiting his fellow revelers for the French Resistance. By January 1943 he had over 20 trusted recruits, and, as the renowned “Farmer Network,” they set about creating mayhem on the railroads. Their first action was to derail 40 railway cars.
Trotobas set up headquarters in the back of a café, and when in public frequently wore the uniform of a French gendarme. Over the following months they carried out 15-20 derailments a week. His biggest operation happened in June, 1943. Posing as a Gestapo agent, Trotobas and 20 of his men dressed as gendarmes talked their way into the locomotive works in Lille and destroyed it. The RAF had made 4 attempts to destroy the works, but failed.
But London was skeptical. “We need proof,” they replied. “Send photographs.” By then the whole region was crawling with angry Germans, who were rounding up railway workers, conducting late night raids on homes, and taking hostages. So, Trotobas had to return to the scene of the crime, posing as an insurance agent. He persuaded the Germans investigating the ruins to help him take photographs, which he sent to London with a note that read “With the compliments of the Resistance.”
Trotobas’ luck ran out in November 1943, when he was ratted out to the Germans by a fellow agent under torture. The Germans raided his place in the early morning and Trotobas went down fighting, killing their leader and wounding another.
The Farmer Network lived on, expanding to nearly 1,000 members.
Agent Michael Trotobas and SOE in Northern France, by Stewart Kent and Nick Nicholas.