Hero of the Month - December 2022
Published in Britain at War in December 2022.
Major Colin Ogden-Smith
It was only recently that I discovered a French village in the heart of the Brittany countryside holds a ceremony every other year in memory of a British Special Forces major and two other brave men.
I found it deeply touching that this ceremony has been held for the best part of 80 years because those living in and close to Querrien are determined that the courage of Major Colin Ogden-Smith is never forgotten. For in a wonderful act of self-sacrifice, he gave his life during the Second World War to help rid France of its Nazi occupiers.
Ogden-Smith was born on August 30 1910, the middle of three brothers. The sons of a fishing-tackle manufacturer, the brothers were brought up in a prosperous area of East Croydon on the outskirts of London. All attended Whitgift School in Croydon and all were sporty and fine shots. All three brothers, too, became territorial soldiers serving in the Infantry Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company.
Colin Ogden-Smith worked as a factory manager and director of the family business in the 1930s but obtained a commission in the Regular Army as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before the outbreak of the Second World War.
When war broke out in September 1939, he had just turned 29 years old and had been married for a year to Wendy, née Moore. The couple lived in Balcombe, West Sussex.
Shortly after the end of the so-called “Phoney War” in 1940, Ogden-Smith had been among the first to volunteer for the newly formed Commandos, seeing action in North Africa and Crete. In 1942, he transferred to the highly-secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE) and joined the Small Scale Raiding Force to carry out raids across the English Channel.
Next, he volunteered for a clandestine group known as the “Jedburghs” who were soon being trained to parachute into enemy-occupied France in the aftermath of D-Day to link up with the French Resistance, or Maquis.
On June 6 1944, the D-Day landings took place along 60 miles of Normandy coast. Nearby Brittany, with its deep-water ports, was also seen as strategically important and so British Special Forces units were inserted into the region.
In the first week of July, Ogden-Smith learnt that it was time for his own three-man team to go into action. At that time, he was a 33-year-old major and the father of a six-month-old daughter.
The plan was for his team to hide out in the south-eastern corner of the Finistère departement. Ogden-Smith intended to contact all the various Maquis groups in the area, assess their manpower and firepower and, where necessary, arrange arms drops for them. The ultimate aim, of course, was to help drive out the German occupiers as the Allied forces advanced through France.
Shortly after 10.30pm on the evening of July 9, fresh from their final briefing, the three-man team took off from RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, in a modified Liberator bomber. Ogden-Smith was the leader of Team Francis, one of six Jedburgh teams dropped in Brittany at that time.
The local Maquis had received a message to expect the men and had been given a “DZ” (Drop Zone) location, a small and remote field on the edge of the Finistère departement. As the aircraft approached shortly after 2am, three bonfires were lit to mark the DZ for the pilot who flew down to only 600 feet for the men to parachute.
Ogden-Smith, the last of the three men to jump, was soon in difficulty, landing not in a field but instead in dense woodland a considerable distance from the intended DZ, having overshot his target.
It meant he, unlike his two comrades, had missed his Maquis “reception committee” and would eventually have to meet his comrades, Frenchman Guy Le Borgne, aged 24, and fellow Briton, Arthur Dallow, aged 20, at one of two pre-agreed RV (rendezvous) points.
After hiding out for three nights, Ogden-Smith, who was in uniform and armed with a rifle and a pistol, encountered a farmer on the morning of July 12 and made his presence felt. Fortunately, the man was trustworthy and helped him link up with the Maquis and his two Team Francis comrades.
On July 14, they had arranged an arms drop but the Germans were waiting and, in a huge firefight near the commune of Scaër, 24 patriots were killed and most of the arms supply lost.
For the next two weeks, Team Francis played a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the German Army and security forces, never staying more than 48 hours in the same place, while also working with the Maquis.
On the night of July 28, Ogden-Smith rested with his team, who by now included two Resistance men, at Kerbozec farm and then stayed there the next day. The farm was owned by Louis Fiche, 71, and run with the help of his wife Marie-Jeanne, their son Louis Jnr and daughter Eliane, then just 16. Louis Fiche Jnr was an active member of the Maquis.
On the evening of July 29, shortly after 8pm, nearly 70 German troops and security police descended on the farm, having been tipped off by a collaborator.
As they tried to surround the farm, a shoot-out began in the fields close to the farmhouse. Barthélémy Guyader, one of the Resistance fighters, was soon shot and wounded but he and Dallow managed to lay low in a ditch as the fighting escalated.
During the impending chaos, Le Borgne, one of the three original members of Team Francis, surprised a German officer and shot him dead, before making his own escape.
Ogden-Smith and Miodon, the second Resistance fighter, were not so lucky having been spotted in a water-filled ditch close to their hide-out. The British major and French sergeant began shooting, desperate to keep the Germans at bay.
Eventually, Ogden-Smith broke cover but before he could reach a hedge he was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. Badly wounded, he reached for his morphine and also tried to bandage his heavily-bleeding stomach.
Nearby, Miodon was also slightly injured, having been hit by shrapnel from a hand grenade. However, he did not want to be caught alive, knowing perhaps he would almost certainly be tortured and butchered.
Raising his rifle and pistol, he advanced towards dozens of the enemy, firing until he ran out of bullets. A mass of enemy firepower hit him, leaving him far more seriously wounded than before.
Ogden-Smith died soon afterwards, his rifle and ammunition at his side. The 45-minute firefight was over.
Meanwhile, Louis Fiche Snr, who had been tending his cows more than 100 yards away, was confronted by the Germans. Hard of hearing, he had been confused by their questions and their patience soon ran out. Fiche was murdered in cold blood, first bayoneted in the back and then shot in the chest.
Miodon was still alive at this point but not for long. A German soldier finished him off with two shots to his head as he lay on the ground. Before leaving, the soldiers set fire to the family’s farmhouse too.
The next morning the three dead men were buried in shallow graves at the farm because the Germans refused to allow their bodies to be removed to the local cemetery. Louis Fiche’s grieving widow, Marie-Jeanne, made a wooden cross for each makeshift grave.
Le Borgne and Dallow, who had escaped unscathed from the farm shoot-out, continued to work with the Resistance until the area was liberated by the Allies in early August 1944.
Once back in Britain, Le Borgne filed a report in which he recommended Ogden-Smith for a posthumous British gallantry award but he was eventually only awarded a Mention in Despatches.
After the war, the bodies of the three heroes of the Battle of Kerbozec were exhumed and today the remains of Ogden-Smith and Miodon lie side by side at Guiscriff Communal Cemetery.
Many local French men and women wrote to Ogden-Smith’s widow after the war and thanked her for her husband’s gallantry and self-sacrifice. Even more significantly, three years after his death, on July 29 1947, they held a service near Kerbozec farm that commemorated the bravery of the three men.
Sam Gardner told me that just over a decade ago, while living in Paris, she had been bored one day and decided to put her great uncle’s name, Colin Ogden-Smith, into google. There she found a message from a man called Peter Jacobs, who was asking for information on Ogden-Smith from relatives.
Mrs Gardner contacted him, learnt about the commemoration service and decided to attend in 2012 with her mother, Angela Weston, and Mr Jacobs, who later became the author of a book called “Codename Dorset: The wartime exploits of Major Colin-Ogden-Smith Commando & SOE”.
Mrs Gardner said, “We attended the commemoration and it was so moving. We had expected it to be very low key, but there were war veterans with their medals, police and firemen in uniform, lots of flags and a big public address system.
“I gave a speech in French and my mother gave a speech in English, which I translated into French. It was so emotional, we had to fight to hold back our tears.”
No one has done more to champion the bravery of the three men than Marcel Moysan, who presided over around ten of the ceremonies as the Mayor of Querrien from 1995 to 2014. Born and bred in the village and now 72, he said of Ogden-Smith, “As the leader of the Jedburgh team, his courage made him a great hero to us all and we have admired what he did for nearly 80 years.”
Yves Naour, then aged 13, and his father, Francois, were at their family mill close to Kerbozec Farm on the night of the attack in 1944 and were detained and questioned by the Germans for more than two hours. His father was taken at gunpoint to the spot where Ogden-Smith lay dead and three times a German officer demanded, “Did you know this terrorist?” Each time he said he did not and eventually the lives of the father and son were spared.
Mr Naour, now 91, who always attends the dedication service, told me: “The events of that evening have stayed with me all my life because I was so frightened.” Ogden-Smith is still known affectionately by locals as “le majeur Anglais” – the English major.
Colin’s two brothers both survived the war: his elder brother, Tony, after being a Prisoner of War for three years. His younger brother, Bruce, carried out courageous beach reconnaissance work prior to the D-Day landings and, serving as a sergeant, was awarded the Military Medal (MM) and, later, the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)
In fact, in 2006 I became the proud custodian of Bruce Ogden-Smith’s medal group. Then, unexpectedly, this summer I was privately offered the chance to buy Colin Ogden-Smith’s medal group and did so, thereby reuniting the medal groups of the two brave brothers.