4. Rail workers and the Resistance

How the French rail community made a stand

Only a minority of the French population was actively involved in the official Resistance movement and networks. In France, as elsewhere, more subtle, less coordinated forms of resistance—work slowdowns, isolated acts, and gestures of support for Jews and others under threat from Nazism—were far more common. As time went on, many more French men and women backed the Resistance simply by allowing its operatives to act unimpeded.

Because they had access to the network and held special employee passes, rail workers were able to travel much more easily than their fellow citizens. They used this unique position to express their collective opposition to the occupying forces. It started with passive acts of subversion, such as allowing escaped prisoners of war, Resistance fighters and people fleeing persecution to cross the dividing line between occupied and unoccupied France. Later, they played a more active role: carrying letters, leaflets and underground journals, and gathering intelligence on rail operations and enemy military transports. SNCF employees also shared insider knowledge with NAP-Fer and other Resistance networks linked to Free France, the government-in-exile based in London. Thanks to the intelligence they provided—from transport plans and traffic maps to military convoy routes and timetables—the Allies knew exactly where and when to strike the rail system to inflict maximum damage. Rail workers with special expertise helped armed Resistance cells plan acts of sabotage, and some even took part in the missions themselves.

This drawing shows how to effectively sabotage rail lines. It was circulated by rail workers following abortive early attempts that started in the summer of 1941. ©SNCF SARDO

The Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations (BCRA)—the intelligence arm of the Free France Resistance movement—used technical data gathered from the rail community to develop the Plan Vert (Green Plan), under which rail lines were sabotaged ahead of D-Day to slow the advance of German reinforcements toward the landing beaches.

A train derails and ends up in the river after passing over a sabotaged bridge in Reculafol, a hamlet on the line between Ambérieu and Virieu-le-Grand in south-eastern France, on 9 June 1944. The previous day, members of the local Resistance cell had attempted to blow up the line but caused only minor damage. When they returned, the SNCF employees dispatched to repair the track agreed to help them unbolt a rail. ©DR

From 1942 onwards, rail workers also used industrial action as way to protest against the enlistment and deportation of fellow employees to work as forced labourers in Germany—despite a strict ban on striking and harsh penalties for those who failed to comply. And when employees at SNCF’s depots in the capital downed tools on August 10, 1944, it was the flashpoint that ignited the Paris uprising.

A July 1944 leaflet calling on rail workers to rise up against the German occupiers. ©SNCF SARDO

Spontaneous acts of resistance­—slow-downs, support for deportees and forced labourers

Spontaneous acts of resistance—isolated and anonymous—were a common among France’s rail community. At SNCF’s workshops, depots and marshalling yards, rail workers employed work slow-downs and other tactics, doing just enough to make life difficult for the occupying forces without being detected.

This leaflet, which calls for a work slow-down as a show of opposition against the occupying forces, was circulated among residents of a rail workers’ housing project in Arras, northern France, on September 27, 1942. The final sentence reads: “A handful of sand [in the axle box] inflicts as much damage as a bomb!”
©SNCF SARDO

Rail workers lacked the means to stop the convoys and were unaware of their ultimate destination. But they played their part through small acts of kindness and gestures of solidarity toward the forced labourers and deportees imprisoned inside. Evading the watch of the Nazi guards, they instructed those on board to wait until the train had left the station before throwing notes to loved ones onto the tracks—which they then collected and passed on to family members, at great personal risk. Others handed out food and water to deportees held inside stationary wagons for hours on end. Some even put themselves in the firing line by deliberately slowing the convoys on sections of track where escape was more likely, or by helping to smuggle prisoners off standing trains to freedom.

A handwritten note thrown from a train by a deportee at Le Bourget-Drancy station. ©Shoah Memorial/Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center

Le Bourget Station, Sunday, July 18, 1943.

To my beloved,

We set off this morning, headed eastward. To you, to my friends, and to all the loved ones I leave behind, I send my thanks and best wishes.

Goodbye for now. May we meet again.

Blanc.

September 20.
To my beloved family,
Today I leave to work in Germany. Do not worry. I hope we will be together again soon.

Learn more about French rail workers and the Resistance 

Le Plan vert et la Libération du territoire (The Green Plan and the Liberation of France), by Sébastien Albertelli

Reference work

Cécile Hochard, Les cheminots dans la résistance (Rail Workers & the Resistance), La Vie du Rail, in association with the French Railway Historical Society (AHICF), 2011. The book accompanies the travelling exhibition by the same name, organized by the French Resistance Foundation and shown for the first time in 2005 at the Museum of the Liberation of Paris – General Leclerc Museum – Jean Moulin Museum in Mulhouse.