5. Rail workers killed under the German occupation

Under the occupation, French rail workers were subject to German military law and their actions were closely scrutinized. Resistance was a risky business—a mere accusation meant certain execution. And the German military command’s hostage-taking policy, introduced in France in 1941, spelled more danger for SNCF employees. This was especially true in 1943, a year that saw a spate of sabotage attacks against rail facilities. The Gestapo retaliated in kind, arresting—and in some cases executing—rail workers even if they had no proven connection to the Resistance movement.

The crackdown on those who defied the occupying forces came to a head between May and August 1944—the weeks before and after the Normandy landings. With France’s rail system on its knees, far fewer rail workers were deported. But many more were killed. Summary executions peaked in August, a month that saw 75 SNCF employees lose their lives at the hands of German firing squads.

The Nazis exacted revenge not just on rail workers, but also on innocent civilians. On the night of 1–2 April 1944, Resistance fighters sabotaged one of 61 trains parked near Ascq station in northern France as it waited to transport the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitlerjugend” to Normandy. A Nazi officer on board the train wasted no time in ordering troops to storm the village. Dozens of civilians—aged between 15 and 75—were rounded up and shot near the tracks. The massacre claimed the lives of 86 people including 22 SNCF employees.

This report, written by a member of SNCF’s duty team in Lille and dated April 2, 1944, recounts the events of the Ascq massacre. The names of the 22 SNCF employees who lost their lives are listed on the back. It was discovered by a rail worker in her family’s archives.

Rail workers also played their part in the liberation of France. But they paid a heavy price for their involvement: over 2,200 men and women of SNCF—mostly Resistance members and victims of Nazi reprisal attacks—were murdered, summarily executed, or imprisoned and deported never to be seen again.

The last letter from a rail worker executed by the Nazis

Eugène d’Hallendre was a rail inspector based in Arras, in northern France. Because he was responsible for monitoring track conditions, he enjoyed considerable freedom of movement, and he promptly used it to further his underground activities. He wrote leaflets and placed them in stations and trains, circulated the underground newspaper La Voix du Nord, and assisted downed Allied aviators. D’Hallendre also gathered intelligence on German military installations and transport movements. In the end he was arrested, and on December 27, 1943 he was executed by a firing squad. He wrote this letter to his family and friends on the day of his execution.

Loos, December 27, 1943
To my beloved family,
Today I will die. I go in good health and spirits. After the war, I would like to be buried in the Madeleine.
I hope that all of you will be as brave as I have been.
My wife and my beloved son Edgard are both innocent. May they be equally strong in the face of fate.
For Edgard: I wish for him to finish his education and become a good citizen. May he marry and raise a large family like the good Christian he has always been.
I leave you all with a warm embrace that I send to all of my friends as well.
I forgive everyone, and may God have mercy on me.
Your loving son, E. d’Hallendre
P.S. — Thanks to all of the friends who have been kind enough to take up my cause. Kisses to the wife I cherish and the son I adore.
P.P.S. — Ask the priest at the Madeleine to say a Mass for my soul, and thank the Mayor for the fine Christmas package, which I was able to taste.

Since 1944, France has regularly commemorated rail workers’ collective involvement in the Resistance and the liberation of France as well as the sufferings and sacrifices of various individuals. These commemorations, together with the important role rail workers played in rebuilding France after the war, fostered the idea that all of them were Resistance members. La Bataille du rail (Battle of the Rails), directed by René Clément, was released in French cinemas in 1946. The film, which is firmly established in France’s collective imagination, went a long way to building the image of rail workers as heroic Resistance fighters. A more nuanced picture emerged in the 1980s when SNCF came under scrutiny for the involvement of the French railways in transporting deportees to Germany.

Learn more: Cheminots victimes de la répression, 1940–1945 (Rail workers killed under the German occupation, 1940–1945), a commemorative book published by Perrin and SNCF in 2017