General Charles Delestraint, a prisoner at Natzweiler

The most famous inmate at Natzweiler was General Charles Delestraint, the leader of the Secret French Army, shown in the photo above.

A veteran of World War I, Delestraint was an expert on tank warfare; he commanded a mechanized French division in World War II. In fact, Delestraint was de Gaulle's commanding officer in World War II. After France surrendered in June 1940, de Gaulle escaped to London where he set up a Free French organization and directed guerrilla warfare against the German occupation of France.

In 1942, Delestraint was recruited by the French resistance; he secretly visited his old friend Charles de Gaulle in London and was given the job of commanding the French Armée Secret, which had been created on the initiative of Jean Moulin.

On June 9, 1943, Delestraint was arrested by the Gestapo. After being imprisoned for months in a Gestapo prison at Fresnes, General Delestraint was sent in March 1944 to Natzweiler where he remained until the camp was evacuated in September 1944. As soon as he arrived in the Natzweiler camp, the general made friends with the other prisoners, always encouraging those who were overwhelmed by despair. He always knew just what to say to console the other prisoners who were depressed. He could restore the confidence of others just by his look, or with a few words. He would take charge of the vulnerable prisoners, giving them the courage to survive. He also shared food, that he had stolen, with the other prisoners.

General Delestraint was classified as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner, which means that he was not allowed any contact with the outside world. He could not receive, nor send letters, and his family did not know what had happened to him. He also could not work outside the camp for fear that he might escape. As an officer, he was exempt from any heavy work. He had to remain in the barracks alone while the other prisoners worked.

At the suggestion of the block leader in charge of his barrack building, Delestraint started working clandestinely in the camp clothing warehouse. He would rejoin the other prisoners for roll call at the end of the day, pretending that he had stayed in the barracks all day.

When the Natzweiler camp was abandoned, the prisoners were taken to Dachau, where Delestraint was allegedly executed on April 19, 1945, shortly before that camp was liberated.

Emile Schwarzfeld, who had been picked to be Delestraint's successor as the leader of the French Secret Army in case he was captured, was also arrested by the Gestapo and, after spending time at Fresnes, was deported to Natzweiler-Struthof, where he died in June 1944.

Another high-ranking prisoner at Natzweiler was General Frere, the Commander of the French Seventh Army in World War II. On June 14, 1940, the German Army entered Paris and General Frere withdrew without fighting, allowing the Germans to have their triumphant victory march through the city. After the surrender of France, General Frere became the Commander of the ORA, the Organization of Resistance of the Army, which fought as insurgents on the side of the Allies in the French Resistance. He was captured and deported to Natzweiler-Struthof where he died in the camp.

Altogether, an estimated 56,000 French resistance fighters were deported to concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Natzweiler, and only half of them returned after the camps were liberated.

Execution of General Delestraint

French Resistance

Nacht und Nebel prisoners

Albert-Marie Guérisse

Alliance Réseau

SOE agents execution