The poem that launched D-Day for the French Resistance

The French Resistance listened to the BBC intently in 1944 for signals. When they heard this poem, they knew D-Day was soon.
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d-day poem
Members of the French Resistance and the US 82nd Airborne division discuss the situation during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

In 1939, Germany was on the rise, Czechoslovakia was occupied, and Britain made a seemingly minor change to the BBC. The British Empire Service became the British Overseas Service. This small change reflected a change in mission. The service would now broadcast into overseas territories and, soon, into Axis-occupied territory.

Its most famous broadcast in that mission may have been the coded messages into Nazi-occupied France. And in June 1944, a series of lines from a famous French poem told French saboteurs to start preparations for D-Day.

And while Germany was listening, they misinterpreted this poem and sent the wrong units to the wrong places, helping the invasion.

Preparing for D-Day

WWII, London, England, National Archives. Public Domain

While the French government fell quickly to the Nazi hordes and their speed-addicted Blitzkrieg in 1940, Free French Forces and French partisans kept up the fight for the remainder of the war. As the Allies prepared to open a new front against Nazi Germany, they knew that sabotage by French partisans could save soldiers’ lives. And they leaned into that.

The British and U.S. sent top-tier spies and other agents into France to prepare Maquis and other resistance forces for the D-Day invasion. Supplies, training, and radios flowed into the country. And a super secret pad of codes went to certain organizations. That pad contained messages and their meanings that partisans might hear broadcasted.

The BBC read a series of seemingly random phrases most nights. And resistance members knew to listen and compare what they heard to their secret pads. Nazis Germany knew about these messages and listened in, but it had to guess about what each code meant.

Transmitting the signals

The poem Chanson d’automne of the French poet Paul Verlaine on a wall of the building at Pieterskerkhof 4 in Leiden, The Netherlands. Public Domain

On June 1, the BBC broadcasted the first three lines of “Chanson d’automne” by Paul Verlaine:

Les sanglots longs

Des violons

De l’automne

It roughly translates as “The long sobs/Violins/Of autumn.” Germany thought this was an order for all resistance forces to prepare for an invasion within 48 hours.

Luckily, this threw the Germans off, since the actual invasion wouldn’t come for another five days. In reality, the poems had special significance for one resistance cell, and it was an order to stand by to cut railways. For the rest, it was a sign that the invasion would come within two weeks.

Four days later, on June 5, the BBC broadcasted the next three lines of the poem, telling the cell to begin cutting rails apart.

Blessent mon coeur

D’une langueur


Roughly, “My heart drowns / With a langour / In the unchanging sound.” Once again, German SS intercept units overestimated the importance of the poem, thinking it was aimed at all railways across the Reich. And when they alerted other units that were overwhelmed by the frequent false alarms of the preceding months and weeks, those units took almost no action aimed at the actual sabotage and beach landings.

d-day map
D-Day planning map, used at Southwick House near Portsmouth.

D-Day and the poem

LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the U.S. Army‘s First Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach. Wikimedia Commons

Just a few hours later, D-Day began in earnest with paratroopers inserting east and south of the beaches. Landing craft barreled into Fortress Europe. Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers took their place in history. And the German defenders arrayed against them struggled, in part, due to the railway sabotage initiated by the French poem.

Here is an English translation of the poem in its entirety:

The long sobs
Of violins
Of autumn
Wound my heart
With a monotonous
All breathless
And pale, when
The hour sounds,
I remember
The old days
And I cry;
And I go
In the ill wind
That carries me
Here, there,
Like the
Dead leaf.

A monument at the Normandy beaches contains the first six lines of the French poem.