Francoise was born in Cahors, France on the 6th November 1881. A civil servant in the City of Toulouse Technical School Administration; a teacher in private schools in Auch, Carcassonne and Agen. In 1911, she became a bursar at the Toulouse High School. During the 1914-18 war the school became a hospital and Francoise enlisted as a nurse. At the end of the war she started a clothing business in Toulouse under the name ‘The Living Doll’.
In 1940, Francoise was totally involved in the French Resistance, working with the Pierre-Bertaux network under the Resistance name of ‘Victoire’, gathering intelligence and distributing clandestine newspapers and pamphlets. In 1941 she came under the scrutiny of the hated Milice and the Vichy authorities who began to suspect her of Resistance activities. Then, in December 1941, the Pierre-Bertaux became compromised and Francoise had to go to ground. However, being unknown to the Vichy authorities by sight, she continued supporting her jailed comrades in Furgole Prison, and assisting their families.
In early 1942, the code-name name of ‘Victoire’ was dropped in favour of ‘Francoise’, which was to remain her name for the rest of her life. Her role changed and she became a main player on the Pat O’Leary Escape Line which was active throughout France, with its main base in Marseille and a second HQ in Toulouse. In May 1942 Francoise became second in command to Pat O’Leary, the Belgian doctor Albert Guerisse. The line’s Toulouse HQ was based at her home, 12 rue Paul-Meriel, which was also the main safe-house in Toulouse for allied evaders waiting to be taken over the high Pyrenees. Francoise negotiated mountain guides and smugglers for the evaders, many traversing the St Girons and Andorra routes through to Spain.
Disaster struck the line on 2nd February 1943, when it was betrayed by the traitor Roger le Neveu (Roger le legionnaire). The Gestapo arrested many of the helpers, then on 1st March 1943 the line was also ‘blown’ in Marseille. Again, many of the helpers were arrested, this time with the inclusion of Pat O’Leary himself. Those helpers who were still free scattered throughout France. Francoise, warned that the Gestapo were closing in, moved her HQ to Bergerac until the situation stabilised in Toulouse and Marseille, and took charge of the line. New safe-houses were found, together with new couriers and mountain guides. The line now became known as the ‘Francoise Line’.
When it was safe to return, Francoise’s home in Toulouse again became the HQ of the line. All evaders now passed through Toulouse, and the Marseille link was closed down. The route now headed towards St Girons, where evaders were handed over to mountain guides to be taken on foot over the high Pyrenees. Other routes followed from Toulouse and Barbazan and headed south along the Valley of Luchon and the Aran Valley into Spain.
Over five hundred aircrew, mainly British and American, are listed as passing through Francoise’s safe-house in Toulouse. Most travelled the St Girons and Andorra high level routes into Spain. Many members of this Society [ELMS] were taken along these routes.
At the end of the war Francoise was granted Lt Col status in the French Army and awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the Croix de Guerre 1939-45 with palms, Medaille de la Resistance with rosette; from Belgium she received the Officer of the Order of Leopold II with palms and the Croix de Guerre with palms; from the USA she was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm, and from the United Kingdom she was awarded the OBE and the George Medal.
Today, at 77 Route d’Esuage, Toulouse, stands the College known as ‘The Lycee Francoise’. Inside the college a display case contains the medals and honours awarded to Francoise Dissard GM and outside the college entrance is a memorial bust of that remarkable lady who kept the Pat Line and its evaders moving when all seemed lost.
Marie-Louise ‘Francoise’ Dissard died in Toulouse on 8th July 1957, and was laid to rest at the Toulouse “Terre-Cabade” Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Toulouse, alongside many other famous citizens.
My thanks to Mme Negri, and Mme Charborel, of the Ecole Francoise in Toulouse for their help in obtaining information about Francoise Dissard.