I was first alerted to the possibilities of this story by Tony, a friend who has a keen interest in Inland Waterways, both in the UK and in France. He has his own narrow boat, which is currently moored on one of the French canals. It was Tony who asked me if I knew that during the war the canal network had been used as a way to smuggle POWs and downed airmen out of the country. When I expressed my interest he sent me some photo copied pages from a book, ‘Keeping Afloat’ by John Liley. These contained a reference to an extraordinary event which occurred in April of 1943. After the Allied invasion of North Africa the Germans, fearing an attack on the south coast of France, decided to move some of their warships from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Rather than taking the long sea route they decided to use the French canal system. French canals are, of course, considerably wider than ours and carry much heavier traffic. The vedettes were brought down the River Yonne and the intention was to take them through the Canal de Bourgogne to connect with the River Saone and thence to the Mediterranean. However, when they reached Laroche Migennes, where the Canal de Bourgogne meets the Yonne, they discovered that the locks on that canal were too short to accommodate the ships. A new route had to be devised and 1,500 young men were pressed into service to rebuild roads, so that the ships could be moved overland. Buildings were demolished, bends straightened out and gradients eased. The nearest slipway was in Auxerre and the residents of that town were astounded to see the spectacle of these huge craft being hauled out of the river. They were loaded onto two 48 wheeled chariots, pulled by three giant tractors, with four more at the rear to provide braking power. It was forbidden to photograph these events but there are, nevertheless, several pictures taken clandestinely to bear witness to this amazing undertaking. Ironically, the RAF was alerted to what was happening and not one of the ships ever reached the Mediterranean!
Lilley’s book also brought to my attention the existence of a maquis Resistance group hidden up in the Morvan hills above the canal. It mentioned pitched battles fought nearby between them and the occupying Nazis. I had written about French escape routes before, but not in connection with the canals, and though I had also written about the Resistance I had not thoroughly investigated the maquis, the bands of ill-assorted men, many of them fugitives from justice, who had set up camps in remote areas to escape the control of the Nazi regime. With the approach of D-Day the authorities in Britain realized that these men could be organised into effective forces that could severely disrupt enemy communications after the invasion. Agents were dropped to work with the various maquis bands and to arrange air drops of arms and ammunition and the result was that trains were derailed and lines blown up, preventing the Nazis from bringing up reinforcements from the south.
With these two connected pieces of research the idea of weaving a story to incorporate both of them was irresistible. All I needed was to find my central characters. I had written about British agents working in France before. I needed someone different. I wanted to appeal to a younger readership as well as my loyal fans. Choosing two teenagers, brother and sister, as my hero and heroine seemed exactly what was needed.
Operation Kingfisher is not just an exciting story of encounters with the enemy and narrow escapes. It is a touching coming of age tale in which two young people have their courage tested and their hearts broken and have to grow up very quickly.