The American-born Countess Henry de Maduit risked her life to help downed Allied flyers escape Nazi occupied France.

Born Roberta (Betty) Laurie on September 24, 1891 in the Scottish Borders, Young Betty emigrated with her family to Boston and became a naturalized American citizen.

In the mid-1920’s Betty traveled to Paris where she met the Count Henry de Maduit. The two were married in Paris on July 19, 1928 and moved to the Count’s chateau du Bourblanc in Plourivo on the north coast of Brittany.

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Roberta Laurie, the Countess Henry de Mauduit in 1945 (Picture: The Air Force Escape & Evasion Society)

In the late 1930’s, with war looming on the horizon, the couple’s idyllic life began to change. In October 1938, the Count Henry du Maduit was posted to the Ivory Coast. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he was mobilized into a Senegalese Infantry Regiment. He managed to secretly return to visit Betty before escaping France in a small boat across the English Channel where he was picked up by the British destroyer HMS Kelly. Betty decided to stay in Brittany, believing her American citizenship would keep her safe.

In early April 1943, with the war in full swing, Betty received a guest at her chateau that would change her life forever. The man’s name was Georges (Geo) Jouanjean, a 26-year old soldier and ex-prisoner of war who had escaped from a Nazi prison camp in 1941. Jouanjean had been hiding downed Allied aircrew from the Nazis since the end of 1942 and now wanted Betty’s help to hide flyers at her chateau. Jouanjean told Betty about the risks and danger she would face. After thinking only for a moment, Betty agreed to hide the men on the one condition that only Jouanjean would know her name.

On April 10, 1943 fifteen downed American, British and Commonwealth airmen took refuge in the de Maduit’s chateau du Bourblanc. The men would briefly stay at the chateau before moving to other safe houses on their way to neutral Spain. The new guests were housed in the chateau’s attic. They would stay there nearly the whole day, reading the Countesses’ English novels (mostly detective novels) and a handful of London reviews before being let out in the courtyard, two at a time starting at 2 o’clock in the morning.

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Georges Jouanjean (Picture: The Air Force Escape & Evasion Society)

On June 11, 1943 Betty received a frantic report that Geo Jouanjean had been betrayed and barely escaped from the Gestapo. With his cover blown, Jouanjean knew Betty would be in deep trouble. However, still believing her American citizenship would protect her Betty decided to stay at her Chateau. The next day, a truck load of fully armed German soldiers arrived at the de Maduit’s chateau. They searched the premises but could not locate the five Allied fliers then staying at the chateau who were concealed under a double floor.

The Germans left empty handed but returned the next day and arrested Betty. Betty was taken to the prison at St. Brieuc where she found herself imprisoned along with Geo Jouanjean’s mother who was taken hostage after her son’s escape from the Gestapo on June 11. Jouanjean was himself arrested on June 18, and suffered severe torture and beatings at hands of the Gestapo before being sent to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Flossenburg concentration camps. He was eventually liberated by the Americans in May 1945.

After being housed in a series of French prisons, Betty was sent to Ravensbruck on July 14, 1944. Six days later, she was sent to Buchenwald where she suffered unimaginable horrors along with thousands of other Nazi victims.

In April 1945, Betty was liberated by the US Third Army. She flew to Paris and met her husband again for the first time in four years at their Paris apartment (during the war, Henry de Manduit had served with the British Special Air Service (SAS) and had led a parachute team on a covert operation in Brittany).

In the autumn of 1945, Betty returned to America and gave lectures about her wartime experiences to raise money for various projects. During her lectures she wore the same prison clothes she was issued in Buchenwald.

After the war, the Count and Countess de Maduit returned to their Chateau, but within a decade the couple had split apart. Henry de Maduit died on December 13, 1974 in Paris. Betty died of a heart attack on August 7, 1975.

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