Frédéric Donet: the secret of "Laflèche"

May 1944. France is under German occupation. Lieutenant-Colonel Donet, responsible for Societe Generale's "Passive defence" programme, joins the French resistance. His clandestine activities include, among others, protecting the secret of the Allied landing in Normandy.

Thursday 8 June 1944, Fresnes prison. It's 5pm. In a corner of his cell, Lieutenant-Colonel Donet, an employee of Societe Generale's Building and Equipment Services department, scribbles a few lines in a letter to his wife. Three weeks earlier he had been captured by the Gestapo on the Pas-de-Calais coastline for an act of resistance. He has just heard that he has been sentenced to death and that his jailers are preparing to transfer him to Brussels, from where he will be sent to Germany for execution. He faces his fate with dignity and courage: "I wanted to do my duty, but luck was not on my side this time. That's the name of the game... that's the war. […] I send my best wishes to my technical services comrades. […] I hope the events of the days ahead do not lead to too many victims among members of Societe Generale..."

There was nothing to suggest that Frédéric Donet would join Societe Generale. Born in 1891 in Rully, Saône-et-Loire, he was the only son of a farmer and his wife. His childhood was that of a farmhand of modest origins. Required to carry out work in the field and manage livestock, the adolescent only received a limited education. Gradually, a military career was presented to him. In May 1910, he joined the 3rd Engineer Regiment based in Arras. The experience was a success. When the catastrophic Great War begins four years later, he is a Sergeant. A soldier at heart, his dedication and courage is admired by his superiors. During the battle of Les Eparges, in spring 2015, he proves himself to be a dedicated non-commissioned officer, full of energy and daring, complying with a code of conduct based on honour and camaraderie. At the front line he earns his Captain epaulettes. During the conflict he is injured four times and receives ten commendations for bravery. By the time peace is restored, Donet has built up a reputation for being a tough guy. Following a successful education at the School of Military Engineering, he has an outstanding career in the French army. Close to the Colonel de Gaulle, whose theories regarding armoured units he supports, he makes his mark as an expert in mines and demining. Given his service record, he his promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.

The start of the World War II in September 1939, takes him back to more active service. Seriously wounded during the French campaign as head of the combat Battalion of the 1st mechanical light division, Frédéric Donet joins de Gaulle in London following the Dunkirk debacle and decides to go underground. Under the pseudonym "Laflèche", he becomes the right-hand man of Colonel Bressac, the head of the "Mithridate" network, which has ties with the Resistance movement. At the peril of his life, he crosses enemy lines and, placed on leave at the dissolution of the pre-armistice army, he is initially detached to the Youth Secretariat in Paris. However, after being informed of plans for the Allied landing, he sets off in search of a position that will allow him to move about more freely and efficiently carry out his secret activities. He therefore takes up the position of head of "Passive defence" at Societe Generale on 1 March 1943, where he is responsible for work aimed at limiting the consequences of air strikes on the entire branch network. An excellent "front", approved by the bank's management, behind which "Laflèche" becomes, for London, an excellent liaison officer. On many occasions, he comes close to falling into the hands of the occupiers during his rounds. But his luck runs out in the end. On 19 May 1944, he leads a dangerous mission aimed at creating a diversion to persuade the Germans that the Allied landing would be taking place on the Pas-de-Calais coastline. However, close to Hazebrouck, in open country, Frédéric Donet is overheard, by radio, conveying information to London. Despite being tortured by the Gestapo, he maintains the "D-Day" secret. When he learns of his death sentence, France is living its last moments as an Occupied country.

Imprisoned in Fresnes, then at the Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels, "Laflèche" narrowly escapes the death penalty. On 2 September 1944, while British troops are approaching the Belgian capital, the rail convoy taking him to Germany stops at Malines and turns back, as the rails had been sabotaged by Flemish and Walloon railway workers, under the supervision of the "White Brigade" resistance group. Following his release, Donet is keen to rejoin the army and take part in the final fight for Liberation. At the end of 1945, he retires with the rank of Brigadier-General. De Gaulle personally appoints him Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour for services to the nation.

Upon returning to civilian life, he decides to offer his services to Societe Generale. In April 1946 he is appointed Head of Maintenance in the Internal Services department. A role which he fulfils, according to his managers, with "energy, devotion and passion". After being transferred to the Building and Equipment Services department, he takes part in efforts to renovate the property portfolio that was destroyed or damaged during the war and to build new branches in the Greater Paris region. A true leader, with a strong personality and basking in the glow of his military achievements, Frédéric Donet performed his duties until February 1967 and passed away on 3 April 1980. One of his last reports demonstrates his impeccable frame of mind: "He has one objective: providing the best service possible to our establishment. He has maintained his enthusiasm and is constantly busy. […] Reliable and honest, he always strives to do the right thing. A figurehead in the annals of Societe Generale."

Frédéric Donet, Seconde Guerre mondiale, Société Générale