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Brussels Branch

François Roberti-Lintermans

A Belgian patriot - from head to toe by Dennis Abbott 

Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel François Roberti-Lintermans, one of the most distinguished members of the Brussels branch, passed away on Tuesday, 17 November 2020, a week before his 96th birthday.

We will remember him. 

Until the end of his life, his memory was as sharp as ever. François could remember what happened nearly 80 years earlier just as if it were yesterday.

In recent years, he gave interviews to Het Laaste Nieuws, Le Soir and La Libre Belgique, as well a 2019 video interviewwith students from IHECS (l’Institut des Hautes Études des Communications Sociales) in Brussels, in which Françoisrecalled his wartime experiences with Belgium’s “Marathon” network and the 4th Battalion of the Belgian Fusiliers.

The content of this article is based on these interviews as well as information and anecdotes shared by François with branch members and his family.

A young François, image from Het Laaste Nieuws.

François was born on 25 November 1924, the son of Emery Roberti-Lintermans and his British wife, Liliane Mills.

He was 18 and studying in Enghien, a small town 40 kilometres south west of Brussels, when he first became involved with Comète, the resistance network founded in Brussels by Andrée de Jongh. Comète hid Allied airmen who had been shot down over occupied Belgium and helped them evade capture and return to Britain. With D-Day looming, Comète evolved into Operation Marathon which involved hiding downed airmen in secret forest camps until the arrival of Allied troops.

Joining the Belgian resistance wasn’t something François necessarily planned to do, but when he saw one of his classmates getting roughly questioned by a German soldier, he decided to intervene. His mother’s sister, Helen Westhofen, had married a German before the First World War and François had picked up some of the language.

I’m related to von Ribbentrop!

His mediation was to no avail – the two teenagers were arrested and thrown into a Gestapo cell in Lessines. The next day we were transferred to Mons and, believe it or not, I still regard the fact that I was arrested as the opportunity of a lifetime,” he later recalled.

His widowed aunt was furious and, after arriving at the jail in Mons, promptly informed the guards that she was (somewhat distantly) related to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister. François was immediately freed.

His father urged him to return to his studies, but François refused, saying he wanted to do something for his country.

Despite having zero contacts in the resistance, armed only with address of a former reservist pilot, the teenager made his way to a village called Villance in the Ardennes. The man let him stay the night and. the next day, introduced François to some “tourists” whom he quickly realised were not who they purported to be.

After persuading them he was committed to the cause, François was told to wait for a car that would collect him the same evening. He was then taken to Beffe, 50 kilometres to the north, and left outside a large building surrounded by forest. A couple made François welcome and he discovered the place usually hosted children during holidays when their parents were at work.

Hello, how are you?

The next morning, two men he hadn’t seen before came downstairs. They both greeted François in English: “Hello, how are you?”

“My God, foreign pilots! It was as if the sky had opened up. I was a boy whose most beloved possession was a piece of plexiglass from a downed British plane, which I cherished like a relic. My legs were trembling,” he recalled.

It turned out there were around 30 British and Polish pilots hidden in the building. When the coast was clear, they would keep in shape by swimming in the Ourthe river which flowed close by.

One day, a new pilot turned up, still in his flight gear. The other airmen were suspicious and quickly unmasked him as a German spy. “He was courageous to go into the lion’s den but there was no choice but to shoot him,” said François, who was by now known as “Bob” after receiving false identity papers from the village mayor in the name of Robert Desrameaux.

Lintermans (right) with British Pilot Douglas Lloyd.  Image taken from Het Laaste Nieuws

 German attack

A bigger problem turned out to be local resistance fighters who had drawn attention to themselves by killing another German and were anything but discreet about it. François tried to reason with their chief, who threatened to kill him. The same group were also blackmailing local farmers into handing over large quantities of meat, or face being denounced as collaborators.

Two days later the inevitable happened and the Germans attacked Beffe, killing two members of the resistance. The pilots were quickly moved to a new location and François made his way by foot back to Villance, sticking as far as possible to paths in the forests and minor roads.

He then helped set up a new underground camp in nearby Maissin, where about 20 Allied airmen were kept in hiding.

On 5 September 1944, two days after the liberation of Brussels, a German soldier approached the camp. Speaking in German, François managed to distract him long enough for the pilots to get away into the forest, where they split into smaller groups.

François linked up with seven pilots and they stayed in the forest for several days, keeping their heads down.

Fighting for Uncle Sam

Their luck was about to change.

Entering a small village, they were overjoyed to meet a US patrol from the 4th Infantry Division, which had recently crossed into Belgium to prepare for the launch of a major attack on the Siegfried Line.

I reported to an American officer and said: I brought my pilots to you, I am now asking for a quid pro quo. I want to liberate my country with you. An hour later, I was kitted from head to toe like an American soldier. Two bands of ammunition, grenades, rifle, bayonet, helmet, and boots. I never had such good boots! I was given a Jeep, a machine gun and one of his soldiers, because the forest was still full of Germans.”

After saying farewell to the pilots, François finally learnt that he had been working all along for MI9 IS9, the British military intelligence service responsible for coordinating Marathon.

Still in US uniform, François helped liberate a village. “It was amazing. All the locals applauded, laughed, cheered. Thelieutenant wanted an omelette for breakfast and I asked: Where can we find eggs? A swarm of girls appeared from all directions carrying eggs­ – so many that we filled all our helmets with them. The days I spent with those Americans were undoubtedly the most beautiful ones of my life.”

François Roberti-Lintermans (right) with Private Goodie of the US 4th Infantry Division during the liberation of Houffalize, September 1944.  Image kindly provided by Margaux Roberti-Lintermans.

Russian encounter

François stayed with the American troops as they fought several skirmishes with the enemy en route to Bastogne. At Saint-Vith, they told him they couldn’t take him any further, being a volunteer.

François decided to return to Brussels. Hitching rides where he could, but mostly on foot, he headed for Rochefort to pick up a train.

At the station, he was questioned by Russian soldiers (a large émigré community had settled in Brussels and Wallonia). After finally convincing them he wasn’t a collaborator, the Russians proudly showed him their haul of heavy weapons, seized from the Germans.

After arriving in the capital on 6 October, François enlisted the very next day as a war-volunteer at the Maison du Roi on the Grand Place. Three days later, he was among 800 recruits in the newly formed 4th Battalion of the Belgian Fusiliers, under the command of Major Marcel de Posch. “I never knew that the Belgian administration could work so quickly,” joked François.

Belgian fusilier

The men received rudimentary training at Tervuren barracks and were issued with what François describes as “derisory equipment”. Nevertheless, the battalion was officially attached to the 9th US Army and, on 12 December, deployed close to the German border during what would be one of the coldest winters on record with temperatures sometimes below 28 Celsius at night.

The Belgian fusiliers played an important role during the ensuing Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945), protecting strategic sites such as railway lines, bridges and canals from enemy attack.

“If we had been more exposed at the front it would have been a massacre, but the Allies had the wisdom not to impose this on us. So we carried out less glorious but very useful missions,” François later told La Libre Belgique.

The 4th Battalion continued to support the US forces as they advanced into Germany across the Ruhr and Rhine, capturing and holding thousands of PoWs who were taken back to Belgium. In autumn 1945 there were 250,000 German PoWs on Belgian soil.

By the end of the war he battalion had advanced more than 300 kilometres from the Belgian border, with a front line on the River Weser between Minden and Höxter.

Eisenhower tribute

The importance of their role was recognised by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander and future US President, in a declaration published on 13 July 1945: 

I desire to commend the Fourth Belgian Fusiliers Battalion for meritorious performance of military duty while serving with the Ninth United States Army from 8 December 1944 to 1 June 1945. This Battalion contributed materially to the successful operations of the Unit with which it served. The High Esprit de Corps and great determination displayed by the officers and men of the Fourth Fusiliers Battalion enabled it to carry through to a successful conclusion each and every assigned mission, thereby contributing immeasurably to the glorious victory of the Allied Nations. The outstanding achievements of this Battalion bring credit not only to itself but also to the Belgian Army.

Freedom is the air you breathe

By August, François’s unit was back in Belgium, near Namur, and the soldiers received orders to demob.

Looking back, he described 1940-45 as “a period of patriotism that’s hard to understand if you’ve never been occupied. Freedom is the air that you breathe. It’s only when it’s taken away that you realise it exists and how important it is”.

In recognition of his outstanding service, François was decorated by both the US and British forces.

After the war

His experiences gave him a taste for life in uniform. After the war ended, François enrolled as an officer cadet.

He was later transferred to an armoured regiment in Germany, where he spent the next 10 years, serving at Siegen and Lüdenscheid in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1959 he was posted back to Belgium, serving in Bourg-Léopold(Leopoldsburg) and Arlon, then back to Brussels in 1967.

He was promoted to chef de corps, responsible for the Belgian Army’s cinema service. The role involved the production of instruction films as well as maintaining the archives.

François finished his active military career with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

In addition to being an active member of the Brussels branch of the RBL, François chaired the Fraternelle de 4e Batallion des Fusiliers.

Family and interests

François married Monique Gilson in 1948 and had four children: Patrick, Yves, Geneviève and Thierry, who gave them eight grandchildren: Yves had 3 (Perrine, Camille and Emery), Geneviève also 3 (François-Thibault, Benjamin and Delphine), and Thierry 2 (Arthur and Margaux). They also had five great grand-children: Benjamin’s daughters Lucie, Capucine, and Violette, Perrine’s son Théo, and Camille’s son Robin.

François’ chief interests were sport and history. He ran a tennis school and also enjoyed fencing, swimming and sailing.

He organised numerous conferences on military history and wrote two books, Waterloo, Une page d’Histoire, une page d’Héroïsme and Nelson et la Royal Navy, Britannia rules the waves.

We will remember him.