A nerveless Nazi-killer

As part of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Gavin Mortimer introduces Johnny Hopper, the British lone-wolf fighter who embarked on a campaign of violence that made him one of the most wanted men in Nazi-occupied France...

Illustration of Johnny Hopper by Stavros Damos

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Johnny Hopper and his wife, Paulette, arrived at the cafe on the rue Beaubourg on schedule. They chose a table at the end of the long narrow cafe, their backs to the wall and with an unobstructed view of the entrance.

It was Paris, 8 May 1942, a dangerous place to be for an Englishman who was the subject of a nationwide manhunt having slain two policemen the previous year in Caen.

Hopper ordered two coffees and waited for the arrival of a doctor, a member of the Resistance. He claimed he had information about Paul Cole, a former British soldier who had been captured in 1941 and turned by the Gestapo into one of their agents.

The doctor arrived on time and Hopper rose to greet him. But as he advanced he noticed another man coming into the cafe. Then two soldiers came into view on the street outside. Hopper reached for the pistol in his pocket; at the same time the man accompanying the doctor went for his weapon. Within seconds, shots were being exchanged across the cafe as terrified customers dived for cover. Hopper felt a blow to his arm. “I didn’t know at first how badly I was wounded,” he recalled. “I ducked back through a door next to our table, to take stock and to get a fresh gun unstrapped from my leg. It was only a sort of closet back there, but the Germans must have assumed it was a rear door to the alley. I had hit all of them more or less badly, and when I kicked my door open, they were all running out the front door to get help.”

Hopper glanced round the cafe. Everyone was still hiding under their tables. Everyone except his wife. She was slumped in her seat, blood flowing from her mouth. They had been married three years, had a young son and were deeply in love. Hopper examined her wound. It was almost certainly fatal, yet he couldn’t bear to think of her in the hands of the Gestapo. He placed his pistol to her temple and fired. “I have relived that moment every day of my life,” he said 48 years later. “Always asking myself the same question.”

Never give up

Ian Kenneth ‘Johnny’ Hopper’s remarkable life began on 25 May 1912. Born in King’s Lynn, his parents moved to Normandy when he was 12 and settled in the village of Varaville. He struggled at school and recalled the only worthwhile education he received as a child came from the local priest, who instilled in him two philosophies to take through life: never complain and never give up.

When war broke out, Hopper neither returned to England nor enlisted in the French army. But when Germany marched into France, some martial spirit within him stirred. Assembling a dozen local men, Hopper began to carry out acts of resistance against the invader. They were small at first – like laying a wreath on 11 November 1940 at the Caen war memorial, to stealing wheels off German motorbikes – but soon Hopper and his men had become an irritant. Several were arrested and deported to Germany, but Hopper remained at large, more determined than ever to strike at the enemy.

A week into August 1941 and the Englishman was one of the most wanted men in France, described by newspapers as the “Bandit Hopper” with a price of 5,000 francs on his head. His first crime was to gun down Edouard Bénard, deputy police chief of Caen, on 27 July 1941. “He had stopped my car and ordered me to drive him to police headquarters,” recalled Hopper. “When he saw that I was heading for open country, he pulled out his gun. I was quicker. I shot him in the head. I dropped him off at a hospital with a word of advice about keeping his mouth shut.” Hopper did indeed deposit the dying Bénard at a hospital, but only after shooting him again in the stomach.

Four days later, Hopper was approaching his lock-up garage when he became aware he was being followed. Hearing the click of a weapon being cocked, he spun round, whipping the two pistols from his pockets, and opening fire. The man he shot dead was Bénard’s superior, Adolphe Morin, and although Hopper escaped on a bicycle from a hail of bullets, he left behind his identity card, providing police with his name and photograph. A description circulated nationwide of a man of “athletic physique, long face and extremely pale”.

Acts of arson

By now, the local press were labelling Hopper “a dangerous criminal”. One paper, Journal de Normandie, furnished its readers with an account of his activities, pieced together by the police after a search of his property. Not only did they hold him responsible for several acts of arson against government buildings, but in his garage were 10,000 kilos of sugar and 250,000 francs’ worth of clothing. In addition, police believed he had been collecting information on German military installations and transmitting it to London.

Hopper and Paulette lived rough in the forest for a fortnight, eventually joining the growing Resistance network in Paris. He furthered his reputation as a cold-blooded killer by assassinating an SS officer he described as a “nasty piece of goods”, but also lived up to his reputation as a bandit, robbing a Normandy bank of nearly two million francs, money that was used by the Resistance to buy arms and equipment.

Hopper’s freedom came to an end on 25 July 1942, when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon during a routine stop-and-search at a metro station. Taken to Gestapo headquarters at Rue des Saussaies, Hopper spent eight months in their hands, although curiously he avoided execution. Instead he was transported to Mauthausen concentration camp, and then to Dachau, from where he was liberated by the Americans in April 1945.

Hopper settled in East Anglia after the war, remarrying and becoming a mushroom farmer. He granted few interviews about his wartime exploits, though in 1991, the year of his death, he told a journalist that “you don’t need technique, you need nerve”.

Nonetheless, the question remains: was Hopper a freedom fighter or a common criminal? Undoubtedly some of his acts were for personal gain but he also exhibited defiance at a time when few in France dared stand up to their conqueror. The contemporary French press described him as a bandit; he called himself a Resistance fighter. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Asked why he did what he did, Hopper replied: “I don’t believe in taking things lying down.”

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Gavin Mortimer is a military historian. His latest book is The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017).