From Larne gun-running to the Danish resistance

An Irishman’s Diary: An unsung heroine of the second World War

‘The arrest of three key resistance personnel at Ärhus in December 1943 had catastrophic consequences for Monica de Wichfeld. Under torture, they gave away the names of many associates, including that of Monica.’ Above, a group of Danish resistance fighters on May 5th, 1945. Photograph:  Keystone/Getty Images

‘The arrest of three key resistance personnel at Ärhus in December 1943 had catastrophic consequences for Monica de Wichfeld. Under torture, they gave away the names of many associates, including that of Monica.’ Above, a group of Danish resistance fighters on May 5th, 1945. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 09:39

Monica de Wichfeld is an unsung Irish heroine of the second World War. She was born in London in 1894, the eldest child and only daughter of a Fermanagh landowner, John George Massy-Beresford, and his wife, Alice, who was a daughter of the first Baron Dunleath. Monica’s paternal grandfather was Rev John Massy, a native of county Limerick who became Dean of Kilmore. He had married a Scottish heiress, Emily Sarah Beresford, and added Beresford to his surname by royal licence.

Monica spent her childhood at the family home near Crom Castle, Co Fermanagh. She was educated at home and then in France and Germany, and she formed a lifelong friendship with a neighbour’s daughter of similar age, Sheelah Brooke, a sister of the future prime minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Brookeborough. Still in her teens, Monica participated in the Larne gun-running. Her father was a leader of the Ulster Volunteers in Fermanagh, and she accompanied him when he travelled by car to Larne to pick up a load of the guns and ammunition.

After the outbreak of the first World War, Monica moved to London to work in a soldiers’ canteen. Two of her brothers were in the army, and one was killed in action in France in 1918. In London, she met and married Jørgen de Wichfeld, a Danish aristocrat attached to his country’s legation. He had inherited a vast estate, Engestofte, near Maribo, in Lolland. The couple settled there in the early 1920s, and Monica became a Danish citizen. They had two sons and a daughter.

The Engestofte estate was in deep financial difficulty. Jørgen proved incapable of running it, so Monica increasingly assumed that role – albeit with limited success. Meanwhile, she fell in love with Curt greve Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow, the younger brother of a neighbouring landlord. Of German stock, he had been a German army officer during the first World War. Their liaison, tolerated by Jørgen, lasted nine years. Reventlow was later married briefly to Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths heiress.

The de Wichfelds’ finances were further undermined by the 1929 stock market crash, and in 1930 the Engestofte house was let in order to raise money. Monica, Jørgen and their children were taken in by Monica’s mother who, after her husband’s death, had retired to Rapallo on the Italian Riviera. Monica then embarked on an international business career, in costume jewellery and cosmetics. Her modest success in this venture sustained the family’s fortunes until the start of the second World War.

Despite her straitened circumstances, Monica lived in considerable style throughout the 1920s and 1930s – wintering in Italy or the south of France, frequenting fashionable hotels, dressing in couturier clothes and enjoying the society of wealthy American expatriates and European nobility. She was a handsome woman, though not conventionally pretty.

The de Wichfelds stayed on in Italy until September 1941. Ordered to leave because of their outspoken anti-Fascism, they returned to Denmark – now under German occupation. Back in Engestofte, Monica resolved to work against the Nazis in association with the Danish resistance and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She began by assisting in the distribution of underground publications, but was soon giving shelter to fugitives and allowing her lands to be used for parachute drops of supplies. Eventually, she was put in charge of the resistance network in Lolland, reporting directly to Flemming Muus, the leader of the Danish resistance.

The arrest of three key resistance personnel at Ärhus in December 1943 had catastrophic consequences for Monica. Under torture, they gave away the names of many associates, including that of Monica de Wichfeld. She was arrested by the Gestapo early in 1944, tried by court-martial and, with three others, condemned to death. Her sentence caused outrage in Denmark and after a few days it was commuted to life imprisonment. Monica was transported to a prison at Cottbus, near Dresden. In January 1945, with the Russian army approaching Cottbus, she was taken in a crowded cattle train to Waldheim prison camp. She developed viral pneumonia and died there on February 27th, 1945.

She is commemorated in Mindelunden, the park in Copenhagen honouring the dead of the Danish resistance, and her name is on the war memorial in the Church of Ireland church in Derrylin, Co Fermanagh. As her biographer, Christine Sutherland, has written, “Monica’s destiny unfolded between . . . the two lands she loved, and for which she gave her life”.

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