Woman who grew up in Fermanagh was active in the Danish Resistance

Monica de Wichfeld.
Monica de Wichfeld.
Share this article

Monica Emily Massy-Beresford was born on 12 July 1894 in England and grew up at St Hubert’s, a large Victorian villa on the shores of Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh.

George Massy-Beresford, her father, was a landowner and an accomplished sportsman. The Hon. Alice Mulholland, her mother, was the youngest daughter of the Lord Dunleath. Described as ‘a rebel’ and ‘a difficult child’, Monica was educated at home and attended a girls’ school in Dresden for a year.

Kinawley Parish Church, Derrylin. Pic by Kenneth Allen

Kinawley Parish Church, Derrylin. Pic by Kenneth Allen

George Massy-Beresford was an enthusiastic yachtsman, building and racing his own yachts. It was a passion he shared with the other aristocratic and gentry families of the Erne basin.

The Times in August 1904 reported that George Massy-Beresford’s Mistral won a race organised by Lough Erne Yacht Club, founded in 1820 and sixth oldest yacht club in the British Isles, for the second year in a row. The Times also noted that Mistral had a crew of six, including the owner’s 10-year-old daughter.

Monica was clearly close to her father. In 1905, when she was 11, Monica was allowed to drive his De Dietrich, the first motor car in that part of County Fermanagh.

Massy-Beresford was a leading light in the Ulster Volunteer Force in the years before the outbreak of the Great War.

In April 1914 Monica accompanied her father to Larne to collect part of the Clyde Valley’s cargo for the Fermanagh volunteers.

In 1953 Varinka Muss, Monica’s daughter, visited Fermanagh and spoke to Patrick Gillespie, a family retainer, about his memories of both George Massy-Beresford and Monica during the third Home Rule crisis.

‘Well I remember our Squire, Mr George, God bless him in his grave. He was a hard master – but, goodness me, how he could command. It was worse than a recruit would get in the army. And he paid no attention to high or low. Lords and gentlemen, farmers and servants from all around, they all got the same treatment!’

Of Monica, Gillespie recalled: ‘Miss Monica… she was a grand one! She often came with Mr George to morning parade and shooting practice… indeed that young girl could hit the target at least as well as the others. Many times she had a hand in smuggling guns into here from England. She hid a couple in her skirts when she went through control in Belfast or Dublin.’

On 15 June 1916 Monica married Jørgen Adalbert de Wichfeld, a Danish aristocrat and diplomat, and went to live at Engestoft where there was a lake ‘that reminded her so much of Lough Erne and St Hubert’s’. The couple had three children: Ivan (born 1919), Varinka Wichfeld-Muus (1922 - 2002) and Viggo (born 1924).

Monica’s favourite brother, Lieutenant John Clarina Massy-Beresford (known as Jack within the family), served with the Royal Field Artillery in the Great War and was killed in action on 23 August 1918 at the age of 21. He is buried in Bertrancourt Military Cemetery in France. It may be simplistic to suppose that this was the cause of her antipathy towards the Germans in the Second World War.

During the Second World War she was active in the Danish Resistance.

She began her involvement in the resistance by raising money for the underground press. She then assumed leadership of the resistance groups on the islands of Lolland and Falster (in south-east Denmark) until she was betrayed by a fellow resistance fighter and captured by the Gestapo.

In prison she wrote a letter which was smuggled into a neighbouring cell. It reveals how restrictive and claustrophobic she found Fermanagh life: ‘I always walked alone when I was a little girl; I set myself down on a rock in the lake, and dreamed of how I would make my way out of that poor country and that narrow circle to which I belonged.

‘I wished to see other lands, to get to know other people, to live life.’

She did not break under Gestapo interrogation and was condemned to death in May 1944.

On being condemned to death, she sat down, pulled out her powder-compact, and powdered her nose. She raised her eyes for moment and asked the three judges:

‘Anything else, gentlemen?’

‘Yes, you may have permission to make application for mercy, which will be favourably considered.’

‘Does that apply to my companions?

‘No!’

‘Then it is of no interest!’

The sentence caused uproar in Denmark because she was the first woman to be condemned to death in Denmark for many centuries.

Bowing to pressure, the German authorities commuted the sentence to life imprisonment and dispatched her to a concentration camp in Germany.

Although we might imagine that she inhabited a world of privilege as a girl, as a result of her father’s eccentric ideas on raising children, she actually had a very Spartan upbringing.

She was taught to show aversion to expressing any physical discomfort or pain. She was also very frugal where food and drink were concerned. These qualities may have served her well when she was interrogated by the Gestapo and in the concentration camp. However, she contracted pneumonia and died in Waldheim camp on 27 February 1945.

A memorial service was held for her in St Saviour’s, London, on 12 April 1945.

In Engestoft Church there is a sandstone memorial tablet with bronze script to Monica Wichfeld.

In Derrylin she is commemorated on the War Memorial in the Parish Church.

In 1955 Flemming B. Muss and Varinka Wichfeld Muss published an account of Monica’s Life entitled Monica Wichfeld: A very gallant woman, a translation of the book originally published in Danish.

Flemming B. Muss was Monica’s son-in-law. He was the Special Operations Executive’s chief agent in Denmark from 1943 onwards and was awarded the DSO for his contribution to the resistance movement. Varinka had acted as his war-time secretary.

In 1992 Christine Sutherland authored a second account of the life of Monica de Wichfeld entitled Monica: Heroine of the Danish Resistance.

• Gordon Lucy is a well regarded Ulster historian and the author of a number of books on unionist history.