In Solon Cemetery lies D-Day story: Lilly Sergueiew’s heroics chronicled in new book


From staff reports

A double agent who worked for the Allies during World War II under the codename “Treasure” and played a significant role in deceiving the Germans about the location of the D-Day invasion rests in Solon Cemetery at the corner of Cedar and Alpine roads, three miles south of the village of Cedar in Leelanau County.

The D-Day landings in Normandy, France, 80 years ago today played a pivotal role in the war and the liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany.

The spy was Russian-born Nathalie “Lily” Sergueiew, who was born in 1912 in St. Petersburg and fled with her family to France following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Educated in Paris, and trained as a journalist, Sergueiew spoke fluent English, French and German. During the mid-1930s, as the Nazis consolidated power and prepared for war, she travelled throughout Germany and once interviewed head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring.

Following the fall of France in 1940, she promised to work for the Nazis as a spy in England, but she turned coat and instead worked for the M15 British spy service. Sergueiew transmitted false information to deceive German officials about the location of the coming Allied invasion until a week after D-Day, June 6, 1944.

After the war she returned to Europe as a liaison officer and met U.S. Major John Barton Collings—a Michigan native—who was stationed in Erfurt, Germany, and responsible for relocating the survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp, many of whom were Russians. After a year, Collings proposed to her and they married in Paris in August 1946.

Following the war, Collings and Sergueiew returned to Michigan and built a house near Cedar. She died in 1950 of kidney failure. Collings remarried and continued his military career—as an advisor to General Chiang kai-shek in Taiwan; with Dr. Wernher von Braun, the developer of the German V-2 rockets, in Alabama, and as an advisor to the Shah of Iran. Collings and his family returned to Leelanau County in the 1960s, where he built and operated the alpine trout ponds in Solon Township. He sold rainbow trout around northern Michigan, opened his ponds for public fishing, and also built chalet buildings on the property. David Gersenson, owner of the Leelanau Curling Club in Maple City, lives in Collings’ former home. Gersenson met the major before he died in 2012 and was buried next to Sergueiew in Solon Cemetery.

Sergueiew’s heroic life has been chronicled in several books, including Seule face à l’Abwehr (“Alone against the Abwehr,” 1966), I Worked Alone: Diary of a Double Agent in World War II Europe, 2014, and most recently in Codename TREASURE: The Life of D-Day Spy, Lily Sergueiew, which published in October 2023.

The Glen Arbor Sun interviewed Codename TREASURE‘s British author Peter Winnington—on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

Sun: What inspired you to write Codename Treasure?

Winnington: Once I came across her story and began researching it, I was hooked. I have immense admiration for her courage, and read everything  I could lay my hands on. I discovered that her two nieces, her sister’s childen, are still alive, visited the younger one in Paris, and was welcomed by them. They generously gave me access to what documents they have, with the result that my book is based on first-hand sources.

Sun: Could you share a few unique facets of Nathalie (Lily) Sergueiew’s life and story that you learned while researching the book?

Winnington: Lily returned to Paris after the war and was joyfully reunited with her parents and sister. That was when she and Bart got married. Soon afterwards, her sister went to visit old friends in Brussels. For the return journey, she hitched a ride with a man she had just met. Soon after crossing the border into France, he demanded sexual favours, which she refused. He throttled her with her scarf and abandoned her body beside the road. Lily helped the police with their investigation; he was arrested and later tried for murder.

Sun: What mysteries remain about Sergueiew? And do you have any theories or guesses as to their answers?

Winnington: I know only the bare bones of her life in the 1930s.

Sun: What can we learn from Sergueiew’s story, eight decades after the end of World War II?

Winnington: That courage and determination still make for great lives.

Sun: What does the anniversary of D-Day mean to you, personally?

Winnington: I was born just two months after D-Day, which means that I’ll soon be celebrating my 80th birthday.