Important Preface – Although this article is dated July 2019 this is the date it first appeared on this blog and was written several years previously. Since this article was written over five-years of research has been completed for my forthcoming book ‘SOE in France’ which is due for publication in June 2022. Some of the original research by MRD Foot mentioned below and other authors including R.J. Minney who wrote ‘Carve her Name with Pride’ (the life of Violette Szabo) have been challenged by new findings.
The Special Operations Executive was engaged in clandestine warfare throughout the world but more is known about their French Section than any other section within this highly secretive organisation.
Although disbanded in 1946, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) remains one of the most difficult wartime organisations for historians to research. Professor M.R.D. Foot, who can be considered as the SOE’s official historian, says that many of their records remain secret and are kept by the Foreign Office whilst others were deliberately destroyed. As Foot says, in his extensive ‘official’ research into SOE’s F Section (French Section) “It has long been British government policy that the archives of SOE, the wartime Special Operations Executive, must remain secret like the archives of any other secret service.”
Much of which continues to be published about the SOE is based on the records made available to Professor Foot and his book, ‘History of the Second World War: SOE in France” which was first published by HMSO in 1966.
When it comes to understanding the fate of the 118 agents who failed to return from occupied France we must turn to the many years of investigation work conducted by Vera Atkins who has been described as the most powerful and influential women to have served with SOE.
Although F Section was commanded by Major (later Colonel) Maurice Buckmaster, known to his agents and the Gestapo as ‘Buck’, Vera Atkins has been described as his formidable and brilliant assistant. Vera was involved in every aspect of F Section – interviewing potential recruits, organising and planning training and planning the agent’s reception in France. She was also noted for her intelligence and capability of cracking complex ciphers.
Vera was also known for her deep humanity and sense of responsibility to those she was sending to possible death inside occupied France. She saw every agent off to their operation, she kept in contact with their next of kin and organised coded messaged on the BBC so they could be kept informed about people they had left behind. It also becomes clear that her genuine affection for her agents were reciprocated.
After the war Vera became a member of the British War Crimes Commission gathering evidence for the prosecution of war criminals and set about tracing the fate of the 118 agents who failed to return from their operations. After spending many years visiting concentration camps and interrogating German guards she established how and when missing agents had perished.
She displayed formidable skills as an interrogator. Hugo Bleicher, an Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) officer who worked against the French Resistance judged her interrogation the most skilful to which he had been subjected to by his captors. In March 1946 she interrogated Rudolf Hoess, the notorious commandant of Auschwitz. After deliberately questioning his effectiveness as a camp commandant and asking whether he had caused the deaths of 1.5m Jews, he indignantly protested that the figure was 2,345,000. Vera Atkins was determined that war criminals would pay for their crimes.
Selection and Training
Everything about SOE was unorthodox and the organisation was like a club –membership by invitation only. Although there was a rank structure SOE was run on self-discipline, there were no social barriers and gender equality was seen as paramount. Irrespective of gender all agents underwent the same selection and training. “SOE was interested in women-power as well as man-man power, both on the staff and in the field…” (Foot p46) The bulk of the cypher operators were young girls in their late teens, most of the drivers, telephonists and many of the base operators, wireless operators and those working at safe houses and holding schools were women.
During their advanced interview potential field agents were told if they were captured they were liable to be tortured and then executed and were given the opportunity to reject ‘special employment’. In fact, an agent could leave at any time with no questions asked. Not only did all SOE agents know the dangers, during their initiation and training they were also informed they would be expected to conduct activities “Outside the boundaries of conduct of international law for normal times and normal war…” (Foot) Their role would be to use bribery, subversion, sabotage, assassination – there were no rules!
According to Foot, agents who passed the selection and training were also informed “The chances of a safe return from occupied France were no better than evens, that is, the staff expected to lose half their agents…” Consequently, prior to committing themselves to hazardous operation all agents were given another opportunity to consider the dangers.
F Section used three secret training establishments, country houses which had been requisitioned by the War Office, each of which provided separate specialist skills and selection process.
Stage 1. Potential field agents were sent to Wanborough Manor, an Elizabethan house located on the Hogs Back near Guildford Surrey. This training area was referred to as STS5, and on arrival candidates were further vetted. The staff were looking for individuals who could easily communicate and build rapport with people they don’t know, stick to their legends (cover stories which were given to them prior to attending) and not to reveal their true identity or other personal information. Candidates were also encourage to drink alcohol to see if this made them indiscrete.
Those who were considered not suitable for hazardous covert operations were sent to the ‘cooler’ where they were persuaded to forget what little they had learned and return home.
After this initial stage of selection candidates received basic firearms training, elementary Morse code, basic sabotage techniques, explosives and unarmed combat. If considered necessary candidates were given lessons to improve their French and to learn more about the current situation in France. This part of the training lasted 4 weeks and every day candidates were assessed and could be sent to the ‘cooler’ at any times.
Successful candidates were then sent to STS21, Arisaig House, in Inverness Scotland. This isolated area with unpredictable weather was ideal for extensive military training. Potential agents received firearms training, learned infantry tactics, escape and evasion, navigating across rough terrain, relentless physical training, the use of explosives, raiding techniques and sabotage. During this four week course all candidates experienced cold, hunger, psychical and mental exhaustion and were still expected to complete their required tasks to a high standard.
At Arisaig they were also taught unarmed combat (Gutter fighting) and silent killing by the legendary William Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes who designed the FS fighting knife. Unique to the SOE, candidates also mastered the ‘gunfighter technique’ for rapid and accurate use of handguns and became efficient with an assortment of British and German weapons.
Several SOE agents recall a time they were physically and mentally exhausted and violently woken up in the early hours of the morning by men dressed in German uniforms- they were expected to immediately reply in French and during the mock interrogation to maintain their cover story (legend), role play and when necessary improvise. Again, those who failed were sent to the cooler.
After successfully completing the unconventional warfare course successful candidates were then sent to the Finishing School, STS1 on the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire. Here they learned a variety of specialist skills such as lock-picking and safe cracking.
This part of their training also consisted of ‘schemes’ (tests) lasting 48 or 72 hours. These schemes included making contact with an intermediary referred to as a ‘cut-out’; trailing someone in a city; losing someone who is following them, a variety of counter-surveillance drills, and making contact with a supposed resistance member. To makes these schemes more difficult a concerned ‘member of the public’ would phone the police telling them there was someone acting suspiciously and they may be a spy.
If arrested trainees had the telephone number of an SOE officer to get them out of trouble. However, candidates were expected to talk their way out of being arrested, better still, talk their way out of a police station.
Successful candidates were now sent to RAF Ringway (now Manchester Airport) where they received the same parachute training as the Airborne Forces and upon completion were awarded the same parachute wings.
Agents who had shown an aptitude for Morse code, after being reminded of the risks, were given the opportunity to be trained as a wireless operators at STS51, the Thames Park Wireless School.
Those who passed all courses were eligible to join SOE’s F Section, commonly referred to as the ‘Firm’ whose headquarters were at 64 Bakers Street London and members of this exclusive club quickly got to know Maurice Buckmaster “Buck” and Vera Atkins.
By 1940, according to Foot, Maurice Buckmaster and Vera Atkins had set up almost a hundred circuits (networks) of subversive agents on French soil and these needed to be coordinated, armed and advised by SOE agents.
As can be seen by the F Section Circuit activities, each circuit had a unique code name and was responsible for a specific geographical area and conditions within these circuits could suddenly change without warning. For instance, in 1943 the ‘CORSICAN’ circuit is listed as escaping, which meant the circuit had been compromised and its members were avoiding capture; part of ‘AUTOGIRO’ was collapsing, this could mean the circuit had been infiltrated or was suffering from bad leadership. In 1944 ‘DONKEYMAN’ was listed as fragmented; ‘WIZARD’ had collapsed. Other lists shown circuits being ‘decimated’ which meant all, or nearly all its members were killed or captured.
Apart from coordinating all the circuits in occupied France, SOE agents were also responsible for rebuilding circuits which had been compromised or had bad leadership and to form new circuits to replace those which had been decimated. This would often require agents to travel many miles visiting circuits throughout France and not knowing whether the circuit they were visiting had been infiltrated or its members were under Gestapo surveillance. Apart from the Germany army and the Gestapo, there were collaborators and the German authorities was paying many thousands of francs for information. Much of this dangerous work was done by women: not only were they less likely to raise suspicions when routinely stopped by German soldiers, men could be taken off the street and forced to work in factories supporting the German war effort.
Apart from all circuits having code names, every SOE agent had several code names. One or more aliases for work in the field, a name based on a trade and a cover name for all wireless transmissions.
Most agents entered France by parachute or ‘ferried’ in unarmed Lysander aircraft with the pilot relying on torch lights from members of the resistance to mark the remote landing strip. Lysander aircraft become such a regular feature of SOE operations they were nicknamed the SOE Taxi.
Recruited: June 1943 (F Section courier)
On 22 September 1943 Pearl Witherington parachuted at night from a converted RAF Halifax bomber to a drop zone near Chateauroux in southern Loire and joined ‘STATIONER’ circuit as a courier.
On her arrival at one of the safe houses she was told to deliver an important message from London to a neighbouring circuit. After cycling 50 miles she came across a bridge which was heavily guarded by German soldiers. Under the cover of darkness, with her bicycle across her shoulders, she swum across the freezing river, continued her journey and safely delivered the message.
In May 1944 the leader of ‘STATIONER’, Maurice Southgate, (code name Hector), was sent to Montlucon to meet a member of the resistance. Failing to see the secret signal to indicate danger, he was arrested by the Gestapo who were waiting for him. Although he survived the war, whilst at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp 16 members of his circuit were hanged.
After his arrest Pearl Witherington took command of ‘STATIONER’ which consisted of 2,000 men, this later increased to 3,000 under her command. Under her leadership her circuit destroyed railways lines, electricity pylons, and engaged in hit-and-run tactics against Germany troops. This circuit was so successful the Gestapo put 1 million francs on her head.
When interviewed after the war Pearl Witherington said, “I don’t consider myself a heroine, not at all. I’m just an ordinary person who did a job during the war…” (Telegraph 3 September 2015) Based on similar interviews of other former members of SOE there is no doubt that extreme modesty and humility was a common trait among SOE agents and may be one of the traits the staff looked for at Wanborough Manor.
Interestingly, Witherington was not interested in medals or recognition (another common trait) and her prized possession was her para wings which she had not been given after qualifying at RAF Ringway. Sixty years after qualifying and being parachuted into occupied France she was finally awarded her wings and remarked, “I was tickled pink because I was somewhat muffed that no one thought to give me them all those years ago..”(Telegraph 3 September 2015)
Recruited: May 1943 (F Section Wireless Operator)
Code names: Cover Micheline Rabatel. Wireless transmissions: Ambroise and Crinoline.
(Within the circuits she was commonly known as ‘Line’ or Danielle)
Circuits: DETECTIVE, CLERGYMAN and WHEELWRIGHT.
Denise Bloch, the only daughter of Parisian Jews, Jacques and Suzanne Block who had taken an active part in the early Resistance movement. Through her parents activities she had already gained extensive experience working with various Resistance circuits before making her way to England where she was subsequently trained as an SOE agent. During her training she showed a natural talent for receiving and sending Morse code and became one of F Sections wireless operators.
As the Germans were using large numbers of wireless detection vans with skilled technicians the life of an SOE wireless operator was estimated to be six weeks. Although trained to keep their transmissions as brief as possible in order to make detection more difficult, many went over the recommended time limit to ensure London received vital information. However, a high proportion of operators who maintain strict wireless security were also detected.
The little information we have on Denise Bloch was obtained by Vera Atkins during her extensive investigation into missing agents.
On the night of 2/3 March she was flown by Lysander from a secret airbase, RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire which was the home of 138 and 161 Special Duties Squadron. She had been assigned to ‘CLERGYMAN’ where she would organise resistance across the city of Nantes.
After spending several hours in Paris she travelled to Nantes where she transmitted her first message to London. During her time with ‘CLEGYMAN’ she transmitted a further 30 messages and received 52.
Although the 1944 circuit activity shows ‘CLERGYMAN’ listed as fragmented, unbeknown to London and Denise Block prior to her arrival, ‘CLERGYMAN’ had been seriously compromised. Several weeks after her arrival the Gestapo made a large number of arrests and within a few days Denise Block was also arrested and joined other members of her circuit at the Gestapo Headquarters in Paris.
It is clear the Gestapo were aware she was a wireless operator and consequently she was tortured to reveal her ‘poem code’ and wireless set. On a number of occasions the Gestapo had managed to extract this information from captured wireless operators and once they had the code and the wireless set they managed to deceive London. This resulted in a handful of agents being dropped into German hands or the Lysander being surround by German troops. Consequently, wireless operators could expect the worse form of torture to extract information.
Denise Bloch was eventually taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp, along with Violet Szabo (mentioned later) and Lilian Rolf, who was the wireless operator for ‘HISTORIAN’ Circuit.
Sometime in 1944, as Allied forces were fighting their way through France as part of Operation Overlord, Denise Bloch and Violet Szabo were taken to the crematorium yard where an SS guard shot them through the back of their necks and their bodies were cremated.
Block received a posthumous Kings Commendation for Bravery, the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme, Legion d’honneur and the Medaille de la Resistance.
Noor Inayat Khan (George Cross)
Recruited November 1942 (F Section wireless operator)
Circuit: CINEMA and PHONO
Codenames: Madeleine, wireless transmissions Nurse
After joining the RAF as a wireless operator she came to the attention of the SOE talent spotters and was asked to attend an informal interview at a hotel near Trafalgar Square London, where she was asked whether she would be interested in becoming ‘specially employed’. Although no indication was given as to what the job entailed, Noor wanted to do something more interesting and accepted the position.
After completing her compulsory military training she was sent to the SOE Wireless School at Thames Park and them to the finishing school at Beaulieu.
On the night of 16/17 June she boarded a Lysander at RAF Tangmere in Sussex, bound for a landing field near Angers in north-western France. With her was Diane Rowden, Cecily Lefort and Charles Skeeper. These SOE agents were later captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. Another ominous twist to this flight is that among the members of the French Resistance who were illuminating the landing strip with torches was Henry Dericourt – a double agent working for the Gestapo. Through Dericourt the Gestapo were able to follow the movements of all the agents on this flight.
After making her way to Paris Noor met the leader of the ‘CINEMA’ Circuit and within a few days she was introduced to his wireless operator, Gilbert Norman and the leader of the ‘BRICKWORK’ Circuit.
Over a period of two months Noor sent 20 messages to London and maintained wireless security- keeping all transmissions times to a minimum and regularly changing her location.
On 24 June the leader of the neighbouring ‘PROSPER’ Circuit was arrested along with other members of his team. As further arrests continued London believed the circuit had been infiltrated. During this period the F Section Circuits Activity map for ‘PROSPER’ is Det (detected) and this may have been updated to ‘run’ (on the run). Although no documents are available, it is known that all the resistance fighters from this circuit were scattering across France in the hope of receiving protection from other circuits.
After the Gestapo continued to arrest hundreds of resistance members and their families, and SOE agents made their way to safer houses, Noor became the only F Section Wireless Operator in the Paris area.
As the situation was becoming more confused every day and further arrests may have resulted in other circuits being compromised, as Noor was the only wireless operator in Paris she rejected Buckmaster’s plan for an emergency extraction by Lysander.
After Noor reported the confused situation back to London Maurice Buckmaster sent another wireless operator to assist her. After this operator parachuted into the hands of German forces it became clear the Germans had managed to recovery an SOE wireless and codes. The only secure transmissions from the Paris area were from Noor and she was the now the only person London could trust.
Due to the increasing number of radio detection vans Noor was continuously on the move – sending updates to London and then moving to other locations before continuing her transmissions. She was also working blind- she had no support, did not know which safe houses were now under surveillance or who she could trust.
As we now live in a period of microelectronics and mobile phones, it’s important to remember that Noor and other wireless operators were using wireless equipment which were so large they were built into a family size suitcase and weighed 30lbs (14kg)
Noor started to use the escape and evasion skills she had been taught at finishing school – change your hairstyle, dye your hair, walk differently, alter your mannerism, alter your accent, talk with a lisp, change your style of clothing- be an entirely different person!
Due to hundreds of soldiers on the street, and people being arrested by the lorry load, Noor concluded that all the safe houses must be considered compromised and she had no option but to seek refuge with pre-war family friends and made her way to friends of her parents. They were pleased to help and said she could stay in one of their spare rooms.
Although Noor skilfully avoided capture for four months and during this period kept London advised of the constantly changing situation she was finally betrayed by a collaborator who was given 100,000 francs for the address in which she was staying. Noor and her family friends were arrested.
After her capture an SOE agent sent a diverted telegram to Buckmaster saying, “Madeline had a serious accident and she was now in hospital”, meaning, she had been captured and taken to Gestapos Headquarters at Avenue Foch. After this, any wireless communications containing her code poem or wireless code name would be regarded as a German deception. The fact that no further transmissions were received from ‘Nurse’ and her poem code was never used by the Germans suggests she resisted torture and never gave up her codes.
During Vera Atkins relentless investigation to discover what had happened to her agents who she considered ‘family’, she interviewed an SOE agents who had been incarcerated in a neighbouring cell to Noor. She was told, Noor distracted herself by writing children’s stories in her cell, and she could often be heard sobbing throughout the night. But when the morning came she buried her emotions and remained defiant. After a failed attempt to escape Noor was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
Vera Atkins, as we now know, was not a person to mess with, she was determined to know what had happened to ‘her’ agents and demanded that anyone responsible for war crimes should pay with their life. Through her interrogation of SS officers, soldiers and prison guards we know the fate of Noor Khan.
Due to Noor’s dark complexion, she was considered inferior by the Third Reich, and was singled out for special treatment: she was kept in solitary confinement, chained hand and foot, regularly punched and kicked unconscious by the guards, but for eight months she still refused to talk. On 11 September Noor, along with SOE agents Yoland Beekman, Elaine Plewman and Madeline Damerment were transported to Dachau Concentration Camp and that night Beekman, Plewman and Damerment were shoot in the head. Noor, because of her ‘inferior dark complexion’ which made her a ‘dangerous prisoner’ was almost beaten to death by SS officer Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, before she was finally shot in the head with her own SOE issue pistol the following day. Through Vera Atkins relentless pursuit for Justice she ensured the treatment and murder of Noor was added to his war crimes, Fredric Wilhelm Ruppert was tried, convicted and executed for war crimes in 1946.
Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
Recruited: February 1943 (F Section Wireless Operator)
Code name: Yvonne de Chauvigny, Mariette, Wireless transmission Kilt
On 17 September 1943 Yolande was on a Lysander aircraft travelling to a remote airstrip outside Angers in western France. After landing, with the help the local Resistance, she made her way north to join the MUSIAN circuit who were operating in the strategically important town of St Quentin.
We know that she moved to various safe houses and transmitted using pre-arranged skeds (schedules) on specific frequencies three times per week, but we don’t know why she always transmitted from the same location.
While her circuit concentrated on recruitment the neighbouring circuit, code named FARMER, concentrated on sabotage and killing German forces.
On 28 November the leader of FARMER and their wireless operators were killed during a firefight with German forces and Yolande passed this information onto London. As FARMER had no leadership or wireless operator Yolande was ordered to keep London informed of the developments and problems associated with both circuits: this resulted in a large increase in wireless traffic and increased possibilities of detection.
After destroying ten locomotives in November and a further eleven in December London told both circuits to prepared themselves to attack local rail networks at 25 points; German communications across the region and to cut telephone lines to Paris. This further increased her workload and she was now constantly on the move to avoid detection. Due to the increase of SOE and resistance activities the Germans also increased the number of detection vans in the region.
To coordinate the combined resources of both circuits she arranged a meeting with a representative of the FARMER circuit at a ‘safe’ café. Shortly after her arrival Yolande and the representative were arrested and within a few hours some 50 members of the resistance were in the hands of the Gestapo.
Eye witnesses of the Gestapo raid on the café recall a woman fitting Yolande Beekman’s description being dragged away by men in civilian clothes. They also say her face was severely swollen as if she had be repeatedly punched.
It is known she was taken to Fresnes prison, and on or around 12 May, Yolande along with SOE agents Odette Sanson/Churchill, Sonia Olschaneky, Madeline Damermont, and Andree Borrel were taken by train to Karlsrushe Prison just inside the German border.
As far as we can gather, on 12 September Yolande, Plewman and Damerment joined Noor Inayat Khan on a train to Dachau Concentration camp. It was also reported that Yolande was handled ‘roughly’ before being shot in the back of the neck.
Odette Sanson/Churchill/Hallowes (George Cross)
Recruited: July 1942 (Courier F Section)
Code name: Lise, Madam Odette Metaye
When Odette joined SOE she was married to Roy Sanson, after his death she married SOE agent Peter Churchill, and after their divorce in 1955? She married former SOE agent Geoffrey Hallowes. Although Odette held three ‘married’ names, undoubtedly, the name Churchill saved her life at Ranensbruck Concentration Camp.
When Odette was recruited and agreed to work for SOE she had three Children, Francoise aged 11; Lillie aged 8 and Marianne aged 6, and during her training and hazardous work in occupied France they stayed at a convent school in rural England. Her children and the convent believed their mother was working in Scotland and Vera Atkins, using pre-written letters from Odette, continued the pretence.
Her operational brief was to contact a resistance group on the French Riviera before moving north to Auxerre to establish a safe house for other agents passing through the area.
The original plan was for her to be parachuted into France but the aircraft assigned for her operation had mechanical problems. Instead, she was taken by ship to Gibraltar and from there she boarded an SOE narrow sailing boat which took her to a secluded beach near Cassis. She arrived on the night 2/3 November 1942.
After successfully making contact with Peter Churchill (Raoul) who ran the SPINDLE Circuit (who she married after the war), he gave her the address of a contact who was vital for her operation. When she arrived at the address the contact refused to assist her and without his help it was impossible to establish the safe houses. After reporting the situation to Buckmaster Odette’s operation was cancelled and he gave permission for her to work with Peter Churchill, she was now a member of SPINDLE.
By January 1943 the SPINDLE Circuit had been infiltrated by a double agent and the Gestapo knew the names of its members, passive supporters, the locations of their safe houses and mass arrests followed. Churchill decided to close SPINDLE and to move the surviving member of his team to Saint-Jorioz, a village close to the Swiss and Italian borders.
After Odette and Churchill narrowly missed an ambush during an attempt to reach a Lysander which had been sent to extract them, Churchill decided they would stay at the last remaining safe house, the Hotel de la Posts, and sent his wireless operator, Rabinovitch (‘Armaud’) to Faverges, a village some ten miles away from the Hotel.
Four days Later Churchill was flown out by Lysander to report the situation directly to Buckmaster; Odette and Armaud remained to monitor the situation.
After Odette identified a suitable drop zone and the information had been sent to London, On 15 September Peter Churchill was parachuted into a remote area where Odette and Armaud were waiting for him. It was decided Armaud would to return to Faverges, Odette and Churchill would go back to the Hotel.
During the early hours of the morning the Gestapo raided the Hotel, Odette and Churchill were arrested and taken to Fresnes Prison. Two weeks later both were moved to Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris.
When it became clear ‘soft’ interrogation techniques would not work the Gestapo resorted to torture in order to extract information- red-hot pokers were used to burn her back and every time she passed out from the pain buckets of cold water were used to revive her so the torture could continue, Odette refused to talk. When this did not work all her toe nails were pulled out- she still refused to talk. (See George Cross Citation)
After failing to make her talk Odette was transferred to a number of prisons. At each prison she deliberately spread the rumour that she was married to Peter Churchill who was a close relative of the British Prime Minister and these rumours quickly spread among the guards and officers.
There is the possibility these rumours may have been heard in high places in Berlin: within a few months the decision was made to move there ‘very important prisoner’, Peter Churchill, to Berlin but as Odette was under sentence of death she was moved to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
On her arrival at Ravensbruck, on 26 July, the Camp Commandant, Fritz Suhren, had already heard and believed Odette was connected to the British Prime Minister by marriage.
She was immediately sent to a cell in the basement without windows and Suhren ordered she must remain in darkness and put on a starvation diet. After the SS were informed by a double agent that Odette had sent plans of the German navy base at Marseille to London, all food was withdrawn and the heating to her cell was turned up.
After finding Odette collapsed in her cell due to heat exhaustion and lack of food she was examined by a camp doctor who concluded that if she continued living under these conditions she would be dead within two weeks. She was returned to her dark, hot cell and still deprived of food and water. Some two days later, without warning Odette was moved to a normal cell with a window and given food and water. From this cell, Odette later recalled she heard the shots which killed Violet Szabo, Denise Block and Lilian Rolf.
Four months after being moved to her new cell the rapid Allied advance resulted in many of the guards and SS officers fleeing the camp to avoid capture. During the chaos an SS officer entered her cell and told her to come with him, Odette assumed she was going to be shot.
She was taken to a black Mercedes and told to sit next to the Camp Commandant, Fritz Suhren, on the rear seat. As the car left the camp Suhren told her he was going to deliver her to the American lines where she would be safe. It became clear to Odette that Suhren believed he would receive a lesser prison sentence by protecting a relative of Winston Churchill.
When she reached the American lines she identified herself as a British agent, personally accepted Suhren’s surrender and his pistol and asked the American solider to arrest him for war crimes. She gave evidence against him at the Nuremburg Trials and Suhren was convicted and hung for his crimes.
On here return to England Odette required over one year of intensive medical treatment for her injuries due to torture and neglect.
Odette Sanson was awarded the George Cross, MBE, Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, Queen’s Coronation Medal, Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal.
Violette Szabo (George Cross)
Recruited: July 1943 (Courier F Section)
Circuit: SALESMAN 1 SALESMAN 2
Codename: Louise, Viki Tailor
Her file refer to her as Petite, just under five-feet five tall, but her character was far more robust than her looks suggest. She was also noted for her cockney accent and wild sense of humour.
Leaving school at the age of 14, Violette worked as a shop assistant at Woolworths in Brixton London.
In 1940 she Married Etienne Szabo who was an officer in the Foreign Legion and in June 1942 she gave birth to a daughter, Tanya, but four months later Etienne was killed at the Battle of El Alamein.
During her military training she impressed her instructors; she was one of the best shot they had seen, she was also physically and mentally tough.
Whilst undergoing training Violette was living with her parents at 18 Burley Road Stockwell London. Her father, who had served in France with the British Army during the First World War married a French women and they moved to London after the War. As children, Violette and her four brothers were encouraged to learn French and at an early age they were fluent in the language.
For cover purposes all SOE agents who had not served with a military unit wore military uniform, Violette wore the uniform of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). When she was away for several weeks at a time this allowed her to tell inquisitive people she had been driving senior officers around the country. Her father did not approve, he felt strongly that she should be at home looking after her daughter and this led to several heated argument.
During her last parachute decent at RAF Ringway she made a bad landing and twisted her ankle and was temporarily taken off the active list to allow her to recover at home. One evening, after her father asked how she had injured herself, Violette replied she had twisted her ankle after jumping out of a lorry. This led to a continuation of the previous argument. Annoyed with her father, Violette grab her handbag, stumbled and the contents of her bag was scattered across the floor. After scooping up her possessions she stormed out of the room and went to her bedroom. In her rush, Violette had not checked whether she had picked up everything- as the door closed her father saw her parachute wings on the floor- everything now made sense.
After telling his wife he went to Violette’s room where he apologised and told her he was proud of her. Neither mentioned the subject again.
After her recovery she was put back on the active list and completed her course at Beaulieu.
On returning home to London, after completing Beaulieu and now officially a member of the SOE, within a few weeks Buckmaster asked to see her at Bakers Street.
Buckmaster had received disturbing information that some of his key agents were on the Gestapo wanted list and wanted posters with rewards for any information were being displayed thought-out Paris. He asked Violet whether she would go to Paris to assess the situation and Violet agreed.
As this was her first trip to France Buckmaster felt secure in the knowledge she would not be known to the Gestapo, but she would have to work alone.
After the Lysander landed she quickly gathered what information she could from the small number of Resistance fighters who had illuminated the landing strip, she then made her way to Rouen to meet Claud Malraux, the second in command of SALESMAN circuit, and one of the men wanted by the Gestapo. After being briefed on what he knew of the situation, which was very little, she travelled to Paris under the identity of a secretary named Corinne Leroy.
Violette spent three weeks in Paris and the surrounding area to assess the problems and discovered that SALESMAN Circuit had completely collapsed: hundreds of its members had been arrested whilst others were seeking refuge with other circuits throughout France. On every main street in Paris there were wanted posters for Claud Malraux and other members of his circuit. During her say in Paris she was arrested twice by the Gestapo but on both occasions managed to talk her way out of the Gestapo Headquarters at 18 Avenue Voch. After reporting her findings to the head of a neighbouring circuit and arranging for their wireless operator to transmit her findings to London several days later Buckmaster sent a message saying the Circuit could not be saved and provided the coordinates for a Lysander extraction for her and Claud. They left France on 30 April.
In early June Buckmaster decided SALEMAN circuit would be rebuilt around the Limoges area of west-central France. Resistance fighter would need to be recruited and armed. It was also essential to setup lines of communications with neighbouring circuits in order to be support the planned Allied invasion. Violette volunteered for the operation.
On the night of the 7/8 June Violette and Claud Malraux, who was to command the new SALESMAN circuit, arrived in France by Parachute.
After assessing the situation Claud decided he would require the assistance of the DIGGER circuit which was operating south of Limoges and sent Violent and one of his new resistance members, Jacques Dufour, by car to ask for assistance.
In his book “Carve her name with Pride” by RJ Minney and the film which was based on this book, it is claimed Violette Szabo and Claud Malraux, were involved in a firefight with German troops after reaching a road block. This is not the case.
According to the official Medal citations for the award of the George Cross, “Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April 1944, and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice arrested by the German security authorities, but each time managed to get away. Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the south-west of France. Resistance appeared hopeless, but Madame Szabo, Seizing a Sten gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house, and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted. She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured, but she never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances, or told the enemy anything of value. She was ultimately executed. Madam Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness. “ (The London Gazette, Friday 12 June 1946, HMSO)
Eileen Neame (known as Diddi)
Recruited: Unknown (Wireless operator F Section)
Code name: Unknown, Wireless name unknown.
Recruited: Unknown (Wireless Operator F Section)
Code name: Cat
In 2010 the police were called to a small house in Torque and found the body of an 89-year-old female who had been dead for several days. After speaking to neighbours the police were informed no one knew anything about her, no one knew her name; she was a recluse; she had no friends and spent her time feeding stray cats.
After searching her home for clues as to her identity and next of kin, one of the officer found a photograph of two women dressed in British army uniforms which appeared to have been taken during the war. As the search continued they found a French medal, a Croix de Guerre, other medals and more photographs taken during the War.
After several weeks of investigation the police identified the body and the identity of the other women in the photograph. They were sisters, Eileen and Jacqueline Neame. The body was Eileen, the older sister.
Although research is still incomplete and I understand someone is currently writing a book on the sisters, it has been established that at the age of 21 Eileen, known as ‘Didi’, was an F Section Wireless Operator working near Paris.
Whilst Didi was sending an urgent message to London she heard German soldiers outside her safe house but continued sending the message. Minutes before the Gestapo broke down the door she had burned her messages and codes.
When they found her wireless set she denied all knowledge and improvised: she played the role of an innocent French girl – she did not know anything about the wireless set, the Resistance or SOE. Didi was then handcuffed and taken to Gestapo Headquarters.
Like most captured Wireless Operators she was tortured for many hours but continue to role play- constantly telling her interrogators she was an innocent French girl who must has been setup. It is known she was repeatedly half drowned in a bath full of water but continued to maintain her innocence. Unable to break her and not being sure whether she was an SOE agent she was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she became friends with Violette Szabo.
Although the details are still not clear, Didi was one of the few people to escape from Ravensbruck and to survive the hostile countryside patrolled by German forces including the SS.
Although Jaqueline died of cancer in 1982, more is known about her than her sister.
On 25 January 1943? Jacqueline was parachuted into France and joined the ‘SATIONARY’ Circuit based in central France and maintain contacts with the neighbouring circuit called ‘HEADMASTER’, she also made several trips to Paris as a courier. Jaqueline spent 15 months in occupied France and returned to England by Lysander in April 1944.
In 1946, Jaqueline and other former members of ‘STATIONARY’ Circuit played themselves in a public information film (available at the Imperial War Museum) depicting some of their work in occupied France. This government information film, “Now the Truth Can be Told” basically looks at some of the unclassified work they were involved in during their time with the SOE.
This film can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEhwZ9C1jgA
Doing her bit in Churchill’s Secret Army. A video interview of Noreen Rios former SOE agent.
Other F Section women executed
Andree Borrell (Denise) PHYSICIAN Executed Natzweiler July 1944
Madeleine (Solange) BRICKLAYER Executed Dachau December 1944
Cecily Lefort (Alice) JOCKEY Executed Ravensbruck early 1945
Vera Leigh (Simone) INVESTOR Executed Natzweiler July 1944
Sonia Olschanezky (Unknown) Executed Natzweiler July 1944
Lilian Rolfe (Paulette) HISTORIAN Executed Ravensbruck January 1945
Diana Rowden (Paulette) ACROBAT, STOCKBROKER Executed Natzweiler July 1944
Yvonne Rudellat PHYSICIAN Died Belsen April 1945 following ill treatment.
13 thoughts on “Women Agents of SOE – Occupied France 1940-1944”
Been to Dachau a few times and was looking forward to reading your book,I’m surprised you haven’t written about the phantom squad,sir Gordon Richards,David Niven and ex commissioner Sir Robert mark whose HQ was at Pembroke lodge Richmond park London 😉 look after yourself,Kelvin (BTP) 😂
Please note: Denise BLOCH, rather than Bloch. Thank you.
Correct Paul, is should be Denise Bloch not Block
Very interesting. I’ve been reading your work for many years and look forward to reading your new book on SOE
SOE agents (mainly women) were sent to certain capture by either gross incompetence or treachery by the man in charge of the section receiving the morse code msgs. back in England from the agents saying they had arrived safely. The msg. needed to include a misspelled word. Many weren’t. This was a tip off that they were in enemy hands. The bastard ignored all his staff who brought this up and more agents were parachuted into France for sure capture.
This is not correct and simply echoes several conspiracy theories which have long been rejected. The security procedures you refer to are the bluff and true checks which were far more complex than misspelt words. The point you made about agents being sent to certain death mainly occurred in the Netherlands due to German wireless deception, but this deception failed in France. Based on your comments I believe you are confusing the French Section with the Dutch Section as the Netherlands section was almost wiped out due to the Germans playing back captured radios to London. Furthermore, most of the agents captured in France including women was not due to a failure in radio security.
Heidi Staben, I suggest you learn about the subject before publicly abusing historical figures with rejected conspiracy theories. Sorry admin but stupid people like this annoy me.
I agree there was a few probems with the radio checks but the Dutch had the main probem. As you said Heidi is probably getting confused with Holland or has not read recent work in French section. I also reject her views based on reent evidence
Correct, the evidence does not support her view and simply reflects earlier criticism which has been disproved. Also, she made no mention of Henri Déricourt!
I dont believe Heidi Staben has read recent work on the subject and agree with the others that this was a major problem in Holland. Yes, there was some security probems with the Frech but not to the extstent she suggests and I would not describe the CO as incompetent and the other negative descriptions she levelled at him.
Is your book on schedule to be released in September, 2021?
Yes it is Ronald, thanks
when I am up against it I think of these women especially the dozen that were eXecuted ..