Presentation by House of History
Documentary presented by Ben Macintyre
Operation Mincemeat was a successful British disinformation strategy used during the Second World War. As a deception intended to cover the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily, two members of British intelligence obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a tramp who died from eating rat poison, dressed him as an officer of the Royal Marines and placed personal items on him identifying him as Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. Correspondence between two British generals which suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily as merely the target of a feint, was also placed on the body.
Robert Benoist was a French Grand Prix racing driver who escaped to England when France was occupied in 1940. Whilst in England he successfully passed selection and training for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to France to establish clandestine networks. He was also responsible for the reception of arms and explosives dropped by parachute and setup arms dumps in the Rambouillet Forest. Sometime in June 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and whilst being driven to Gestapo Headquarters he threw himself from the moving vehicle and escaped and was eventually extracted and returned to England. Several months later he returned to France to continue his resistance work and was later recalled to England for a briefing and additional training. In February 1944 he undertook his third mission to France and arrived with orders to prepare clandestine circuits in the Nantes region and ensure they were ready to support the Allies during D-Day by attacking prearranged targets to slowdown the German advance to Normandy.
On 18 June 1944 Robert Benoist was again captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald Concentration camp where, along with fifteen other SOE prisoners was executed by slow strangulation after being hung with piano wire from hooks on the wall in the crematorium. Captain Robert Benoist is recorded on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and also on the SOE memorial in Valençay.
Execution hooks on the wall of the crematorium at Buchenwald
I found the interviews of former members of the Auxiliary informative but have mixed feelings about the dramatic reconstructions although these were based on events in occupied Europe and would have occurred in the UK if Germany had successfully invaded.
No. 161 Special Duties Squadron
Hugh Verity was a night fighter pilot until 1942 when he volunteered for RAF special duties and became involved in one of the most extraordinary and effective operations of the secret war – flying from England’s Sussex coast in a single-engine Lysander aircraft and landing in German occupied France delivering and collecting SOE, SIS agents and members of the French Resistance. This Timeline production examines these moonlight missions between 1941 to 1944.
Englandspiel Monument (the fall of Icarus) in the Hague Netherlands
In 1941 the Dutch (D) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Major Bingham started sending trained agents to the Netherlands by parachute and like other country sections their role was to recruit resisters from the civilian population before providing training, arms and directing their resistance activities to support the Allied strategy.
Among the first agents to arrive was saboteur Thijs Taconnis and a wireless operator named Hurbert Lauwers, but as they climbed into the converted Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford D Section was unaware the underground network they were sent to join had been infiltrated by a double agent and both were quickly captured along with Lauwers’s wireless and personal codes.
Lauwers was forced to contact London under German supervision but included within the body of the message prearranged codes indicating he had been captured and his wireless was under German control. To his great surprise and frustration his warning codes were either overlooked or ignored and London ask for the coordinates of a DZ (drop zone) for the arrival of a new agent. This was the start of the ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game) under Abwehr Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.
Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.
For around 18 months the Dutch Section was happy with the news coming from the Netherlands: they had 62 underground networks consisting of around 420 Dutch civilians who were being trained to fight the occupying forces and at the request of these ‘networks’ the RAF dropped a large quantity of weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance their operations.
D Section was oblivious to the fact most of the resistance was in hiding: The Gestapo and Abwehr were attempting to track them down, there were mass arrests and German security forces knew everything about their network.
The first person in London to suspect there were serious problems in the Netherlands was SOE’s head of codes and ciphers, 22-year-old Leo Marks, who suddenly realised what had been worrying him for some time about the Dutch radio traffic, Marks later explained:
“What I discovered was we had never received an indecipherable message from Holland due to mistakes in coding…”
Wireless operators were always under immense pressure: they had to send their message as quickly as possible to avoid wireless detection teams finding their location and under these stressful conditions it was considered inevitable an operator would make several mistakes in their coding; but his concerns were rejected by the Dutch Section which continued to send agents, weapons and sabotage stores by parachute.
After bringing his concerns to the attention of Brigadier Nicholls, the head of the signals section, Marks was asked to provide proof of his suspicions because the Dutch Section claimed they had ways of checking on their agents and were adamant there were no issues. Marks then sent an indecipherable message to Holland- one which could only be broken by a trained code breaker; a genuine agent would ask for the message to be repeated but this did not happen, Marks explained:
“The fact that they didn’t say repeat that message immediately which they would do if they ever got an indecipherable message from London, which was very rare, told me beyond doubt the Dutch agents had been captured. There was no other conceivable explanation…”
The wireless operators in England were also concerned about the sending style of the agents under their charge and suspected they were receiving wireless traffic from German operators, but the Dutch Section rejected their concerns.
German agents always signed off with the letters HH (Heil Hitler) so Marks sent a false message to the Netherlands and signed off with HH and back came the instantaneous response HH. Marks then knew there was a German operator at the other end.
Fourteen of the known agents delivered to the Gestapo by parachute.
Although the wireless channel was eventually closed whilst the damage was being assessed it was not until SOE agents Peter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink escaped from a prison camp in August 1943 that the full damage due to the ‘English Game’ started to be realised. Over a period of 18-months German operators had used 18 captured wireless sets and codes to create a ‘mousetrap’ in which 56 agents were parachuted to waiting members of the Gestapo, 11 RAF aircraft were shot down whilst delivering weapons and supplies to a resistance network controlled by the Germans but there are no figures regarding the fate of a conservative estimate of 420 civilians engaged in resistance.
After the war Freyer, head of the German wireless section for western Europe, said:
“The transmitter of a group of agents is always a mailbox where everything goes in and out. And connected to the mailbox there is always the leadership of the organisation, and so, if we had the transmitter, then either the boss to operate it or via his right-hand man and via him we got further and further into the organisation. This explains why we invested so much effort into radio direction finding.” He also went on to say, “some wireless operators were totally overwhelmed when they were discovered. The arrested men reacted in very different ways. Some were sort of composed, some knew their future and came to terms with it, and in one case we once arrested a man, and there was a big bang, he had soiled himself, we could smell it.”
There was no mention of the wireless operators, men and women, tortured by the Gestapo for their codes and their subsequent executions.
Irena Stanislawa Sendler was a Catholic nurse and a prominent member of a Polish resistance network dedicated to rescuing Jews after German forces occupied Poland in 1939.
Although the punishment for helping Jews was the death penalty this did not deter Irena and members of her network from providing Jewish families with food, new identity papers with Christian names and helping them relocate to areas where they were unknown by the German authorities, but the greatest dangers she faced was during her work inside the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.
Thought to have been taken in the Warsaw Ghetto
After becoming aware the German authorities were concerned typhoid might spread beyond the ghetto Irena used her official papers identifying her as a nurse to frequently enter the ghetto to check for typhoid and other infectious diseases. After obtaining permission from parents she used many innovative methods to rescue children including escaping through sewer pipes and putting young children inside suitcases which were on trollies. It is believed Irena Stanislawa was personally responsible for rescuing around 400 children.
Once the children reached safety they were given Christian names which were supported by identity papers and were housed with adopted families who agreed to trace their parents after the war, but it was later discovered few parents survived the concentration camps.
On 18 October 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo; over a period of several days she was tortured but refused to provide useful information, Irena was then transferred to Pawiaki Prison where the torture continued. After the Gestapo found they could not break her, and it became clear their prisoner was prepared to die rather than betray the children or members of her network Irena was sentence to death.
There is scant information regarding her escape, however, it is known before she was due to be executed a member of her network bribed her guards and because the Gestapo later displayed posters in public places announcing her execution as a deterrent against assisting Jews suggests her escape was well planned.
After hiding for several weeks Irena was provided with new identity papers in the name of Irena Sendlerowa and then continued her escape work under a new cover story.
It is believed her underground network rescued around 2,500 children but the number of Jewish families saved by Irena and other members of her network is unknown.
On 12 May 2008 Irena Sendler died in Warsaw and few were aware of her wartime connection with the Polish Resistance.