Sonya Butt: SOE Agent with the French Section

(There is dispute as to whether the woman wearing the Parachute is Sonya Butt)

On this day 28 May, in 1944 Sonya Butt was 20 years-old and only recently completed her training when she infiltrated France by parachute to work for SOE’s underground circuit called ‘Headmaster’ which was preparing to support the Normandy Landings. Butt travelled great distances mainly by train and bicycle throughout France delivering messages and liaising with other parts of the clandestine network during which she was regularly stopped and questioned by German troops, but her cover story and forged documents passed scrutiny. After their weapons instructor was killed as well as continuing her essential work as a courier to ensure Headmaster was ready to sabotage prearranged targets, ambushing German forces and work in conjunction with other circuits supporting the landings, Butt also became the circuit’s weapons instructor and began teaching members of the resistance how to use a variety of weapons and basic field craft.  Sonya was born in Eastchurch, Kent England and after the war married Canadian SOE agent Guy D’Artois and moved to Canada, she died in Montreal on 21 December 2014 at the age of 80. 

German Spies Executed at the Tower of London During the Two World Wars

Tower of London During WW2

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror during the 1070’s and later became infamous as a prison, a place of torture and execution under the Tudors and is now a popular tourist attraction noted for housing the Crown Jewels, but it is not widely known for the execution of German spies.  

Carl Lody WW1 German Spy

In November 1914, German agent Carl Lody was using the cover name Charles Inglis when he was arrested in Edinburgh for sending information to Germany on British warships and became the first person for more than 150 years to be executed at the Tower of London.

 A Yeoman Warden named John Fraser who saw Lody being taken to his execution in a purpose-built indoor firing range later wrote:

“The prisoner walked steadily, stiffly upright through the doorway, and yet as easily and unconcerned as though he were going to a tea party instead of death… The procession disappeared through the doorway of the sinister shed and shortly after came the muddles sound of a single volley – Carl Lody had paid for his crime”

During the First World War eleven German spies were executed at the Tower of London, but surprisingly some were not German nationals and included Latvians, two Dutchmen, a Swede, a Turk and three South Americans who decided to work for German intelligence.

Firing range in a shed at the Tower of London which was used for executions

Another Yeoman Warden named Kevin Kitcher explained:

There would have been a chair there… The prisoner would have been sat down either with bandages or leather straps binding him to the chair. A bandage would have been put over the eyes, and shortly after that the execution would take place. After the execution the spies were buried in Plaistow cemetery in Newham. London.”

A twelfth spy named Robert Rosenthal was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 15 July 1915.

World War Two

Josef Jakpobs was the last person to be executed at the Tower of London.

Josef Jackpods

During the Second World War MI5 was running Operation Double Cross which mainly consisted of German spies who were turned after being captured and were passing false information to Berlin, and through this deception MI5 was aware Jakpobs was being sent to England.

On the night of 31 October 1941, Jakpobs parachuted onto a field near Dover House Farm in Ramsey Huntingdonshire, a district in Cambridgeshire, and broke his leg after landing badly and was quickly spotted by a farmer and was arrested by the Home Guard who also recovered his wireless transmitter.

He was then taken to Ramsey police station where he was found to have £500, false identity papers and a photograph of a woman calling herself Clare Bauerle who was also a German agent he had planned to meet at an address in Birmingham. Jakpobs was then transferred to Cannon Row police station in London where he was interrogated by MI5 officers.

On 4-5 August 1941 Jacobs was tried at the Duke of York’s army headquarters in Chelsea, London and sentenced for espionage.

Chair used during the execution of German spy Josef Jackpods

On 15 August 1941 at 0700 hrs Josef Jakobs was taken to the indoor firing range at the Tower of London, the same range used for the execution of eleven German agents during World War One, he was then strapped to a brown coloured Windsor chair before being shot by an eight-man firing squad from the Scots Guards. His body was then buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Kensal Green, London.

Additional reading, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

The SOE Agent in France and her husband working for the Gestapo.

Suzanne Warenghem (Warren) who served with SOE DF Section in France

Due to conspiracy theories and published accounts which vary considerably the story of Suzanne Warenghem and her treacherous husband Harold Cole is complex and beyond the scope of this short article. Consequently, the following is an overview of events leading to the deaths of an unknown number of agents and French citizens of which Suzanne Warenghem, who later changed her surname to Warren, was unaware until her husband was exposed by other agents.    

In an article written by Jacques Ghémard he describes Suzanne Warenghem as a 19-year-old British agent serving with the Special Operation Executive (SOE) who worked with the PAT escape line. If Warenghem, as Ghémard states, was serving with SOE she was likely to be a member of DF Section which was an independent subsection within SOE responsible for escape and evasion which worked closely with similar organisations including MI9, and this would account for her connection with the escape line.

After being arrested, which is discussed later, Warenghem was sent to Castres prison in southern France where she met Blanche Charlet an agent serving with SOE’s F Section who had been captured along with her wireless operator Brian Stonehouse.  The two women quickly became friends and later escaped together during an audacious mass escape consisting of around 37 prisoners. Several decades after the war Blanch Charlet became relatively well known by historians but Suzanne Warenghem along with her war service and achievements as an agent was overshadowed by the story of her treacherous English husband Harold Cole.

After the war Airey Neave (MI9) said “Cole was among the most selfish and callous traitors who ever served the enemy in time of war”

James Langley who also served with MI9 said, “Cole was a con man, thief and utter shit who betrayed his country to the highest bidder for money”.   

The PAT Escape Line

Susanne Wareneghem and her husband Harold Cole worked for the Pat O’Leary Line which was also referred to as the PAT Line, O’Leary Line, PAO and PAT, and this underground network was financed by MI9 in London to facilitate escape and evasion of allied soldiers and airmen and is credited for assisting over 5,000 military personnel,  mainly consisting of downed aircrews, to escape occupied Belgium and the Netherland and it is thought PAT rescued over 600 allied soldiers and airmen from France.

Although PAT was the largest escape line it worked jointly with MI9, DF Section SOE, the Comet Line, Shelburne Escape Line, Overcloud and several others which were established and run by French citizens after Operation Dynamo which was the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. It has also been estimated around 12,000 people, nearly all civilians and around half of which were women worked on the escape line and a conservative estimate of the number of those captured and subsequently executed is around 500 to 575.

All these escape lines were busy throughout the war and according to author Douglas Reanne one former member said:  “It was raining aviators at the height of WW2… On 14 October 1943, 82 bombers with 800 crew members of the US Eighth Air Force were shot down or crashed landed in occupied Europe. Most were killed or captured but some were rescued by the escape lines and made it safely back to England”.

There are also many accounts of RAF aircrews, which at the time was very cosmopolitan, being rescued by civilians who were aware if they were caught by the Germans they would be executed, and their families were also in mortal danger from being used as deterrents.   

Albert Guérisse, head of the Pat O’Leary Line which operated in France, Belgium and the Netherlands

The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), Gestapo and Milice were always competing for the recruitment of double agents and collaborators from the small number of morally bankrupt members of society who were willing to sell people to the Germans and were not concerned those they informed on were likely to be executed or deported to concentration camps.     

This was not unique to France, in most countries under occupation could be found the morally disengaged who were willing to sell members of their communities to the highest bidder and this was often the Gestapo whose reputation for brutality was well known throughout occupied Europe. 

From Federal German Archives.

An important part of the German and Milice counter-resistance operations was the infiltration of escape lines and blocking known routes to neutral Spain and Switzerland.

The Germans were aware the escape network consisted of a large number of civilians scattered throughout France with each member being responsible for their own section of the line (route) who delivered escapers further along the escape line where other members took over and this process continued until they reached neutral Spain; occasionally small groups of escapers were taken to an isolated prearranged location in France to wait for an emergency extraction by air or sea.

Senior Abwehr and Gestapo officers also discovered the structure of the escape network presented a number of security issues they could exploit. It’s vast size, for instance, occasionally made communications and intelligence sharing difficult and due to the network being responsible for transporting people they did not know and whose identities could be difficult to verify, German agents attempted to infiltrate networks by claiming they were airmen in need of help after being shot down or crash landing in France or Belgium and some were shot after their cover stories failed to pass scrutiny.  

There is also an unsubstantiated account of the body of a German agent being placed in a packing case and posted to the Gestapo with a note saying, ‘complements of British Intelligence’.  

Apart from the security issues associated with assisting ‘strangers’ whose identities could be difficult to verify the Germans were aware a double agent or a well-placed informer could cause considerable damage to the entire network and Harold Cole began using his position in the PAT line to make a lucrative income by selling men and women who trusted him to the Germans. 

   British police photograph of Harold Cole dated 13 February 1939. Five months before the BEF was sent to France.

Harold Cole was born in the east end of London on 24 January 1906 and after leaving school at the age of 14 he quickly became known to the police as a petty criminal, embezzler and con man and was sent to prison several times. During his criminal career he used several identities, during one scam he convinced people he was a former British Army officer who had served in Hong Kong and for another he claimed to be Wing Commander Wain of the Royal Air Force.

 In 1939 he enlisted into the Royal Engineers and shortly after arriving in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force Cole was arrested after it was discovered he had stolen all the money from the officers and Sergeants mess before leaving England.  During the confusion of Operation Dynamo, the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk, his guards were naturally more concerned in surviving the German onslaught than guarding a petty thief and Cole soon found an opportunity to escape, but after being stranded in occupied France instead of attempting to escape to England Cole felt confident he could use the occupation to his advantage and began developing a new scam.   

According to Brendon Murphy who wrote ‘Turncoat’, Cole convinced a wealthy businessman named François Duprez he was Captain Delobel of British Intelligence and then persuaded him to finance an underground organisation to rescue British, French and Belgium soldiers and help them reach England. Escape lines required a string of expensive safehouses, helpers had to be paid and transport needed to be obtained and these along with other expenses finance by Duprez were considerable.  Though Cole is known to have rescued a number of servicemen and helped them reach England he is also known to have kept most of the money he obtained from Duprez.  

Eventually the mysterious Captain Delobel came to the attention of MI9 in London and they asked MI5 to conduct background checks. After discovering his real name and informing MI9 of Cole’s string of convictions which included burglary, fraud, theft and various swindles MI9 decided to disregard his long criminal background because he was helping British and allied military personnel to escape and there was no indication this was simply a continuation of his criminal career rather than patriotism.

After Cole was arrested by the Abwehr he willingly provided names and addresses of people in his network and was later accused of hiding in the back of a car whilst pointing out members in the street whose names he did not know. After a large number of arrests Cole agreed to work for the Abwehr but was offered more money by the Gestapo and as James Langley said he betrayed his country (and his friends) to the highest bidder and began working for the Gestapo.      

Cole was arrested several times by the Germans but according to witnesses he was never roughly treated and was quickly released, and because his arrest sometimes coincided with the arrest of those he identified to the Gestapo, led to speculation these were orchestrated in an attempt to prevent raising suspicion among members of his network.  Apart from Harold Cole being responsible for mass arrests in Lillie which resulted in that section of the line collapsing his close working relationship with Kurt Lischka, the Gestapo chief in Paris who after the Normandy landings helped Cole escape is testament to his importance as a double agent and his influence within the Gestapo.   

Suzanne Warenghem

Suzanne Warenghem

    According to several writers Suzanne Warenghem was 19-years-old when she started working on the PAT line with Harold Cole and if correct she was one of the youngest SOE agents in France.    

Warenghem has been described as intelligent, resourceful and brave but naive when it came to relationships and Cole was highly regarded for his politeness, charm, friendliness, his kindly disposition and concern for others which created a false sense of security. Those who trusted Cole, including Suzanne Warenghem who he married in Paris on 10 April 1942, were shocked after discovering he was working for the Gestapo and was aware members of the resistance he was informing on were being executed or sent to concentration camps.

After being identified as a Gestapo agent Cole is thought to have made his way to Paris to continue his work with the Gestapo and It is known he was at their headquarters in Paris when the allies landed in Normandy.

Suzanne Warenghem who was now pregnant and feared her husband, travelled to Marseille to join an escape line where some writers say her child was still born, and sometime in March 1943 she was arrested and sent to Castres prison where she met SOE agent Blanche Charlet.    

Blanche Charlet who served with F Section SOE

 On 16 September 1943 Warenghem and Charlet escaped from prison and made for open countryside and because they had no money and were unable to contact London they decided to approach the first farmhouse they came to and ask for help whilst hoping they were patriots and to their great relief they were in luck. After explaining they worked for the resistance and had just escaped from prison they were told to climb onto the back of an open horse drawn cart, the Farmer and his family then hid them under straw before taking them to a Benedictine monastery where the monks fed and sheltered them for two months. After the search for them had been called off and it was considered safe to move through the countryside the monks delivered Warenghem and Charlet to members of the resistance who were known to be operating in the area.    

After contacting SOE in London via a wireless link they were involved in a very long and dangerous trek across France which required putting into practice all the escape and evasion skills they had been taught whilst knowing they were on the wanted list and their prison photographs were being circulated.  

 Suzanne Warenghem and Blanche Charlet were told to make for a rendezvous point where they would meet a guide who would take them across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain but by the time they arrived the weather had deteriorated, and the snow was too deep to cross the mountains. They were then told to make their way to Paris and await orders from London and several days later they received instructions to meet a contact in Lyon but by the time they arrived this contact had been arrested. They then received orders to go to the Jura Mountains were arrangements were being made for them to cross the border into Switzerland but shortly after making the long and difficult trip they were informed the escape line contact had been arrested several days previous. They were then given the location of a rendezvous point in Brittany around 919.8 km (over 571 miles) away where an extraction by sea had been arranged. By the time they reached Brittany and were being taken by rowing boat at night to a felucca waiting a safe distance from the shore they were suffering from extreme exhaustion and had not eaten for several days. After arriving in Gibraltar, the British Consulate arranged food, clothing and accommodation where they stayed for two weeks in order to recover from their ordeal and then boarded a ship which was part of a convoy with Royal Navy escorts bound for England.

After the war there was sufficient evidence to convict Harold Cole for treason and on 8 January 1946 he was shot dead by French police whilst attempting to evade capture. 

Boy First Class Jack Cornwell VC, Royal Navy.

Jack Cornwell which is now thought to be his brother.

After war was declared in 1914 his father and older brother enlisted into the army and in October 1915, Jack Cornwell was 16-years-old when he enlisted into the Royal Navy without his father’s permission and after finishing training was sent to join HMS Chester with the rank of Boy 1st Class.

On 31 May 1916 Chester was part of the Battle Group of Jutland when the ship was ordered to investigate the sound of distant gunfire. At 17:00 hrs HMS Chester came under intense fire from four German cruisers during which Chester was hit eighteen times, most of her gun crews lost their lower limbs due to shrapnel passing under the shields of their guns and only one gun was serviceable. After medics searched the deck Jack Cornwell was the only member of his crew alive and was standing up, looking through the gunsight waiting for orders with shards of steel penetrating his chest and It was clear to the medics he would not survive such major injuries.  

Jack Corwell’s Gun (Imperial War Museum London)

Cornwell was still alive when he arrived at Grimsby hospital but died in the early hours of the morning on 2 June 1916 several hours before his mother arrived.

Three months later he was posthumously awarded the VC (Victoria Cross) and was buried in a common grave in Manor Park Cemetery London, but on 29 July 1916 his body was exhumed and buried in the same grave with full military honours. On 25 October his father died from bronchitis and was buried in the same grave.

Jack Cornwell became a national hero with his photograph appearing in national newspapers and posters throughout the country and everyone knew his name, but it is now believed there were no photographs of Jack Cornwell and his brother was used as a substitute.

Jack Cornwell’s mother and family reading about his Vitoria Cross being awarded.

After a memorial fund was formed in her sons name to support charitable causes his mother received no financial support from the Cornwell Memorial Fund and despite walking twenty miles to the Admiralty to beg for money she died in poverty.