Pearl Cornioley (nee Witherington) SOE French Section

On the night of 22-23 September 1943 Witherington arrived by parachute to a reception committee on farmland near Tendu, France and became the courier of STATIONARY circuit and supported another SOE courier called Jacqueline Nearne. In November she joined a new circuit called FREELANCE and changed her identity to Marie Jeanne Verges (codename Pauline) with the cover occupation of a cosmetic consultant which gave her a pretext for travelling great distances whilst carrying messages and liaising with other agents and members of the resistance. This involved countless train journeys during which she was frequently stopped and questioned by the SD and civil police and after being unable to find a suitable safehouse she resorted to sleeping in unheated train carriages during the winter which added to the exhaustion she was already suffering. For an agent this was a dangerous medical condition because mistakes were easily made, and their judgment became increasingly clouded.

After meeting agents and helping to coordinate the preparations for D-day her circuit organiser Maurice Southgate was suffering from exhaustion when he failed to use basic security checks which he had used many hundreds of times before and walked into a mousetrap (a blown safehouse were German forces were waiting). After Southgate was arrested by the SD his large STATIONERY circuit was transformed into two circuits – an agent named Maingard became the organiser of what was called SHIPWRIGHT, Witherington organised a circuit called WRESTLER and under their leadership engaged in coordinated sabotage to support allied forces.  On the morning of 11 June 1944 her headquarters near the village of Dun-le-Poëllier was attacked by German forces which arrived in 56 lorries; 32 Maquis were killed, their weapons were destroyed, and Witherington hid in a corn field whilst under heavy fire before escaping. Witherington then cycled to Saint-Viâtre to meet another SOE agent to arrange a resupply and on 24 June three heavily laden aircraft dropped weapons and ammunition to her circuit and WRESTLER continued its attack on German forces and Witherington is noted for being the leader of 3,500 men of the Maquis. Maurice Southgate, DSO survived Buchenwald concentration camp and Pearl Witherington Cornioley died in France on 24 February 2008 at the age of 93.

Alan Malcher

Denis Barrett SOE Wireless Operator

Denis Barrett (fieldname Honore) arrived in north-eastern France by parachute in April 1943 and worked as the wireless operator for a clandestine circuit in the Troyes area. He was in regular contact with London until his cover was blown several months later and escaped to England after being extracted by Lysander aircraft from No.161 Special Duty Squadron RAF.

Barrett volunteered to undertake a second mission to France and arrived by parachute in early March 1944 and worked as the wireless operator for a new circuit called MINISTER located in Seine-et Marne, northern France. Barrett had two wireless sets; one was in Tores the other was hidden in the countryside several miles from the town. The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) were aware of a British agent in contact with London and Barrett transmitted from several locations to avoid his safehouses being located by direction finders.

After an agent was captured whilst transmitting to London Barret stopped using his wireless located in Tores and for several months travelled by bicycle to the countryside to use his other wireless. During his journeys he avoided German patrols and, on several occasions, cycled past stationary wireless detection vans which were listening for signals.

Despite constantly changing his location to avoid detection London became aware there was a problem after his signal abruptly stopped in mid-sentence and Barrett was later reported missing presumed dead.  

After the war Barret’s name was found scratched on the wall of a cell at the SD headquarters in Avenue Foch, Paris and it is known he was later moved to Buchenwald concentration camp. It was later reported he was among the first of thirty-one agents who were hanged at Buchenwald during the first week of September 1944, but it is now believed he was among the eleven agents shot at Buchenwald on 5 October that year.

Alan Malcher

British Homefront during WW2. The day the Luftwaffe bombed Sandhurst Road School in London.

At 12:30 pm on Wednesday 20 January 1943 Sandhurst Road School, Minard Road in Catford southeast London was packed with children when a German aircraft dropped a 500 kilogram (1,100 lb) high explosive bomb killing 30 children and six members of staff, six more children later died in hospital. Sixty people (children and staff) were seriously injured, and many were buried for several hours under rubble.

31 children and 1 teacher were later buried together in a war dead plot at Hither Green Cemetery.

ARP Wardens and nurses covering the bodies of children.

The German attack was part of a raid by 28 Focke-Wulf FW 190A-4U3 fighter bombers escorted by Messerschmitt Bf.109 fighters from an airfield in occupied France and the pilot who attacked the school was Hauptmann Heinze Schumann who was killed in action on 8 November 1943. It is debated whether he deliberately targeted the school, but two children said the pilot waved to them before releasing his bomb.

According to one account a seven-year-old girl in the playground looked up and waved to the aircraft thinking it was British and was cut down by machinegun fire and in 2009 four survivors of the air raid described their experiences.

Molly Linn was 12-years old

We were chatting excitedly when someone ran in and said the air raid had sounded… I walked across the classroom. I saw children hanging out of windows and Betty, the head girl, was telling them to get into the shelter. The next thing I knew I was buried. Betty, who was standing next to me had been killed.

I was eventually rescued and taken to Lewisham Hospital, and I remember my clothes being cut away, which upset me. I thought, it’s my new coat, what were my parents going to say?

I had two broken arms and two badly mangled legs. In October 1944 my left leg was amputated and in March 1945 my other leg was amputated.

Mary Burch was five years old and John, her ten-year-old brother, was at the same school and his body was found buried under rubble three days later.   

I was sitting with friends at the table and had just been given a jam tart … When the plane flew past the window, we saw the pilot and he waved at us. We waved back but as we did, I saw the German markings on the wing.

Someone shouted for us to dive under the table. As I jumped down my jam tart fell. I picked it up and put it in my mouth and I’ve never been able to eat a jam tart since.

I saw my brother running past the table and I called his name and as he turned the bomb fell and I was buried. I couldn’t breathe or move; I remember trying to call for help. I remember the relief of the bricks being lifted from my face.

The next thing I knew I was lying on the cold hard pavement outside and someone was saying ‘She hasn’t got long’. I didn’t know what that meant.

My jaw was broken and there was wood protruding from my head and my back… I remained in hospital for nearly two years and still didn’t realise John was dead. When I returned home everything he owned was gone. It was as if he never existed.

For years afterwards, if I was ever naughty my mother would say, ‘The wrong one lived’. She never forgave me, and the night before my own son’s christening she took the baby from my arms and said, ‘You don’t deserve a son because you killed mine’.

Eric Brady was 9 years old, and his 14-year-old sister Kitty was at the same school and was killed during the attack.

Kitty, my big sister, was upstairs talking to the headmistress, Miss Clarke, when I heard the distant air raid warning. 28 German Fokker planes had flown into London and targeted six different schools… The head told Kitty to go to the dining hall and get the children to the shelters but just as she reached the dining room door the aircraft swooped. Kitty called out and ran towards me when the bomb dropped.

I remember scrambling to get under the table as the roof cascaded down. A lump of masonry pinned down my left arm. Another lump landed on my left ankle, and I was hit on the side of the head. My right side was uninjured and many years later my mother told me that Kitty had been found lying on my right side – killed by the piece of rubble which would have killed me.

Brenda Ward who was ten at the time said, I was eating my dinner when I heard a loud noise. I went to the window and saw the plane. One of the teachers screamed at us to get under the tables. I peeped out from under the table and saw the walls starting to fall in. I got up and run as fast as I could to the other end of the room.

Suddenly I was buried and could just see a tiny spot of light. The terror has stayed with me all my life and still cant go underground.  

Two men dug me out and carried me across the road to someone’s front room. I lay on the floor and asked the woman to clear my eyes because I couldn’t see. I asked, ‘Why do German’s bomb children?’ The poor woman burst into tears and said, ‘I don’t know dear’.

My blouse and blonde hair were stained red with the blood from the terrible injuries from my face. When I was taken to hospital my own mother walked past three times without recognising me.

A week later I was transferred to East Grinstead Hospital where the plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe who did pioneering work on pilots from the Battle of Britain helped repair my face.

Alan Malcher

Hans Johansen SOE Scandinavian Section.

Johansen was born in Copenhagen on 7 July 1921 and was serving with the 8th Battalion The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) before being recruited by SOE on 12 May 1943 and during training showed the required aptitude to teach members of the resistance sabotage. By the time Johansen arrived in Denmark by parachute there were 57 other agents building up resistance to support an eventual allied invasion and until the deployment of SOE there was virtually no effective resistance in Denmark.

Throughout 1943 it was mainly sabotage stores which was dropped into Denmark and as the number of resisters increased thousands of weapons were also dropped.

In 1943 there were only a few hundred resisters, in 1944 there were around 10,000 and eventually rose to 50,000 men and women (estimated as one per cent of the population). During the runup to D-day the resistance organisations were engaged in widespread sabotage which helped tie down German forces that would have been sent to northern France and SOE was also instrumental in bringing together various political groups.

Hans Johansen was captured at a safehouse by the Gestapo in Copenhagen on 25 July 1944 and because torture for information was inevitable, he swallowed his ‘L’ Pill (Cyanide) and died at the safehouse in under thirty seconds.

Alan Malcher

SOE agent Andrée Borrel

Andrée Borrel escaped from France to England in 1942 after working for an escape line for two-years during which she assisted allied aircrews shot down over France to escape to neutral Spain and eventually return to England.

After passing agent selection and training, on the night of 25 September 1942 Borrel along with Lise de Baissac became the first female agents from SOE’s French Section to infiltrate France by parachute and after landing went their separate ways.

Borrel worked for PHYSICIAN (Prosper) circuit in the Paris region and travelled extensively to recruit members for the circuit, arranging arms and sabotage stores to be dropped by parachute and the circuit rapidly grew.

On 25 June 1943 London received a ‘flash’ message from an SOE wireless operator in France saying the circuit leader Francis Suttill, wireless operator Gilbert Norman and Andrée Borrel had disappeared and were later officially listed missing presumed dead, and this led to various conspiracy theories after the war. The German infiltration of PHYSICIAN and the many deaths which followed was the continuation of a complicated Abwehr plan which began almost a year previously in southern France.

It is known Andrée Borrel spent many months in prison where she was interrogated by the SD before being sent to another prison in southwest Germany. On 6 July 1944, exactly one month after the Normandy Landings, Borrel and three other female SOE agents were executed at Natzweiler concentration camp.  

Alan Malcher

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn French Section SOE

SOE agent Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn.

Ben Cowburn was born in Lancashire on 3 March 1909 and at the age of 8 moved with his British parents to Paris and was educated at a British school in Boulogne-sure-Sein. Shortly after marrying a French woman Cowburn studied electrical engineering and after graduating worked for the American company Foster Wheeler which was building oil refineries throughout France. Apart from his language and cultural skills SOE was interested in his extensive knowledge of the French oil industry and Cowburn became one of the first students to train at Wanborough Manor in 1941 before completing four missions to France and after the war was awarded the Military Cross and Bar and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by France but like many agents, he tended to downplay his war service and bravery whilst talking about the bravery of others.

Benjamin Hodkinson Cowburn died on 17 December 1994 aged 85 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France.