Gabriel Adler: Wireless Operator SOE Italian Section

Gabriel Adler

Adler was born in Hungary on 15 September 1919 and was recruited by SOE on 21 September 1942. After infiltrating the Cagliari area of Sardinia, Italy by submarine he was captured soon after reaching the shore. The Italian Military Intelligence Service (Survizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza) attempted to playback his wireless to London but the incorrect codes were sent, and London was aware it was an attempted wireless deception.

In May 1943 Adler was transferred to the Regina Coeli Prison in Rome that was taken over by the German SD (Sicherheitsdienst) following the Italian surrender. After being interrogated by the SD he gave away no important information and convinced his interrogators he was a British officer named John Armstrong.  After the war it was discovered that a ‘John Armstrong’ was in a prison at Lake Bracciano approximately 35 miles from Rome and after the liberation of Rome by Allied forces in June 1944 an investigation attempted to find out what happened to Gabriel Adler aka John Armstrong.

After extensive enquiries it was discovered that on 3 June 1944 Adler was one of 80 prisoners selected by the SD to be transferred to a prison in northern Italy ahead of the Allied advance.  The group of prisoners had been assembled in the courtyard at Regina Prison with their hands tied behind their backs. They were put into the backs of lorries and told they were being taken to the SD headquarters at the Via Tasso in Rome, now the home of the Museum of Liberation, and then onto Florence. At 0:30 hrs on 4 June a second group of prisoners were assembled in a similar manner as the first group and put into the back of lorries.

It was later claimed a few of the prisoners believed they were going to be killed and after leaving the compound attempted to escape and though shots were fired a few managed to get away. Another report states the first batch of prisoners also attempted to escape after their convoy of lorries were attacked by Allied aircraft but there was no mention of Adler. According to a priest at the Santo Spirito Hospital in Rome a large number of bodies arrived, and one was listed as an unknown English Soldier, but Investigators concluded Adler was not among the bodies because he was known to be wearing a battle dress over which was a pair of Skiing trousers and a wind jacket and none of the bodies were wearing such clothing.

When the Allies reached Rome the Regina Coeli Prison was empty and a witness said even after the last German lorry was leaving the remaining prisoners were being released. There is a plethora of confusing and contradicting information and the investigating team concluded Adler was most probably dead and was eventually listed presumed dead with no known grave.

Alan Malcher.

SOE Circuit Organiser Alfred Wilkinson

Alfred Wilkinson. Circuit organiser serving with the French Section SOE

Alfred Wilkinson had duel nationality British/French and was born in Paris and left his wife and young child in France to join the British Army.

Wilkinson parachuted into France on 5 April 1944 to organise the Historian circuit in the Orléans area where his wife and young child were still living, and SOE documents described it as “an area where German repressive measures had effectively checked all previous attempts to develop a resistance network. After receiving arms and other war materials by parachute Wilkinson and his Historian circuit prepared for large scale sabotage for D-day and by 6 June (D-day) the railway lines and telecommunication targets his circuit had been ordered to sabotage had been destroyed and added to the major disruption of the German military caused by other circuits.

It is known Wilkinson was captured towards the end of June at Olivet a commune in the Loiret department in north-central France and for the first fortnight was kept at the Eugéne Prison in Orléans. He was then taken to Frésnes Prison outside Paris where he was described by other SOE prisoners as looking well and Wilkinson was among a large batch of SOE agents and resistance fighters taken from Frésnes to Buchenwald concentration camp to be used as slave labour.

On 24 August Allied aircraft bombed the Gustloff armament factory outside the camp where many prisoners were forced to work. Several bombs hit the SS barracks killing 8 and injuring 300 SS soldiers and many prisoners. It was later said that in retaliation for the air raid the camp commandant Obersturmbannfuhrer Herman Pister ordered the execution of all British and French ‘terrorists.’

Seven prisoners were executed on 14 September and on 5 October more prisoners including Alfred Wilkinson were executed and according to a post-war investigation before being hung the men stood rigidly to attention whilst shouting ‘long live France. Long live England.’

Notorious Hermann Pister. Image taken after being arrested by American forces.

After the war Pister was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death but died of a heart attack before being hung.

Yolande Beekman (nee Unternahrer) SOE Wireless Operator: French Section

Yolande Beekman

Yolande Unternahrer was born in Paris to a Swiss family in 1911 and moved to London as a child.

After the declaration of war in 1939 she enlisted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAFFs) where she trained as a wireless operator. Due to her language skills, she spoke fluent English, French, German and Italian, Yolande came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive and whilst attending the wireless and security school to become a wireless trained agent that required skills not found in other branches of the military she met a trainee wireless operator named Jaap Beekman who was serving with the Dutch Section of SOE. Shortly after they married, on the night of 17/18 September 1943 Yolande Beekman parachuted into France to join the Musician circuit in Saint-Quentin in the department of Aisne as their wireless operator.  

It is known Yolande Beekman was in regular contact with London and arranged the delivery of over 20 parachute drops of weapons, ammunition, and explosives before breaking wireless security procedures: it was later said Beekman transmitted from the same location, on the same frequency and on the same three days of the week and was eventually located by German direction finders. Beekman along with her circuit organiser Gustave Biéler were arrested at the Café Moulin, Saint-Quentin on 13 January 1944.

At Gestapo Headquarters in Saint-Quentin both were tortured but refused to provide useful information. Beekman was then taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Avenue Foch in Paris and was later sent to Frésnes Prison near Paris and shared a cell with a nurse called Hedwig Muller who had been arrested by the Gestapo and after the war said Beekman seldom left her cell because her legs were weak and her leg injuries are thought to have been caused through torture.

At Frésnes there were three other SOE agents: Madeleine Damerment, a courier with Bricklayer circuit; Elaine Plewman who worked as a courier with Monk circuit and Noor Inayat Khan a wireless operator assigned to the ill-fated Prosper/Physician circuit.

Elaine Plewman, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan

At 01:30 hrs on the morning of 10 September 1944 the women were handcuffed and taken to a railway station and eventually arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp. On 13 September Obersturmbannfuhrer Fredrich Wilhelm Ruppert executed the three women and after the war a member of the Gestapo named Christian Ott gave the following statement to American investigators:

“The four prisoners had come from the barrack in the camp where they had spent the night, into the yard where the shooting was to be done… The death sentence was announced to them…. The German speaking English woman {Beekman} had told her companions of the death sentence. All four had grown very pale and wept… Beekman {he called her the major!} asked whether they could protest against the sentence. The Kommandant declared that no protest could be made against the sentence. The major (Beekman) had then asked to see a priest. The camp Kommandant refused on the grounds that there was no priest in the camp.

The four prisoners now had to kneel with their heads towards a small mound of earth and were killed by two SS, one after another shot through the back of the neck. During the shooting the two English women held hands and the two French women likewise. For three of the prisoners the first shot caused death, but the German speaking English woman (Beekman) a second shot had to be fired as she still showed signs of life after the first shot.

After the shooting of these prisoners the Lagerkommandant said to the SS men that he took a personal interest in the jewellery of the women and that this should be taken to his office.”

It was also later stated the four women had been badly beaten before their executions.

SS Officer Wilhelm Ruppert. Image taken after being arrested by American forces.

After the war SS Officer Wilhelm Ruppert who was in charge of executions at Dachau was convicted of war crimes and executed by hanging.