Anthony and Barbara Bertram with their young son rented a cottage called Bignor Manor in the small village of Bignor located in Chichester, West Sussex and quickly became respected members of the village community. There was nothing unusual about the Bertram family: they kept chickens and exchanged fresh eggs for other produce; their son had a pet goat called Wendy and he spent most of his spare time playing with other children in the village.
In 1995 Barbara Bertram published her war memoirs, ‘The French Resistance in Sussex’, and many of the villagers who knew the family during the war were shocked to discover the important role the Bertram’s and Bignor Manor played during the secret war in France. Bignor Manor was around 11 miles from RAF Tangmere which during the moon-period Lysander aircraft from 161 Special Duties Squadron used for air landings deep inside France to deliver and pickup SOE, MI6, MI9, RF (Free French agents) and Bignor Manor was the forward safe house for agents being transported to and from France.
A dartboard in the sitting room concealed a cupboard containing equipment being issued to agents including personal firearms, special devices and weapons and Cyanide capsules. Even Wendy, the pet goat, played a part in their clandestine work. Barbara recalled, “London received an urgent wireless request to pick up an agent who was being hunted by the Germans. The BBC French service sent a cryptic message saying, ‘Wendy needs a new dress.’ This meant their message had been received and arrangements were being made. A few hours later a BBC announcer said, ‘Wendy has bought a new dress’ and this told the agents a Lysander had entered French airspace.
The Café de Paris was a London nightclub in Coventry Street W1 near Leicester Square which opened in 1924 but closed permanently in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After receiving a direct hit during the Blitz, it was reported in newspapers but due to censorship the full story only became known several years after the war.
On the night of 8 March 1941, the Café de Paris which had a maximum capacity of 700 people was described as heaving with couples dancing to Ken ‘Snake hips’ Johnson’s big band. Twenty-six-year old Ken Johnson was from British Ghana and had just started playing when according to one of the few survivors there was an immense blue flash. Two bombs entered the night club down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded in front of the band. Ken Johnson’s head was blown from his shoulders and the legs of dancer’s were sheared off. Due to the confined space the blast was magnified and burst the lungs of diners as they sat at their tables and killed them instantly.
When rescuers arrived one tripped over a girl’s head on the floor, looked up and saw her torso still sitting in a chair. The dead and dying where heaped everywhere.
The number of fatalities determined by body parts is not known and numbers varying considerably but this was not uncommon during the Blitz.
Johnny Ramensky spent most of his life in and out of jail.
Several agents who served with the Special Operations Executive who graduated from the Beulieu finishing school mentioned a larger than life Glaswegian career criminal called Johnny Ramensky who was also known as ‘Gentle Johnny’ because every time he was arrested he was polite to the police and owned up to his crimes. Ramensky had a Polish Father and Scottish mother and was released from prison after agreeing to train students to become safecrackers and cat-burglars and after disappearing from Beulieu it was rumoured he was back in prison after being caught breaking into a safe.
Due to his criminal skills still being in demand he was released from prison again in 1943 and enlisted into the Fusiliers, but throughout the remainder of the war he served with 30 Commando and was later awarded the Military Medal. Apart from cracking safes and sabotage operations behind enemy lines it was widely said Ramensky found time to loot the Germans and find ways to transport various valuables back to Scotland and even gave an expensive ‘stolen’ present to the governor of a prison where he previously served time for burglary and during a short time in hospital a senior police officer who arrested him several times over many years sent a letter addressed to ‘Gentle Johnny’ wishing him a speedy recovery.
Ramensky started his long criminal career shortly after leaving school and spent 40-years of his life in and out of various prisons and after the war returned to crime. Sometime in 1972 Ramensky was sentence to one-year in prison after being caught on the roof of a shop and whilst in prison ‘Gentle Johnny’ suffered a stroke and died at Perth Royal Infirmary on 4 November 1972.
Polish Section SOE. Agents trained at station 43 (Audley End House and Gardens near Saffron, Essex which is now owned by English Heritage) This section became known as the Cichocienmni – the silent unseen. Between 1941- 1945, 316 Polish SOE agents were dropped into occupied Poland and 103 men and women were killed in action or executed by the Gestapo and a further 9 were killed by Soviet Forces after the war. In 1983 a memorial urn was placed in West Park in memory of the 103 Polish parachutists who lost their lives during the war.
Every year on 11 November (Armistice Day and Polish Independence Day), the staff at Audley End stop their work, and gather at the memorial for a short service, ensuring that the dedication and bravery of the Cichociemni are not forgotten.
Due to lack of records which adds to the difficulty of researching SOE there is little information about the war service of Denise Gilman (Gilman, Denise, Irene, Marguerite) and I have to thank Christine Quintlé for filling in many of the gaps as well as providing the only known photograph of her. Gilman was born on 30 June 1921 in Waziers (North), a commune in the Nord department in northern France, 4 km northwest of Douai and 25 km south of Lille, and at the time of her resistance activities she was 22-years-old.
Gilman fits the description of a woman driving a charcoal burning van which broke down in front of German soldiers near their barracks who insisted on pushing her vehicle to their workshop for repairs. Whilst working on the vehicle the woman thought to be Denise Gilman flirted with the soldiers to draw attention away from her cargo. Fortunately, they did not open the rear doors and see it was loaded to the ceiling with explosives and weapons. After repairing her vehicle, she warmly thanked the soldiers and continued her journey. It is known Gilman worked as the courier for SOE agent Michael Trotobas (mentioned in another post) and both were part of the Farmer network (also known as the Sylvestre Farmer Network) which operated in Lille; it is also known Denise Gilman and Michael Trotobas had been wanted by the Gestapo since August 1943. Gilman travelled extensively whilst liaising with members of the Resistance and SOE agents in Lille, Arras, Amboise and Paris and on the evening of 26 November 1943 after arriving from Paris she Stayed at a safe house at 20 boulevard de Belfort Lille with Trotobas and were due to move to another safe house.
Although complicated and beyond the scope of this post, essentially, a captured agent gave their safehouse address to the Gestapo.
At 6 am the safehouse was surrounded by German Field Police and although greatly outnumbered Gilman and Trotobas refused to be taken alive and engaged the Germans in a firefight during which both were fatally wounded. Several days after their deaths members of the resistance searched the flat and found a traumatised black cat hiding under a bed and the cat became the symbol for local resistance by the Farmer circuit.
There is much we don’t know about Denise Gilman but her heroic stand with Michael Trotobas is well documented.
At SOE headquarters in London brothers Henry and Alfred Newton were affectionally referred to as the twins although there was a large age difference. Before joining SOE their parents, wives and children boarded a liner to take them and other refugees to the safety of England but during the passage the ship was sunk by a German U-boat and there were no survivors and after the loss of their entire family the brothers had a deep hatred of the Germans.
The twins were sent to France to train members of the resistance in the use of weapons and explosives, but the Gestapo eventually tracked down their safehouse in Lyon. Due to their reputation the Gestapo were accustomed to people cowering before them, and the 15 Gestapo officers who burst into their safe house were shocked when the twins immediately began attacking them with improvised weapons including wine bottles and chair legs being used as truncheons. By the time the twins were overpowered and severely beaten the Gestapo officers were bruised and bloodied and one had his front teeth knocked out.
After being taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Hotel Terminus in Lyon, for several days they were tortured by Klaus Barbie (the butcher of Lyon) and his equally psychopathic assistant Larsen but the twins refused to provide information. Barbie then put the twins before a mock firing squad where they showed no emotions and it was clear they were prepared to die. After failing to break the twins they were sent to a concentration camp where they survived by changing their prison numbers on their uniforms with prisoners who had died from typhoid and other diseases and this continued until they were eventually liberated. Although they survived the war the twins never got over their injuries and mental scars.
Peulevé undertook three missions to France and eventually formed a clandestine circuit called Author where he armed and trained more than 4000 members of the resistance. He was aware of being on the Gestapo wanted list but turned down an opportunity to be extracted from France by the RAF Special Duties Squadron.
Peulevé and several members of the local resistance were later arrested at a safehouse and eventually taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris where they were separated before being interrogated.
Peulevé was tortured for several days but refused to answer their questions and was transferred to a solitary confinement cell at Fresnes Prison. During an escape attempt he was shot in the leg and after being refused medical treatment was forced to remove the bullet by digging it out with a dirty prison spoon whilst hoping the wound would not become infected. He was later deported to a concentration camp and after eleven agents were executed and knowing he could be next he swapped his identity with a French prisoner named Marcel Seigneur who had died from Typhus. In early 1945 Peulevé, now known to the SS guards as Marcel Seigneur, was transferred to a labour detail where he was forced to dig anti-tank ditches near the River Elbe and after advancing American forces reached Magdenburg he managed to escape.
Several hours later he was stopped by two SS soldiers but managed to convince them he was a French collaborator trying to avoid the advancing Americans and then warned them to remove their tunics and insignias because the Americans were shooting members of the SS. As they began to undress Peulevé grabbed one of their pistols and later handed them over to soldiers of the 83rd US Infantry Division. After being debriefed he returned to England and landed at Croydon Airport on 18 April 1945.
In December 1943, twenty-year-old Anne-Marie Walters was minutes away from parachuting into France when her mission was aborted due to heavy fog over the drop zone and the aircraft returned to England. The bomber was diverted to another airfield not normally used by the RAF Special Duties Squadron where no questions were asked about female passengers. During the landing the aircraft hit pine trees and crashed short of the runway and caught fire. Walters and another agent named Jean-Claude escaped through a hole in the fuselage. Walters later recalled: “As ground crews ran to the burning aircraft one shouted what the hell is this woman doing in this mess? We decided to say we were journalists, but it was doubtful whether anyone would believe us; our jump suits and arms and scattered containers would give us away… The rest of the crew apart from the dispatcher were killed.”
On the night of 3-4 June 1944 Walters and Jean-Claude successfully infiltrated France by parachute and Walters joined the Wheelwright Network as their courier. Her cover story was that she was a student from Paris recovering from pneumonia who was visiting friends who had a farm. Walters travelled throughout SW France. After 15 members of the French Resistance escaped from prison she organised their escape across the Pyrenees, she helped deliver several suitcases of explosives to Toulouse to blow up a power station. After one journey Walters said, “My family might not have recognized me had they seen me sitting in a third-class carriage with a beret tipped low over my forehead, wearing an old raincoat and generally looking half-witted while eating a chunk of bread and sausages”. Whilst fighting 2000 German troops during which 19 members of the resistance were killed, under heavy enemy fire Walters distributed hand grenades and ammunition to members of the Maquis before their position was overrun. Later during her life Anne-Marie Walters suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in France in 1998 at the age of 75.
Canadian SOE agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister parachuted into France on the night of 20 June 1943 with instructions to form a clandestine network called Archdeacon. As described in the previous post they were picked up by SOE agents Yvonne Rudellat and Pierre Culioli and their vehicle was stopped at a roadblock during which the Canadians cover were blown and were arrested, and the two other agents were captured after a shoot-out with German troops who recovered the Canadians wireless and codes hidden in a Red Cross parcel on the rear seat of the vehicle and this allowed a German operator to play-back the wireless to London using the correct codes.
Whilst a German operator was sending favourable reports to London about the newly formed Archdeacon Circuit there was no reason to doubt they were receiving signals from Macalister and as requested sent weapons, finance and other agents by parachute to assist Archdeacon which, unbeknown to London, was in German hands and only after the war did the full story become known. After their capture Macalister and Pickersgill were repeatedly tortured for information but refused to assist the Gestapo and on 27 August they were transported to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
On 14 September 1944, John Macalister, Frank Pickersgill along with several other agents were executed by slow strangulation with piano wire suspended from hooks in the crematorium at Buchenwald camp.
Yvonne Rudellat was an SOE Courier who was involved in a number of operations and the following is an overview. On 20 July 1942 after crossing from Gibraltar by felucca under the cover of darkness she arrived by rowing boat on a deserted beach a few miles from Cannes. She used the cover name Jacqueline Gautier but used other identities whilst working for various networks. She took a train from Cannes to Lyon and from there took a train to Paris where she hid in the tender of the locomotive to cross the demarcation line. From Paris she went to Tours and worked for the Monkeypuzzle circuit where she organised agents and supplies to be dropped by parachute and also travelled by bicycle to liaise with scattered members of the resistance. After Monkeypuzzle was infiltrated by German agents she teamed up with SOE agent Pierre Culioli and took the cover of a married couple with the surname Leclaire and continued organising parachute drops.
Working as a married couple they picked up two Canadian SOE agents, John Macalister and Frank Pickersgill who arrived in France by Parachute a few hours previously. Culioli was driving the car, Yvonne was sitting next to him and the two Canadians were sitting in the back when they reached a roadblock in Dhuizon. The reason why the Canadians were ordered out of the car and why their covers were blown is beyond the scope of this post. After German soldiers ordered Rudellat and Culioli out of the car Culioli put the car in gear and accelerated away and soldiers started firing at them. They were quickly pursued by a vehicle full of German soldiers who were shooting at them and Yvonne was seen leaning out of the car window returning fire before slumping back on her seat after being shot in the head, shortly afterwards Culioli was shot in the leg and the car crashed into a wall. Yvonne was taken unconscious to Blois Hospital where doctors found the bullet had not entered her brain and decided it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. When she gained consciousness she was confused, did not know her name or understand why she was in France.
On 2 March she arrived at Bergen-Belson concentration camp during a typhus epidemic during which an estimated 20,000 prisoners died. Rudellat never recovered her memory and eight days after the camp was liberated Yvonne Rudellat died of typhus and dysentery and was buried in a mass grave along with 5000 other bodies.