Hannie Schaft of the Dutch Resistance (The girl with the red hair)

(Unless otherwise stated all photographs are Public domain/common licence)

Hannie Schaft was born in Haarlem northern Holland on 16 September 1920.

After the German occupation of the Netherlands Hannie Schaft started providing stolen and forged identity papers to Jewish families to prevent them being deported to concentration camps. This first act of resistance by 20-year-old Shaft came to the attention of the Council of the Resistance which was a group closely linked to the Communist Party of the Netherlands and they decided to recruit her.

The leadership wanted her to become a courier but Schaft refused and said she wanted to fight the Germans.  

Schaft with Sten Gun

Shortly after completing her firearms and other training a member of the resistance pointed out a senior Gestapo officer and told her to kill him. 

Schaft walked behind the officer then put  her pistol to his head and pulled the trigger but all she heard was a click.  Unbeknown to Schaft the Gestapo officer was a member of the resistance, she had been given an unloaded pistol  and this was a test to ensure she was capable of assassinating members of the occupying forces and collaborators.

The pistol of Hannie Schaft (Haarlems Vertzts Museum)

One of several assassinations took place on 15 March 1945 when Hannie and 16-year-old Truus Oversteegen whose sister was also with the resistance shot dead Ko Langendisk who was a paid German informer.  Truus later said, after the assassination they both hid in a hotel and Hannie put on face powder because she wanted to die pretty.

Sisters (L) Freddie (R) Truus Oversteegen. Former members of the Resistance

Hannie Schaft had distinctive red hair and  after being involved in acts of  sabotage and several assassinations  she was high on the German wanted list and was known as ‘the girl with the red hair’. Aware the Germans had her description and were looking for her Schaft dyed her hair black and continued her resistance work.

Apart from assassinations and sabotage including her part in blowing up a power station near Haarlem she also transported and distributed weapons.

On 25 March 1945 Schaft was arrested at a routine German checkpoint in Haarlem but only after her interrogators noticed the red roots of her hair did the Gestapo suspect she was the woman on their wanted list. It has also been alleged another member of the resistance identified her after they had been tortured.

Three weeks before the end of the war Hannie Schaft was shot but the first bullet did not kill her. It has been widely claimed although seriously injured Schaft said to her executioner, “I shoot better than that”, after which she was killed by a second bullet to the head. 

On 27 November 1945 Hannie was reburied during a state funeral  along with 421 other members of the Dutch resistance who had served with various organisations.

Stamp dated 1962 issued by the DDR (Communist East Germany)

During the Cold War East Germany used Hannie Schaft in their propaganda and printed a postage stamp in her memory and due to increasing tensions between the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and western Europe  the history of the Communist section of the Dutch resistance became politically unpopular. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the communist resisters who fought for the liberation  of the Netherlands once again start to be  recognised for their sacrifices and bravery.  

Further reading and information

Kathryn Atwood, Women Heroes of World War Two

Hannie Schaft foundation   https://hannieschaft.nl/to-all-international-visitors/

Andree Peel (nee Virot) Heroine of the French Resistance

In March 2010 Andree Peel died of pneumonia at a British nursing home at the age of 102 and was buried at All Saints Church in Long Ashton near Bristol. 

A casual observer seeing the honour guard from the Royal British Legion with their banners marching ahead of the funeral procession would be aware she had connections with the British military but it is unusual for the deceased to be honoured by two nations: her coffin was covered with both the French and British flags.

Andree Virot was born on 3 February 1905 in Brest and when Germany occupied France in 1940, she was running a beauty salon in Brest and immediately started to resist the German occupation  by distributing clandestine newspapers calling for patriots to resist the German forces.

After coming to the attention of the Gaullist Free French based in Dorset Square London, Andree was given command of the Breton clandestine circuit and used the field name ‘Rose’.

Her resistance activities quickly expanded and included gathering intelligence on  the German navy  and their submarine pens, German troop movements and the effects of allied bombing and her reports were sent to London by wireless.

She also organised weapons, sabotage stores and agents from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as well as the Free French Section (RF) to be dropped by parachute onto remote farmland  but she always said her greatest achievement was helping 102 allied aircrews shot down over France to evade capture and return to England and later said this was the contribution she was most proud off.

By May 1944 Andre Virot was high on the Gestapo wanted list and after obtaining forged identity papers she left Brittany and travelled to Paris where she was less well known by the Gestapo and the Abwehr (German military intelligence).   

On 9 June, three days after D-day she was arrested and sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp and later transported to the equally notorious Ravensbrück camp in Germany. The day she was due to be executed by the SS the camp was liberated by American forces.


Andree kept the infamous blue-and-white striped pyjama suit issued to her at Buchenwald.

After the war Andree ran a restaurant in Paris where she met an Englishman named John Peel who she later married, and the couple moved to Long Ashton near Bristol and in 1999 she published her memoirs, Miracles do Happen.  After the death of her husband in 2003 Andree moved into the care home where she later died peacefully in her sleep.

Her work with the resistance and the rescue of 102 British and American aircrews was honoured by several decorations including the King’s Commendation for Bravery presented to her by George VI, the US Medal of Freedom, the French Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour which in 2004 was upgraded to Chevalier of the Legion.  She also received a personal letter from Winston Churchill thanking her for saving the lives of British aircrews. 

Captain Robert Nairac, GC (Northern Ireland)

Robert Nairac was born in British Mauritius in 1948, not in Ireland as some journalists have stated, and his only connection with Ireland before joining the army was  during his time as a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin  where he studied Irish history.

Nairac was not an  SAS officer, as some journalists have also wrongly stated, he  was a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and served at least three tours of duty in Northern Ireland with his regiment before volunteering to undertake selection and training for intelligence work.

Taken in Northern Ireland before joining intelligence

As the disappearance and murder of Robert Nairac continues to be surrounded by myths, conspiracy theories and speculations the following is based on what is generally regarded as facts.

Robert Nairac was an intelligence liaison officer based at Bessbrook Mills which like Forkhill and Crossmaglen  were the most dangerous parts of Northern Ireland where roadside bombs were common and travelling in and out of the area had to be by helicopter. In these remote areas near the border with the Irish Republic  strangers were not welcome and were viewed with suspicion.

Left- taken whilst working under cover

Whilst travelling alone in this hostile area and meeting contacts Robert Nairac was using the name Danny Mcalevey from the Ardoyne in Belfast which was also an IRA stronghold. According to several writers he was happy with his cover identity and was seen visiting various places in South Armagh and the surrounding area which journalists at the time called Bandit Country because of the bombs and snipers who sometimes operated from the safety of the Republic.  

Bessbrook

On Saturday 17 May 1977, it is thought Nairac planned to meet a contact at the Three Steps Inn at Drumintee which was another dangerous area close to the Irish border and some writers claim he had made several visits to this bar.

Robert Nairac was wearing a black donkey jacket, a pullover, flared grey trousers and scuffed down suede shoes and took with him his Browning 9mm pistol and two additional full magazines. Although he also had an SLR and 80 rounds of ammunition he left this in the armoury.

Whilst signing out of the base he said he would only be going out for a few hours and would return  by 23.30 hrs. He then drove out of Bessbrook Mill in a red Triumph Toledo at 21.30 hrs.

His car had a radio concealed under the seat and using his call sign ’48 Oscar’ he told the operations room at Bessbrook he was travelling towards Drumintee.

The Three Steps

At 21.58 hrs he reached the pub and told the operations room he was closing down radio contact.

Several eyewitnesses recall Nairac drinking and speaking to customers but how his cover was blown may never be known.

Several customers recall Nairac fighting in the carpark with five to seven men and was holding his own before eventually being overpowered, thrown into the back of a car and driven away at speed.

Taken prior to is abduction by the IRA

It is known Robert Nairac was driven over the border and tortured for several hours but refused to divulge any information and stuck to is cover story of being Danny Mcalevey from the Ardoyne.

Later the IRA said he was a brave man till the end and never spoke and was eventually shot in the head.  Robert Parker in his book Death of A Hero, makes the valid point that if Robert Nairac had talked all his contacts would have been killed by the IRA and they owe their lives to his bravery.

According to a report by the Irish Times the Garda (Irish Police in the Republic) found blood, teeth and hair but could not find his body and after the Good Friday Agreement the IRA refused to tell the Garda where the remains  of Captain Robert Nairac are buried.

Robert Nairac’s GC and GSM with Northern Ireland Clasp

Citation for the award George Cross

“The Queen has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the George Cross to: Captain Robert Laurence Nairac (493007), GRENADIER GUARDS.

 Captain Nairac served for four tours of duty in Northern Ireland totalling twenty-eight months. During the whole of this time he made an outstanding personal contribution : his quick analytical brain, resourcefulness, physical stamina and above all his courage and dedication inspired admiration in everyone who knew him. On his fourth tour Captain Nairac was a Liaison Officer at Headquarters 3 Infantry Brigade. His task was connected with surveillance operations.

 On the night of 14/15 May 1977 Captain Nairac was abducted from a village in South Armagh by at least seven men. Despite his fierce resistance he was overpowered and taken across the border into the nearby Republic of Ireland where he was subjected to a succession of exceptionally savage assaults in an attempt to extract information which would have put other lives and future operations at serious risk. These efforts to break Captain Nairac’s will failed entirely. Weakened as he was in strength-though not in spirit-by the brutality, he yet made repeated and spirited attempts to escape, but on each occasion was eventually overpowered by the weight of the numbers against him.

 After several hours in the hands of his captors Captain Nairac was callously murdered by a gunman of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who had been summoned to the scene. His assassin subsequently said: “He never told us anything”. Captain Nairac’s exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril showed devotion to duty and personal courage second to none.”  

Further reading:

John Parker, Death of a Hero: Captain Nairac GC and the undercover war in Northern Ireland

John Parker, Secret Hero: The Life and mysterious death of Captain Robert Nairac

The Female undercover soldier awarded the Military Medal whilst serving in Northern Ireland.

When it comes to whether women should be allowed to serve in front line combat units in the British army, I agree few women would be capable of serving in units which for operational reasons have to carry heavy loads for long distances, over harsh terrain and as quickly as possible but this problem is simply down to physiology. Although for some roles physical strength and endurance is essential, I reject the argument women are not capable of fighting as professionally and with the same ruthlessness as men and it is interesting to note similar arguments based on the belief women are of the wrong temperament for combat were put forward during the Second World War.

During the research for my forthcoming book, Special Operations Executive in Wartime France, I found in 1941 a handful of politicians and senior military officers who were aware of the existence of the ultra-secret SOE expressing outrage at the recruitment and training of women in subversive warfare and the dangers they would face in German occupied countries, and most of this criticism was down to the institutional and socially accepted sexism of the period.

After this criticism came to the attention of Churchill all opposition ceased to be voiced after announcing he had no objections to women being used in combat or being employed in other hazardous duties.

After the war  some criticised Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the former head of SOE’s French Section, for recruiting women and the deaths of women agents and in 1952 Buckmaster stood up to his critics by saying:

“It has been suggested that women agents should never have been sent {to France},that they were forced to undertake missions to which both by temperament and by nature they were unsuited, and by physique and spirit inadequate… The dead cannot be revived by such accusations, they can only be dishonoured…. Those of us who know the work done by women can only feel deep anger and contempt to those who try to denigrate… and question the ability of women who fought alongside men… by doubting the readiness of brave women to face perils and if necessary, die for their countries.

The women did an invaluable job and one of which, whatever people say, they were admirably suited. Coolness and judgement were vital qualities; none lacked them. Courage was their common badge. (Buckmaster, Maurice: Specially Employed, 1952)

These extraordinary qualities are still common among women working on operations connected with intelligence and security, and like their male colleagues their names  are unlikely to come to public attention because it has always been government policy to never comment on intelligence operations.

Apart from the mandatory Official Secrets Act those with operational experience have also signed a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement.

james Rennie The Operators

Secrecy surrounding clandestine operations has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories and during the intelligence war in Northern Ireland the IRA used such operations for propaganda purposes.  One of the best-known false narratives still being promoted by the IRA and can be found on the internet is connected with the Four-Square Laundry.

During Operation Banner (the British Military campaign in Northern Ireland) the military contribution to intelligence, which the press often called undercover soldiers, consisted of volunteers from all regiments and from all branches of the armed forces who had successfully passed selection and training and included women from the three services.

As the Sunday Times dated 30 October 2018 points out, in 1973 the army in Northern Ireland ran a mobile laundry service which collected laundry from communities where many residents  were known to be involved in terrorism. Once collected it  was examined for blood, explosive residues and gunpowder before being laundered and delivered back to the customer.

On the morning of 18 April 1973, a Four-Square laundry van driven by Ted Stuart (Royal Engineers) who was on ‘detachment’ arrived at the IRA stronghold of the Twinbrook Estate and started collecting laundry from his regular customers. After stopping outside a house his partner Jane Warke left the van and knocked on the door of another customer and after it was open by a young woman, they started to pass pleasantries and exchanged gossip.

Telford (Ted ) Stuart

The conversation was abruptly cut short after suddenly hearing rapid bursts of automatic gunfire behind her. As  Jane quickly turned to face the road, she  immediately saw   one man sitting behind the wheel of a getaway car whilst three IRA gunmen were firing long bursts from their automatic weapons at close range into the driver’s side of the laundry Van. Ted Stuart had no time to take cover or fire at the gunmen and was quickly killed.

According to IRA propaganda, “The female undercover  soldier started running and screaming to a neighbouring house and told the residents they were loyalist gunmen and they took her in…”

The truth is the direct opposite. After turning to face the road she was confronted by two heavily armed gunmen and  was quickly shot,  but  although wounded she drew her 9mm hi-power Browning handgun,  held her ground and engaged the gunmen who after a brief exchange of gunfire  decided to run to the waiting car.

In the Gazette dated 18 September 1973, among the many awards and honours will be found W/439979 Lance Corporal Sara Jane Wake, Women’s Royal Army Corp and confirmation of her Military Medal for Bravery. For obvious reasons Northern Ireland and the name of the unit she was serving with is not mentioned in the Gazette.

Buckmaster’s comments regarding the women under his command: “ Coolness… and courage being their common badge”  are qualities still found among many women serving with British military forces.

Further readings:

Rennie James, The Operators: Inside 14th Intelligence Company, BCS 1996

Parker, John: Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC and the undercover war in Northern Ireland, Metro 1999

The unknown Para who saved a Dutch family during the Battle of Arnhem

Albert Willingham was living in Drayton Hampshire before enlisting into the Dorset Regiment.

After volunteering for Airborne Forces and successfully passing selection and parachute training he was posted to Headquarters Company 10th  Battalion The Parachute Regiment and in September 1944 was killed in action during the Battle of Arnhem. It took 74 years for  his bravery and self-sacrifice to come to public notice.

Private Albert willingham

According to Dilip Sarker (Arnhem 1944: The Human Tragedy of the Bridge Too Far, published in 2018)

 Whilst under enemy fire Willingham managed to drag an injured officer to a cellar which was full of wounded Airborne soldiers and around twenty Dutch civilians hiding from the fighting. After German forces started clearing  surrounding buildings a stick grenade was thrown down the steps to the cellar and landed in front of a young mother, Mrs Bertje Voskuil and her 8-year-old son Henri. Without hesitation Private Albert Willingham showed a total disregard for his life as he stood between the grenade and the young family to shield them from the blast and was killed.

Bertji Voskuil
Henri Voskuil

Pte George Peachment one of the youngest recipients of the VC during WW1

George Peachment was the son of a barber and  lived with his parents in Bury Lancashire. He wanted  to join the army and fight in the war but was aware the minimum age for overseas service was 19 so  decided to lie about his age. According to figures compiled by the British Legion George Peachment was one of 250,000 young men under the age of 19 who served in the Great War after claiming to be over 19 years of age.

On 19 April 1915, at the age of 17, he told the recruiting sergeant he was 19 years old  and one month and wore his father’s bowler hat to make him look older and successfully enlisted into the Rifle Corp, but his military service got off to a bad start.

Private Peachment was charged for being absent without leave from 0700 hrs on 2 July 1915 until 0810 hrs 5 July and was fined seven days loss of pay. Two months later he was confined to barracks for three days for having a dirty bayonet whilst on parade. Six days later he was fighting during the opening Battle of Loos, the largest British offensive on the western front during 1915.

After four-days of artillery bombardments against German lines at 0630 hrs on 25 September 1915 George Peachment took part in this major offensive but the preliminary artillery bombardment had not silenced the German machine guns, barbed wire defences were still intact and once in no man’s land many British soldiers were cut down by machine gun and rifle fire from the German trenches creating a scene of mass slaughter common throughout the Great War.

Due to the large number of dead and dying caught up in barbed wire defences and scattered across the battlefield,  the line was retiring so it could be reorganised when private George Peachment saw his company commander, Captain Dubs lying wounded near the German trenches. Instead of falling back or taking cover with other men in a shell hole, Peachment whilst under intense machine gun fire crawled towards Captain Dubs.

In 1996 Lord Ashcroft bought Peachment’s Victoria Cross at auction along with a remarkable letter from Peachment’s company commander to his mother which tells the story of how her son died saving his life. Captain Dubs wrote:

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am that your brave son was killed, but I hope it may be some consolation to you to know how bravely he behaved and how he met his end…

When we reached the {barbed} wire we found it absolutely untouched by our artillery fire and an almost impossible obstacle as a result. However, we had to push on and I gave the order to try and get through it and over it. Your son followed me over the wire and advanced with me about 20 yards through it till we were only about 15 yards from the German trenches. None of the other men of the line were able to get as far and he was the only man with me. As a matter of fact, I had not noticed your son with me, but at this point a bomb hit me in the eye blowing it and part of my face away.

I fell to the ground, but on sitting up found your son kneeling beside me. The German fire at this time was very intense but your son was perfectly cool. He asked me for my field dressing and started bandaging my head quite oblivious to the fire. His first thought was to help me, and although there was a shell hole nearby where he might have got cover, he never thought of doing so.

Of course, the Germans were bound to see us sitting up, and one of them threw a bomb which hit your son in the chest whilst at the same time I received a bullet in the chest. Your son was beyond feeling any pain though still alive. I tried to drag him into the shell hole and at the same time keep him from moving, but at that moment a bullet hit him in the head and killed him.

After his first wound he was bound to die, in fact he was already, immediately after he received it unconscious of any pain. I lay beside him there all day, and eventually we were picked up in the late afternoon when the trench was taken by a flank attack.

I can’t tell you how much I admired your son’s bravery and pluck. He lost his life in trying to help me and no man could have been braver than he was… I have recommended him for the Victoria Cross and have heard the commanding officer has seen the recommendation.

If he gets it, it is sad to think he is not in this world to receive all the congratulations he would get, but perhaps it may be of comfort to you… Your son died the finest death that man can die, he showed the greatest gallantry a man could show, and I hope these facts help you in your sad loss together with the fact he was spared all pain and suffering.”

IWW

Official Citation published in the London Gazette 18 November 1915

“During heavy fighting when our front line was compelled to retire to reorganise, Private Peachment, seeing his company commander Captain Dubs lying wounded crawled to assist him. The enemy fire was intense but though there was a shell hole quite close in which men had taken cover, Private Peachment never thought of saving himself.

He knelt in the open by his officer and tried to help him but while doing this he was first wounded by a bomb and a minute later mortally wounded by a rifle bullet.

He was one of the youngest men in his battalion and gave this splendid example of courage and sacrifice. “

Pte Peachment’s medals (Ashcroft Collection)

On 29 November 1916 the Victoria Cross was awarded to his mother by King George V at Buckingham Palace. His body was never recovered but he is commemorated on the Loos memorial which lists the names of more than 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the battle.

Third Supplement to The London Gazette of 16 November 1915. 18 November 1915, Numb. 29371, p. 11450

Name: George Stanley PEACHMENT

D.O.B: 5th May, 1897

D.O.A: 25th September, 1915

D.O.D: 25th September, 1915

Award: Victoria Cross

Occupation at time of action: Private, 2nd Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division

Loos, France 25 September 1915

(Primary source Lord Ashcroft Collection)

Source http://www.lordashcroft.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/LORDASHCROFT_NOV2013.pdf

Barbara Harrison, GC

Barbara Harrison wanted to travel the world and was excited after successfully completing her training as a flight attendant for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (now part of British Airways).  

On 8 April 1968, 22-year-old Barbara Harrison was a flight attendant on a BOAC Boeing 707 which took off from London Heathrow Airport at 16.27 bound for Sydney Australia and the citation for her GC describes what happened immediately after take-off.

CENTRAL CHANCERY OF THE ORDERS OF KNIGHTHOOD

ST. JAMES PALACE, LONDON SW1

8TH AUGUST 1969

THE QUEEN HAS BEEN GRACIOUSLY PLEASED TO MAKE THE UNDERMENTIONED AWARD

GEORGE CROSS

Miss Barbara Jane Harrison (deceased) stewardess, British Overseas Airways Corporation

No. 2 engine of B.O.A.C. Boeing 707 G-ARWE caught fire and subsequently fell from the aircraft, leaving a fierce fire burning at No. 2 engine position. About two and a half minutes later the aircraft made an emergency landing at the airport and the fire on the port wing intensified.

Miss Harrison was one of the stewardesses in this aircraft and the duties assigned to her in an emergency were to help the steward at the aft station to open the appropriate rear door and inflate the escape chute and then to assist the passengers at the rear of the aircraft to leave in an orderly manner. When the aircraft landed, Miss Harrison and the steward concerned opened the rear galley door and inflated the chute, which unfortunately became twisted on the way down so that the steward had to climb down it to straighten it before it could be used. Once out of the aircraft he was unable to return; hence Miss Harrison was left alone to the task of shepherding passengers to the rear door and helping them out of the aircraft. She encouraged some passengers to jump from the machine and pushed out others. With flames and explosions all around her, making an escape from the tail of the machine impossible, she directed her passengers to another exit while she remained at her post. She was finally overcome while trying to save an elderly cripple who was seated in one of the last rows and whose body was found close to that of the stewardess. Miss Harrison was a very brave young lady who gave her life in her utter devotion to duty.

According to witnesses, after the escape chute had been burnt away Harrison continued to force passengers to safety by pushing them out the door and continued to do this  even as flames and smoke were licking {sic} around her face.  She then seemed to be preparing to jump but instead turned back to help the remaining passengers. There was another explosion and she was not seen again. Her body was found with four others near the rear door; all had died from asphyxia.

Her George Cross was presented to her father and was eventually sold at auction and purchased by British Airways.  It is now on display at the British Airways’ Speedbird Centre in Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

Barbara Harrison is buried at Fulford Cemetery, York.