Women Agents of SOE – Occupied France 1940-1944

Important Preface – Although this article is dated July 2019 this is the date it first appeared on this blog and was written several years previously. Since this article was written over five-years of research has been completed for my forthcoming book ‘SOE in France’ which is due for publication in June 2022.  Some of the original research by MRD Foot mentioned below and other authors including R.J. Minney who wrote ‘Carve her Name with Pride’ (the life of Violette Szabo) have been challenged by new findings.

The Special Operations Executive was engaged in clandestine warfare throughout the world but more is known about their French Section than any other section within this highly secretive organisation.  

Although disbanded in 1946, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) remains one of the most difficult wartime organisations for historians to research. Professor M.R.D. Foot, who can be considered as the SOE’s official historian, says that many of their records remain secret and are kept by the Foreign Office whilst others were deliberately destroyed.  As Foot says, in his extensive ‘official’ research into SOE’s F Section (French Section) “It has long been British government policy that the archives of SOE, the wartime Special Operations Executive, must remain secret like the archives of any other secret service.”

Much of which continues to be published about the SOE is based on the records made available to Professor Foot and his book, ‘History of the Second World War: SOE in France” which was first published by HMSO in 1966.

Vera Atkins Intelligence Officer SOE French Section

Vera Atkins

When it comes to understanding the fate of the 118 agents who failed to return from occupied France we must turn to the many years of investigation work conducted by Vera Atkins who has been described as the most powerful and influential women to have served with SOE.

Although F Section was commanded by Major (later Colonel) Maurice Buckmaster, known to his agents and the Gestapo as ‘Buck’, Vera Atkins has been described as his formidable and brilliant assistant.   Vera was involved in every aspect of F Section – interviewing potential recruits, organising and planning training and planning the agent’s reception in France. She was also noted for her intelligence and capability of cracking complex ciphers.

Vera was also known for her deep humanity and sense of responsibility to those she was sending to possible death inside occupied France. She saw every agent off to their operation, she kept in contact with their next of kin and organised coded messaged on the BBC so they could be kept informed about people they had left behind.  It also becomes clear that her genuine affection for her agents were reciprocated.  

After the war Vera became a member of the British War Crimes Commission gathering evidence for the prosecution of war criminals and set about tracing the fate of the 118 agents who failed to return from their operations.  After spending many years visiting concentration camps and interrogating German guards she established how and when missing agents had perished.

She displayed formidable skills as an interrogator. Hugo Bleicher, an Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) officer who worked against the French Resistance judged her interrogation the most skilful to which he had been subjected to by his captors. In March 1946 she interrogated Rudolf Hoess, the notorious commandant of Auschwitz. After deliberately questioning his effectiveness as a camp commandant and asking whether he had caused the deaths of 1.5m Jews, he indignantly protested that the figure was 2,345,000.  Vera Atkins was determined that war criminals would pay for their crimes.

Selection and Training

Everything about SOE was unorthodox and the organisation was like a club –membership by invitation only.   Although there was a rank structure SOE was run on self-discipline, there were no social barriers and gender equality was seen as paramount. Irrespective of gender all agents underwent the same selection and training.  “SOE was interested in women-power as well as man-man power, both on the staff and in the field…” (Foot p46)  The bulk of the cypher operators were young girls in their late teens, most of the drivers, telephonists and many of the base operators, wireless operators and those working at safe houses and holding schools were women.

 During their advanced interview potential field agents were told if  they were captured they were liable to be tortured and then executed and were given the opportunity to reject ‘special employment’. In fact, an agent could leave at any time with no questions asked.  Not only did all SOE agents know the dangers, during their initiation and training they were also informed they would be expected to conduct activities “Outside the boundaries of conduct of international law for normal times and normal war…” (Foot)  Their role would be to use bribery, subversion, sabotage, assassination – there were no rules! 

According to Foot, agents who passed the selection and training were also informed “The chances of a safe return from occupied France were no better than evens, that is, the staff expected to lose half their agents…” Consequently, prior to committing themselves to hazardous operation all agents were given another opportunity to consider the dangers.

Improvised weapons

F Section used three secret training establishments, country houses which had been requisitioned by the War Office, each of which provided separate specialist skills and selection process.

Stage 1. Potential field agents were sent to Wanborough Manor, an Elizabethan house located on the Hogs Back near Guildford Surrey.  This training area was referred to as STS5, and on arrival candidates were further vetted.  The staff were looking for individuals who could easily communicate and build rapport with people they don’t know, stick to their legends (cover stories which were given to them prior to attending) and not to reveal their true identity or other personal information. Candidates were also encourage to drink alcohol to see if this made them indiscrete.

 Those who were considered not suitable for hazardous covert operations were sent to the ‘cooler’  where they were persuaded to forget what little they had learned and return home.

After this initial stage of selection candidates received basic firearms training, elementary Morse code, basic sabotage techniques, explosives and unarmed combat. If considered necessary candidates were given lessons to improve their French and to learn more about the current situation in France.  This part of the training  lasted 4 weeks and every day candidates were assessed and could be sent to the ‘cooler’ at any times.

Successful candidates were then sent to STS21, Arisaig House, in Inverness Scotland. This isolated area with unpredictable weather was ideal for extensive military training. Potential agents received firearms training, learned infantry tactics, escape and evasion, navigating across rough terrain, relentless physical training, the use of explosives, raiding techniques and sabotage.  During this four week course all candidates experienced cold, hunger, psychical and mental exhaustion and were still expected to complete their required tasks to a high standard.

At Arisaig they were also taught unarmed combat (Gutter fighting) and silent killing by the legendary William Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes who designed the FS fighting knife. Unique to the SOE, candidates also mastered the ‘gunfighter technique’ for rapid and accurate use of handguns and became efficient with an assortment of British and German weapons.

Several SOE agents recall a time they were physically and mentally exhausted and violently woken up in the early hours of the morning by men dressed in German uniforms- they were expected to immediately reply in French and during the mock interrogation to maintain their cover story (legend), role play and when necessary improvise. Again, those who failed were sent to the cooler.

After successfully completing the unconventional warfare course successful candidates were then sent to the Finishing School, STS1 on the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire. Here they learned a variety of specialist skills such as lock-picking and safe cracking.  

This part of their training also consisted of ‘schemes’ (tests) lasting 48 or 72 hours. These schemes included making contact with an intermediary referred to as a ‘cut-out’; trailing someone in a city; losing someone who is following them, a variety of counter-surveillance drills, and making contact with a supposed resistance member.  To makes these schemes more difficult a concerned ‘member of the public’ would phone the police telling them there was someone acting suspiciously and they may be a spy.

If arrested trainees had the telephone number of an SOE officer to get them out of trouble. However, candidates were expected to talk their way out of being arrested, better still, talk their way out of a police station. 

Successful candidates were now sent to RAF Ringway (now Manchester Airport) where they received the same parachute training as the Airborne Forces and upon completion were awarded the same parachute wings.  

Agents who had shown an aptitude for Morse code, after being reminded of the risks, were given the opportunity to be trained  as a wireless operators at  STS51, the Thames Park Wireless School.

 Those who passed all courses were eligible to join SOE’s F Section, commonly referred to as the ‘Firm’ whose headquarters were at 64 Bakers Street London and members of this exclusive club quickly got to know Maurice Buckmaster “Buck” and Vera Atkins.

By 1940, according to Foot, Maurice Buckmaster and Vera Atkins had set up almost a hundred circuits (networks) of subversive agents on French soil and these needed to be coordinated, armed and advised by SOE agents. 

F Section Clandestine Circuits in France

As can be seen by the F Section Circuit activities, each circuit had a unique code name and was responsible for a specific geographical area and conditions within these circuits could suddenly change without warning. For instance, in 1943 the ‘CORSICAN’ circuit is listed as escaping, which meant the circuit had been compromised and its members were avoiding capture; part of ‘AUTOGIRO’ was collapsing, this could mean the circuit had been infiltrated or was suffering from bad leadership.  In 1944 ‘DONKEYMAN’ was listed as fragmented; ‘WIZARD’ had collapsed. Other lists shown circuits being ‘decimated’ which meant all, or nearly all its members were killed or captured.

Apart from coordinating all the circuits in occupied France, SOE agents were also responsible for rebuilding circuits which had been compromised or had bad leadership and to form new circuits to replace those which had been decimated.  This would often require agents to travel many miles visiting circuits throughout France and not knowing whether the circuit they were visiting had been infiltrated or its  members were under Gestapo surveillance. Apart from the Germany army and the Gestapo, there were collaborators and the German authorities was paying many thousands of francs for information. Much of this dangerous work was done by women: not only were they less likely to raise suspicions when routinely stopped by German soldiers, men could be taken off the street and forced to work in factories supporting the German war effort.

Apart from all circuits having code names, every SOE agent had several code names. One or more aliases for work in the field, a name based on a trade and a cover name for all wireless transmissions.

 Most agents entered France by parachute or ‘ferried’ in unarmed Lysander aircraft with the pilot relying on torch lights from members of the resistance to mark the remote landing strip.  Lysander aircraft become such a regular feature of SOE operations they were nicknamed the SOE Taxi. 

Pearl Witherington

Recruited: June 1943 (F Section courier)

On 22 September 1943 Pearl Witherington parachuted at night from a converted RAF Halifax bomber to a drop zone near Chateauroux in southern Loire and joined ‘STATIONER’ circuit as a courier.

On her arrival at one of the safe houses she was told to deliver an important message from London to a neighbouring circuit. After cycling 50 miles she came across a bridge which was heavily guarded by German soldiers. Under the cover of darkness, with her bicycle across her shoulders, she swum across the freezing river, continued her journey and safely delivered the message.

In May 1944 the leader of ‘STATIONER’, Maurice Southgate, (code name Hector), was sent to Montlucon to meet a member of the resistance. Failing to see the secret signal to indicate danger, he was arrested by the Gestapo who were waiting for him. Although he survived the war, whilst at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp 16 members of his circuit were hanged.

 After his arrest Pearl Witherington took command of ‘STATIONER’ which consisted of 2,000 men, this later increased to 3,000 under her command. Under her leadership her circuit destroyed railways lines, electricity pylons, and engaged in hit-and-run tactics against Germany troops. This circuit was so successful the Gestapo put 1 million francs on her head.

When interviewed after the war Pearl Witherington said, “I don’t consider myself a heroine, not at all. I’m just an ordinary person who did a job during the war…” (Telegraph 3 September 2015) Based on similar interviews of other former members of SOE there is no doubt that extreme modesty and humility was a common trait among SOE agents and may be one of the traits the staff looked for at Wanborough Manor.  

 Interestingly, Witherington was not interested in medals or recognition (another common trait) and her prized possession was her para wings which she had not been given after qualifying at RAF Ringway.  Sixty years after qualifying and being parachuted into occupied France she was finally awarded her wings and remarked, “I was tickled pink because I was somewhat muffed that no one thought to give me them all those years ago..”(Telegraph 3 September 2015) 

Pearl Witherington wearing her wings 60 years after qualifying 
Denise Bloch

Denise Bloch

Recruited: May 1943 (F Section Wireless Operator)

Code names: Cover Micheline Rabatel.  Wireless transmissions: Ambroise and Crinoline.

(Within the circuits she was commonly known as ‘Line’ or Danielle)


Denise Bloch, the only daughter of Parisian Jews, Jacques and Suzanne Block who had taken an active part in the early Resistance movement. Through her parents activities she had already gained extensive experience working with various Resistance circuits before making her way to England where she was subsequently trained as an SOE agent. During her training she showed a natural talent for receiving and sending Morse code and became one of F Sections wireless operators. 

As the Germans were using large numbers of wireless detection vans with skilled technicians the life of an SOE wireless operator was estimated to be six weeks. Although trained to keep their transmissions as brief as possible in order to make detection more difficult, many went over the recommended time limit to ensure London received vital information. However, a high proportion of operators who maintain strict wireless security were also detected.

The little information we have on Denise Bloch was obtained by Vera Atkins during her extensive investigation into missing agents. 

On the night of 2/3 March she was flown by Lysander from a secret airbase, RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire which was the home of 138 and 161 Special Duties Squadron.  She had been assigned to ‘CLERGYMAN’ where she would organise resistance across the city of Nantes.

After spending several hours in Paris she travelled to Nantes where she transmitted her first message to London. During her time with ‘CLEGYMAN’ she transmitted a further 30 messages and received 52. 

Although the 1944 circuit activity shows ‘CLERGYMAN’  listed as fragmented, unbeknown to London and Denise Block prior to her arrival, ‘CLERGYMAN’ had been seriously compromised. Several weeks after her arrival the Gestapo made a large number of arrests and within a few days Denise Block was also arrested and joined other members of her circuit at the Gestapo Headquarters in Paris.

It is clear the Gestapo were aware she was a wireless operator and consequently she was tortured to reveal her ‘poem code’ and wireless set.  On a number of occasions the Gestapo had managed to extract this information from captured wireless operators and once they had the code and the wireless set they managed to deceive London. This resulted in a handful of agents being dropped into German hands or the Lysander being surround by German troops.  Consequently, wireless operators could expect the worse form of torture to extract information.  

Denise Bloch was eventually taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp, along with Violet Szabo (mentioned later) and Lilian Rolf, who was the wireless operator for ‘HISTORIAN’ Circuit.

Sometime in 1944, as Allied forces were fighting their way through France as part of Operation Overlord, Denise Bloch and Violet Szabo were taken to the crematorium yard where an SS guard shot them through the back of their necks and their bodies were cremated. 

Block received a posthumous Kings Commendation for Bravery, the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme, Legion d’honneur and the Medaille de la Resistance.

Noor Inayat Khan (George Cross)

Recruited November 1942 (F Section wireless operator)

Circuit: CINEMA and PHONO

Codenames: Madeleine, wireless transmissions Nurse

After joining the RAF as a wireless operator she came to the attention of the SOE talent spotters and was asked to attend an informal interview at a hotel near Trafalgar Square London, where she was asked whether she would be interested in becoming ‘specially employed’.  Although no indication was given as to what the job entailed, Noor wanted to do something more interesting and accepted the position.  

After completing her compulsory military training she was sent to the SOE Wireless School at Thames Park and them to the finishing school at Beaulieu.

 On the night of 16/17 June she boarded a Lysander at RAF Tangmere in Sussex, bound for a landing field near Angers in north-western France. With her was Diane Rowden, Cecily Lefort and Charles Skeeper. These SOE agents were later captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed.  Another ominous twist to this flight is that among the members of the French Resistance who were illuminating the landing strip with torches was Henry Dericourt – a double agent working for the Gestapo. Through Dericourt the Gestapo were able to follow the movements of all the agents on this flight.

After making her way to Paris Noor met the leader of the ‘CINEMA’ Circuit and within a few days she was introduced to his wireless operator, Gilbert Norman and the leader of the ‘BRICKWORK’ Circuit.

Over a period of two months Noor sent 20 messages to London and maintained wireless security- keeping all transmissions times to a minimum and regularly changing her location.

On 24 June the leader of the neighbouring ‘PROSPER’ Circuit was arrested along with other members of his team. As further arrests continued London believed the circuit had been infiltrated.  During this period the F Section Circuits Activity map for ‘PROSPER’ is Det (detected) and this may have been updated to ‘run’ (on the run). Although no documents are available, it is known that all the resistance fighters from this circuit were scattering across France in the hope of receiving protection from other circuits.

After the Gestapo continued to arrest hundreds of resistance members and their families, and SOE agents made their way to safer houses, Noor became the only F Section Wireless Operator in the Paris area.

As the situation was becoming more confused every day and further arrests may have resulted in other circuits being compromised, as Noor was the only wireless operator in Paris she rejected Buckmaster’s plan for an emergency extraction by Lysander.

After Noor reported the confused situation back to London Maurice Buckmaster sent another wireless operator to assist her. After this operator parachuted into the hands of German forces it became clear the Germans had managed to recovery an SOE wireless and codes. The only secure transmissions from the Paris area were from Noor and she was the now the only person London could trust.  

Due to the increasing number of radio detection vans Noor was continuously on the move – sending updates to London and then moving to other locations before continuing her transmissions.  She was also working blind- she had no support, did not know which safe houses were now under surveillance or who she could trust. 

As we now live in a period of microelectronics and mobile phones, it’s important to remember that Noor and other wireless operators were using wireless equipment which were so large they were built into a family size suitcase and weighed 30lbs (14kg)

Noor started to use the escape and evasion skills she had been taught at finishing school –  change your hairstyle, dye your hair, walk differently, alter your mannerism, alter your accent, talk with a lisp, change your style of clothing- be an entirely different person!

Due to hundreds of soldiers on the street, and people being arrested by the lorry load, Noor concluded that all the safe houses must be considered compromised and she had no option but to seek refuge with pre-war family friends and made her way to friends of her parents. They were pleased to help and said she could stay in one of their spare rooms. 

Although Noor skilfully avoided capture for four months and during this period kept London advised of the constantly changing situation she was finally betrayed by a collaborator who was given 100,000 francs for the address in which she was staying.   Noor and her family friends were arrested.

After her capture an SOE agent sent a diverted telegram to Buckmaster saying, “Madeline had a serious accident and she was now in hospital”, meaning, she had been captured and taken to Gestapos Headquarters at Avenue Foch.  After this, any wireless communications containing her code poem or wireless code name would be regarded as a German deception.  The fact that no further transmissions were received from ‘Nurse’ and her poem code was never used by the Germans suggests she resisted torture and never gave up her codes. 

During Vera Atkins relentless investigation to discover what had happened to her agents who she considered ‘family’, she interviewed an SOE agents who had been incarcerated in a neighbouring cell to Noor. She was told, Noor distracted herself by writing children’s stories in her cell, and she could often be heard sobbing throughout the night. But when the morning came she buried her emotions and remained defiant.   After a failed attempt to escape Noor was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Vera Atkins, as we now know, was not a person to mess with, she was determined to know what had happened to ‘her’ agents and demanded that anyone responsible for war crimes should pay with their life.  Through her interrogation of SS officers, soldiers and prison guards we know the fate of Noor Khan.

Due to Noor’s dark complexion, she was considered inferior by the Third Reich, and was singled out for special treatment: she was kept in solitary confinement, chained hand and foot, regularly punched and kicked unconscious by the guards, but for eight months she still refused to talk.  On 11 September Noor, along with SOE agents Yoland Beekman, Elaine Plewman and Madeline Damerment were transported to Dachau Concentration Camp and that night Beekman, Plewman and Damerment were shoot in the head.   Noor, because of her ‘inferior dark complexion’ which made her a ‘dangerous prisoner’  was almost beaten to death by SS officer Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, before she was finally shot in the head with her own SOE issue pistol the following day.  Through Vera Atkins relentless pursuit for Justice she ensured the treatment and murder of Noor was added to his war crimes, Fredric Wilhelm Ruppert was tried, convicted and executed for war crimes in 1946.

Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Yolande Beekman

Recruited: February 1943 (F Section Wireless Operator)

Code name: Yvonne de Chauvigny, Mariette, Wireless transmission Kilt


On 17 September 1943 Yolande was on a Lysander aircraft travelling to a remote airstrip outside Angers in western France.  After landing, with the help the local Resistance, she made her way north to join the MUSIAN circuit who were operating in the strategically important town of St Quentin.

We know that she moved to various safe houses and transmitted using pre-arranged skeds (schedules) on specific frequencies three times per week, but we don’t know why she always transmitted from the same location. 

 While her circuit concentrated on recruitment the neighbouring circuit, code named FARMER, concentrated on sabotage and killing German forces.

On 28 November the leader of FARMER and their wireless operators were killed during a firefight with German forces and Yolande passed this information onto London.  As FARMER had no leadership or wireless operator Yolande was ordered to keep London informed of the developments and problems associated with both circuits: this resulted in a large increase in wireless traffic and increased possibilities of detection.    

After destroying ten locomotives in November and a further eleven in December London told both circuits to prepared themselves to attack local rail networks at 25 points;  German communications across the region and to cut telephone lines to Paris. This further increased her workload and she was now constantly on the move to avoid detection. Due to the increase of SOE and resistance activities the Germans also increased the number of detection vans in the region.

To coordinate the combined resources of both circuits she arranged a meeting with a representative of the FARMER circuit at a ‘safe’ café.  Shortly after her arrival Yolande and the representative were arrested and within a few hours some 50 members of the resistance were in the hands of the Gestapo. 

Eye witnesses of the Gestapo raid on the café recall a woman fitting Yolande Beekman’s description being dragged away by men in civilian clothes. They also say her face was severely swollen as if she had be repeatedly punched.

It is known she was taken to Fresnes prison, and on or around 12 May, Yolande along with SOE agents Odette Sanson/Churchill, Sonia Olschaneky, Madeline Damermont, and Andree Borrel were taken by train to Karlsrushe Prison just inside the German border.

As far as we can gather, on 12 September Yolande, Plewman and Damerment joined Noor Inayat Khan on a train to Dachau Concentration camp.  It was also reported that Yolande  was handled ‘roughly’ before being shot in the back of the neck.

Odette Sanson/Churchill/Hallowes (George Cross)

Recruited: July 1942 (Courier F Section)

Circuit: SPINDLE

Code name: Lise, Madam Odette Metaye

When Odette joined SOE she was married to Roy Sanson, after his death she married SOE agent Peter Churchill, and after their divorce in 1955? She married former SOE agent Geoffrey Hallowes. Although Odette held three ‘married’ names, undoubtedly, the name Churchill saved her life at Ranensbruck Concentration Camp.

When Odette was recruited and agreed to work for SOE she had three Children, Francoise aged 11; Lillie aged 8 and Marianne aged 6, and during her training and hazardous work in occupied France they stayed at a convent school in rural England.  Her children and the convent believed their mother was working in Scotland and Vera Atkins, using pre-written letters from Odette, continued the pretence. 

Her operational brief was to contact a resistance group on the French Riviera before moving north to Auxerre to establish a safe house for other agents passing through the area.

 The original plan was for her to be parachuted into France but the aircraft assigned for her operation had mechanical problems.  Instead, she was taken by ship to Gibraltar and from there she boarded an SOE narrow sailing boat which took her to a secluded beach near Cassis. She arrived on the night 2/3 November 1942.

After successfully making contact with Peter Churchill (Raoul) who ran the SPINDLE Circuit (who she married after the war), he gave her the address of a contact who was vital for her operation. When she arrived at the address the contact refused to assist her and without his help it was impossible to establish the safe houses. After reporting the situation to Buckmaster Odette’s operation was cancelled and he gave permission for her to work with Peter Churchill, she was now a member of SPINDLE.

By January 1943 the SPINDLE Circuit had been infiltrated by a double agent and the Gestapo knew the names of its members, passive supporters, the locations of their safe houses and mass arrests followed. Churchill decided to close SPINDLE and to move the surviving member of his team to Saint-Jorioz, a village close to the Swiss and Italian borders.

After Odette and Churchill narrowly missed an ambush during an attempt to reach a Lysander which had been sent to extract them, Churchill decided they would stay at the last remaining safe house, the Hotel de la Posts, and sent his wireless operator, Rabinovitch (‘Armaud’) to Faverges,  a village some ten miles away from the Hotel.

Four days Later Churchill was flown out by Lysander to report the situation directly to Buckmaster; Odette and Armaud remained to monitor the situation.

After Odette identified a suitable drop zone and the information had been sent to London, On 15 September Peter Churchill was parachuted into a remote area where Odette and Armaud were waiting for him.  It was decided Armaud would to return to Faverges, Odette and Churchill would go back to the Hotel.

During the early hours of the morning the Gestapo raided the Hotel, Odette and Churchill were arrested and taken to Fresnes Prison. Two weeks later both were moved to Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris.

When it became clear ‘soft’ interrogation techniques would not work the Gestapo resorted to torture in order to extract information- red-hot pokers were used to burn her back and every time she passed out from the pain buckets of cold water were used to revive her so the torture could continue, Odette refused to talk. When this did not work all her toe nails were pulled out- she still refused to talk.  (See George Cross Citation)

After failing to make her talk Odette was transferred to a number of prisons. At each prison she deliberately spread the rumour that she was married to Peter Churchill who was a close relative of the British Prime Minister and these rumours quickly spread among the guards and officers.   

There is the possibility these rumours may have been heard in high places in Berlin: within a few months the decision was made to move there ‘very important prisoner’, Peter Churchill, to Berlin but as Odette was under sentence of death she was moved to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

On her arrival at Ravensbruck, on 26 July, the Camp Commandant, Fritz Suhren, had already heard and believed Odette was connected to the British Prime Minister by marriage. 

She was immediately sent to a cell in the basement without windows and Suhren ordered she must remain in darkness and put on a starvation diet.  After the SS were informed by a double agent that Odette had sent plans of the German navy base at Marseille to London, all food was withdrawn and the heating to her cell was turned up.

After finding Odette collapsed in her cell due to heat exhaustion and lack of food she was examined by a camp doctor who concluded that if she continued living under these conditions she would be dead within two weeks. She was returned to her dark, hot cell and still deprived of food and water. Some two days later, without warning Odette was moved to a normal cell with a window and given food and water.  From this cell, Odette later recalled she heard the shots which killed Violet Szabo, Denise Block and Lilian Rolf.

Four months after being moved to her new cell the rapid Allied advance resulted in many of the guards and SS officers fleeing the camp to avoid capture. During the chaos an SS officer entered her cell and told her to come with him, Odette assumed she was going to be shot.

She was taken to a black Mercedes and told to sit next to the Camp Commandant, Fritz Suhren, on the rear seat.  As the car left the camp Suhren told her he was going to deliver her to the American lines where she would be safe.  It became clear to Odette that Suhren believed he would receive a lesser prison sentence by protecting a relative of Winston Churchill. 

When she reached the American lines she identified herself as a British agent, personally accepted Suhren’s surrender and his pistol and asked the American solider to arrest him for war crimes. She gave evidence against him at the Nuremburg Trials and Suhren was convicted and hung for his crimes.

On here return to England Odette required over one year of intensive medical treatment for her injuries due to torture and neglect.

Odette Sanson was awarded the George Cross, MBE, Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, Queen’s Coronation Medal, Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal.

Violette Szabo (George Cross)

Recruited: July 1943 (Courier F Section)


Codename: Louise, Viki Tailor

Her file refer to her as Petite, just under five-feet five tall, but her character was far more robust than her looks suggest. She was also noted for her cockney accent and wild sense of humour.

Leaving school at the age of 14, Violette worked as a shop assistant at Woolworths in Brixton London.

In 1940 she Married Etienne Szabo who was an officer in the Foreign Legion and in June 1942 she gave birth to a daughter, Tanya, but four months later Etienne was killed at the Battle of El Alamein.

During her military training she impressed her instructors; she was one of the best shot they had seen, she was also physically and mentally tough.  

Whilst undergoing training Violette was living with her parents at 18 Burley Road Stockwell London. Her father, who had served in France with the British Army during the First World War married a French women and they moved to London after the War. As children, Violette and her four brothers were encouraged to learn French and at an early age they were fluent in the language. 

For cover purposes all SOE agents who had not served with a military unit wore military uniform, Violette wore the uniform of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). When she was away for several weeks at a time this allowed her to tell inquisitive people she had been driving senior officers around the country.  Her father did not approve, he felt strongly that she should be at home looking after her daughter and this led to several heated argument.

During her last parachute decent at RAF Ringway she made a bad landing and twisted her ankle and was temporarily taken off the active list to allow her to recover at home. One evening, after her father asked how she had injured herself, Violette replied she had twisted her ankle after jumping out of a lorry. This led to a continuation of the previous argument.  Annoyed with her father, Violette grab her handbag, stumbled and the contents of her bag was scattered across the floor. After scooping up her possessions she stormed out of the room and went to her bedroom.  In her rush, Violette had not checked whether she had picked up everything- as the door closed her father saw her parachute wings on the floor- everything now made sense.

After telling his wife he went to Violette’s room where he apologised and told her he was proud of her. Neither mentioned the subject again.

After her recovery she was put back on the active list and completed her course at Beaulieu.

On returning home to London, after completing Beaulieu and now officially a member of the SOE, within a few weeks Buckmaster asked to see her at Bakers Street.

Buckmaster had received disturbing information that some of his key agents were on the Gestapo wanted list and wanted posters with rewards for any information were being displayed thought-out Paris.  He asked Violet whether she would go to Paris to assess the situation and Violet agreed.

As this was her first trip to France Buckmaster felt secure in the knowledge she would not be known to the Gestapo, but she would have to work alone.

After the Lysander landed she quickly gathered what information she could from the small number of Resistance fighters who had illuminated the landing strip, she then made her way to Rouen to meet Claud Malraux, the second in command of SALESMAN circuit, and one of the men wanted by the Gestapo. After being briefed on what he knew of the situation, which was very little, she travelled to Paris under the identity of a secretary named Corinne Leroy.

 Violette spent three weeks in Paris and the surrounding area to assess the problems and discovered that SALESMAN Circuit had completely collapsed: hundreds of its members had been arrested whilst others were seeking refuge with other circuits throughout France. On every main street in Paris there were wanted posters for Claud Malraux and other members of his circuit. During her say in Paris she was arrested twice by the Gestapo but on both occasions managed to talk her way out of the Gestapo Headquarters at 18  Avenue Voch. After reporting her findings to the head of a neighbouring circuit and arranging for their wireless operator to transmit her findings to London several days later Buckmaster sent a message saying the Circuit could not be saved and provided the coordinates for a Lysander extraction for her and Claud.  They left France on 30 April.

In early June Buckmaster decided SALEMAN circuit would be rebuilt around the Limoges area of west-central France. Resistance fighter would need to be recruited and armed. It was also essential to setup lines of communications with neighbouring circuits in order to be support the planned Allied invasion. Violette volunteered for the operation.

On the night of the 7/8 June Violette and Claud Malraux, who was to command the new SALESMAN circuit, arrived in France by Parachute.  

After assessing the situation Claud decided he would require the assistance of the DIGGER circuit which was operating south of Limoges and sent Violent and one of his new resistance members, Jacques Dufour, by car to ask for assistance.

In his book “Carve her name with Pride” by RJ Minney and the film which was based on this book, it is claimed Violette Szabo and Claud Malraux, were involved in a firefight with German troops after reaching a road block. This is not the case.

According to the official Medal citations for the award of the George Cross, “Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April 1944, and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice arrested by the German security authorities, but each time managed to get away. Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the south-west of France. Resistance appeared hopeless, but Madame Szabo, Seizing a Sten gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house, and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted. She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured, but she never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances, or told the enemy anything of value. She was ultimately executed. Madam Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness. “ (The London Gazette, Friday 12 June 1946, HMSO) 

Violette Szabo’s Medals

Eileen Neame (known as Diddi)

Recruited: Unknown (Wireless operator F Section)

Code name: Unknown, Wireless name unknown.

Circuit: Unknown

Jacqueline Neame

Jacqueline Neame

Recruited: Unknown (Wireless Operator F Section)

Code name: Cat


In 2010 the police were called to a small house in Torque and found the body of an 89-year-old female who had been dead for several days. After speaking to neighbours the police were informed no one knew anything about her, no one knew her name; she was a recluse; she had no friends and spent her time feeding stray cats.

After searching her home for clues as to her identity and next of kin, one of the officer found a photograph of two women dressed in British army uniforms which appeared to have been taken during the war. As the search continued they found a French medal, a Croix de Guerre, other medals and more photographs taken during the War.

After several weeks of investigation the police identified the body and the identity of the other women in the photograph. They were sisters, Eileen and Jacqueline Neame. The body was Eileen, the older sister.

Although research is still incomplete and I understand someone is currently writing a book on the sisters, it has been established that at the age of 21 Eileen, known as ‘Didi’, was an F Section Wireless Operator working near Paris.

Whilst Didi was sending an urgent message to London she heard German soldiers outside her safe house but continued sending the message. Minutes before the Gestapo broke down the door she had burned her messages and codes.

When they found her wireless set she denied all knowledge and improvised: she played the role of an innocent French girl – she did not know anything about the wireless set, the Resistance or SOE. Didi was then handcuffed and taken to Gestapo Headquarters. 

Like most captured Wireless Operators she was tortured for many hours but continue to role play- constantly telling her interrogators she was an innocent French girl who must has been setup. It is known she was repeatedly half drowned in a bath full of water but continued to maintain her innocence.  Unable to break her and not being sure whether she was an SOE agent she was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she became friends with Violette Szabo.

Although the details are still not clear, Didi was one of the few people to escape from Ravensbruck and to survive the hostile countryside patrolled by German forces including the SS. 

Jacqueline Neame

Although Jaqueline died of cancer in 1982, more is known about her than her sister. 

On 25 January 1943? Jacqueline was parachuted into France and joined the ‘SATIONARY’ Circuit based in central France and maintain contacts with the neighbouring circuit called ‘HEADMASTER’, she also made several trips to Paris as a courier. Jaqueline spent 15 months in occupied France and returned to England by Lysander in April 1944.

In 1946, Jaqueline and other former members of ‘STATIONARY’ Circuit played themselves in a public information film (available at the Imperial War Museum) depicting some of their work in occupied France.  This government information film, “Now the Truth Can be Told” basically looks at some of the unclassified work they were involved in during their time with the SOE.

 This film can be seen at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEhwZ9C1jgA

 Doing her bit in Churchill’s Secret Army. A video interview of Noreen Rios former SOE agent.

Other F Section women executed  

Andree Borrell (Denise) PHYSICIAN Executed Natzweiler July 1944

Madeleine (Solange)   BRICKLAYER   Executed Dachau December 1944

Cecily Lefort (Alice) JOCKEY Executed Ravensbruck early 1945

Vera Leigh (Simone) INVESTOR Executed Natzweiler July 1944

Sonia Olschanezky (Unknown) Executed Natzweiler July 1944

Lilian Rolfe (Paulette) HISTORIAN Executed Ravensbruck January 1945

Diana Rowden (Paulette) ACROBAT, STOCKBROKER Executed Natzweiler July 1944

Yvonne Rudellat PHYSICIAN Died Belsen April 1945 following ill treatment.

Sonia, the jewish girl who joined the French resistance

Sonia Olschanezky was born in Chemnitz in Germany in 1923 to a Jewish family at a time when anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly more violent. Her father was born in Russia and her mother was from a wealthy German family. At the age of three the family moved to Bucharest to run a silk-stocking factory, but the business eventually went bankrupt. They then settled in France but during another business venture her father became the victim of fraud and the family fell into poverty.

Shortly after Germany occupied northern France Sonia was arrested for being a Jew and was sent to a prison camp in Drancy and waited to be transported to a concentration camp for execution.

Although the precise details are unknown, her mother still had at least one influential contact in Germany, and they secured Sonia’s release after producing a document stating she had ‘economic valuable skills for the war effort.’

Undeterred by her imprisonment and being acutely aware she was known to the Germans for being a Jew and could be arrested at any time she refused to keep a low profile and decided to join the resistance. After coming to the attention of an agent working for Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) which sent agents trained in subversive warfare to France and other countries under occupation, she started the dangerous work as a courier passing messages to agents and local resisters.

Sonia Olschanezky started working with SOE during the organisation’s most disastrous period in France. This is sometimes referred to as the period of errors because many mistakes were made and these resulted in clandestine networks being infiltrated by the Germans, mass arrests and executions. Although the dangers were enormous Sonia refused to join an escape line to England and insisted on continuing her resistance work.  It was Sonia who first learned an SOE radio operator had been arrested and London was receiving messages from a German operator, but her report was rejected because London had not heard of Sonia and were concerned this may be a German deception.  Consequently, after London received a radio message requesting more agents several were arrested soon after arriving in France.

Twenty-year-old Sonia Olschanezky was eventually denounced and the fact none of her close contacts were also arrested suggests she did not talk under torture.

After being interrogated at Gestapo HQ Sonia was transported to Natzweiler Concentration camp and executed.  

Due to the confusion and high loss of life during the period of errors Sonia Olschanezky never came to the attention of SOE in London and her resistance work was only recognised after the war when Vera Atkins, the former intelligence officer for SOE’s French section was investigating the fate of missing agents.

After learning of Sonia’s resistance work and her death at Natweiler Vera Atkins requested she receive official recognition and her name be listed on the SOE war memorial in Valency. Several weeks after her request Atkins was informed by the memorial committee Sonia Olschanezky was not eligible because she was locally recruited and was not a trained SOE agent.  Although her bravery and her work for SOE was verified by Atkins and others for the same reason she was never honoured with medals or citations by either the British or French government.

 Sonia Olschanezky is now listed on the Vera Atkins memorial seat at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire along with other Female SOE agents who never returned from France.   The fir tree in the middle of the seat was grown from a seed found at Natzweiler concentration camp.

Atkin memorial seat

‘Mick’ Mannock VC – the Irish fighter Ace of WW1

Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC, DSO (two-bars) MC (& bar)

Mick Mannock was born at Ballincolling Barracks in County Cork on 24 May 1887. His mother had grown up in a nearby village and his father was a corporal serving with the Scots Greys and was stationed at Ballincolling.

Shortly after moving to England his father became a violent drunk and later stole the small amount of money the family had saved and disappeared. As a teenager Mick took a number of low paid jobs to support his family and it is thought his mother later persuaded him to learn a trade: in 1911 Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock is listed as a trainee telegraph engineer.

The family was always in a desperate need of money so after finishing his training he worked in Constantinople (Istanbul) supervising the laying of telephone cables and regularly sent money to his mother living in England.  In 1914, when war was declared he was still in Constantinople and was interned. After several failed escapes he was repatriated after a prisoner exchange and in 1916 returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corp (RFC).

Like James McCudden VC who later become his best friend, Mick found himself surrounded by public school educated social elites who looked down on his working-class background and many were vocally hostile regarding his lowly social status. As far as they were concerned only gentlemen should be aviators and these prejudices were identical to those experienced by James McCudden who was also from a working-class background.

After qualifying as a pilot and joining an operational squadron in France for a while he was shunned by the majority of pilots from privileged backgrounds and spent most of his time alone and without friends.  Over a short period of time his popularity and respect for him increasingly grew after consistently showing his bravery during dogfights and his skills in aerial combat which he started to pass onto other pilots.

London Gazette, 17 September 1917, for the award of the Military Cross (MC), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock Royal Flying Corp

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. In the course of many combats he has driven off a large number of enemy machines, and has forced down three balloons, showing a very fine offensive spirit and great fearlessness in attacking the enemy at close range and low altitudes under heavy fire from the ground.

After destroying the balloon mentioned in the citation he wrote in his diary:

“My fuselage had bullet holes in it, one very near my head and the wings were more or less riddled. I don’t want to go through such an experience again”

His diary shows an emotional man with a complex personality who used his diary to write down thoughts and feelings he could never share.

During the Great War pilots did not wear parachutes because it would encourage them to abandon their aircraft! Apart from having no means of escape, aircraft of the period were made of combustible materials which meant a small fire would often quickly develop into an inferno. Consequently, during a dog fight it was common to either see a pilot and gunner trapped inside their burning aircraft or leaping to their deaths and it was the fear of burning to death which always weighed heavily on Mick Mannock’s mind.

During every mission Mannock displayed remarkable bravery and was eventually awarded the country’s highest awards, but surprisingly his Diary shows he was constantly petrified.  He recorded his frequent nightmares of seeing himself burning to death during a dogfight and always took his service revolver with him so he could shoot himself in the head at the first sign of a flame. Today he would undoubtedly be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, but not only did he hide his fears those around him only saw his bravery.   

His fear of burning to death and his nightmares increased after seeing 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Frederik Rook plummeting to death in a ball of flames and he later said in his diary:

That’s the way they’re going to get me in the end- flames and finish.

He would not allow anyone to know his great fear and frequent nightmares and apart from being respected for his bravery Mannock was widely known for his sense of humour, for looking after the men under his command and helping them develop as fighter pilots. They were also not aware every time he lost a man, he went to his room to grieve and only allowed the men to see him after he had composed himself.

After shooting down a two-seater aircraft over the British lines he drove out to examine the wreck. On his return he told his men the pilot was dead with three neat bullet holes in the head and the gunner survived.   As always, his true thoughts were never discussed and only written in his diary.  On this occasion he wrote, “I found their mascot which was a small dog, dead on the observer’s seat, and I felt like a murderer.”

London Gazette, 18 October 1917, awarded a Bar to the Military Cross (MC), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has destroyed several hostile machines and driven others down out of control. On one occasion he attacked a formation of five enemy machines single-handed and shot one down out of control. On another occasion, while engaged with an enemy machine, he was attacked by two others, one of which he forced to the ground. He has consistently shown great courage and initiative.

Whilst on leave in England Mannock discovered his mother had become an alcoholic and his sister was working as a prostitute and being unable to cope, he returned to his squadron. Several months later he was told his best friend James McCudden VC had been killed, and after this the entries in his diary became increasingly darker and more fatalistic but he still kept his thoughts to himself.

His diary shows he was convinced he would die in a burning aircraft and the nightmares continued but so did his awards for bravery.

London Gazette, 16 September 1918, awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during recent operations. In seven days, while leading patrols and in general engagements, he destroyed seven enemy machines, bringing his total in all to 30. His leadership, dash and courage were of the highest order.

 London Gazette, 16 September 1918 {sic}, awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), T / 2nd Lieutenant (T / Captain) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. In company with one other Scout this officer attacked eight enemy aeroplanes, shooting down one in flames. The next day, when leading his Flight, he engaged eight enemy aeroplanes, destroying three himself. The same week he led his patrol against six enemy Albatros all in flames, but later, meeting with five Scouts, had great difficulty in getting back, his machine being much shot about, but he destroyed one. Two days later, he shot down another two-seater in flames. Eight machines in five days – a fine feat of marksmanship and determination to get to close quarters. As a Patrol leader he is unequalled.

London Gazette, 3 August 1918, awarded a second Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Lieutenant (T /Captain) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – RFC

This officer has now accounted for 48 enemy machines. His success is due to wonderful shooting and a determination to get to close quarters; to attain this he displays most skilful leadership and unfailing courage. These characteristics were markedly shown on a recent occasion when he attacked six hostile Scouts, three of which he brought down. Later on, the same day he attached a two-seater, which crashed into a tree.

By July Mannock is known to have shot down 76 enemy aircraft. This does not include aircraft which were not confirmed or those he deliberately crippled to allow new pilots to shoot down.

Also, in July the squadron received a new pilot, this was a New Zealander named Donald Inglis who was fresh from flying school and had no combat experience. As with all new pilots Maddox warned him to never fly low and avoid the temptation to fly low to examine a machine they had shot down because they would be in range of enemy ground fire. To allow a pilot to obtain their first victory and gain confidence they flew their first operation with Maddox who looked for an enemy aircraft to cripple and leave for the new pilot to finish off. On 26 July they took off in search for an enemy aircraft for Donald Inglis to shoot down.

After coming across a two-seater German aircraft Mannock killed the gunner before signalling to Inglis to finish off the aircraft which he did with a long burst of machine gun fire, they then watched the aircraft spiralling out of control towards the ground.  Mannock then broke his own rule – he followed the aircraft down and came within range of enemy ground fire and was hit by a massive volley of machine gun and rifle fire. His engine was hit and caught fire. During a BBC documentary Inglis told BBC Timeline:

After shooting down the aircraft I fell in behind Mick again. We made a couple of circles around the burning wreck and then made for home. I saw Mick start to kick his rudder, I then saw flames come out of his machine, it grew bigger and bigger. Mick was no longer kicking his rudder. His nose dropped slightly, and he went into a slow right-hand turn and hit the ground in a burst of flames. I circled about 20 feet but could not see him and things were getting hot {gun fire}. I made for home and managed to reach our outposts with a punctured fuel tank… Poor Mick … The bloody bastards had shot my major down in flames. 

For the award of the Victoria Cross

London Gazette, 18 July 1919, Over France, 17 June 1918 – 26 July 1918, Captain (Acting Major) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

On the 17th June 1918, he attacked a Halberstadt machine near Armentieres and destroyed it from a height of 8,000 feet. On the 7th July 1918, near Doulieu, he attacked and destroyed one Fokker ( red-bodied ) machine, which went vertically into the ground from a height of 1,500 feet. Shortly afterwards he ascended 1,000 feet and attacked another Fokker biplane, firing 60 rounds into it, which produced an immediate spin, resulting, it is believed, in a crash. On the 14th July 1918, near Merville, he attacked and crashed a Fokker from 7,000 feet, and brought a two-seater down damaged. On the 19th July 1918, near Merville, he fired 80 rounds into an Albatross two-seater, which went to the ground in flames. On the 20th July 1918, East of La Bassee, he attacked and crashed an enemy two-seater from a height of 10,000 feet. About an hour afterwards he attacked at 8,000 feet a Fokker biplane near Steenwercke and drove it down out of control, emitting smoke. On the 22nd July 1918, near Armentieres, he destroyed an enemy triplane from a height of 10,000 feet. Major Mannock was awarded the undermentioned distinctions for his previous combats in the air in France and Flanders.

Edward Mannock died on the 26th July 1918. Having shot down an Albatross whilst flying with a new member of the squadron, he was hit by a massive volley of ground fire. His aircraft caught fire and crashed behind German lines near Lillers, France. An unidentified airman is buried in the Laventie British Cemetery, France, and it is believed this could be Edward Mannock.

Mick Mannock always remained deeply hurt and resented the way his father had deserted the family and stole their savings and said in his will he should not receive any of his belongings. Surprisingly, his father was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive the posthumous award of his son’s Victoria Cross.  Within a few weeks he had sold the VC and other medals for £5. In later years the RAF Museum took possession of the medals awarded to Mick Mannock and these are on display at their museum in Hendon.

James McCudden VC the working-class fighter pilot of WW1

James McCudden (VC, DSO & Bar, MC &Bar, MM) brief extracts from his memoirs ‘Flying Fury’ published 1918

James McCudden was born on 28 March 1895 to an Irish family living in Gillingham Kent England. His family had a long tradition of serving in the British military and at the time of his birth his father was a corporal with the Royal Engineers.  In 1910, at the age of 15 James enlisted into the Royal Engineers and served as a bugler.   

In 1913 James decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and like his older brother William who was already serving in this new branch of the army James decided to follow his lead and train as an aircraft mechanic.  After becoming a qualified mechanic, he was promoted to corporal.

After war was declared in 1914 James was sent to France with 3 Squadron and first saw combat whilst flying as an observer armed with a Le Enfield rifle in November 1914. At the age of 20 he was promoted to sergeant and a month later was informed his older brother William had been killed in a flying accident and his younger brother Anthony had recently enlisted into the army.

Sergeant James McCadden then applied to become a pilot but was told he was too important as an aircraft fitter and could not be spared. During this period social class was considered more important than ability and to be considered suitable for pilot training the applicant was expected to have been educated at public school and be from a ‘respectable’ family. McCadden was rejected because he was working class, and this made him unsuitable for a position reserved for gentlemen!

Newly promoted Flight Sergeant McCudden on leave in London with his sister Mary.

When there were no aircrafts in need of repair or servicing, James flew as an observer and in a letter to his mother described seeing his first enemy aircraft.

 “It came over us like a flash, with the black crosses on his fuselage as plain as daylight. I managed to get off half a dozen rounds at him as he passed.”

Whilst flying with his commanding officer their plane was attacked by a German fighter and McCudden stood up in the cockpit firing his Lewis Gun. Due to his dogged determination during this action his commanding officer made him a full-time observer, and this caused resentment among some officers because of McCadden’s lowly working-class background.

During his new role as observer James McCadden continued showing the same determination to bravely fight off enemy aircraft and in January 1916, against the protests from some social elites, his application to become a pilot was finally approved, he was  promoted to flight sergeant and returned to England for pilot training.

After qualifying as a pilot, he returned to France and served with 20 Squadron and flew a two-seat F.E.2bs. A month later he was posted to 29 Squadron which were equipped with the Airco D.H.2, a rotary-powered pusher. This was “a very cold little machine,” McCudden remembered, “as the pilot had to sit in a small nacelle with the engine a long way back…no warmth from it at all.” During one patrol he recalled being “so intensely cold and miserable that I did not trouble to look around at all to see whether any Huns were behind me or not; in fact, I did not care whether I was shot down or not.”

Arco DHR

It is not known what aircraft he was flying on 6 September when he attacked a German two-seater aircraft over Houthem-Gheluwe in Belgium. He later wrote in his journal, “Closing to 400 yards, I opened fire. I fired one drum of Lewis at him, and he continued to go down while I changed drums. I then got off another drum and still got no reply from the enemy gunner, but the German was going down more steeply now….” This was his first recorded kill.

He also described a dog fight where he made a mistake and was almost killed. He and a   German pilot came at each other head-on at high speed whilst firing their machine guns.

 “I now did a silly thing. I put my engine off and dived, but not straight… I could hear his bullets coming far to close to be healthy. Although the German hit my aircraft twice… if the German pilot had been a little skilful, I think he would have got me.”

This and other near fatal mistakes McCadden called “little incidents” and said they caused him to be very furious with himself and he devoted time to what he called the science and training of air warfare. He spent time aligning his guns and made modifications to his aircraft to improve its performance.


After a dogfight with a German fighter pilot flying an Albatros which was far more superior than the British and French aircraft he wrote in his journal.

“I heard a terrific clack, bang, crash, rip behind me, and found a Hun was firing from about ten yards in the rear, and his guns seemed to be firing in my very ears.”  McCadden escaped by doing a half-roll. After landing safely he counted 24 bullet holes in his shredded plane.

The same day he was involved in what he described as a rough dog fight with a very skilful fighter pilot. Only much later was his opponent identified as Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, who apparently claimed him as his 15th victim after McCudden spun down 9,200 feet to escape the legendary Red Baron.

On 1 January 1917 after eight months of combat, flying 115 air patrols and shooting down five enemy aircraft McCudden was commissioned second lieutenant and awarded the Military Cross. In June he was promoted to captain and posted to Joyce Green Airfield at Long Reach, near Dartford and was an instructor teaching German tactics. Here he met Edward Mannock and they became close friends. Both were from working-class Irish backgrounds; both were fighting the social barriers of the period and Mannock like James McCudden would later become a highly decorated fighter pilot. To his surprised he also found himself training his younger brother Anthony.

Apart from teaching pilots McCudden was also flying air defence patrols over London looking out for Zeppelin bombers, but he was eager to return to France. After his request to return to the front was approved, he joined 66 Squadron and developed his tactic of flying on lone patrols at 15000 feet or more (without oxygen!) to hunt for German aircraft and other targets.  On 21 July he was serving with 56 Squadron flying a SE5 when he shot down another German aircraft during a dogfight.

In the middle of August, he was given command of B Flight 56 Squadron and flew a S.E.5a, McCudden wrote that he “liked the machine immensely…  it was far superior to the enemy because of its top speed of 126 mph, great strength, its diving and zooming powers, and its splendid view. Apart from this, it was a most warm, comfortable and easy machine to fly.”

On his first day with the squadron instead of having breakfast MacCudden spent time aligning his guns and sights. An aircraft mechanic recalled, “he must have fired the best part of a thousand rounds from each gun before he was satisfied”.  When McCudden came into the mess for lunch some of the officers booed him after mistaking his professionalism for showing off and some continued to look down on him because of his working-class roots and questioned why he had been made a flight commander while others more socially superior had not been promoted.

Undeterred by the social snobbery McCudden continually modified his aircraft to maximize its performance. He had a Sopwith Camel joystick installed, which he believed enabled him to fire his guns more accurately. He also shortened the exhaust pipes and later had a spinner taken from a German aircraft he had shot down fitted to his aircraft to streamline the stub nose. This was painted red so his men could identify him in the air.

To fly higher he made alterations to the wings and had its engine fitted with high compression pistons to allow it to fly at 20000 feet. But he found that flying at that height for too long resulted in headaches, faintness and exhaustion due to a combination of oxygen starvation and the start of hyperthermia.

From December 1917 to March 1918 he shot down a further 32 aircrafts.

On 18 August 1917, McCudden shot down an Albatros D.V that had attacked him head-on, this was his eighth kill. He shot down another the next day and on the evening of the 20th, after he positioned himself 50 yards behind the aircraft and fired bursts into it from both guns the German fighter caught fire and went down. He wrote in his journal, “That was my first Hun in flame… As soon as I saw it, I thought, poor devil and really felt sick….”

McCudden also took part in what some historians consider one of the most famous dog fights during the war. On 23 September he led B Flight against German ace Lieutenant Werner Voss who was flying a Fokker F.1 triplane. Within ten minutes from the start of a vicious dogfight Voss had shot up seven British fighters before he was shot down and killed by Rhys Davis, McCudden wrote, “As long as I live, I shall never forget my admiration for Voss… his flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent. “A month later Rhys Davis was shot down and killed.

In his journals James McCadden documented the horrors he witnessed. For instance, on 27 September after firing at an aircraft it burst into flames over the British trenches he later wrote, “The plane rolled over, he watched in horror as the enemy gunner either jumped or fell out and saw him following the machine down, twirling round and round, all arms and legs, truly a ghastly sight.”

The next morning McCadden shot the wings off an aircraft and its pilot also tumbled out and fell to his death. Moments later another German aircraft came towards him but suddenly broke off his attack.

McCudden explained when attacking a two-seater aircraft, he would be high above them before diving and pulling up underneath their tail section, which blocked the observer’s field of fire. Many victims died in a sudden hail of bullets, not knowing what had hit them. He usually tried to kill the observer first to silence his gun, then went after the pilot or engine. “I cannot describe the satisfaction,” he mused, “which one experiences after bringing a good stalk to a successful conclusion.”

In December McCudden destroyed 14 aircrafts during dog fights. On the 23rd he destroyed four enemy aircraft in one day.  During one dog fight in under 30 minutes he shot the wing off a Rumpler flying at 16,000 feet, he then turned his attention to another aircraft which during his attack caught fire and then attacked another at 9,000 feet which exploded in flames.

These dog fights were very close and personal and McCudden said in his journal after one fight his windscreen was spattered with German blood.

James McCudden was now a national hero and his photograph was appearing on the front pages of newspapers and after another double victory his score reached 46 and this further increased his hero status.

Apart from not liking public attention he was deeply concerned his young brother might feel compelled to take unnecessary risks to support the famous family name. In late February 1918 he flew to his brother Anthony’s squadron to tell him not to recklessly take chances. After gaining five kills during aerial combat Anthony was killed a month later. James McCudden had now lost his two brothers and his father to the war.

Later in February McCudden shot down a further 11 aircraft. One of these aircraft is known to have been flown by Corporal Julius Kaiser who fell or jumped to his death after it burst into flames. Later that day he shot down another Albatros, his score was now 54 and by the end of the month he had 57 confirmed kills.

James McCudden, popularly called Mac, was now respected by the pilots under his command who came from so-called ‘respected’ families. Under his command and guidance the flight had a total score of 123 kills and had only lost four pilots.  This was seen as testimony to his outstanding leadership.

After receiving orders to return to England to train pilots the squadron gave him a farewell dinner. The next day, the man who had previously been written off for being working class was entertained by generals and was presented with a silver model of an S.E.5a.

Shortly after being awarded the Victoria Cross James McCudden wrote his book ‘Flying Fury’ and in late June was promoted to major and given command of 60 Squadron.

On the morning of 9 July James, the only surviving male member of the McCudden family, said goodbye to his mother and sister Mary in London and ask them to look after a small box containing his medals. Later that afternoon he crossed the channel in his new S.E.5a to take command of 60 Squadron.  

Aware the German front line may have changed during his time in England after reaching France James decided to land at the British airfield at Auxi-le- Chateau and ask them to mark his map with the British and German lines. After landing and having his map marked with the relevant information and being given useful intelligence from other pilots, he took off to continue his journey.

Eyewitnesses at the airfield remember his aircraft was in a steep climbing turn when they suddenly heard the engine cut-out before it crashed into nearby woods. He was found unconscious near the wrecked aircraft and was suffering from head injuries. Although he was quickly rushed to a field hospital 23-year-old James McCudden died that evening and was buried at Wavens.

Pilots and the British public were shocked to hear James McCudden who was one of Britain’s most decorated pilots and had survived many dogfights had been killed in an accident. 

Several months before his death James McCudden wrote in his journal

 “It seems to me that the very best fellows are always those who are killed…. Sometimes one sits and thinks, ‘Oh, this damned war and its cursed tragedies. After all, I suppose it is to be, and we cannot alter destiny.”

 Suggested further readings: James McCudden Flying Fury

Alex Revell (McCudden expert) Victoria Cross: WWI Airmen and Their Aircraft

 Alex Revell, High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron RFC/RAF 1916-1920; and James McCudden VC.

British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007

EDITORIAL NOTE – I agree with a recent comment pointing out the title is misleading and it should be noted all branches of the military played an essential role in this operation, not just the army.

Operation Banner, the official name of the British military campaign in Northern Ireland, is among the most controversial and misunderstood British military engagements in recent history and this is not surprising due to the propaganda promoted by the IRA and other republican movements.   

The narrative of Operation Banner seldom mentions the IRA was not the only terrorist organisation during the 30 years of violence and often neglects to mention the majority of those living in Northern Ireland remained loyal to the crown. The predominantly protestant community insisted Ulster remain British and also engaged in acts of terrorism against anyone they considered endangered their British citizenship.  It is also seldom stated not all Catholics called for a united Ireland but expressing such thoughts were violently discouraged by the IRA and other republican movements within their community.

Author 1972 – Operation Banner

I served in Northern Ireland in 1972 the year officially listed as the most violent and the conflict was popularly called the troubles by people on both sides of the Irish border. Although the so-called troubles was constantly reported in newspapers and by television news networks across the world it was seldom explained the British army was upholding the democratic wishes of the majority who demanded to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Acts of terrorism by loyalists believing they were defending their British citizenship were also seldom mentioned.  Unbalanced and often biased reporting greatly assisted republican propagandists to reinforce their lie of being engaged in a popular uprising to force the unification of Ireland but in reality, the republican movements were non-democratic and rejected the political wishes of the majority.  Throughout the troubles news editors seldom asked the obvious question, if the British army are oppressors and the IRA are fighting for the people of Ireland why are the IRA bombing crowded civilian targets where the only victims will be men, women and children?

To protect the flow of finance and other support from some Irish Americans who believed the propaganda, the IRA did everything they could to hide the fact they were also being armed and financed by Libya’s Gaddafi who was the main sponsor for international terrorists.  Apart from hiding the fact they were sponsored by  an enemy of the United Sates and Israel,  members of the  IRA were trained at middle eastern terrorist camps financed by Gaddafi and trained alongside  members of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and European terror groups including the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy. The start of the conflict in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with the unification of Ireland, the IRA simply seized an opportunity to politicise legitimate issues connected with human.

Segregation based on a narrative of hate, intolerance and paranoia

Segregation along religious lines has always been the major issue in the political and social life of Northern Ireland and this has been the cause and effect of violence.

John H. Whyte (Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, p8) illustrates this division by explaining the two factors separating Northern Ireland are endogamy and separate education. Separate schools, he says, resulted in the majority of people up to the age of 18 having no conversation with members of the rival creed and Nick Cohen (Guardian 23 July 2007) described this as ‘educational apartheid’. Whyte also says, employment was also highly segregated, particularly at senior management level.

Polarisation as a result of inequality was made worse by the Northern Ireland Parliament, based in Stormont, being dominated for over 50-years by unionists (Loyalists) and its attempts to solve political and social issues such as institutional discrimination against Catholics being regarded as too slow by Catholics and too quick by the Protestants (Loyalists). This, it is widely argued, gave rise to growing tensions and violence between the two communities.

Loyalist flags showing solidarity to Israel because the IRA had been trained by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and received arms and finance from Libya’s Gadaffi
IRA supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation

After being inspired by the 1960’s counter-culture and the civil rights movement in America the Catholic community organised a series of peaceful civil rights marches in which thousands attended. These marches were met with violence from the Protestant community and as the number of marches increased so did the level of violence against them.

In 1968 Northern Ireland saw regular violence and rioting between Catholics and Protestants with the Royal Ulster Constabulary being attacked by both sides. Over 150 catholic homes in neighbouring protestant communities were burnt by Loyalist mobs resulting in 1,800 families being made homeless, and the Catholics quickly retaliated by burning protestant homes. This intercommunal violence resulted in families moving from mixed neighbourhoods to one’s exclusively housing members of their own religion and makeshift barricades guarded by members of their community were erected to protect them from sectarian violence. This was the start of the so-called ‘No Go Areas’ where no one outside their community, including the Police, were allowed to enter.

The UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) protecting a loyalist area

By the end of the year 19 people had been killed, a large number of police officers had been injured during riots; the community had been totally polarised, violence and arson against homes and commercial buildings continued.  Due to parts of Belfast resembling photographs of the London Blitz the British Government had no option but to send troops to Northern Ireland, dissolve the Northern Ireland Parliament and rule Ulster from London and the role of the army appeared straight forward: to remain neutral whilst protecting the two communities and supporting the police.  

Burnt out homes in Belfast
The sort of photograph the IRA did not want the world to see

British soldiers were welcomed as protectors by both communities and were given tea and toast by grateful residents.  In stark contrast to the British soldiers Catholics despised the IRA who had bragged they would protect them and made their feelings known by calling the IRA I ran away and painting this on walls.

Whilst the army brought a degree of stability to Northern Ireland there was violent infighting within the ranks of the Official IRA. This resulted in a split within the organisation and the creation of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and this new version of the IRA was not interested in a peaceful Northern Ireland. Although Catholics were demanding civil rights and were not interested in becoming part of the Irish Republic, PIRA seized the opportunity to use the prevailing widespread hate, intolerance and paranoia to fuel their own political agenda for a united Ireland.

From the start of 1971 Northern Ireland was turning into a war zone:  there were frequent gun battles with the army and police, the use of car bombs, the bombing of factories and public buildings and all were increasing each month. In the countryside and close to the border the IRA started using large IED’s capable of destroying armoured vehicles.  

Robert Curtis

On 6 February 1971, 20-year-old Gunner Robert Curtis of the Royal Artillery was shot in the head by a PIRA gunman whilst on foot patrol in the New Lodge area of Belfast. He was the first soldier to be killed during Operation Banner.  One month later (10 March 1971) brothers John McCaig, 17 and Joseph 18, along with 23-year-old Douglas McCaughey, who were serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, were lured from a Belfast pub to the isolated Brae off the Ligoniel Road by a PIRA ‘honey trap’, and the unarmed soldiers were  shot dead by waiting gunmen. 

The McCaig brother and Douglas McCaughey Murdered during IRA ‘honey trap’

From January to 9 August 1971, 13 soldiers, 2 police officers and 16 civilians had been killed and there had been 94 bomb explosions in July.  During a seven-month period the total number of terrorist bombs were 311, this does not include those which failed to explode, and more than 100 civilians were injured as a result of these indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

IRA – bombing civilian targets

During a single night there were 20 explosions and these coincided with gun attacks against the army and police, and in October there was a two-hour gun battle between 30 PIRA gunmen and 12 soldiers. 1971 was the start of the shooting war, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and the regular use of car bombs against military and police patrols.  However, the worst was yet to come.

IED’s were a major hazard in rural areas

1972 was the most violent year of Operation Banner, with multiple attacks against the army and police being considered normal.  Many who served during this period remember the sounds of multiple gun battles, the metallic sound of the terrorists Armalite rifles, followed by the distinctive sound of the army’s SLR’s returning fire, and the rumble of distant explosions.

The following figures from the CAIN Project conducted by the University of Ulster show the intensity of the conflict during 1972:

Casualties due to terrorist action in 1972

Army      148 injured (106 killed)

Police       17 Killed

Civilians 248 Killed

 Total number of deaths 371

Injuries due to terrorist action (Security forces and civilians) 4,876

Shooting incidents 10,631

Explosions                  1,382

Bombs defused            471

Total number of explosive devices 1,853

Another indication of the violence of 1972 are documents authorising in extreme cases the use of heavy weapons including the Carl Gustav 84mm anti-tank gun.

The history of the Troubles continues to be dominated by extensive reference to the IRA but this is understandable because the organisation took every opportunity to publicise their political agenda through a constant stream of propaganda and disinformation. Due to this publicity many people tend to forget there were only two republican terrorist organisations, PIRA (the Official IRA was now little more than a name) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

Despite representing thirty percent of civilian deaths in Northern Ireland and their attacks inside the Irish Republic, the four main Loyalist terror groups, often referred to as paramilitaries by the press, have drawn far less publicity and international attention than the IRA.

Although due to the very nature of terrorism it is always difficult to obtain accurate membership figures the following are estimates from a number of researchers including the CAIN project.

Republican terrorists

PIRA 1,500


TOTAL 1,550

Loyalist Terrorists

UDA (Ulster Defence Association)  40,000

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)               100

Red Hand Defence (RHD)                      50

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)               40

Red Hand Commandos                         30

Ulster Vanguard                                       Not known (links to Loyalist terrorists)

TOTAL                                                        40,220 (Potential active members)

Compared to the loyalists the IRA and INLA combined had an insignificant number of supporters and the loyalist community had a much greater potential for widespread violence. Loyalists were able to call on a large number of Protestants to support their political agenda and if necessary, fight to retain their British identity. For instance, after the British government took power away from the Northern Ireland Parliament the UDA organised a rally numbering 100,000 during the Parliament’s last sitting and on 10 March 1972, the Ulster Vanguard (which had strong links with Loyalist terror groups) held a rally in Ormeal Park which was attended by an estimated 60,000. During this rally William Craig, leader of the Vanguard, announced, “We must build up the dossiers of men and women who are a menace to this country, because one day, ladies and gentlemen, if the politicians fail, it will be our duty to liquidate the enemy”. (Boyd, Anderson: Falkner and the Crisis of Ulster Unionism. Anvil Books, Tralee, Republic of Ireland 1972. P100)

1 Para 1972

The widespread support this declaration of violence received from the loyalist community and only the army and RUC preventing a civil war, raised major concerns among senior politicians in the Irish Republic and among officers of the Irish Defence Force.

One of many hundreds of civilians killed or injured by IRA bombs

Republic of Ireland fearful of a British Withdrawal from the North

Declassified government papers show at the height of the troubles Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a number of meetings with members of his cabinet to discuss the feasibility of a military withdrawal and repartitioning the country in favour of the Irish Republic.

More civilians in Ulster were killed and injured by IRA bombs than the army and police combined

Senior civil servants warned such a proposal may result in civil war throughout Ireland. Widespread intercommunal violence, they said, may lead to an influx of Irish American volunteers supporting the IRA and members of the Orange orders from Scotland and England joining the Loyalists. They were also concerned that such a decision would provide opportunities for intervention from unfriendly governments such as the Soviet Union and Libya.  After listening to these concerns the proposal was dropped.

Although the meeting was classified top secret senior politicians in Ireland were made aware of the proposal and this was met with serious concerns regarding the future security of the Irish Republic.

Gerrett Fitzgerald, the Irish Foreign Minister who later became Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Irish Republic) said “if that had happened, we would not have been able to deal with the resulting backlash from avenging Loyalists.  There was a clear danger that such a withdrawal might be followed by full-scale civil war and anarchy in Northern Ireland with disastrous repercussions for our state as well as for the north and also possibly for Great Britain itself… We in the Republic had an important common interest with the Northern Ireland political party {SDLP}, which was a powerful barrier against the IRA, the openly stated agenda of which at the time was the destruction of the democratic Irish state and the submission by force of an all-Ireland social republic. .. We concluded that the choice lies between British rule and Protestant rule and it was quite clearly in our interests to do everything possible, which may not be very much, to try to ensure that the British stay…” …” (The 1974-5 Threat of a British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland, Garrett Fitzgerald former Taoiseach, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol.17 , 2006 , p141-150)

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet of the Irish Republic, Dermot Nally said, “The possible consequences of Northern Ireland becoming independent were so horrific that we should on no account give any support to the proposal…” (Ibid)

1 Para

Garrett Fitzgerald also said, In the event our concerns about a possible British withdrawal were eased during the following months. Our efforts to alert informed British opinion indirectly of the dangers involved seemed to have paid off (Ibid)

Soldiers under fire

Looking back, Fitzgerald said, at the fraught period 30 years later, what remains most vivid in my mind about the time is the terrible sense of virtual impotence that I and others immediately involved felt in the face of the dangers which a British withdrawal would have created four our island and our state. Neither then nor since has public opinion in Ireland realise how close to disaster our whole Island came during the last two years of Harold Wilson’s premiership.” (Ibid)

Omagh bomb victims after the IRA left a car bomb in a road crowded with shoppers
Stephen Resorick, shot dead in 1997 holds the tragic distinction of being the last soldier killed during Operation Banner.


It is clear British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland to protect both communities and it was not, as the IRA propagandists claim, an army of oppression. We also see the IRA constantly rejecting democracy, the majority made it clear they wanted Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom and firmly rejected any talk of being governed by the Irish Republic which they regarded as a foreign country.   

 Finally, senior politicians, civil servants and military officers in London and the Irish Republic were in no doubt a British military withdrawal would have resulted in a civil war which was likely to engulf both sides of the border.  As Garrett Fitzgerald put it, “I think the state {Irish Republic} was more at risk than at any time since our formation” (Ibid)

  Statistics – Northern Ireland during Operation Banner

The CAINE Project, at the University of Ulster have published the following figures in relation to operation Banner:

Civilians killed                           3,600

Soldiers killed                1,500

Royal Ulster Constabulary killed   302

Security Forces Injured      6,116

Civilians injured                47,541

Bombing incidents           16,208

Shooting incidents           39,923

(Note: During the research for this post I found a large variation of figures relating to deaths and injuries. Further independent research is required)

The unknown female war hero

On 2 September 2010 police were called to a small house in Torquay after local residents reported a strong smell coming from the property. After forcing their way into the house officers found the decomposed body of an 89-year-old female lying on the floor in one of the rooms and they estimated she had been dead for several weeks.

Door to door enquiries failed to identify the woman: no one knew her name, she did not appear to have friends, and nobody was seen visiting the house. The only time she was seen in the street was when she was feeding stray cats.

Whilst searching the house an officer found a photograph of two women dressed in British army uniforms which were taken during the war and they later found an old shoe box containing several medals including an MBE, the French Croix de Guerre, other medals and more photographs of the two women taken during the war.

It was several weeks before the police discovered the dead woman was Eileen Nearne and the photographs of the two young women dressed in British army uniforms was Eileen and her sister Jacqueline who had served as agents with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The police and local community were further surprised to discover the elderly cat lover who had been ignored and went unnoticed in her community was also a war hero.

(Photographs found by police. Left Eileen, Right Jacqueline )

By the age of 22 Eileen was a trained clandestine wireless operator who had volunteered even after being warned her life expectancy, with a bit of luck, was about six weeks.

During the night of 2 March 1944, she arrived in France by Lysander aircraft at an isolated field and joined the Wizard circuit which specialised in sabotage operations and her job was to keep in touch with London.

It has always been acknowledged the work of wireless operators was the most dangerous job in SOE because the Germans had the technical capability to detect their signal and identify their location. Wireless operators were also aware they were in possession of important intelligence and if arrested they must expect to be tortured by the Gestapo and if they refused to talk, they would most likely be shot.  Consequently, survival meant being one step ahead of the German wireless detection teams by never transmitting from the same location and passing their messages as quickly as possible before moving to a safehouse some distance from where they had been transmitting.

During this dangerous game of cat and mouse where the Germans had all the advantages Eileen Nearne sent over 100 messages to London. According to Foot, SOE’s official historian, “she had transmitted a good deal of economic and military intelligence besides arranging for weapons, sabotage stores and other agents to be dropped by parachute. Eventually her transmissions were tracked down and she was arrested and handed to the Gestapo.

Her torture at Gestapo headquarters has been described as savage and intensive but she refused to talk and expected to be shot but instead was transported to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. At Ravensbrück she came across other women from SOE who were in a pitiful state due to torture and neglect.

In early 1945 Eileen Nearne escaped and used her training to evade capture as she made her way through war-torn Germany in the hope of meeting up with allied forces.  After being stopped by the SS in keeping with her training she calmly informed them she was a French volunteer working in a Factory and was allowed to continue her journey. After reaching Leipzig a German priest hid her until the arrival of the US army.

After the war Eileen lived in London with her sister Jaqueline who was the only person she knew and trusted. Eileen and Jaqueline had always been close, and her sister greatly helped her cope with the psychological difficulties of dealing with the memories of her treatment by the Gestapo and the horrors of Ravensbrück. In 1982 Jaqueline died of cancer and Eileen moved to Torquay.

With no friends, traceable relatives and with insufficient money in her bank account, after her death the local council was going to pay for a cheap funeral and cremation but after news of Eileen Nearne’s distinguished war career came to the attention of the British Legion, they paid the funeral costs and among those who attended to show there respects  were members of the military and the Foreign Office.  

Before her death Eileen Nearne (Left) attending a memorial at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Sitting to her right is Odette Churchill GC another SOE agent who refused to talk under torture and survived this death camp.

Her sister Jacqueline will be discussed in a later post.

Female SOE agents in France

In September 2014 I published this small article examining a few female agents working for the Special Operations Executive and this was the start of my four-years of research into SOE in wartime France which is due to be published in September 2019.

This may be read by following the link or reading/downloading the Pdf version.


Operation Banner: British Army in Northern Ireland

There is no doubt the British Army in Northern Ireland is one of the most controversial British campaigns in recent history. This article which I published a few years ago received mixed feelings but I was surprised by the many positive feedbacks I received from both sides of this divided community.

All PDF files may be read online or downloaded