Captain Robert Nairac, GC (Northern Ireland)

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

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

Taken in Northern Ireland before joining intelligence

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

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

Left- taken whilst working under cover

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


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

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

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

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

The Three Steps

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

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

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

Taken prior to is abduction by the IRA

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

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

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

Robert Nairac’s GC and GSM with Northern Ireland Clasp

Citation for the award George Cross

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

Private Albert willingham

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

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

Bertji Voskuil
Henri Voskuil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Official Citation published in the London Gazette 18 November 1915

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

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

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

Pte Peachment’s medals (Ashcroft Collection)

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

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

Name: George Stanley PEACHMENT

D.O.B: 5th May, 1897

D.O.A: 25th September, 1915

D.O.D: 25th September, 1915

Award: Victoria Cross

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

Loos, France 25 September 1915

(Primary source Lord Ashcroft Collection)


Barbara Harrison, GC

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Harrison is buried at Fulford Cemetery, York.

Daphne Pearson the first woman recipient of the GC

Photo credit artist Laura Knight.

In 1940 Daphne Pearson was serving as a medical corporal (WAAF) with 500 Squadron Coastal Command at RAF/RNAS Detling in Kent.

The following are extracts from her obituary published in the Telegraph and the Times both dated 26 July 2000.

It was around 1 am on 31 May 1940 when Daphne was woken by the sound of an aircraft which appeared to be in distress: one engine was cutting out and the aircraft appeared to be approaching the airfield. She quickly dressed, put on her tin hat and dashed outside in time to see the aircraft crash through trees and hit the ground. After the war Pearson said,  “A sentry told me to stop but I said no and ran on and opened a gate to allow an ambulance to get through… and there was a dull glow where the plane had come to rest “ 

After scrambling over a fence, falling into a ditch and running across a long field she eventually reached the crash site and saw a small group of people starting to drag the pilot clear. Running towards them she shouted: “Leave him to me – go and get the fence down for the ambulance”.

Daphne Pearson IWW

On her own she dragged  the pilot from the burning aircraft before  stopping to give him a quick examination during which she was concerned he may have a broken neck. The  pilot then mumbled there were  bombs on the aircraft and after hearing this she began dragging him further away and had just reached a small dip in the ground when the fuel tanks exploded. Pearson immediately threw herself on top of the pilot to protect him from the blast and placed her helmet over his head. As they lay on the ground, she was holding his head still to prevent further injury to his neck when one of the  120 lb bombs on the aircraft exploded.

She later recalled, “There was a lot of blood around the pilot’s mouth and a tooth was protruding from his upper jaw and I was about to examine his ankle when the plane exploded again… The force of the blast and the shock wave caused the air around them to collapse and their breath was sucked out of them whilst being showered with debris from the aircraft”.  She also recalled seeing other rescuers  running towards the field being blown to the ground by the hurricane-force wind of the explosion.

Daphne Pearson was aware of the dangers from other unexploded  bombs as she broke cover,  ran across open ground and helped the medical officer over a fence with a stretcher.

Shortly after the pilot was removed by ambulance there was another huge explosion but still undeterred by the dangers   she ran to the burning wreck to look for the wireless operator but found he was already dead. At 0800 hours Daphne Pearson reported for her regular duties as if nothing had happened a few hours earlier.

In July 1940 the King awarded Joan Daphne Pearson the Medal of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for Gallantry. After the revocation of the Empire Gallantry Medal, on 31 January 1941 the King invested her with its replacement, the George Cross and Daphne Pearson became the first woman to be awarded the medal.

In 1969 Daphne Pearson emigrated to Australia and eventually settled in Melbourne where she died in July 2000 at the age of 89.

NORAID IRA- America’s Plastic Paddy’s (first published 2015)

The idea for this post originates from a story told to me by two friends who visited America last year. As both are from the Republic of Ireland, going to an ‘Irish’ pub appeared to be a good idea, but once inside, nether were prepared for the greeting they received from Irish-Americans living in Boston.

They recalled their experience, “When we went into this pub in Boston, as soon as we opened our mouths we were greeted by fake Irish accents. At first we thought they were being sarcastic before realizing they truly believed they were ‘Irish’.  After they established we were both Catholics from the Irish Republic they began praising the IRA, calling them freedom fighters and cursing the Brits. Their view of Ireland and the troubles were firmly placed in the distant past, the 1920s and earlier; they clearly knew nothing about Ireland, Britain or the Troubles in Northern Ireland… “

 “After attempting to impress us with their knowledge of the potato famine, British landowners, the Easter Uprising and British persecution of the Irish we quickly finished our drinks and left.” This and subsequent experiences during their trip to Boston and New York left them in no doubt that Irish-American’s don’t exist, “they are plastic Paddy’s with no knowledge of Ireland or the recent troubles…”

 On several occasions I have heard the expression “Plastic Paddy”: friends who have been born in England, whose parents are from Ireland have jokingly referred to themselves as Plastic Paddy’s. However, the same expression used to describe the Irish-Americans my friends encountered in Boston and New York was intended to be an insult, and a term used to distinguish them from the ‘real’ Irish.

 “These plastic Paddy’s” they said, “had no idea Irish men and women serve in the British forces, or that Irish men and women have served in Northern Ireland… They were also unaware that for generations the Irish community has been fully integrated into English society, especially in London… Their view of Ireland and England is more like the Palestine- Israel conflict… I just can’t comprehend the stupidity of these people…”

According to Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute University College Dublin, Britain still attracts the largest percentage of emigrants from the Irish Republic with around 90,000 people moving across the water since 2008. He also estimates that six million people in Britain have at least one Irish grandparent (around 10 percent of the population)

Kennedy also explains that over the half-century (1951 – 2001) the Irish were the largest foreign born group in England, mostly because of the hundreds who moved there in the 1950s and the lack of visa restrictions.

During a visit to Boston the Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, Diarmund Martin, publicly said, “Irish-American sentimentalism is incomprehensible, but it’s also dangerous…  It hasn’t just been about singing ‘Danny Boy’: in Ulster its meant death and destruction. “

The Archbishop then went on to say, “I have no feeling for Irish-American’s… I don’t understand it…American sentimentality for a country they don’t know, it’s not my dish” (Catholic Herald 19 April 2011)

The following extract from the Catholic Herald illustrates some of the common feelings towards Irish-American’s.

Dr William Oddie, a leading English catholic writer and former editor of the Catholic Herald, recalled his trip to Boston. “The Cardinal introduced me to his secretary, then said, mischievously, Dr Oddie is an Englishman. Mrs so and so is Irish, he explained, as she glowered at me, she doesn’t like the English. Why not, I asked, puzzled: well because of the way you persecuted Irish Catholics, she said. Yes, I said, but they cruelly persecuted English Catholics, too, probably worse; I’m an English Catholic”. This was not a part of Catholic history of which she had been previously aware. She just knew that the Irish are supposed to hate the English.”

“Nor had she ever been to Ireland, about which she clearly knew nothing at all. I was an undergraduate in Dublin, long before the vast improvement in Anglo-Irish relations that has taken place in recent years. In all my time there, including an extra postgraduate year, despite my evident Englishness I never once encountered anything but friendliness and courtesy.”

From Irish Americans, I have through the years encountered a certain amount of discourtesy. “I’m Irish”, was the explanation, the first time I came across this phenomenon. “Really” I replied, genuinely puzzled, I wasn’t being a smartass; “you sound American to me: what part of Ireland do you come from?” He, too, had never been to Ireland. Neither had his father or his grandfather. But they all called themselves simply “Irish”, tout court.”

 Oddie continues,” It can be entirely harmless, of course (though the real Irish do sometimes regard the phenomenon with puzzlement) and it does help the tourist trade. I remember one St. Patrick’s Day when I was in the entrance hall of a Dublin hotel, watching in astonishment as a group of Irish Americans, all dressed in bright emerald-green suits, stood drinking pints of bright green beer and smoking huge bright green cigars. I expressed my amazement to the Hall porter, who simply replied, “Ah, sure, they’re enjoying themselves, and it does no harm”

In the same article Oddie also says, “Irish-American sentimentalism has been responsible for very much worse things than emerald-green suits: it brought death and destruction as well. Only Libya supplied more financial aid and more weapons and logistical support to the IRA than Irish Americans did. The IRA were responsible for the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 630 civilians. But it was OK to collect money on the streets of Boston and New York for the funding of all this death and destruction as long as you knew the words and music to “Have you ever been across the sea to Ireland?” (Answer, in most cases, no) and “Danny Boy”.

Referring to Archbishop Martin’s statement, “Irish-Americanism… it’s not my dish”. Oddie says, “Your Grace, many others feel the same, including (quite literally) thousands of widows and orphans in the six counties and throughout the rest of the UK, too.” He also says, “that small, peaceable, fuddled group of green beer drinkers, he begins to wonder, had none of them, perhaps walking down Fifth Avenue, ever reached into their wallets for a ten dollar bill, as someone approached them, smiling, with a bright green collecting box?” (The Catholic Herald 19 April 2012)

As the above article from the Catholic Herald briefly points out, Plastic Paddy’s, to use the phrase of my ‘real’ Irish friends, have been responsible for death and destruction on BOTH sides of the Irish border, major cities in England and British military bases in Germany. Consequently, along with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, they have supported an organisation involved in acts of terrorism, including the targeting of innocent civilians, for a cause and country they know nothing about!

It’s doubtful that NORAID and their Plastic Paddy’s are aware the British Army was originally sent to Northern Ireland to protect the Catholic community who were regularly being attacked and their houses burned by the predominantly protestant community. Few may be aware that throughout the 30 year campaign, which was driven by NORAID money, the army and police were also confronting a large number of sectarian death squads, popularly referred to as Loyalist Paramilitaries {terrorists,} who were murdering Catholics simply because of their religion. This will be covered in greater detail in my post which examines Operation Banner. 

 According to NORAID and their misguided supporters, their money was for the IRA freedom fighters who were fighting the British Army, attacking the oppressive British government and for the eventual unification of the Ireland of Ireland – to this day they don’t appear to understand that their money has been responsible for the death and maiming of more civilians than the casualties caused by the British Army, Police and Loyalist death squads combined, and NORAID has fueled this death and destruction for 30 years.   Equally, they don’t appear to be aware the majority of Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.  This is rather strange as the majority of American’s embrace and understand the importance of democracy.

The following is a brief example of the IRA’s deliberate attacks against civilians over a period of 30 years and also illustrates, by implication, NORAIDS support for the murder of civilians. It should be noted that because NORAID escalated and sustained the Troubles, which in turn resulted in the formation of over five Loyalist terrorist organisations bent on revenge, the death of civilians at the hands of Loyalists are also included. However, there are also the unknown number of civilian men and women who were abducted, murdered and buried by the IRA (called the Disappeared) and Catholics abducted and murdered by Loyalists, which are difficult to accurately quantify. Also, as NORMAID regard the deaths of soldiers, police officers, prison officers, civilians involved in government contracts and alleged informers as legitimate targets, these have not been included. Neither have those who have been beaten to death or shot for various alleged crimes after being found guilty by IRA kangaroo courts who ruled the catholic areas of Northern Ireland through fear and intimidation.

Bloody Friday 21 July 1972

Remains of an IRA bomb victim- as with most of their victims an innocent civilian

Often, the IRA would gave a number of bomb warnings before there devices exploded in densely populated civilian areas. This allowed them to claim the fatalities and injuries were due to the inaction of the police and the army. In reality most of these warnings were deliberately vague and on the rare occasion of receiving accurate information there was often the ‘come on’ (come on and get it) or secondary device designed to kill and maim the first responders and civilians attempting to help the casualties.  Blaming the security forces for the death of civilians was a common IRA statement after their many bomb attacks. 

Not surprisingly, this was also the case on Friday 21 July 1972 when the authorities were informed that bombs had been planted and primed in Belfast’s city center.  The city center was crowded with shoppers and the precise location of the bombs, as usual, were vague. As the police and a small complement of soldiers were evacuating shoppers twenty-six bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes.

One of many civilian targets bombed

Due to the City Center being a major shopping area which was always crowded and the large list of targets, it can clearly be seen this was an indiscriminate attack against civilians.


  • Smithfield Bus Station: A car bomb exploded in an enclosed yard.
  • Brookvale Hotel: bomb estimated to be 50lbs.
  • York Road Railway Station: 30lb bomb
  • Star Taxi Depot on the Crumlin Road
  • Oxford Street Bus Depot
  • Railway Station in Great Victoria Street: Van bomb 50lbs
  • Railway Station in Botanic Avenue: 50lbs
  • Ulster Bank Limestone Road: 50lbs
  • Liverpool Ferry Terminal: 50lbs
  • Queen Elizabeth Road Bridge: 160lbs
  • Gas Depot Office, Omeau Avenue: 50lb
  • Germoyle Street: parcel bomb
  • Agnes Street: car bomb 30lbs
  • M2 Motorway Bridge, Bellevue: 30lbs
  • Creighton’s filling station, Upper Lisburn Road: Petrol pumps ablaze
  • Electricity substation, Salisbury Road: Car bomb
  • Railway Bridge, Finaghy Road North: Lorry bomb
  • Railway footbridge, Windsor park: 30lb
  • Eastwood garage Donegal Street: car 150lbs
  • Stewartstown Road
  • Cavehill Road: car 50lbs
  • Railway line near Lisburn Road
  • Grosvenor Road: 50lbs.
  • Queen Elizabeth Building: Car 160lbs

According to Brenan Hughes, commander of the Belfast Brigade, “I was the operational commander of the ‘Bloody Friday’ operation. I remember when the bombs started to go off, I was in Leeson Street, and I thought, ‘There’s too much here’. I sort of knew that there were going to be casualties, either [because] the Brits could not handle so many bombs or they would allow some to go off because it suited them to have casualties. I feel a bit guilty about it because, as I say, there was no intention to kill anyone that day. I have a fair deal of regret that ‘Bloody Friday’ took place … a great deal of regret … If I could do it over again I wouldn’t do it.”

“No intention to kill anyone….” Bombing a crowded city center full of civilians!

The fact that only 9 people died is down to the bravery and professionalism of a handful of overstretched police officers and soldiers. As well as dealing with the impending threat, pictures of the aftermath also show the gruesome task of police officers, soldiers, firefighters and ambulance crews placing limbs and pieces of flesh into plastic bags and putting blankets over larger pieces of human remains.

Warrington Bombing

Warrington is another example of the many bombings which the IRA claimed they had no intention to kill anyone.  Apart from the IRA placing explosive devices inside cast iron litter bins outside shops: clearly indicating the intention was to kill and main civilians; the fact that this attack took place one day before Mother’s Day, clearly suggests the victims would likely be fathers with young children buying presents for their mother’s, and this, sadly, turned out to be the case.

As two litter bins exploded outside shops in Market Street Tim Parry, aged 12 and 3-year-old Johnathan Ball were killed instantly and 50 were injured, some losing limbs. According to an eyewitness 3-year-old Johnathan Ball took the full blast from one of the bombs and was cut in half.  This incident resulted in scores of protest throughout Britain and the Irish Republic.

Although accurate figures of IRA bombings have proved difficult to obtain, it is know that at the height of the Troubles in 1972, there were no fewer than 1,300 bomb attacks in Northern Ireland during that year alone.  Apart from the current lack of figures to accompany this post, for a fuller picture we must also include the fatalities and injuries through regular gun attacks. We also need to know the number of sectarian and random murders.

For many of us who served in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, which some also refer to as the ‘Forgotten War’,  the subject is often described in a clinical ‘matter of fact’ and no-personal manner  and even media accounts of this period were seldom able to reflect the human tragedy financed by the Plastic Paddy’s of NORAID. This changed after the Omagh Bombing. So much is known about the Omagh victims, the Troubles have now become personalized and many can now understand the full tragedy of Northern Ireland and the long-term trauma of those families who have lost love ones to indiscriminate bombings and shootings. These civilians were the acceptable collateral damage of the IRA, Gaddafi and the Plastic Paddy’s of NORAID.

 Omagh, County Tyrone

On a good day it only takes around 1 1/2; hours to drive to Omagh from the Irish Republic, making it popular for shopping expeditions for those living south of the border.

Although it cannot be said Omagh, like other areas of Northern Ireland, had not been effected by the Troubles, unlike many other parts of Northern Ireland which are divided by sectarianism, Omagh was known as a place where Catholics and Protestants lived side by side in relative piece. 

Saturday 15 August 1998 was the final day of Omagh’s annual carnival week. The streets were packed with shoppers taking advantage of the summer sales and buying uniforms ahead of the new school year. At 3.10pm a massive 500lbs bomb in a vehicle parked in the middle of Omagh’s main street exploded- instantly turning the car, brickwork and roadside furniture into shrapnel.

The death toll of 29 included nine children and three generations of one family. Over 200 people were injured, some left without limbs, and others were blinded or disfigured. Local priest Father Thomas Canning said: “I really don’t know how the town of Omagh is ever going to come to terms with this awful catastrophe.”

The 29 people killed in Omagh and those injured represent every cross section of Northern Ireland society.

A lucky escape- a Spanish tourist with his son standing by the car bomb several minutes before it exploded. 

Avril Monaghan, 30, County Tyrone. Heavily pregnant with twin girls, her daughter and mother were also killed whilst shopping at the SD Kells cloths shop which bore the brunt of the explosion.

Mura Monaghan, 18 months old, County Tyrone. She was one of Avril Monaghan’s four children. Her body was found under her mother’s. She was also known as ‘Massie’ by her family.

 Mary Grimes, 66, County Tyrone, was Avril Monaghan’s mother who was celebrating her birthday with her with her daughter and granddaughter.

 Brenda Devine, County Tyrone, 20 months old. She had been born three months prematurely. Her mother, Tracy, was the last victim to return home from hospital. Tracy Devine was in a comma for six weeks and on waking was told her daughter had been killed.

Lorraine Wilson, 15, Omagh. Had hoped to become a flight attendant. She had been evacuated from Oxfam, where she worked as a volunteer, after inaccurate warnings as to the location of the bomb.

 Samantha McFarland, 17, Omagh. She was a friend of Lorraine and fellow volunteer at Oxfam.

Gareth Conway, 18, Omagh. He was a student who lived with his family and hoped to be accepted for an engineering course at the University of Ulster and was awaiting his exam results.

Julie Hughes, 21, Omagh. The 21-year-old accountancy student was home from Dundee University prior to finishing her final year. She had a summer job at Image Xpress, a photographic shop.

Brenda Logue, 17, Carrickmore. She was a sixth-year pupil at St Theresa’s high school who played Gaelic football for the school team. Her GCSE exam results arrived a few days after her death.

Elizabeth Rush, 57, Omagh, was serving customers in her Markey Street shop, ‘Pine Emporium’, opposite the centre of the explosion when she was killed.

Racio Abad-Amos, 23, Madrid, a teacher supervising a group of Spanish and Irish schoolchildren on a day trip to Omagh. The party was on an exchange holiday based in Donegal.

Fernando Blasco Baselga, 12, Madrid. One of the exchange party. His 15-year-old sister, Donna Marie, was on the trip and needed extensive plastic surgery for facial injuries.

Sean McLaughlin, 12, County Donegal, was part of the same group. An avid footballer who supported Manchester United and was also an altar boy.

 Oran Doherty, 8, County Donegal, also on the exchange programme and Sean’s neighbour. He was buried in his beloved Celtic Football Club jersey.

James Barker12, County Donegal, another member of the exchange group and friends of Sean and Oran. He lives for more than three hours as doctors vainly pumped 18 pints of blood into him.

Philomena Skelton, 49, County Tyrone. She was on a shopping trip with her husband and three daughters who survived the explosion.

Esher Gibson, 36, Beragh, Sunday school teacher who had got engaged three months earlier.

Geraldine Breslin, 43, Omagh. She was one of three sales assistants working for Waterson’s Drapers who dies. Breslin, married with a 15-year-old son, was walking down the street on a tea break when the bomb exploded.

Ann McCombe, 48, Omagh. Mother-of-two, also working for Waterson’s. She was with Breslin on her tea break.

Veda Short, 56, Omagh. A mother-of-four who also worked t Waterson’s. She was also on tea break when she died. Earlier that day she had witnessed the birth or her grandchild.

Aiden Gallagher, 21, Omagh. He lived with his parents and had gone to the town to buy jeans and boots.

Alan Radford, 16, Omagh. He was shopping with his mother who was also injured. Alan was due to start training as a chief the following  month and his GCSE results arrived three days after his death.

 Fred White, 60, Omagh. He was in a shop next to SD Kells with his son when the bomb killed both of them.

 Brian White, 26, Omagh. Fred White’s son. He had returned from university in England and was due to start a job with the council two days later. He was buried alongside his father.

Jolene Marlow, 17, Omagh. She was a student who hoped to study physiotherapy at the University of Ulster and was waiting for her exam results. She was in Omagh with her sister and grandmother.

Deborah Cartwright, 20, Omagh. Her A-level results, which arrived on the day of her funeral, confirmed she had won her place on a textile design course at Manchester University.

Olive Hawkes, 60, Omagh. She was to celebrate her Ruby (40 years) wedding anniversary a few days after the bomb. She was killed while on a shopping outing.

Brian McCory, 54, Omagh. He left a wife, daughter and two sons, He was talking with a friend near the car bomb.

Sean McGrath, 61, Omagh, died three weeks after the blast. He had been fatally injured in the same street in which he had been born.

Several eyewitnesses recall the aftermath of the massive explosion, “When the dust began to clear the dead and injured were seen lying all around, surrounded by the twisted wreckage of buildings and cars. The staff at Waterson’s had literally been wiped out”.

And, “Water spraying from burst water mains carried blood over the debris, occasionally exposing limbs and other human parts torn from bodies by the force of the blast. The police had to force back desperate relatives who attempted to rush to the scene to search for missing loved ones.”

Omagh is just one of many terrorist attacks where the IRA has killed 621 civilians.

After the Boston Marathon bombing I wonders whether the Plastic Paddy’s of NORAID now understand and regret the contribution they made to the 30 years of death and destruction in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps not!

Estimated figures of IRA bomb attacks against civilian targets and retaliatory bomb attacks by loyalist terror groups. Attacks against security forces and attacks where there was no loss of life are not included.


UVF (loyalists) McGurk’s bar 4 December, 15 killed, 17 injured


Official IRA Aldershot, 6 killed

IRA Abercorn Restaurant, 2 killed, 130 injured

PIRA, 24 bombs in towns and cities across Northern Ireland (figures not currently available)

PIRA, Bloody Friday, Belfast City Centre, 26 bombs, 9 killed and 130 injured

Unknown, Claudy car bomb, 9 killed

Loyalists, Dublin car bomb, 2 killed, 127 injured


UVF (loyalist) bomb in pub, 6 killed, 18 injured

UVF (loyalist) Dublin and Monaghan bombings (four bombs, 3 in Dublin, 1 on Monaghan) 33 killed including a pregnant women

IRA, Birmingham pub bomb, 21 killed


IRA, North Street Arcade, 2 killed

UVF (loyalists) Belfast and Claremont, 5 killed


PIRA, Le Man Restaurant Belfast (incendiary bomb) 12 killed, 30 injured.

PIRA, 50 bombs in towns across Northern Ireland, 37 injured


PIRA train bomb, Dunmurry, 3 killed, 5 injured


PIRA, Belfast, Derry, Ballymena, Bessbrook, 2 killed, 12 injured

INLA, Drop in the well pub, 6 killed

PIRA, Harrods London, 3 killed, 90 injured


PIRA, Remembrance Day bombing, Enniskillen, 11 killed, 3 injured

PIRA, St Albans city centre, 2 killed (thought to be own goal)


PIRA, Teebane bombing, 8 killed, 8 injured

PIRA, Baltic exchange, 3 killed, 91 injured

PIRA, Forensic Labs, Belfast, 20 injured


PIRA Warrington, 2 killed, 56 injured

PIRA, Bishopsgate, 1 killed, 30 injured

PIRA, Shankhill Road Fish shop Belfast, 8 killed


PIRA, London Docklands, 2 killed

PIRA, Manchester, 200 injured

According to figures from CAIN (Conflict Archive) ‘Deaths from the Conflict in Northern Ireland’, which does not included sectarian murders or the disappeared.

Civilians:  1,879

Security Forces 1,117

Republican terrorists 399

Loyalist terrorists 162

Security Forces (Irish Republic) 11

Total: 3568.

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:

 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.