SOE agent Andrée Borrel

Andrée Borrel escaped from France to England in 1942 after working for an escape line for two-years during which she assisted allied aircrews shot down over France to escape to neutral Spain and eventually return to England.

After passing agent selection and training, on the night of 25 September 1942 Borrel along with Lise de Baissac became the first female agents from SOE’s French Section to infiltrate France by parachute and after landing went their separate ways.

Borrel worked for PHYSICIAN (Prosper) circuit in the Paris region and travelled extensively to recruit members for the circuit, arranging arms and sabotage stores to be dropped by parachute and the circuit rapidly grew.

On 25 June 1943 London received a ‘flash’ message from an SOE wireless operator in France saying the circuit leader Francis Suttill, wireless operator Gilbert Norman and Andrée Borrel had disappeared and were later officially listed missing presumed dead, and this led to various conspiracy theories after the war. The German infiltration of PHYSICIAN and the many deaths which followed was the continuation of a complicated Abwehr plan which began almost a year previously in southern France.

It is known Andrée Borrel spent many months in prison where she was interrogated by the SD before being sent to another prison in southwest Germany. On 6 July 1944, exactly one month after the Normandy Landings, Borrel and three other female SOE agents were executed at Natzweiler concentration camp.  

Alan Malcher

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn French Section SOE

SOE agent Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn.

Ben Cowburn was born in Lancashire on 3 March 1909 and at the age of 8 moved with his British parents to Paris and was educated at a British school in Boulogne-sure-Sein. Shortly after marrying a French woman Cowburn studied electrical engineering and after graduating worked for the American company Foster Wheeler which was building oil refineries throughout France. Apart from his language and cultural skills SOE was interested in his extensive knowledge of the French oil industry and Cowburn became one of the first students to train at Wanborough Manor in 1941 before completing four missions to France and after the war was awarded the Military Cross and Bar and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by France but like many agents, he tended to downplay his war service and bravery whilst talking about the bravery of others.

Benjamin Hodkinson Cowburn died on 17 December 1994 aged 85 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France.

Guy Vivian SOE T Section (Belgium)

Guy Vivian

Guy Vivian was born to a British father and Belgium mother in Antwerp and left Belgium in 1935 to work for the GPO (General Post Office) in Britain as a linguist and switchboard operator. From 1939 to 1940 he served with the Royal Signals and was with the BEF in Cherbourg.

Although he married his Belgium wife at an early age the SOE assessors were concerned about his extra-marital activities especially after Vivian told one of the training staff that whilst living in Cherbourg, he had a flat where he gave English lessons to young girls and his flat was like a brothel.

On 13 April 1943 Vivian was sent to France by Lysander because it was easier to land in France than in Belgium, with instructions to organise a courier network to allow mail to be passed between Belgium and London. There is little information in his personal file and his last contact with London is dated 23 April 1943.  It is known he was arrested by the SD at 43 bis Rue des Belles-Feuilles in Paris where they found a document which blew his cover, but the nature of this document is unknown.

SOE concerns over “his intense interest in women” proved to be his undoing: the SD were investigating the death of a woman who had last been seen in his company and was later described as a spy, but it is not known whether she was a German agent or a paid informant.  As instructed during training, If Vivian discovered she was working for the Germans, he most likely eliminated her, but if this were the case, he failed to leave the area and cover his tracks which he was also instructed to do.

It has been said Vivian was shot by the Germans at the Fort du Mont-Valérien in the Paris suburbs sometime in November 1943, but it has not been explained why he was not buried until 4 December 1943.  

Alan Malcher

Neil Selby SOE Yugoslavia

Neil Selby

SOE operations in Yugoslavia supported Tito’s Communist Partisans at the expense of the royalist Chetniks. On 5 February 1943 a team of four SOE operatives (Operation Disclaimer) were handed to the Germans by local people shortly after they landed and the next team which arrived several days later were denounced and it was difficult to discover who could be trusted or their political loyalties.

Selby had served with 11 Commando before joining SOE and arrived in Yugoslavia with another SOE agent, twenty-six-year-old John Rochester who was of Yugoslav extraction whose family name was Yovanovic.

Dressed as peasants they attempted to contact the partisans but were captured by pro-German forces and handed to the German authorities. There is much contradictory evidence surrounding the fate of Selby and Rochester. It cannot be confirmed Selby was shot whilst attempting to escape and there is no reliable information concerning the fate of Rochester and both were originally listed missing presumed dead.  

Alan Malcher.

Stephen Resz (Reiss, Rice) SOE ‘A’ Force

Stephen Rice

Stephen Reiss was a Jew born in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia and was serving with the Palmach in Mandatory Palestine when he was recruited by SOE in 1943 and served under the name Stephen Rice. In December 1943 Rice along with other Jewish agents from Palestine (now Israel) serving with SOE ‘A’ Force were sent to contact the partisans and assist them in overthrowing the pro-German government in Slovakia and detach the country from the Axis powers.

Over 2,000 Jews fought during the uprising and around 500 were killed but the partisans made considerable gains and on 28 August 1943 the Germans decided to occupy Slovakia and eliminate the resistance.

During a major German offensive on 27 October 1944, German forces occupied Banska Bystrica. Rice with other agents and around 40 Jewish Partisans escaped and built a camp in the mountains but were captured after a few days and the Germans shot most of the Jews including Rice. His remains were recovered in 1952 and reburied in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Alan Malcher

SOE agent Edward Coppin

Edward Coppin

28-year-old Edward Coppin who was known as ‘Ted’, served with the DONKEYMAN circuit and was responsible for organising resistance in the port of Marseille and over time built up a successful sabotage team consisting of railway workers. Apart from derailing trains, in 1942 he was responsible for diverting trains destined for Germany by switching the points and sending them to the Spanish border.

Coppin was arrested at his safehouse on 23 April 1943 but because he used several cover names there continues to be much confusion regarding his fate and a post-war investigation into missing agents failed to identify what happened to Coppin after his arrest.

It is believed Coppin was tortured for information but refused to talk which is evident by the fact no members of his group were arrested but there is scant evidence to support the claim he was executed at Ravensbrûck concentration camp in September 1943, consequently, the fate of ‘Ted’ Coppin is unknown, and Coppin has no known grave.

Alan Malcher

Robert Byerly the widely unknown American who served with Britain’s SOE

The American Virginia Hall and her wartime service with SOE is well known but Robert Byerly is less well documented and is sometimes wrongly described as a Canadian.

When Germany invaded France in April 1940 Robert Byerly who has been noted for being pro-British was living in Paris and because he was a citizen of a neutral country was allowed to leave France and made his way to England and in 1941 enlisted into the Canadian Army and trained as a signaller. The date he was recruited by SOE and passed selection varies according to sources, but it is known he arrived in France by parachute on 8 February 1944 near Poitiers to work as the wireless operator for SURVEYOR circuit. His infiltration was arranged by PHONO circuit but unknown to London the circuit had been infiltrated and Byerley along with two other agents were dropped to waiting German soldiers.

Under German supervision Byerly was forced to use his wireless to contact London and within the body of the message inserted a ‘bluff check’ and left out the ‘true check’ to warn London he was sending under duress. As was standard practice London maintained contact with Byerly to create the illusion he was of use to the Germans and hope he would not be executed, but his transmissions suddenly stopped, and was not heard again. After the war it was discovered that sometime during the summer of 1944 Robert Byerly was transported to Gross-Rosen concentration camp where he was executed a few days later.   

Alan Malcher.

Roland Alexandre SOE

Roland Alexandre was born in France but educated in England and worked as an aircraft fitter at General Aircraft Ltd at Feltham Middlesex and joined SOE on 23 December 1943 and used the cover name Roland Esnault. He was sent to France to build clandestine circuits in the Nantes and Anger area after the original circuits had been destroyed by the Gestapo and his new network of circuits were to concentrate on sabotaging railways.

On the night of 8 February 1944, he was dropped by parachute with wireless operator, an American called Robert Byerly, and two other agents named Francis Deniset and Jacques Ledoux, onto remote farmland near Poitiers to a reception committee made-up of members from the PHONE circuit but London was unaware PHONE had been infiltrated by the SD and the agents were dropped to German troops.

Typical of the confusion surrounding the fate of missing agents there are several conflicting reports regarding his fate. Alexandre was last seen alive on 11 September 1944 and witnesses said he had been greatly illtreated which often meant he was tortured for information, and it is believed he was executed at Gross-Rosen concentration camp. The fate of the other agents is also surrounded by conflicting information and requires further research.  

Alan Malcher

SOE X Section (Germany)

Otto Pichl and Ernst Hoffman were Sudeten Germans, but their nationalities are also listed as Czechoslovakian? After passing selection and training they were assigned to X Section, the country section responsible for Germany and arrived in eastern Germany by parachute on the night of 8- 9 May 1944.

The only clue to their missions is Hoffman’s cover story of being a Luftwaffe ground crew and after arriving in Germany they were not heard of again.
After the war it was discovered that Ernst Hoffman was captured by the Gestapo and shot and before being captured Otto Pichl swallowed his ‘L’ pill (Cyanide capsule), and a note was found by his body saying “I have Jacksch’s mission {?}. Long live freedom” and was buried by the Germans without being identified. Both men are listed on the Brookwood Memorial in England.