Orchard Court and SOE’s French Section during WW2

Orchard Court near Portman Square London W1, was commandeered for war service in 1940 and its use was a closely guarded secret and only became known during the 1960s.

To hide the location of the headquarters of SOE’s French Section even from their agents, outgoing and incoming agents were briefed and debriefed at flat 3 Orchard Court. The section used a large car with blinds over the rear windows to hide agents leaving Orchard Court through the archway as they made their way to an airfield to infiltrate France by parachute or flown to Gibraltar where they were transported to southern France by felucca flying a neutral flag.

Berlin was aware of the interior of the building even down to the black and white tiled bathtub in the briefing flat but wrongly believed Orchard Court was the headquarters of a secret British military organisation. The information is thought to have been obtained from an agent under torture.

Alan Malcher

SOE Finishing School Beaulieu Palace

Beaulieu Palace in the New Forest is noted as a motor museum but in 1940 was commandeered for war service and became the ‘finishing school’ for agents being selected for service with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Even students who passed the induction course followed by extensive training in Irregular warfare in the harsh terrain of the Scottish Highlands were rejected if they failed Beaulieu which taught tradecraft and security. Wireless operator Cyril Watney described the course as being equivalent to a modern-day university degree syllabus because it was so intense.  

Tony Brooks who served with SOE remembered two students who did not take the training seriously and said, “I regret to say neither of those chaps survived… They were both caught, and both died. Beulieu, I think was the most important part of the training and I took it very seriously. That’s why I’m here.”

There were eleven schools deep inside the New Forrest, students were accommodated at three remote buildings so members of various European country sections never saw each other and approximately 3,000 students received their security and tradecraft training on the estate.

Alan Malcher

Lysander 161 Special Duty Squadron RAF

Part of the Shuttleworth Collection. The Lysander with distinctive extra fuel tank bolted between its undercarriages to allow the aircraft to fly deep into occupied France and return to RAF Tangmere during ‘pickup’ operations (delivering and extracting SOE, MI9, SIS, RF agents). Also distinguishable by the matt black fuselage and underside of wings to allow the aircraft to blend in with the moonlit sky and tops of wings camouflage to blend in with the ground when night fighters approached from above.

Alan Malcher

Albert Guerisse- WW2 Escape Line

Image IWM

Albert Guerisse, known as Pat O’Leary, was a founding member of the Pat O’Leary escape line (also called the PAT Line) operating in Belgium and France during WW2. Over 600 allied aircrews and soldiers were rescued by the PAT line and taken to neutral Spain. Photograph taken in Marseille in 1941. Albert Guerrisse’s British military honours included the GC, KBE and DSO.

Alan Malcher

Pearl Cornioley (nee Witherington) SOE French Section

On the night of 22-23 September 1943 Witherington arrived by parachute to a reception committee on farmland near Tendu, France and became the courier of STATIONARY circuit and supported another SOE courier called Jacqueline Nearne. In November she joined a new circuit called FREELANCE and changed her identity to Marie Jeanne Verges (codename Pauline) with the cover occupation of a cosmetic consultant which gave her a pretext for travelling great distances whilst carrying messages and liaising with other agents and members of the resistance. This involved countless train journeys during which she was frequently stopped and questioned by the SD and civil police and after being unable to find a suitable safehouse she resorted to sleeping in unheated train carriages during the winter which added to the exhaustion she was already suffering. For an agent this was a dangerous medical condition because mistakes were easily made, and their judgment became increasingly clouded.

After meeting agents and helping to coordinate the preparations for D-day her circuit organiser Maurice Southgate was suffering from exhaustion when he failed to use basic security checks which he had used many hundreds of times before and walked into a mousetrap (a blown safehouse were German forces were waiting). After Southgate was arrested by the SD his large STATIONERY circuit was transformed into two circuits – an agent named Maingard became the organiser of what was called SHIPWRIGHT, Witherington organised a circuit called WRESTLER and under their leadership engaged in coordinated sabotage to support allied forces.  On the morning of 11 June 1944 her headquarters near the village of Dun-le-Poëllier was attacked by German forces which arrived in 56 lorries; 32 Maquis were killed, their weapons were destroyed, and Witherington hid in a corn field whilst under heavy fire before escaping. Witherington then cycled to Saint-Viâtre to meet another SOE agent to arrange a resupply and on 24 June three heavily laden aircraft dropped weapons and ammunition to her circuit and WRESTLER continued its attack on German forces and Witherington is noted for being the leader of 3,500 men of the Maquis. Maurice Southgate, DSO survived Buchenwald concentration camp and Pearl Witherington Cornioley died in France on 24 February 2008 at the age of 93.

Alan Malcher

Denis Barrett SOE Wireless Operator

Denis Barrett (fieldname Honore) arrived in north-eastern France by parachute in April 1943 and worked as the wireless operator for a clandestine circuit in the Troyes area. He was in regular contact with London until his cover was blown several months later and escaped to England after being extracted by Lysander aircraft from No.161 Special Duty Squadron RAF.

Barrett volunteered to undertake a second mission to France and arrived by parachute in early March 1944 and worked as the wireless operator for a new circuit called MINISTER located in Seine-et Marne, northern France. Barrett had two wireless sets; one was in Tores the other was hidden in the countryside several miles from the town. The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) were aware of a British agent in contact with London and Barrett transmitted from several locations to avoid his safehouses being located by direction finders.

After an agent was captured whilst transmitting to London Barret stopped using his wireless located in Tores and for several months travelled by bicycle to the countryside to use his other wireless. During his journeys he avoided German patrols and, on several occasions, cycled past stationary wireless detection vans which were listening for signals.

Despite constantly changing his location to avoid detection London became aware there was a problem after his signal abruptly stopped in mid-sentence and Barrett was later reported missing presumed dead.  

After the war Barret’s name was found scratched on the wall of a cell at the SD headquarters in Avenue Foch, Paris and it is known he was later moved to Buchenwald concentration camp. It was later reported he was among the first of thirty-one agents who were hanged at Buchenwald during the first week of September 1944, but it is now believed he was among the eleven agents shot at Buchenwald on 5 October that year.

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.

Hanna Szeenes, wireless operator who served with SOE Section ME76 (Hungarian Section)

Hamma 3

Hanna Szeenes was born to a Jewish family in Hungary on 17 July 1921 and her father died when she was six. In 1939 she decided to emigrate to what was called the British Mandate of Palestine to study agriculture and in 1943 enlisted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force which was the female branch of the RAF during WW2 which had been established in 1939. After training she came to the attention of SOE discrete talent spotters, and she agreed to undertake hazardous missions.  After completing agent training and selection she attended the wireless school before joining SOE Section ME 76 also called the Hungarian Section.

On the night of 14-15 May 1944 Szeenes and two male agents parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist partisans fighting in Hungary and after crossing the border they became separated and Szeenes was arrested by the Hungarian police loyal to the Arrow Cross Party (NYKA) led by Ferec Szàlasi which was loyal to Germany. After her arrest she was stripped and strapped to a chair, whipped, punched and clubbed for three days during which she lost several teeth but refused to reveal her radio codes. She was then sent to a prison in Budapest where the torture for information continued. After her mother was arrested and her interrogators threatened to kill her, she still refused to give them her codes.

On 7 November 1944, 22-year-old Hanna Szeenes was executed by firing squad. During her time in prison, she kept a diary which also contained poems she had written, these were published in Hebrew by her family in 1946 and the following is one of the last poems she wrote before her execution:

“One- Two- three… Eight feet long

Two strides across the rest is dark

Life is a fleeting question mark

One-two-three… maybe another week

Or the next month may still find me here

But death I feel is very near. “

After the war her body was buried at Mount Hertz Military Cemetery, Israel.

Alan Malcher

Baker Street London W1 during the Second World War

SOE

This plaque will be found outside 64 Baker Street London W1. This plaque marks the former HQ of SOE (CD). Most of the office space in Baker Street accommodated SOE Country Section HQ’s which have no plaques and their wartime use has mainly been forgotten. 83 Baker Street, for example, was the HQ of the French Section.

Alan Malcher