Egon Berliner: SOE X Section (Austria)

Egon Berliner

22-year-old Egon Berliner was born in Austria on 9 May 1923 to a Jewish family and in 1938 was involved in a fight with the Hitler Youth and was chased by the SS for two hours before managing to escape. In 1939 he arrived at his family flat, and the porter warned him two Gestapo officers were waiting for him, Berliner then escaped to England and was recruited by SOE in May 1943.

 After passing selection and training Berliner was asked whether he was willing to volunteer for a mission to contact a communist group in Innsbruck, Austria and determine whether they could be developed into a resistance group, though SOE in London considered it unlikely they would risk opposing the Nazi authorities it was decided to send one exploratory agent and on the night of 28-29 July 1944 Berliner was dropped by parachute into southern Tyrol to make his way to Innsbruck. After contacting the communists SOE doubts were correct and Berliner made his way to the allied lines in southern Italy.

    He later volunteered to return to Austria and discover whether a Social Democrat Group could be transformed into a resistance movement and after they refused he distance himself from everyone he had contacted and travelled to the Koralpe (Koralm) mountain range in southern Austria and after being denounced by a member of the group was arrested by the Gestapo whilst attempting to cross the River Drave to Yugoslavia in early April 1945.

Berliner was taken to the Gestapo prison in Gratz where he was tortured for two hours and suffered more brutal treatment for being a Jew before being thrown into a condemned cell with two other prisoners. At 20:30hrs on Tuesday 4 April 1945 Gestapo SS -Obersturmführer Herz of the Graz Gestapo entered the cell and read out the names of those to be executed, Berliner and other men were then put into the back of a lorry to be taken to the SS barracks in Wetzelsdorf.

After the war captured Gestapo officers claimed the lorry received a direct hit from an allied aircraft and all the prisoners were killed but a subsequent investigation discovered they were executed by the SS.  

Alan Malcher

Philip Amphlett: SOE Operation Scullion II

Philip Amphlett

23-year-old Philip Amphlett was recruited from No.2 Commando, but his SOE training report said he was unsuitable as a clandestine agent and was better suited for direct action and parachuted into France on 16 August 1943 with a small team as part of Operation Scullion II after a similar operation (Scullion I) had failed. The team was sent to sabotage a distillation plant near Autun, France that was making synthetic oil but after reaching the target their demolition charges caused little damage.

Amphlett was last seen in Dijon on 23 August 1943 whilst making his way to an extraction point to escape from France and nothing more was heard from him. Over a year later it was discovered Amphlett had been captured and after being interrogated by the Gestapo was transported to Flossenburg Concentration Camp where he was executed,

In October 1945 Vera Atkins, SOE French Section intelligence officer who after the war went on a personal crusade to track down missing members of her section, wrote to his father saying ‘his son had shown exemplary courage and an uncompromising attitude towards his jailers’. Philip Amphlett has no known grave.

Alan Malcher

Yolande Beekman (nee Unternahrer) SOE Wireless Operator: French Section

Yolande Beekman

Yolande Unternahrer was born in Paris to a Swiss family in 1911 and moved to London as a child.

After the declaration of war in 1939 she enlisted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAFFs) where she trained as a wireless operator. Due to her language skills, she spoke fluent English, French, German and Italian, Yolande came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive and whilst attending the wireless and security school to become a wireless trained agent that required skills not found in other branches of the military she met a trainee wireless operator named Jaap Beekman who was serving with the Dutch Section of SOE. Shortly after they married, on the night of 17/18 September 1943 Yolande Beekman parachuted into France to join the Musician circuit in Saint-Quentin in the department of Aisne as their wireless operator.  

It is known Yolande Beekman was in regular contact with London and arranged the delivery of over 20 parachute drops of weapons, ammunition, and explosives before breaking wireless security procedures: it was later said Beekman transmitted from the same location, on the same frequency and on the same three days of the week and was eventually located by German direction finders. Beekman along with her circuit organiser Gustave Biéler were arrested at the Café Moulin, Saint-Quentin on 13 January 1944.

At Gestapo Headquarters in Saint-Quentin both were tortured but refused to provide useful information. Beekman was then taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Avenue Foch in Paris and was later sent to Frésnes Prison near Paris and shared a cell with a nurse called Hedwig Muller who had been arrested by the Gestapo and after the war said Beekman seldom left her cell because her legs were weak and her leg injuries are thought to have been caused through torture.

At Frésnes there were three other SOE agents: Madeleine Damerment, a courier with Bricklayer circuit; Elaine Plewman who worked as a courier with Monk circuit and Noor Inayat Khan a wireless operator assigned to the ill-fated Prosper/Physician circuit.

Elaine Plewman, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan

At 01:30 hrs on the morning of 10 September 1944 the women were handcuffed and taken to a railway station and eventually arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp. On 13 September Obersturmbannfuhrer Fredrich Wilhelm Ruppert executed the three women and after the war a member of the Gestapo named Christian Ott gave the following statement to American investigators:

“The four prisoners had come from the barrack in the camp where they had spent the night, into the yard where the shooting was to be done… The death sentence was announced to them…. The German speaking English woman {Beekman} had told her companions of the death sentence. All four had grown very pale and wept… Beekman {he called her the major!} asked whether they could protest against the sentence. The Kommandant declared that no protest could be made against the sentence. The major (Beekman) had then asked to see a priest. The camp Kommandant refused on the grounds that there was no priest in the camp.

The four prisoners now had to kneel with their heads towards a small mound of earth and were killed by two SS, one after another shot through the back of the neck. During the shooting the two English women held hands and the two French women likewise. For three of the prisoners the first shot caused death, but the German speaking English woman (Beekman) a second shot had to be fired as she still showed signs of life after the first shot.

After the shooting of these prisoners the Lagerkommandant said to the SS men that he took a personal interest in the jewellery of the women and that this should be taken to his office.”

It was also later stated the four women had been badly beaten before their executions.

SS Officer Wilhelm Ruppert. Image taken after being arrested by American forces.

After the war SS Officer Wilhelm Ruppert who was in charge of executions at Dachau was convicted of war crimes and executed by hanging.

Jean Moulin: French Resistance

On 14 February 1943 General de Gaulle awarded Jean Moulin the Cross of Liberation during a private ceremony at De Gaulle’s home in Hampstead London.

Three months later, after returning to France by parachute, Jean Moulin was captured and tortured for three weeks by SD chief Klaus Barbie (Butcher of Lyon). Moulin attempted to commit suicide by cutting his throat but after being found collapsed in his cell was given medical treatment and survived.
As a result of the injuries suffered during torture Jean Moulin died on 8 July 1943 whilst being transported by train to Germany.

Alan Malcher

Pierre Le Chêne Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in France

Pierre Le Chêne. PWE wireless operator

In 1941, dates vary according to sources, three PWE agents arrived in France and among them was Henri Le Chêne (aka Victor) who was later joined by Marie Thérése (aka Adele) to work as his courier and also help run their underground newspaper and his brother Pierre, who was a wireless operator, arrived by parachute near Loches to provide a wireless link to London for his brother who was running a circuit called Plane and to assist Edward Zeff (SOE) the wireless operator working for a circuit called Spruce.

For over seven months Pierre Le Chêne (aka Grégoire) was constantly on the move to avoid his transmissions being pinpointed by direction finders when sometime in November 1942 two wireless operators were arrested and after being the only wireless operator in the area, he became first on the German wanted list.

It is believed Pierre Le Chêne broke the cardinal rule of never transmitting for more than twenty-minutes, his location was found by direction finders and was captured on 0n 9 December 1942 whilst still sending messages to London.

Pierre Le Chêne was the first agent to be tortured for information by the infamous Klaus Barbie the head of the SD in Lyon who became known as the Butcher of Lyon because of his brutal reputation of personally torturing adults and children in the SD cells he called the ‘Gestapo Kitchen’. During Barbie’s trial after the war several witnesses said it was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured for nine days and the age of these witnesses at the time of their torture were between 13 to 93.

After Pierre Le Chêne had been arrested and tortured at Hôtel Terminus in Lyon which had been taken over by the SD as their regional headquarters other agents and members of the resistance Le Chêne knew were not added to the SD wanted list and the only plausible explanation is Barbie failed to break him.

Pierre Le Chêne was later transported to Mauthausen Concentration camp in Upper Austria and by the time the camp was liberated by American troops on 6 May 1945 was suffering from typhoid, malnutrition and was close to death.

Luftwaffe tunic worn by Le Chêne.

Pierre Le Chêne was quickly dressed in whatever clothes were found which happened to be a Luftwaffe desert tunic with the bottom of the left sleeve shredded after its original owner suffered a life threatening injury and was then flown to England. After receiving extensive medical treatment Pierre Le Chêne survived.

Medals awarded to Pierre Le Chêne

Sekonaia Takavesi: A legion in the SAS.

Original text and photograph published with permission from Art in Motion.

“Tak” now has the portrait that I painted for him, presented to him by “Mal”Kenneth Peers, my old work mate, and old SAS colleague of Tak.

I’ve added a small bit of info about Tak, for those wondering, which will explain what a legend he truly is.

Sekonaia Takavesi – Soldiers do not come any tougher or more fearless and loyal than Sekonaia Takavesi. Known as “Sek”, he became – in the words of his Army superiors – “a legend in his own time within the SAS”.

Takavesi was born in Fiji in 1943. Brought up on the Pacific island, he enlisted in the British Army on November 13, 1961, joining the King’s Own Border Regiment. Two years later, he successfully sought selection to the SAS.

Takavesi had undertaken dangerous undercover surveillance in Aden during the mid-1960s. At one time, he and fellow Fijian, Trooper Talaiasi Labalaba, had confronted and shot dead two terrorist gunmen. However, it was in Oman in July 1972 that the same two men were given the opportunity to display their immense courage and determination.

On the morning of July 19, 1972, the Adoo (guerrillas) launched a carefully planned attack with the aim of using 250 of their most élite fighters to capture the small town of Mirbat on the Arabian Sea, where Takavesi suffered wounds so serious that most people would have died from them. Yet he not only survived but went on to serve with distinction in the SAS for 13 more years.

Takavesi survived the battle and had some other adventures as time went on, though nothing quite like single-handedly firing a WWII anti-tank cannon at a horde of Communists from point-blank range while dudes flung hand grenades in his face. He participated in the Iranian Embassy raid in 1980, when he and 20 other SAS men stormed a terrorist-controlled structure on national television, killed 6 terrorists, and saved 18 of the 19 hostages held inside. He was also working as an advisor during the 2003 Iraq War, when the 58 year-old Fijian found himself in a blazing gunfight on a tarmac near Baghdad –outnumbered by a dozen guys who were shooting his jeep up with AK-47s, Tak put his hands up and pretended to surrender, and the second the enemy lowered their guards he pulled the MP5 off his lap, smoked them, and then leaped out the driver’s side door, tackled another guy, and clubbed him to death with the stock of his weapon. The bad guys managed to shoot Tak in the thigh, chest, and head during that particular encounter, but, as you can probably imagine, he still simply managed to dust himself off, get in the car, and drive himself to the hospital.

Original text from Art in Motion.

In the News: My interview with Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Studies published 13 October 2022

ANKASAMAnkara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies

© 2021 Ankara, Türkiye. All Right Reserved.

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