Robert Benoist, SOE (Special Operations Executive)

 

Robert Benoist was a French Grand Prix racing driver who escaped to England when France was occupied in 1940. Whilst in England he successfully passed selection and training for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to France to establish clandestine networks. He was also responsible for the reception of arms and explosives dropped by parachute and setup arms dumps in the Rambouillet Forest. Sometime in June 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and whilst being driven to Gestapo Headquarters he threw himself from the moving vehicle and escaped and was eventually extracted and returned to England. Several months later he returned to France to continue his resistance work and was later recalled to England for a briefing and additional training. In February 1944 he undertook his third mission to France and arrived with orders to prepare clandestine circuits in the Nantes region and ensure they were ready to support the Allies during D-Day by attacking prearranged targets to slowdown the German advance to Normandy.   

On 18 June 1944 Robert Benoist was again captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald Concentration camp where, along with fifteen other SOE prisoners was executed by slow strangulation after being hung with piano wire from hooks on the wall in the crematorium. Captain Robert Benoist is recorded on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and also on the SOE memorial in Valençay.   

Execution hooks on the wall of the crematorium at Buchenwald

Auxiliary Units: Britain’s Resistance Network during WW2.

Documentary 2008

I found the interviews of former members of the Auxiliary informative but have mixed feelings about the dramatic reconstructions although these were based on events in occupied Europe and would have occurred in the UK if Germany had successfully invaded.

The Night Pilot Who Helped the French Resistance.

No. 161 Special Duties Squadron

Hugh Verity was a night fighter pilot until 1942 when he volunteered for RAF special duties and became involved in one of the most extraordinary and effective operations of the secret war – flying from England’s Sussex coast in a single-engine Lysander aircraft and landing in German occupied France delivering and collecting SOE, SIS agents and members of the French Resistance. This Timeline production examines these moonlight missions between 1941 to 1944.

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Dutch Resistance 1941-43: SOE’s Greatest Disaster in occupied Europe

Englandspiel Monument (the fall of Icarus) in the Hague Netherlands

In 1941 the Dutch (D) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Major Bingham started sending trained agents to the Netherlands by parachute and like other country sections their role was to recruit resisters from the civilian population before providing training, arms and directing their resistance activities to support the Allied strategy.  

Among the first agents to arrive was saboteur Thijs Taconnis and a wireless operator named Hurbert Lauwers, but as they climbed into the converted Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford D Section was unaware the underground network they were sent to join had been infiltrated by a double agent and both were quickly captured along with Lauwers’s wireless and personal codes.   

Lauwers was forced to contact London under German supervision but included within the body of the message prearranged codes indicating he had been captured and his wireless was under German control. To his great surprise and frustration his warning codes were either overlooked or ignored and London ask for the coordinates of a DZ (drop zone) for the arrival of a new agent. This was the start of the ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game) under Abwehr Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

For around 18 months the Dutch Section was happy with the news coming from the Netherlands: they had 62 underground networks consisting of around 420 Dutch civilians who were being trained to fight the occupying forces and at the request of these ‘networks’ the RAF dropped a large quantity of weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance their operations.

D Section was oblivious to the fact most of the resistance was in hiding: The Gestapo and Abwehr were attempting to track them down, there were mass arrests and German security forces knew everything about their network.

Leo Marks, Head of SOE Codes and Ciphers

The first person in London to suspect there were serious problems in the Netherlands was SOE’s head of codes and ciphers, 22-year-old Leo Marks, who suddenly realised what had been worrying him for some time about the Dutch radio traffic, Marks later explained:

“What I discovered was we had never received an indecipherable message from Holland due to mistakes in coding…”

Wireless operators were always under immense pressure: they had to send their message as quickly as possible to avoid wireless detection teams finding their location and under these stressful conditions it was considered inevitable an operator would make several mistakes in their coding; but his concerns were rejected by the Dutch Section which continued to send agents, weapons and sabotage stores by parachute.  

After bringing his concerns to the attention of Brigadier Nicholls, the head of the signals section, Marks was asked to provide proof of his suspicions because the Dutch Section claimed they had ways of checking on their agents and were adamant there were no issues. Marks then sent an indecipherable message to Holland- one which could only be broken by a trained code breaker; a genuine agent would ask for the message to be repeated but this did not happen, Marks explained:

 “The fact that they didn’t say repeat that message immediately which they would do if they ever got an indecipherable message from London, which was very rare, told me beyond doubt the Dutch agents had been captured. There was no other conceivable explanation…”

The wireless operators in England were also concerned about the sending style of the agents under their charge and suspected they were receiving wireless traffic from German operators, but the Dutch Section rejected their concerns.

German agents always signed off with the letters HH (Heil Hitler) so Marks sent a false message to the Netherlands and signed off with HH and back came the instantaneous response HH. Marks then knew there was a German operator at the other end.

Fourteen of the known agents delivered to the Gestapo by parachute.

Although the wireless channel was eventually closed whilst the damage was being assessed it was not until SOE agents Peter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink escaped from a prison camp in August 1943 that the full damage due to the ‘English Game’ started to be realised. Over a period of 18-months German operators had used 18 captured wireless sets and codes to create a ‘mousetrap’ in which 56 agents were parachuted to waiting members of the Gestapo, 11 RAF aircraft were shot down whilst delivering weapons and supplies to a resistance network controlled by the Germans but there are no figures regarding the fate of a conservative estimate of 420 civilians engaged in resistance.  

After the war Freyer, head of the German wireless section for western Europe, said:

“The transmitter of a group of agents is always a mailbox where everything goes in and out. And connected to the mailbox there is always the leadership of the organisation, and so, if we had the transmitter, then either the boss to operate it or via his right-hand man and via him we got further and further into the organisation. This explains why we invested so much effort into radio direction finding.”  He also went on to say, “some wireless operators were totally overwhelmed when they were discovered. The arrested men reacted in very different ways. Some were sort of composed, some knew their future and came to terms with it, and in one case we once arrested a man, and there was a big bang, he had soiled himself, we could smell it.”  

There was no mention of the wireless operators, men and women, tortured by the Gestapo for their codes and their subsequent executions.   

Double Agent Victoire: Mathilde Carre and the Interallie Network.

Mathilde Carre

In the autumn of 1940 a French citizen named Mathilde Carre (aka Cat, Victoire and Le Chatte) was recruited by Roman Czerniawski, a Polish air force officer who escaped from Toulouse and formed a resistance network called Interallie which mainly consisted of Poles living near Paris. Due to its members not being trained in clandestine warfare the network was not secure and was easily infiltrated by the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) under Hugo Bleicher who was responsible for crushing resistance and it was not long before Carre and a small number of other members were arrested.    

Hugo Bleicher

In return for her freedom along with financial incentives Carre agreed to work for Bleicher as a double agent and later admitted to pointing out around sixty of her former comrades who were arrested by the Abwehr. As they were political prisoners they were handed to the Gestapo and it is not known how many were tortured and later executed. After proving herself to be a loyal and useful agent Bleicher had another mission for her in the Paris area.

After the Abwehr arrested an SOE wireless operator Bleicher was aware there was a British controlled underground network in or near Paris which needed to maintain wireless contact with London, and Carre was told to find the network and then infiltrate it.

Carre had to convince the leader, who was still to be identified, she was working for a Polish resistance group before many of its members were arrested. She was not present when the Germans swooped on their safehouse and their wireless operator was still in contact with London from a safehouse outside Paris.  

Pierre de Vomecourt head of SOE Circuit AUTOGIRO

How she contacted the leader of AUTOGIRO circuit, SOE agent Pierre de Vomecourt, is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, but after gaining his confidence she offered to pass messages to London through the Polish wireless link and de Vomecourt gave her messages requesting arms, explosives and money. This was an Abwehr deception: after the Polish wireless operator had been captured along with his personal code’s messages being received in London were from a German operator ‘playing back’ his wireless.

According to de Vomecourt he and a resistance contact began to suspect Carre after several requests for arms and sabotage stores never arrived, they also found inconsistencies in her back story and after being confronted she broke down and told them everything.   

Mathilde Carre. Date and location unknown

After de Vomecourt discussed the precarious situation with two other SOE agents it was decided not to kill her because everyone she was known to have contacted would be arrested and a number of ideas were discussed before eventually agreeing to use the Abwehr wireless link to their advantage.  

After Carre agreed to work for the British she was told to tell Bleicher London wanted her to go to England to be trained and also needed her to advise a British General who would be in France for a few hours to brief the heads of all the underground networks. London had already been informed of the plan through another SOE wireless operator in southern France who had a secure link to London and the wireless station in England was already sending messages to the Abwehr supporting the deception. As her reports were supported by wireless traffic from London Bleicher and his superiors could not miss the opportunity to capture a British General, the heads of the underground networks and also have an agent in London.

Unaware London was playing them at their own game the Abwehr supported her extraction from the southern coast of France by ordering their patrol vessels to remain in port and under German surveillance Carre and de Vomecourt were observed boarding a Motor Torpedo Boat bound for England.

When she arrived in England Carre was interrogated by SOE and MI5 and they gained valuable information about Abwehr counter resistance strategies and her intelligence also helped MI5 during their ‘Operation Double Cross’ which consisted of German double-agents in England passing false information to Germany. The German wireless link continued to be used for several weeks to send false information to mask the location of SOE clandestine circuits.

Mathilde Carre during her trial in France.

After France was liberated Carre was deported to France where she was tried for treason and received the death sentence. Three months later the sentence was commuted to 20 years, but she was released in 1954 after serving 12 years.

In 1959 she published her version of accounts which was revised in 1975 and entitled m’appelait La Chatte {My name was La Chatte} in which she protested her innocence although there was sufficient evidence to the contrary. Carre died in Paris on 30 May 2007.