For many years little was known about Denis Rake because he protected his privacy by making up wild and often humorous stories about his life but after examining new research for my forthcoming book ‘SOE in Occupied France’ more can be told about his wartime service and the following is intended as a brief introduction to a little-known agent who served with distinction but due to his life style he seldom received the public recognition he deserved.
It has been claimed after the war Rake was employed as the second butler at the London residence of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr when a letter arrived addressed to Major Denis Rake MC. It was also said Fairbanks was surprised that his small, openly gay and very camp butler had been a major who was awarded the Military Cross, and after Fairbanks handed him the letter Rake said, “Oh dear. I was hoping you would never hear about all this nonsense.”
During the 1940s being openly gay and having what was described as ‘female mannerisms’ brought scorn and prejudice from some male agents but Rake was hugely respected and trusted by Virginia Hall and Nancy Wake who became legends in the French Section of SOE and much continues to be written about them. In fact, when Nancy Wake was concerned about her husband who was still in France Rake was her private confidant who supported her when she was upset.
Nancy Wake was known for her straight talking and honest views and when asked about Denis Rake she said “He was queer, and I loved him…” and the expression ‘queer’ should not be taken as an insult, and after listening to former agents who knew Rake I am firmly convinced many of the negative comments about him were due to the homophobia he experienced during the 1940s which was also a time when his life-style was illegal in the United Kingdom.
I describe Rake as a most unlikely agent because during his training he refused to go over the assault course, refused to handle firearms and explosives because he did not like the loud ‘noise’ and constantly argued that a wireless operator would not need to use firearms and would not be involved in sabotage. A student refusing to undertake this training would normally be rejected but not only did Rake display a high degree of competence as a wireless operator he was also correct: although wireless operators were advised to carry a firearm for their personal protection it was not compulsory and their job was not to engage enemy forces or be involved in acts of sabotage; instead they had to remain in hiding whilst maintaining wireless contact with London. It has also been falsely claimed Rake refused to undertake parachute training.
Harry Ree who was an agent and circuit leader was sitting with Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the commanding officer of the section, and other officers when Rake was being discussed and humorously remembered, when Rake attended the parachute school he was petrified and screamed to the dispatcher “dear boy, my dear boy I don’t think I can do this without a little push… Three times he went up and three times he was chucked or booted out the aircraft.”
Ree also recalled an officer saying to Buckmaster, “this Rake is an odd character sir. I just don’t understand him. He doesn’t like women. I mean, he really doesn’t like women. He prefers men” and Buckmaster replied “but he’s a fine wireless operator”.
It is also interesting to note a commanding officer from one of the training schools wrote in Rake’s personal file, “Rake told me he is not afraid of death and I believe him”
After HQ received a request for a wireless operator be sent to southern France Buckmaster decided to send Rake by sea because there was no guarantee he would leave the aircraft and after arriving in France several agents who were openly hostile towards Rake and questioned his suitability as an agent were silenced after Rake quickly showed he was brave and resourceful.
During their tradecraft training at Beaulieu, which was sometimes unofficially called finishing school, students were taught to lie and bluff their way out of difficult situations and this included projecting appropriate body language with the correct nuance in their voice to support the lie. They were also told to use phrases and sentences which might resonate with their interrogator and shortly after arriving in France Rake was forced to use these skills.
In early 1942 Rake arrived in Gibraltar and was transported by Felucca to a remote stretch of coast in southern France and after distancing himself from the beech he found somewhere to hide until daybreak. The next morning he walked to the nearest town carrying two suitcases, one containing clothing and over 2 million francs in banknotes to finance local resistance and the other containing his wireless set, and by the time he arrived the town was busy with people going to work but before he could lose himself in the crowd he was stopped by a Milice officer who demanded to know what was in his suitcases.
Rake was aware if the officer saw his wireless that would be the end: he would be handed to the Gestapo and after being tortured he would be executed but he remained calm whilst deliberately looking dejected as he slowly lowered his cases to the pavement whilst politely saying ‘Ok sir. You’ve got me sir.” After a short pause Rake then confessed to stealing antiques from a rich family and attempted to morally justify his crime by saying, “unlike us they are not suffering the hardships of the war” and then passionately explained that whilst people like us are suffering this family was having an easy life. Rake then offered the Milice officer a handful of banknotes as a bribe to let him go and the officer pocketed the money and walked away.
During his first mission Rake was arrested and incarcerated twice and both times was lucky to be released but whilst in prison was fearful that the Milice would discover his documents were forgeries and would find himself being handed to the Gestapo, and unlike two other agents who were also released and immediately joined an escape route into neutral Spain, Rake decided to remain in France to continue his mission. After coming to the attention of the authorities it was not long before he was high on their wanted list and the only person he knew and trusted was the American agent Virginia Hall and Rake turned to her for help.
One of Hall’s many contacts was the madam of a local brothel who agreed to hide Rake in her loft and for the next few months Rake was protected by local prostitutes until Hall could arrange his escape to Spain.
After returning to England Denis Rake became a conducting officer at Beaulieu and during the build-up to D-day he volunteered to return to France as a wireless operator and worked with his great friend Nancy Wake.
Apart from working as a butler little is known about his life after the war, but it is thought he had no friends and lived alone in a small caravan somewhere in rural Kent where he died in 1976 at the age of 75.
Denis Rake’s personal belongings auctioned after his death.