Violette Szabo: Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France

During her second mission to France Violette Szabo was captured after a fire fight with troops from 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich after being stopped at a roadblock outside Salon-la-Tour during which she expended eight magazines from her Sten submachine gun. Due to confusion the story of her firefight has been revised several times. According to the citation for the GC she was surrounded in a house and fired from windows during which she killed and injured several German soldiers.

After her capture she was interrogated at Gestapo (SD) headquarters at Avenue Foch in Paris and later transported to Ravensbrûck concentration camp. On 5 February 1945, at the age of 23, Violette Szabo, who had been sentenced to death, was shot through the back of the neck.

In 1946 her daughter Tanya was taken to Buckingham Palace by her grandparents to receive her mother’s posthumous GC (George Cross) from the King.

Violette and Tanya Szabo

Medals

Citation for the GC

St. James Palace, SW1. 17 December 1946
The King has graciously pleased to award the George Cross to:-
Violette, Madame SZABO (deceased), Women’s Transport Service (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry)

Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April 1944 and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice arrested by the German security authorities, but each time managed to get away.

Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the south-west of France.

Resistance appeared hopeless but Madame Szabo, seizing a Sten-gun and as much ammunition she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement, she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted. She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness.

Phyllis ‘Pippa’ Doyle (nee Latour) SOE wireless operator in France.

Phyllis was born in South Africa on 8 April 1921, her father was a French doctor who died when she was three months old, and her mother was a British citizen.

Her mother later married a racing car driver who was killed after his car crashed into a barrier and according to some writers her mother also died in a car crash after which Phyllis was sent to live with her father’s cousin in the AEF (French Equatorial Africa) and she later returned to South Africa.

Pippa2

At the age of 20 Phyllis moved to England and join the WAAF and was trained as an airframe mechanic (others say she had a different trade) and due to her language skills, she was approached by SOE and given an opportunity to volunteer for hazardous missions in France. During one of her rare interviews Pippa was reported as saying, I volunteered for revenge, my godmother had committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the Nazis and my godmother’s father had been shot by the Germans.

After completing agent training, she attended the Wireless and Security School and successfully became a wireless trained agent to support resistance in France.

Pippa

On 1 May 1944 she was dropped by parachute into Orme Normandy, to work as the wireless operator for SCIENTIST circuit led by Claude de Baissac (code name David).

At the age of 23 Pippa appeared a lot younger and posed as a teenage girl whose family had moved to the countryside to escape the allied bombings and rode around the region on a bicycle selling soap and talking to German soldiers to collect intelligence.

Whilst SCIENTIST circuit was supporting D-day Pippa had six wireless sets hidden throughout the countryside including one in a baby’s pram, which also contained a baby, and Phyllis said she also had a wireless hidden under poo {shit} in an outside toilet which the Germans were reluctant to examine.

By the time France was liberated Pippa sent 135 messages to London which contained valuable intelligence and coordinated sabotage operations to support the allied strategy.

After the war she married an engineer with the surname Doyle and eventually emigrated to New Zealand. In 2021 she celebrated her 100th birthday and is thought to be the last living female agent of SOE’s French Section.

Pipa6

Pippa is noted for never discussing her war service with her family until her children saw an article about her on the internet in 2000.

Operation Cadillac 14 July 1944: SOE and the French Resistance

On 10 June 1944 the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and other Resistance Networks were told to find suitable large and remote fields for mass daylight parachute drops of weapons and other stores.

Parachutage armement résistance

The first daylight drop of weapons and stores was called Operation Zebra on 25 June 1944 when 180 B-17 bombers of the USAAF with fighter escorts dropped 2,160 containers to SOE and members of the Resistance at Ain, Jura, Haute Vienna and Vercose and due to its success a larger drop by Allied aircraft called Operation cadillac took place on 14 July 1944.

Cadillan

Operation Cadillac consisted of 349 bombers (mostly B17’s) with 534 Allied fighter escorts during which 3,791 containers loaded with 417 tons of weapons were dropped at seven locations. (Photos Musee de la Résistance)

Lilian Rolfe SOE wireless operator in France

Lilian Rolfe (left) standing outside a safe house in France with the daughter of the family working for the resistance. (IWM)

After completing her training and being accepted as an agent by the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) on the night of 5/6 April 1944 Lilian Rolfe was dropped by parachute onto remote farmland near Orléans in north-central France to be the wireless operator for the Historian network supporting the Maquis (French Resistance). Apart from reporting German troop movements, arranging and organising arms and supplies to be dropped by parachute she also worked alongside the Maquis and is known to have been involved in a firefight in the town of Olivet south of Orleans.

George Wilkinson head of the Historian Network (common source)

Shortly after D-day her circuit leader, George Wilkinson, was captured by German troops and Rolfe continued sending messages to London to support the Maquis but was later captured by the Gestapo whilst transmitting from a safe house in Nargis. Although she was repeatedly tortured for information her wireless was not ‘played back’ to London by a German operator which means she refused to reveal her codes and in August 1944 Rolfe was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration camp in northern Germany. During an investigation after the war it was discovered Rolfe was so ill she was unable to walk (later reports state this was due to leg injuries sustained during torture) and on 5 February 1945, 30-year-old Lilian Rolfe was executed and her body disposed of in the camp crematorium.


The Battle of Vercors 1944.

Vercors 1944

In July 1944 the Maquis (French Resistance) held a plateau known as the Massive du Vercors consisting of rugged mountains when they were faced by overwhelming German forces including an airborne attack by glider troops. During the battle an estimated 639 members of the Maquis were killed. Those who were wounded were executed on the spot, 201 civilians were killed, and 500 houses burned. It has been estimated German casualties were 83 killed and missing. 

Marcel Pinte the six-year old who worked for the French Resistance

(Musee Resistance)

French Resistance. Six-year old Marcel Pinte worked for the resistance carrying secret messages to various parts of the resistance network and his father, Eugéne Pinte (aka La Gaubertie) ran a resistance cell from their remote family farm. It was later said, with his school satchel on is back he didn’t raise suspicion.
  In August 1944 Marcel accompanied the Maquis to a night parachute drop of weapons and supplies and whilst waiting for the drop a member of the resistance had an accidental discharge with a Sten Gun during which Marcel was hit by several rounds and killed.  He was later honoured during the Armistice Day at a ceremony in Aixe-sur-Vienne, near the city of Limoges in central France.

Denise Gilman SOE Agent In France.

Due to lack of records which adds to the difficulty of researching SOE there is little information about the war service of Denise Gilman (Gilman, Denise, Irene, Marguerite) and I have to thank Christine Quintlé for filling in many of the gaps as well as providing the only known photograph of her.  Gilman was born on 30 June 1921 in Waziers (North), a commune in the Nord department in northern France, 4 km northwest of Douai and 25 km south of Lille, and at the time of her resistance activities she was 22-years-old.

Gilman fits the description of a woman driving a charcoal burning van which broke down in front of German soldiers near their barracks who insisted on pushing her vehicle to their workshop for repairs.  Whilst working on the vehicle the woman thought to be Denise Gilman flirted with the soldiers to draw attention away from her cargo. Fortunately, they did not open the rear doors and see it was loaded to the ceiling with explosives and weapons. After repairing her vehicle, she warmly thanked the soldiers and continued her journey. It is known Gilman worked as the courier for SOE agent Michael Trotobas (mentioned in another post) and both were part of the Farmer network (also known as the Sylvestre Farmer Network) which operated in Lille; it is also known Denise Gilman and Michael Trotobas had been wanted by the Gestapo since August 1943. Gilman travelled extensively whilst liaising with members of the Resistance and SOE agents in Lille, Arras, Amboise and Paris and on the evening of 26 November 1943 after arriving from Paris she Stayed at a safe house at 20 boulevard de Belfort Lille with Trotobas and were due to move to another safe house.

Although complicated and beyond the scope of this post, essentially, a captured agent gave their safehouse address to the Gestapo.

At 6 am the safehouse was surrounded by German Field Police and although greatly outnumbered Gilman and Trotobas refused to be taken alive and engaged the Germans in a firefight during which both were fatally wounded. Several days after their deaths members of the resistance searched the flat and found a traumatised black cat hiding under a bed and the cat became the symbol for local resistance by the Farmer circuit.

 There is much we don’t know about Denise Gilman but her heroic stand with Michael Trotobas is well documented.

SOE agent Harry Peulevé DSO, MC (a brief overview of a very active agent)

Peulevé undertook three missions to France and eventually formed a clandestine circuit called Author where he armed and trained more than 4000 members of the resistance. He was aware of being on the Gestapo wanted list but turned down an opportunity to be extracted from France by the RAF Special Duties Squadron. 

Peulevé and several members of the local resistance were later arrested at a safehouse and eventually taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris where they were separated before being interrogated.

Peulevé was tortured for several days but refused to answer their questions and was transferred to a solitary confinement cell at Fresnes Prison. During an escape attempt he was shot in the leg and after being refused medical treatment was forced to remove the bullet by digging it out with a dirty prison spoon whilst hoping the wound would not become infected. He was later deported to a concentration camp and after eleven agents were executed and knowing he could be next he swapped his identity with a French prisoner named Marcel Seigneur who had died from Typhus. In early 1945 Peulevé, now known to the SS guards as Marcel Seigneur, was transferred to a labour detail where he was forced to dig anti-tank ditches near the River Elbe and after advancing American forces reached Magdenburg he managed to escape.

Several hours later he was stopped by two SS soldiers but managed to convince them he was a French collaborator trying to avoid the advancing Americans and then warned them to remove their tunics and insignias because the Americans were shooting members of the SS. As they began to undress Peulevé grabbed one of their pistols and later handed them over to soldiers of the 83rd US Infantry Division. After being debriefed he returned to England and landed at Croydon Airport on 18 April 1945.

Canadian SOE Agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister

(An overview)

Frank Pickertsgill and Ken Macalister

Canadian SOE agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister parachuted into France on the night of 20 June 1943 with instructions to form a clandestine network called Archdeacon. As described in the previous post (see below) they were picked up by SOE agents Yvonne Rudellat and Pierre Culioli and their vehicle was stopped at a roadblock during which the Canadians were arrested, and the two other agents were captured after a shoot-out with German troops who recovered the Canadian’s wireless and codes hidden in a Red Cross parcel on the rear seat of the vehicle which allowed a German operator to play-back the wireless to London using the correct codes.

Whilst a German operator was sending favourable reports to London about the newly formed Archdeacon Circuit there was no reason for London to doubt they were receiving signals from Macalister and as requested sent weapons, finance and other agents by parachute to assist Archdeacon which, unbeknown to London, was in German hands and only after the war did the full story become known. After their capture Macalister and Pickersgill were repeatedly tortured for information and on 27 August they were transported to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

On 14 September 1944, John Macalister, Frank Pickersgill along with several other agents were executed by slow strangulation with piano wire suspended from hooks in the crematorium at Buchenwald camp.

SOE Agent Yvonne Rudellat

Yvonne Rudellat was an SOE Courier who was involved in a number of operations and the following is an overview. On 20 July 1942 after crossing from Gibraltar by felucca under the cover of darkness she arrived by rowing boat on a deserted beach a few miles from Cannes. She used the cover name Jacqueline Gautier but used other identities whilst working for various networks. She took a train from Cannes to Lyon and from there took a train to Paris where she hid in the tender of the locomotive to cross the demarcation line. From Paris she went to Tours and worked for the Monkeypuzzle circuit where she organised agents and supplies to be dropped by parachute and also travelled by bicycle to liaise with scattered members of the resistance. After Monkeypuzzle was infiltrated by German agents she teamed up with SOE agent Pierre Culioli and took the cover of a married couple with the surname Leclaire and continued organising parachute drops.

Working as a married couple they picked up two Canadian SOE agents, John Macalister and Frank Pickersgill who arrived in France by Parachute a few hours previously. Culioli was driving the car, Yvonne was sitting next to him and the two Canadians were sitting in the back when they reached a roadblock in Dhuizon. The reason why the Canadians were ordered out of the car and why their covers were blown is beyond the scope of this post. After German soldiers ordered Rudellat and Culioli out of the car Culioli put the car in gear and accelerated away and soldiers started firing at them. They were quickly pursued by a vehicle full of German soldiers who were shooting at them and Yvonne was seen leaning out of the car window returning fire before slumping back on her seat after being shot in the head, shortly afterwards Culioli was shot in the leg and the car crashed into a wall. Yvonne was taken unconscious to Blois Hospital where doctors found the bullet had not entered her brain and decided it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. When she gained consciousness she was confused, did not know her name or understand why she was in France.

On 2 March she arrived at Bergen-Belson concentration camp during a typhus epidemic during which an estimated 20,000 prisoners died. Rudellat never recovered her memory and eight days after the camp was liberated Yvonne Rudellat died of typhus and dysentery and was buried in a mass grave along with 5000 other bodies.