French Resistance during the Battle of Vercors

A good video documentary on the Battle of Vercors from an American presenter. My only criticism is there was no mention of SOE who had been operating in the area for sometime and the OSS units he mentioned were not always required by the Maquis.

George Begue: SOE’s first Agent/Wireless operator in France

George Bague whilst serving in the French Army prior to Dunkirk and joining SOE

On the night of 5/6 May 1941 George Begue (aka George Noble) was listed as the first SOE agent and wireless operator to arrive in wartime France after parachuting ‘blind’, that is, with no friendly contacts on the ground and several days later he transmitted the first wireless messages to SOE in London.

 Suitcase Morse transceiver of the type popularly used by SOE in France.

As increasing numbers of non-wireless trained agents arrived in France his wireless traffic also increased, and he used several safe-houses scattered over a wide area to avoid his signal being detected and his position located. He was aware the full resources of the German wireless detection section were attempting to find him but due to a backlog of messages waiting to be sent to London he decided to regularly transmit longer than the recommended twenty-minutes and was aware this made it easier for the Germans to track him down.  

George Begue. Thought to have been taking whilst convalescing with his wife and children in England after Dunkirk.

It was George Beque who arranged the first weapons, explosives and finance to be dropped to the resistance by parachute, he also arranged the first agent pickup by Lysander Aircraft from No. 161 Special Duties Squadron RAF which landed on remote farmland, and to maintain regular contact with London Begue frequently took calculated risks.  It was also George Beque who developed wireless security procedures through a dangerous process of trial and error.

Although wireless detection teams failed to find him, on the 24 October 1942 Begue was arrested at a safe house in Marseilles by the Milice; it is believed the property had been blown and was under surveillance and this is supported by the fact several agents and local French resisters were also arrested after visiting the same property.   

On the night of 16 July 1942 George Begue along with other agents and members of the resistance escaped from a prison camp in Mauzac. For several days they lived off the land deep inside a forest before travelling separately to meet guides working for an escape line and all eventually crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. 

After returning to London Beque became the Signals Officer for the French Section based at their headquarters at Norgeby House in Baker Street London where he was widely known as George Noble and he held this position until the end of the war.  The majority of agents who escaped Mauzac later returned to France but most did not survive.  

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

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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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.

André Bloch: SOE Wireless Operator

On the night of 6/7 September 1941 Andre Bloch parachuted from a converted RAF Whitley bomber onto farmland near Tendu north of Argenton-sur-Greuse in France and after burying his parachute and protective clothing made his way to Paris to become the wireless operator of a clandestine circuit called AUTOGIRO commanded by another SOE agent called Pierre de Vomecourt.

From 15 September to 12 November 1941 Bloch was the only wireless operator in northern France and all the wireless detection capabilities of the Germans were being used to track him down. Although aware of the dangers Bloch was in regular contact with London.

Sometime in October he suspected his safehouse was under surveillance and with the assistance of Pierre de Vomecourt he moved to another safehouse in Le Mans and after his wireless was delivered by a member of the resistance Bloch contacted London and arranged for weapons and sabotage stores to be dropped to AUTOGIRO. This message dated 12 November 1941 was the last signal received from Andre Bloch.

As was standard procedure home station (the wireless station in England) kept his wireless channel open and the frequency was monitored until confirmation was received of his arrest. According to de Vomecourt Bloch was denounced by a neighbour for being a Jew but it is now believed he remained too long on the air at the same address. 

His wireless and codes were never used by the Germans to play back his set to London and supports the belief 27-year-old Andre Bloch refused to pass his codes to the Gestapo whilst being tortured. Sometime in February 1942 Bloch was executed by firing squad at Mont-Valerian.

The “Wild Irish girl who went around France with a wireless tucked in her bag” (SOE in France)

Claudia Pulver was a Viennese jew who escaped to England and was working as a seamstress in London when she was recruited by SOE to work at their continental clothing section based in Titchfield Street London which was responsible for producing continental style clothing and issuing agents with authentic looking clothing and accessories.

Pulver also measured and fitted out agents at their nearby secret showroom in Margaret Street and although she did not know their names after the war she got to know their true identities. Pulver recalled a French countess who crossed the channel in a rowing boat and would be returning to France as an agent and explained:

” She was an elegant lady and we had to make her elegant clothes… There was {also} a Jewish girl who was supposed to be dropped in the south of France in some chateau occupied partly by German officers. Because she was supposed to be a relation we had to make her riding clothes, but she did not make it for long. She managed to get a few Germans before they killed her. We could never understand how they could be so brave as they were. They were incredibly contained and distant. Somehow you felt there was something very special about them.

Clothes were designed to support their cover story including the social status the agent needed to project and people like wireless operators were dressed quite ordinary and we had to be careful to be in character.

We had an Irish girl who was quite wild and went around France with a wireless tucked in her bag. She was dressed quite ordinary. When the German’s stopped her and asked her what she had in her bag she said, ‘it’s a wireless, or course, but she got away with it. She survived the war but others didn’t…”

Although Ireland was neutral many Irish citizens enlisted and the Irish girl which Claudia Pulver described as quite wild was 23-year-old Maureen ‘Paddy’ O’Sullivan who preferred to be called Paddy because of her Irish heritage.

Paddy was born in Dublin on 3 January 1918 and was raised at a convent in Dublin and at the age of 7 was sent to live with her aunt in Belgium where she attended another convent school and from the scant information available it appears she never experienced a stable family life.

When war was declared Paddy was training to be a nurse at Highgate Hospital but decided to enlist into the WAAF’s and on 7 July 1941 her language skills came to the attention of SOE and she was recruited as a potential agent.

During phase one of her training and selection at Wanborough Manor near Guildford she displayed the required skills to become as a field wireless operator and after being warned the life expectancy of a wireless operator was judged to be around six weeks, Paddy volunteered and attended the wireless and security school and after completing the course she successfully passed the difficult ‘trade craft’ course at Beaulieu before being taught to parachute.

Although it is widely believed Paddy O’Sullivan completed two missions to France due to lack of official documents this cannot be confirmed.

On the night of 23/24 March 1944, which was possibly the start of her second mission, Paddy O’Sullivan boarded a converted bomber of 138 Special Duties Squadron at RAF Tempsford in Buckinghamshire to parachute onto a remote field near Limoges in south-west central France but after reaching the DZ (drop zone) the entire area was covered in fog, the ground could not be seen from the air and the pilot suggested the mission be aborted and they return to Tempsford but Paddy insisted on being dropped. After exiting the aircraft at 600 feet during her descent she could not see the ground or the tree as she crashed through its branches before making a heavy landing. After the war she made the casual remark of being saved from serious injury by the 2 million francs in bank notes strapped to her back.

With forged papers identifying her as Micheline Simonet, a nurse from Paris Paddy became the wireless operator for a clandestine circuit called Fisherman and for several months she was constantly on the move and working from different safe houses to keep one step ahead of the German Intelligence wireless detection finders whilst maintaining contact with London and organising weapons, sabotage stores and other agents to be dropped by parachute.

It has been said O’Sullivan continued this dangerous work until France was liberated but a short note in her personal file which simply says, “Simonet, overrun now Madam Alvey” supports the belief her cover had been blown, the Gestapo and Abwehr knew her identity and Paddy had changed her cover name to Madam Alvey to evade capture.

It is also believed Paddy only disposed of her wireless and went on the run after informing London of her situation and arrangements had been made for a Lysander from 161 Special Duties Squadron to extract her from isolated farmland.

After the war Paddy O’Sullivan was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the British MBE and she summarised her war service as being “terribly frightening at times but there was a wonderful spirit of sharing danger with men of the highest order of courage which made it a privilege to work with them.”

Giliana Balamaceda the First Female SOE agent sent to France

Giliana Balamaceda was born in Chile in 1910 and worked as an actress in Paris where she met and married Englishman Victor Garson, who later established the VIC escape line from France to Spain. At the time Victor Garson was a dealer in fine rugs and carpets and just prior to German troops entering France the couple escaped to England and both were eventually recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

In May 1941 Garson (nee Balamaceda) landed on a remote stretch of southern France at night by Felucca ( traditional wooden sailing boat used in the eastern Mediterranean) and spent the next three months recruiting patriotic Frenchmen and women willing to accept the dangerous task of working on the future VIC escape line. She also recruited elderly couples willing to use spare rooms in their home to accommodate escapers until they could be moved further down the line.

Garson also collected ration cards, identity papers, packets of popular brands of cigarettes, tobacco and other items to be forged in England and issued to agents going to France. After completing her mission she made her way back to England via Spain and Gibraltar.

Although Giliana Balamaceda is one of the least know SOE agents she was the first female agent to work in France and the VIC escape line would not have been possible without her major contribution to its formation and the samples she brought back from France allowed agents to carry authentic looking documents and props to support the cover identities.