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.

France under occupation: film footage taken at great risk by Gaston Madru.

Rare news footage of Nazi occupied France captured surreptitiously by a brave French cameraman, Gaston Madru, from 1942 to 1944. It gives a snapshot of everything from swastikas flying from French buildings to the German retreat from France in 1944. If caught Madru would have been executed.

WWII veteran Bill Moore RAF Special Duties Squadron describes a mission to supply the French Resistance

This was later re-enacted in the public information film ‘Now the Truth Can be Told: School for Danger’ with a cast of former SOE agents.

RAF 161 Special Duty Squadron (Lysanders) Occupied France

Timeline documentary interviewing pilots of 161 Squadron including Hugh Verity, members of the French resistance and agents.

Also an excellent interview of a Lancaster wireless operator shot down over Belgium who was rescued and taken to France by the Possum Escape Line (MI9) and later extracted by Hugh Verity flying a Lysander.

Documentary: Nancy Wake: Gestapo’s most wanted (Timeline productions)

Based on my understanding of Nancy Wake this is the best documentary I have seen on her life with the Pat O’Leary escape line, her escape from France and her service with SOE.

Some of her wartime work in France is not covered and there are the following technical inaccuracies during the re-enactment:

During her parachute infiltration she is seen wearing the wrong type of helmet and parachute

The type of wireless shown is not correct

The Gestapo agent Nancy Wake said she would shoot if the Marquis refused to do so was a woman not a male as shown in the film and it was not as straight forward as depicted here.

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Operation Jericho (aka Jail Breakers) February 1944

At the request of the French Resistance on 18 February 1944 British and Canadian Mosquito fighter -bombers with Typhoon fighter escorts were tasked with destroying SS barracks and machine gun positions whilst breaching the wall of Amiens prison to help facilitate the escape of 832 members of the resistance and other political prisoners due to be shot by the SS.

Shortly after the raid the following newsreel called Jail Breakers was shown in cinemas throughout Britain.

Now it can be told: School for Danger (public information film)

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was an ultra-secret branch of the British military and this public information film released in 1947, one-year after the executive was disbanded, is one of the first public acknowledgements of SOE’s existence during the war.

Every member of the cast were former members of SOE’s French Section, hence the poor acting, and each scene was based on actual events during the war.

Those familiar with this Section will recognise the two main characters: Harry Ree and Jaqueline Nearne whose sister Eileen also served with SOE and escaped from Ravensbruck Concentration camp.