Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Odette Churchill (nee Sansom)

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SOE agent Odette Sansom (she married Peter Churchill after the war) was a single mother with three young children in England when she was arrested by the Abwehr and eventually handed to the Gestapo. During their attempt to force her talk Sansom was repeatedly burnt on the back with a red-hot poker and each time she fainted from the pain was revived with buckets of cold water being thrown over her so the torture could continue. When burning failed to break her all her toenails were pulled out but Sansom still refused to give the Gestapo information about her wireless operator who was in hiding and after the war Sansom reluctantly admitted to a journalist she was willing to die rather than answer their questions. Sansom then survived the ill-treatment and horrors of Ravensbrûck Concentration camp and after the war was awarded the GC which she always insisted was not awarded to her personally but represented all those alive and dead, known and unknown who fought for the liberation of France.

Odette

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.

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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.

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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.

SOE Polish Section (EU/P) Wladslaw Wazny in France

Apart from Krystyna Skarbek, GM (aka Christine Granville) who served with SOE’s French Section several Polish men and women also served with SOE EU/P in France, but this section is less well documented, consequently, there is much we don’t know about Wladyslaw Wazny and several claims about his war service are not supported by primary sources.

It is believed Wladyslaw Wanzy also known as Wladyslaw Rozmus was born on 3 February 1908 in the village of Ruda Rozaniecka to a peasant family and trained as a teacher and in 1934 was a Second Lieutenant in the Polish Army Reserve. At the start of the Second World War he was a platoon commander with the 39th Lwów Rifles Infantry Brigade and after the occupation of Poland he escaped to France and reached England via Spain and Gibraltar where he was later recruited by SOE.

It has been claimed but not confirmed, he infiltrated France in March 1944 and sent London the location of 59 V1 and V2 rocket launch sites which were later destroyed by Allied bombers. Although it is known Wazny was killed shortly before France was liberated there is still confusion regarding events leading to his capture and death.

Wladyslav Wazy SOE

Wladslaw Wanzy after his arrest

Various theories about his capture and death

Some claim he was shot whilst attempting to escape, others say he was shot several times after shooting several Gestapo officers but was still alive. It has also been claimed that in July 1944 the Abwehr discovered members of his network and located their wireless operators with direction-finders and this led to his capture.

A further claim states that on 19 August 1944 the Abwehr and Milice raided the last of his safe houses which was a Tailor shop in the town of Montigny-en-Ostrevent and there are also various accounts of what happened next. Some say Wazny was involved in a shoot-out with German soldiers and the Milice after being surrounded and was hit by several rounds from a submachine gun, another version states he was shot in the leg as he climbed over a garden wall to escape. Whatever the story, as can be seen by the photograph of him in police custody he was captured alive and was later killed and buried in the cemetery of Montigny-en-Ostrevent, France.

800px Montigny en Ostrevent Cimetière de l église Saint Nicolas 03 tombe de Władysław Ważny

Phyllis Latour SOE Wireless Operator in France

Phyllis ‘Pippa’ Latour MBE, Legion of Honour (France), 1939-45 Star, French and German Star, Croix de Guerre (France).

South African born Latour moved to England to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) but due to be able to speak fluent French and having spent time in the country she later came to the attention of the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

After volunteering for hazardous missions and passing selection she completed the technically challenging training at the Wireless and Security School at Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire.

On the night of 1 May 1944 she parachuted into Normandy to join the Scientist circuit as their wireless operator and was constantly on the move to avoid being tracked down by German wireless direction-finders during which she sent over 135 messages to London to support the French Resistance whilst posing as a teenager whose family had moved away from the industrial areas to avoid Allied air raids.

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After the war she married an Engineer with the surname Doyle and she never discussed her war service with her family until her children found an article about her on the internet in 2000. She now lives in Auckland, New Zealand and at the time of writing (November 2021) she has just turned 100 years old and is thought to be the only surviving member of SOE’s French Section.

Muriel Byck: SOE Wireless Operator

Muriel Byck was born to Jewish French parents on 4 June 1918 in Ealing, London. From the few records available it is known that from 1923 to 1924 she lived with her parents in Wiesbaden Germany and the family moved to France in 1926 before returning to London in 1930 where she continued her education at a French school in Kensington, London.
From 1936 to 1938 she worked as a secretary and then became an assistant stage manager at the Gate Theatre. At the outbreak of war she undertook voluntary work with the Red Cross and also the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) and in 1941 she moved to Torquay and worked as an Air Raid Precaution Warden.

In December 1942 she joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) as a general duties clerk and was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in September 1943.

After passing the Student Assessment Board at Winterfold House in Cranleigh Surrey, it was claimed she attended the unconventional warfare course in Scotland, but this is unlikely because agent trained wireless operators were specialists with a high degree of technical competence who were difficult to replace and were forbidden from engaging in aggressive operations. Documents also show she completed her wireless and security training at Thame Park in Oxfordshire and then passed the compulsory and academically challenging trade craft course at Beaulieu.

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On the night of 8-9 April 1944 Muriel Byck along with three other agents infiltrated France by parachute and after going their separate ways Byck joined the Ventriloquist circuit organised by SOE agent Philippe de Vomécourt to work as his wireless operator.
Using the cover name of Violette Michéle and pretending to be the niece of Philippe de Vomécourt, who used several cover names but was generally known as Antoine, she chose several safe houses to use her wireless to receive orders and make arrangements for weapons, explosives and other equipment to be dropped by parachute; she was always on the move to avoid being located by German wireless direction finders and ensured her wireless traffic was sent in under twenty minutes to lower the chances of her location being discovered.
One of her safe houses was in the town of Salaries in central France which was owned by a member of the resistance called Antoine Vincent and she used her wireless from a shed behind a garage in Limoges until she noticed it was under surveillance and immediately changed her location, name and cover story.

She then moved into the home of a blacksmith and transmitted from several properties. Sometime in May 1944 (dates vary according to sources) Philippe de Vomécourt arrived at the blacksmith’s house to find Muriel Byck collapsed on the floor unconscious and called a doctor who worked for the resistance who diagnosed an advance stage of meningitis requiring immediate hospital treatment. The doctor warned de Vomécourt he had no contacts at the hospital he could trust and the Germans were always notified of new admissions and both were concerned her false identity papers would not pass close examination but an hospital was her only chance of survival.

After placing her on the rear seat of a car de Vomécourt drove her to the nearest hospital and after obtaining assistance from a nurse he disappeared before questions could be asked.
On 23 May 1944, at the age of 25, Muriel Byck died in hospital from Meningitis. She was buried in Romorantin, a commune and town in the Loir-et-Cher department and for many years her grave was tended by local people who also commemorated the anniversary of her death as a heroine of the resistance and her body was later moved to the Pornic War Cemetery.
After the war it was alleged, but never substantiated, that her mother insisted her daughter’s medals be destroyed.

The Sussex Safe house and the French Resistance: Bignor Manor

The Bertram Family (source unknown)

Anthony and Barbara Bertram with their young son rented a cottage called Bignor Manor in the small village of Bignor located in Chichester, West Sussex and quickly became respected members of the village community. There was nothing unusual about the Bertram family: they kept chickens and exchanged fresh eggs for other produce; their son had a pet goat called Wendy and he spent most of his spare time playing with other children in the village. 

Bignor Manor


   In 1995 Barbara Bertram published her war memoirs, ‘The French Resistance in Sussex’, and many of the villagers who knew the family during the war were shocked to discover the important role the Bertram’s and Bignor Manor played during the secret war in France.
   Bignor Manor was around 11 miles from RAF Tangmere which during the moon-period Lysander aircraft from 161 Special Duties Squadron used for air landings deep inside France to deliver and pickup SOE, MI6, MI9, RF (Free French agents) and Bignor Manor was the forward safe house for agents being transported to and from France.  

Sitting room and dartboard


  A dartboard in the sitting room concealed a cupboard containing equipment being issued to agents including personal firearms, special devices and weapons and Cyanide capsules.
  Even Wendy, the pet goat, played a part in their clandestine work. Barbara recalled, “London received an urgent wireless request to pick up an agent who was being hunted by the Germans. The BBC French service sent a cryptic message saying, ‘Wendy needs a new dress.’ This meant their message had been received and arrangements were being made. A few hours later a BBC announcer said, ‘Wendy has bought a new dress’ and this told the agents a Lysander had entered French airspace.

SOE Agents Henry and Alfred Newton (the twins)

At SOE headquarters in London brothers Henry and Alfred Newton were affectionally referred to as the twins although there was a large age difference. Before joining SOE their parents, wives and children boarded a liner to take them and other refugees to the safety of England but during the passage the ship was sunk by a German U-boat and there were no survivors and after the loss of their entire family the brothers had a deep hatred of the Germans.

    The twins were sent to France to train members of the resistance in the use of weapons and explosives, but the Gestapo eventually tracked down their safehouse in Lyon.  Due to their reputation the Gestapo were accustomed to people cowering before them, and the 15 Gestapo officers who burst into their safe house were shocked when the twins immediately began attacking them with improvised weapons including wine bottles and chair legs being used as truncheons. By the time the twins were overpowered and severely beaten the Gestapo officers were bruised and bloodied and one had his front teeth knocked out.  

After being taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Hotel Terminus in Lyon, for several days they were tortured by Klaus Barbie (the butcher of Lyon) and his equally psychopathic assistant Larsen but the twins refused to provide information. Barbie then put the twins before a mock firing squad where they showed no emotions and it was clear they were prepared to die. After failing to break the twins they were sent to a concentration camp where they survived by changing their prison numbers on their uniforms with prisoners who had died from typhoid and other diseases and this continued until they were eventually liberated. Although they survived the war the twins never got over their injuries and mental scars.      

SOE Agent Anne-Marie Walters

In December 1943, twenty-year-old Anne-Marie Walters was minutes away from parachuting into France when her mission was aborted due to heavy fog over the drop zone and the aircraft returned to England. The bomber was diverted to another airfield not normally used by the RAF Special Duties Squadron where no questions were asked about female passengers. During the landing the aircraft hit pine trees and crashed short of the runway and caught fire. Walters and another agent named Jean-Claude escaped through a hole in the fuselage. Walters later recalled: “As ground crews ran to the burning aircraft one shouted what the hell is this woman doing in this mess? We decided to say we were journalists, but it was doubtful whether anyone would believe us; our jump suits and arms and scattered containers would give us away… The rest of the crew apart from the dispatcher were killed.”

 On the night of 3-4 June 1944 Walters and Jean-Claude successfully infiltrated France by parachute and Walters joined the Wheelwright Network as their courier.  Her cover story was that she was a student from Paris recovering from pneumonia who was visiting friends who had a farm. Walters travelled throughout SW France. After 15 members of the French Resistance escaped from prison she organised their escape across the Pyrenees, she helped deliver several suitcases of explosives to Toulouse to blow up a power station. After one journey Walters said, “My family might not have recognized me had they seen me sitting in a third-class carriage with a beret tipped low over my forehead, wearing an old raincoat and generally looking half-witted while eating a chunk of bread and sausages”.
Whilst fighting 2000 German troops during which 19 members of the resistance were killed, under heavy enemy fire Walters distributed hand grenades and ammunition to members of the Maquis before their position was overrun.
Later during her life Anne-Marie Walters suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in France in 1998 at the age of 75.

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 Agents Henry and Albert Newton (the twins)

A brief overview of their war service in France during WW2

At SOE headquarters in London brothers Henry and Alfred Newton were affectionally referred to as the twins although there was a large age difference. Before joining SOE their parents, wives and children boarded a liner to take them and other refugees to the safety of England but during the passage the ship was sunk by a German U-boat and there were no survivors and after the loss of their entire family the brothers had a deep hatred of the Germans.

The twins were sent to France to train members of the resistance in the use of weapons and explosives, but the Gestapo eventually tracked down their safehouse in Lyon.  Due to their reputation the Gestapo were accustomed to people cowering before them, and the 15 Gestapo officers who burst into their safe house were shocked when the twins immediately began attacking them with improvised weapons including wine bottles and chair legs being used as truncheons. By the time the twins were overpowered and severely beaten the Gestapo officers were bruised and bloodied and one had his front teeth knocked out.  

Klaus Barbie – the Butcher of Lyon

After being taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Hotel Terminus in Lyon, for several days they were tortured by Klaus Barbie (the butcher of Lyon) and his equally psychopathic assistant Larsen but the twins refused to provide information. Barbie then put the twins before a mock firing squad where they showed no emotions and it was clear they were prepared to die. After failing to break the twins they were sent to a concentration camp where they survived by changing their prison numbers on their uniforms with prisoners who had died from typhoid and other diseases and this continued until they were eventually liberated. Although they survived the war the twins never got over their injuries and mental scars.      

The twins. Photograph taken after the war (source unknown)