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 they were picked up by SOE agents Yvonne Rudellat and Pierre Culioli and their vehicle was stopped at a roadblock during which the Canadians cover were blown and were arrested, and the two other agents were captured after a shoot-out with German troops who recovered the Canadians wireless and codes hidden in a Red Cross parcel on the rear seat of the vehicle and this 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 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 but refused to assist the Gestapo 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)

Hugh Verity DSO &bar, DFC. No. 161 Special Duties Squadron RAF

Hugh Verity oc ‘A’ Flight 161 Squadron

No.161 Special Duties Squadron RAF was responsible for supporting SOE and other agents working in occupied France and pilots flew alone in a slow, single engine Lysander aircraft which was unarmed and had an extra fuel tank bolted between the undercarriage to allow them to fly deeper into France and return to England. Pilots used moonlight to identify land marks whilst also watching out for night fighters and ground defences and had to find remote farmland to pick up or deliver agents.  

When Hugh Verity was asked why he decided to make one pickup in pitch darkness and no moon he replied, “I wanted to see how frightening it was and that’s why I never did it again”. The truth is, he volunteered to take the mission after being told an SOE agent was attempting to escape the Gestapo and if he was not extracted he would very likely be captured, tortured then executed. Verity was the OC of ‘A’ Flight? and because it was not known whether it was possible to complete this sortie without moonlight and it was widely acknowledged it could be a one-way trip, due to the additional and unknown dangers Verity would not contemplate ordering one of his pilots to fly the sortie and decided to do it himself. After over eight-hours of fear and uncertainty Hugh Verity successfully rescued the agent.

SOE Wireless Operators in France.

As with all countries under German occupation, in France the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) and the Gestapo employed huge resources to track down wireless operators. Apart from resistance movements being unable to function without arms, explosives and other support which could only be obtained through wireless links to London, Hugo Bleicher who was a senior non-commissioned officer with the Abwehr and responsible for crushing resistance in France, said they regarded wireless operators as a rich source of intelligence because they had knowledge of every message and orders received from London.

Hugo Bleicher

The headquarters of the French Section in London were aware of the dangers facing their agents and those volunteering for wireless training were told their chances of survival, with a bit of luck, was six-weeks and if captured they would very likely be tortured by the Gestapo for their personal codes which could be used by a German operator to ‘play-back’ their wireless to London. Only later did the section become aware ‘play-back’ had been used by the Germans with great success in the Netherlands and many agents along with members of the resistance had been killed or transported to concentration camps where they were later executed. (information about the Dutch section will found at the link provided)

Jacqueline Nearne, former courier with SOE French seen in the public information film ‘School for Danger: Now the truth can be told’ which was produced after the war.

Agents volunteering for wireless duties were sent on a technically challenging course at the Wireless and Security School and the two main establishments were located at Fawley Court in Henley-on-Thames and Thames House in Oxfordshire.  Apart from learning to send and receive Morse Code at a sufficient speed they needed to understand radio wave propagation, the use of cyphers and learn how to repair their wireless in the field. They also needed to prove their competence in the use of various security measures intended to make it difficult for German direction finders pin-pointing the safe houses they were using whilst in contact with London.

A recent photograph of Fawley Court

When wireless trained agents arrived in France their first task was to find several suitable locations from which to use their transmitter to pass messages to London as quickly as possible whilst ensuring they never stayed on the air for over twenty-minutes, but for a variety of reasons some operators broke the twenty-minute rule and did not survive the war.

It was not long before the Germans introduced radio jammers which apart from making it difficult to send and receive messages they were also intended to force operators to remain longer on the air to pass messages.

Information about the Wireless War against SOE D Section (Dutch)

Gerry Holdsworth and the Helford Flotilla

In 1940 after SOE decided they needed a clandestine naval section to support their agents in France they quickly became aware finding officers and men with the essential seamanship skills and experience would be difficult.  They needed men who could quietly navigate rocks and sandbanks close to enemy shores in pitch-darkness and without the aid of moonlight.

Through their network of discreet contacts SOE was given the name of Gerry Holdsworth and discovered he had all the qualifications they were looking for in a commander: whilst working for D Section SIS (MI6) he used a small yacht to reconnoiter the Norwegian coast and whilst operating at night and close to the shore he frequently navigated the various hazards.

After being approached by SOE to command their naval section he accepted the appointment and he along with his wife who had also served with D Section established the flotilla on the Helford Estuary at Port Navas in Cornwall.

Those he recruited included Fishermen with extensive experience of the enemy coast and former smugglers which one officer described as the buccaneer type who if they overheard we needed something they would go out and pinch and it would suddenly appear on the quay.  Apart from transporting agents to and from Brittany they also delivered weapons and sabotage stores and rendezvoused with French fishing trawlers and loaded them with Tuna packed with explosives, detonators and timing devices.   

The Mutin

One new recruit who previously served as a quartermaster with the Royal Navy later recalled, “On my arrival at the quay I saw heaps of sails on the deck covered in blood. Shipwrights were digging out shrapnel from bow to stern and I thought to myself God what have I let myself in for! … I was later told, after dropping off an agent the Mutin {name of vessel} was spotted by a German aircraft and raked by cannon fire during which the engineer was killed…”    

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

Harry 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.

SOE Memorial in Valençay, France.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) Memorial in Valençay, France in the department of Indre was erected close to the area where the first SOE agent, George Bégue (aka George Noble) infiltrated France by parachute and made the first radio transmission to London and arranged the first weapons to be dropped by parachute to members of the French Resistance.

The role of honour lists the names of the 91 men and 13 women members of SOE who did not return from France and the monument symbolises the clandestine nature of SOE.

Dark columns evoke the clandestine side of night flights during moon periods when agents were sent to France, weapons and sabotage stores arrived by parachute to members of the resistance.

It’s clear column evokes the courage and the final victory of resistance.

Between the columns, a disk evokes the accomplice moon for the favourable full moon periods for clandestine air operations (parachute, landing and pickups

Three bright blocks evoke the markup L prepared on the ground by those receiving the agents to assist guiding the planes

The memorial was dedicated by the Minister of Veterans Affairs for France and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on 6 May1991 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of F Section’s first agent to arrive in France. The monument is called the ‘Spirt of Partnership’.