Orchard Court and its connection with World War Two.

Orchard Court today

Another little-known building in London with connections to the Second World War. Orchard Court is an expensive apartment block situated on the east side of Portman Square London. To hide the location of the building used by the French Section of the Special Operations Executive from their agents flat 6 was used for their briefing and debriefings. Outgoing agents were driven through the arch in a large car with blinds over the rear windows so they could not be seen and were driven to either RAF Tangmere to be flown to France by Lysander aircraft or RAF Tempsford to be dropped into France by parachute. Few agents returned and some who did are noted for showing symptoms of suffering from PTSD, a medical condition unknown at the time.

Alan Malcher

Pearl Cornioley (nee Witherington) SOE French Section

On the night of 22-23 September 1943 Witherington arrived by parachute to a reception committee on farmland near Tendu, France and became the courier of STATIONARY circuit and supported another SOE courier called Jacqueline Nearne. In November she joined a new circuit called FREELANCE and changed her identity to Marie Jeanne Verges (codename Pauline) with the cover occupation of a cosmetic consultant which gave her a pretext for travelling great distances whilst carrying messages and liaising with other agents and members of the resistance. This involved countless train journeys during which she was frequently stopped and questioned by the SD and civil police and after being unable to find a suitable safehouse she resorted to sleeping in unheated train carriages during the winter which added to the exhaustion she was already suffering. For an agent this was a dangerous medical condition because mistakes were easily made, and their judgment became increasingly clouded.

After meeting agents and helping to coordinate the preparations for D-day her circuit organiser Maurice Southgate was suffering from exhaustion when he failed to use basic security checks which he had used many hundreds of times before and walked into a mousetrap (a blown safehouse were German forces were waiting). After Southgate was arrested by the SD his large STATIONERY circuit was transformed into two circuits – an agent named Maingard became the organiser of what was called SHIPWRIGHT, Witherington organised a circuit called WRESTLER and under their leadership engaged in coordinated sabotage to support allied forces.  On the morning of 11 June 1944 her headquarters near the village of Dun-le-Poëllier was attacked by German forces which arrived in 56 lorries; 32 Maquis were killed, their weapons were destroyed, and Witherington hid in a corn field whilst under heavy fire before escaping. Witherington then cycled to Saint-Viâtre to meet another SOE agent to arrange a resupply and on 24 June three heavily laden aircraft dropped weapons and ammunition to her circuit and WRESTLER continued its attack on German forces and Witherington is noted for being the leader of 3,500 men of the Maquis. Maurice Southgate, DSO survived Buchenwald concentration camp and Pearl Witherington Cornioley died in France on 24 February 2008 at the age of 93.

Alan Malcher

Denis Barrett SOE Wireless Operator

Denis Barrett (fieldname Honore) arrived in north-eastern France by parachute in April 1943 and worked as the wireless operator for a clandestine circuit in the Troyes area. He was in regular contact with London until his cover was blown several months later and escaped to England after being extracted by Lysander aircraft from No.161 Special Duty Squadron RAF.

Barrett volunteered to undertake a second mission to France and arrived by parachute in early March 1944 and worked as the wireless operator for a new circuit called MINISTER located in Seine-et Marne, northern France. Barrett had two wireless sets; one was in Tores the other was hidden in the countryside several miles from the town. The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) were aware of a British agent in contact with London and Barrett transmitted from several locations to avoid his safehouses being located by direction finders.

After an agent was captured whilst transmitting to London Barret stopped using his wireless located in Tores and for several months travelled by bicycle to the countryside to use his other wireless. During his journeys he avoided German patrols and, on several occasions, cycled past stationary wireless detection vans which were listening for signals.

Despite constantly changing his location to avoid detection London became aware there was a problem after his signal abruptly stopped in mid-sentence and Barrett was later reported missing presumed dead.  

After the war Barret’s name was found scratched on the wall of a cell at the SD headquarters in Avenue Foch, Paris and it is known he was later moved to Buchenwald concentration camp. It was later reported he was among the first of thirty-one agents who were hanged at Buchenwald during the first week of September 1944, but it is now believed he was among the eleven agents shot at Buchenwald on 5 October that year.

Alan Malcher

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn French Section SOE

SOE agent Benjamin ‘Ben’ Cowburn.

Ben Cowburn was born in Lancashire on 3 March 1909 and at the age of 8 moved with his British parents to Paris and was educated at a British school in Boulogne-sure-Sein. Shortly after marrying a French woman Cowburn studied electrical engineering and after graduating worked for the American company Foster Wheeler which was building oil refineries throughout France. Apart from his language and cultural skills SOE was interested in his extensive knowledge of the French oil industry and Cowburn became one of the first students to train at Wanborough Manor in 1941 before completing four missions to France and after the war was awarded the Military Cross and Bar and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by France but like many agents, he tended to downplay his war service and bravery whilst talking about the bravery of others.

Benjamin Hodkinson Cowburn died on 17 December 1994 aged 85 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France.

SOE wireless operator Adolphe Rabinovitch


Adolphe Rabinovitch was a Russian-Egyptian Jew who served with the French Foreign Legion during the Battle of France. After being captured he escaped and made his way to England where he was recruited by SOE. On his second mission to France he was captured, interrogated and sent to Gross-Rosa concentration camp where he was executed sometime in 1944 at the age of 25.

Alan Malcher

SOE wireless operator Denise Bloch (12 January 1916- 5 February 1945)

DFenise bloch

(Image IWM)

On 2 March 1944 Denise Bloch infiltrated central France by parachute and worked as the wireless operator for both Clergyman and Detective circuits which were part of SOE’s clandestine network and began arranging for weapons, sabotage stores, finance and other agents to be sent from London and worked with several reception committees receiving incoming air drops.

It was around 8.20 am on 18 June when her wireless transmissions were located by German direction finders and her Safehouse raided by the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS (Security Service of the Reichsführers-SS), or SD, and Bloch along with another agent were captured.

It is known Bloch was tortured for information, but her wireless was not used by the Germans, and it appears Bloch refused to give the SD her personal wireless codes used to confirm her identity to London. It is also known she was transported to prisons in Germany during which she suffered from exposure due to the cold and malnutrition and was eventually transported to Ravensbrûck Concentration camp where she was executed on 5 February 1945 at the age of 29 and like many agents has no known grave after her body was cremated along with many others.

Alan Malcher

The German wireless deception leading to the deaths of three SOE agents sent to France.

France AntelmeLionel leeMadeleineDamerment

On the night of 28/29 February 1944, SOE agents France Antelme on his third mission to France, wireless operator Lionel Lee and Madeleine Damerment arrived by parachute near the city of Chartres to start a clandestine circuit called Bricklayer.

It is now believed sometime in late 1943 Canadian agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister had been arrested during which their wireless and codes were found, and a German operator started playing back their set and because the correct codes were being used no suspicion was raised in London. It was the Gestapo, not the Canadian agents who requested these agents be sent and consequently were dropped to the waiting Germans.

From the post war investigation, we see Antelme was furious and began fighting the Gestapo officers before eventually being restrained and the three agents were taken to Avenue Foch, Gestapo Paris HQ where Antelme refused to talk whilst being tortured. Antelme and Lee are recorded as being executed at Gross Rosen Concentration Camp in Lower Silesia and Madeleine Damerment along with three other female SOE agents were transported to Dachau in Germany where they were forced to kneel before being shot through the base of their necks. Canadian agents Pickersgill and Macalister along with several other SOE agents were executed by slow strangulation with piano wire suspended from hooks in the crematorium at Buchenwald concentration camp sometime in February 1944.

Also see SOE Agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister    Canadian SOE Agents Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister – Alan Malcher

Alan Malcher

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


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  to 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.