Dutch Resistance 1941-43: SOE’s Greatest Disaster in occupied Europe

Englandspiel Monument (the fall of Icarus) in the Hague Netherlands

In 1941 the Dutch (D) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Major Bingham started sending trained agents to the Netherlands by parachute and like other country sections their role was to recruit resisters from the civilian population before providing training, arms and directing their resistance activities to support the Allied strategy.  

Among the first agents to arrive was saboteur Thijs Taconnis and a wireless operator named Hurbert Lauwers, but as they climbed into the converted Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford D Section was unaware the underground network they were sent to join had been infiltrated by a double agent and both were quickly captured along with Lauwers’s wireless and personal codes.   

Lauwers was forced to contact London under German supervision but included within the body of the message prearranged codes indicating he had been captured and his wireless was under German control. To his great surprise and frustration his warning codes were either overlooked or ignored and London ask for the coordinates of a DZ (drop zone) for the arrival of a new agent. This was the start of the ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game) under Abwehr Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

For around 18 months the Dutch Section was happy with the news coming from the Netherlands: they had 62 underground networks consisting of around 420 Dutch civilians who were being trained to fight the occupying forces and at the request of these ‘networks’ the RAF dropped a large quantity of weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance their operations.

D Section was oblivious to the fact most of the resistance was in hiding: The Gestapo and Abwehr were attempting to track them down, there were mass arrests and German security forces knew everything about their network.

Leo Marks, Head of SOE Codes and Ciphers

The first person in London to suspect there were serious problems in the Netherlands was SOE’s head of codes and ciphers, 22-year-old Leo Marks, who suddenly realised what had been worrying him for some time about the Dutch radio traffic, Marks later explained:

“What I discovered was we had never received an indecipherable message from Holland due to mistakes in coding…”

Wireless operators were always under immense pressure: they had to send their message as quickly as possible to avoid wireless detection teams finding their location and under these stressful conditions it was considered inevitable an operator would make several mistakes in their coding; but his concerns were rejected by the Dutch Section which continued to send agents, weapons and sabotage stores by parachute.  

After bringing his concerns to the attention of Brigadier Nicholls, the head of the signals section, Marks was asked to provide proof of his suspicions because the Dutch Section claimed they had ways of checking on their agents and were adamant there were no issues. Marks then sent an indecipherable message to Holland- one which could only be broken by a trained code breaker; a genuine agent would ask for the message to be repeated but this did not happen, Marks explained:

 “The fact that they didn’t say repeat that message immediately which they would do if they ever got an indecipherable message from London, which was very rare, told me beyond doubt the Dutch agents had been captured. There was no other conceivable explanation…”

The wireless operators in England were also concerned about the sending style of the agents under their charge and suspected they were receiving wireless traffic from German operators, but the Dutch Section rejected their concerns.

German agents always signed off with the letters HH (Heil Hitler) so Marks sent a false message to the Netherlands and signed off with HH and back came the instantaneous response HH. Marks then knew there was a German operator at the other end.

Fourteen of the known agents delivered to the Gestapo by parachute.

Although the wireless channel was eventually closed whilst the damage was being assessed it was not until SOE agents Peter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink escaped from a prison camp in August 1943 that the full damage due to the ‘English Game’ started to be realised. Over a period of 18-months German operators had used 18 captured wireless sets and codes to create a ‘mousetrap’ in which 56 agents were parachuted to waiting members of the Gestapo, 11 RAF aircraft were shot down whilst delivering weapons and supplies to a resistance network controlled by the Germans but there are no figures regarding the fate of a conservative estimate of 420 civilians engaged in resistance.  

After the war Freyer, head of the German wireless section for western Europe, said:

“The transmitter of a group of agents is always a mailbox where everything goes in and out. And connected to the mailbox there is always the leadership of the organisation, and so, if we had the transmitter, then either the boss to operate it or via his right-hand man and via him we got further and further into the organisation. This explains why we invested so much effort into radio direction finding.”  He also went on to say, “some wireless operators were totally overwhelmed when they were discovered. The arrested men reacted in very different ways. Some were sort of composed, some knew their future and came to terms with it, and in one case we once arrested a man, and there was a big bang, he had soiled himself, we could smell it.”  

There was no mention of the wireless operators, men and women, tortured by the Gestapo for their codes and their subsequent executions.   

RAF Tempsford, Britain’s secret airfield during WW2.

Gibraltar Farm near Sandy Bedfordshire was considered unsuitable for any form of flying because of frequent fog and most of the land being waterlogged but was later considered ideal as a clandestine airfield because German air reconnaissance was liable to reach the same conclusion. To add to the deception lines were painted across the runway which looked like hedgerows from the air, hangers etc looked like rundown farm buildings. The farm became RAF Tempsford and the home of 138 Special Duties squadron which was responsible for transporting and supplying SOE and SIS agents in Europe. Due to the land’s unsuitability crashes were frequent.

Halifax of 138 Squadron cashed on landing due to poor ground conditions.

161 Special Duties Squadron flew single engine Lysander Aircraft and later Hudson’s to transport agents and were responsible for air landings on remote farmland. During the moon period (SD Squadrons needed moonlight to navigate) 161 along with its ground crews were relocated to the fighter station at RAF Tangmere on the south coast. Because this station was almost 200 miles closer to France than Tempsford their aircraft which were also fitted with an extra fuel tank bolted between the undercarriage could fly deeper into France with sufficient fuel to return to Tangmere or divert to another field during an emergency.

Denis Rake the gay extrovert who served with SOE (Special Operations Executive)

For many years little was known about Denis Rake because he protected his privacy by making up wild and often humorous stories about his life but after examining new research for my forthcoming book ‘SOE in Occupied France’ more can be told about his wartime service and the following is intended as a brief introduction to a little-known agent who served with distinction but due to his life style he seldom received the public recognition he deserved. 

It has been claimed after the war Rake was employed as the second butler at the London residence of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr when a letter arrived addressed to Major Denis Rake MC. It was also said Fairbanks was surprised that his small, openly gay and very camp butler had been a major who was awarded the Military Cross, and after Fairbanks handed him the letter Rake said, “Oh dear. I was hoping you would never hear about all this nonsense.”

During the 1940s being openly gay and having what was described as ‘female mannerisms’ brought scorn and prejudice from some male agents but Rake was hugely respected and trusted by Virginia Hall and Nancy Wake who became legends in the French Section of SOE and much continues to be written about them. In fact, when Nancy Wake was concerned about her husband who was still in France Rake was her private confidant who supported her when she was upset.

Nancy Wake was known for her straight talking and honest views and when asked about Denis Rake she said “He was queer, and I loved him…”  and the expression ‘queer’ should not be taken as an insult, and after listening to former agents who knew Rake I am firmly convinced many of the negative comments about him were due to the homophobia he experienced during the 1940s which was also a time when his life-style was illegal in the United Kingdom.

Nancy Wake.
The American Virginia Hall, SOE’s first resident agent in France.

I describe Rake as a most unlikely agent because during his training he refused to go over the assault course, refused to handle firearms and explosives because he did not like the loud ‘noise’ and constantly argued that a wireless operator would not need to use firearms and would not be involved in sabotage. A student refusing to undertake this training would normally be rejected but not only did Rake display a high degree of competence as a wireless operator he was also correct: although wireless operators were advised to carry a firearm for their personal protection it was not compulsory and their job was not to engage enemy forces or be involved in acts of sabotage; instead they had to remain in hiding whilst maintaining wireless contact with London.  It has also been falsely claimed Rake refused to undertake parachute training.

Harry Ree

Harry Ree who was an agent and circuit leader was sitting with Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the commanding officer of the section, and other officers when Rake was being discussed and humorously remembered, when Rake attended the parachute school he was petrified and screamed to the dispatcher “dear boy, my dear boy I don’t think I can do this without a little push… Three times he went up and three times he was chucked or booted out the aircraft.”

Ree also recalled an officer saying to Buckmaster, “this Rake is an odd character sir. I just don’t understand him. He doesn’t like women. I mean, he really doesn’t like women. He prefers men” and Buckmaster replied “but he’s a fine wireless operator”.

It is also interesting to note a commanding officer from one of the training schools wrote in Rake’s personal file, “Rake told me he is not afraid of death and I believe him”

After HQ received a request for a wireless operator be sent to southern France Buckmaster decided to send Rake by sea because there was no guarantee he would leave the aircraft and after arriving in France several agents who were openly hostile towards Rake and questioned his suitability as an agent were silenced after Rake quickly showed he was brave and resourceful.

Beaulieu Manor

During their tradecraft training at Beaulieu, which was sometimes unofficially called finishing school, students were taught to lie and bluff their way out of difficult situations and this included projecting appropriate body language with the correct nuance in their voice to support the lie. They were also told to use phrases and sentences which might resonate with their interrogator and shortly after arriving in France Rake was forced to use these skills.  

In early 1942 Rake arrived in Gibraltar and was transported by Felucca to a remote stretch of coast in southern France and after distancing himself from the beech he found somewhere to hide until daybreak. The next morning he walked to the nearest town carrying two suitcases, one containing clothing and over 2 million francs in banknotes to finance local resistance and the other containing his wireless set, and  by the time he arrived the town was busy with people going to work but before he could lose himself in the crowd he was stopped by a Milice officer who demanded to know what was in his suitcases.

Rake was aware if the officer saw his wireless that would be the end: he would be handed to the Gestapo and after being tortured he would be executed but he remained calm whilst deliberately looking dejected as he slowly lowered his cases to the pavement whilst politely saying ‘Ok sir. You’ve got me sir.” After a short pause Rake then confessed to stealing antiques from a rich family and attempted to morally justify his crime by saying, “unlike us they are not suffering the hardships of the war” and then passionately explained that whilst people like us are suffering this family was having an easy life. Rake then offered the Milice officer a handful of banknotes as a bribe to let him go and the officer pocketed the money and walked away.

During his first mission Rake was arrested and incarcerated twice and both times was lucky to be released but whilst in prison was fearful that the Milice would discover his documents were forgeries and would find himself being handed to the Gestapo, and unlike two other agents who were also released and immediately joined an escape route into neutral Spain, Rake decided to remain in France to continue his mission. After coming to the attention of the authorities it was not long before he was high on their wanted list and the only person he knew and trusted was the American agent Virginia Hall and Rake turned to her for help.   

One of Hall’s many contacts was the madam of a local brothel who agreed to hide Rake in her loft and for the next few months Rake was protected by local prostitutes until Hall could arrange his escape to Spain.

After returning to England Denis Rake became a conducting officer at Beaulieu and during the build-up to D-day he volunteered to return to France as a wireless operator and worked with his great friend Nancy Wake.

Apart from working as a butler little is known about his life after the war, but it is thought he had no friends and lived alone in a small caravan somewhere in rural Kent where he died in 1976 at the age of 75.

“Code Name: Lise” the heroism of Odette Sansom, an agent with SOE. NBC’s Stephanie Gosk sat down with the book’s author and Sansom’s granddaughter to learn more.

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.