In 1941, dates vary according to sources, three PWE agents arrived in France and among them was Henri Le Chêne (aka Victor) who was later joined by Marie Thérése (aka Adele) to work as his courier and also help run their underground newspaper and his brother Pierre, who was a wireless operator, arrived by parachute near Loches to provide a wireless link to London for his brother who was running a circuit called Plane and to assist Edward Zeff (SOE) the wireless operator working for a circuit called Spruce.
For over seven months Pierre Le Chêne (aka Grégoire) was constantly on the move to avoid his transmissions being pinpointed by direction finders when sometime in November 1942 two wireless operators were arrested and after being the only wireless operator in the area, he became first on the German wanted list.
It is believed Pierre Le Chêne broke the cardinal rule of never transmitting for more than twenty-minutes, his location was found by direction finders and was captured on 0n 9 December 1942 whilst still sending messages to London.
Pierre Le Chêne was the first agent to be tortured for information by the infamous Klaus Barbie the head of the SD in Lyon who became known as the Butcher of Lyon because of his brutal reputation of personally torturing adults and children in the SD cells he called the ‘Gestapo Kitchen’. During Barbie’s trial after the war several witnesses said it was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured for nine days and the age of these witnesses at the time of their torture were between 13 to 93.
After Pierre Le Chêne had been arrested and tortured at Hôtel Terminus in Lyon which had been taken over by the SD as their regional headquarters other agents and members of the resistance Le Chêne knew were not added to the SD wanted list and the only plausible explanation is Barbie failed to break him.
Pierre Le Chêne was later transported to Mauthausen Concentration camp in Upper Austria and by the time the camp was liberated by American troops on 6 May 1945 was suffering from typhoid, malnutrition and was close to death.
Luftwaffe tunic worn by Le Chêne.
Pierre Le Chêne was quickly dressed in whatever clothes were found which happened to be a Luftwaffe desert tunic with the bottom of the left sleeve shredded after its original owner suffered a life threatening injury and was then flown to England. After receiving extensive medical treatment Pierre Le Chêne survived.
Alexander Vass was born in Limburg, Germany, he spoke fluent Hungarian and was a child when his family moved to Canada and became naturalised Canadians.
In early 1943 Vass enlisted into the Royal Canadian Medical Corp and several months later he came to the attention of SOE’s Hungarian Section who were looking for agents who could speak fluent Hungarian and after passing selection and training in England he went on to pass the wireless and security course at Thames House in Oxfordshire.
Vass and three other agents boarded a converted Halifax bomber of 148 Special Duty Squadron RAF to be dropped by parachute north of Lake Balaton in western Hungary and after the aircraft failed to return it was assumed all had been killed.
Several months after the war it was discovered the Halifax had been intercepted by German night fighters and Luftwaffe documents stated the aircraft exploded after hitting the ground and all the crew were killed. After three SOE agents were liberated from a German prisoner of war camp Alexander Vass was not among them and the three surviving agents later described what happened.
They were not aware the aircraft had been lost because the agents had been dropped before its interception. One agent named Broughay said they had been dropped at the wrong location and landed in a forest and he found himself about 30 feet up a tree and there was no way of concealing their presence. After splitting up into two groups he and Vass avoided enemy forces for over 24 hours but were eventually captured, stripped searched and interrogated. They were then taken down a hill where the other two agents were in custody and were told they would be shot. The three agents were then taken to a Secret Police Headquarters were the interrogation continued and the following morning were put into the back of a lorry and were greatly relieved after finding themselves at a German Prisoner of War Camp controlled by the Luftwaffe.
During an allied air raid sometime in December 1944 a bomb hit the camp and Alexander Vass was killed.
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.
Part of the Shuttleworth Collection. The Lysander with distinctive extra fuel tank bolted between its undercarriages to allow the aircraft to fly deep into occupied France and return to RAF Tangmere during ‘pickup’ operations (delivering and extracting SOE, MI9, SIS, RF agents). Also distinguishable by the matt black fuselage and underside of wings to allow the aircraft to blend in with the moonlit sky and tops of wings camouflage to blend in with the ground when night fighters approached from above.
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.
Andrée Borrel escaped from France to England in 1942 after working for an escape line for two-years during which she assisted allied aircrews shot down over France to escape to neutral Spain and eventually return to England.
After passing agent selection and training, on the night of 25 September 1942 Borrel along with Lise de Baissac became the first female agents from SOE’s French Section to infiltrate France by parachute and after landing went their separate ways.
Borrel worked for PHYSICIAN (Prosper) circuit in the Paris region and travelled extensively to recruit members for the circuit, arranging arms and sabotage stores to be dropped by parachute and the circuit rapidly grew.
On 25 June 1943 London received a ‘flash’ message from an SOE wireless operator in France saying the circuit leader Francis Suttill, wireless operator Gilbert Norman and Andrée Borrel had disappeared and were later officially listed missing presumed dead, and this led to various conspiracy theories after the war. The German infiltration of PHYSICIAN and the many deaths which followed was the continuation of a complicated Abwehr plan which began almost a year previously in southern France.
It is known Andrée Borrel spent many months in prison where she was interrogated by the SD before being sent to another prison in southwest Germany. On 6 July 1944, exactly one month after the Normandy Landings, Borrel and three other female SOE agents were executed at Natzweiler concentration camp.
SOE operations in Yugoslavia supported Tito’s Communist Partisans at the expense of the royalist Chetniks. On 5 February 1943 a team of four SOE operatives (Operation Disclaimer) were handed to the Germans by local people shortly after they landed and the next team which arrived several days later were denounced and it was difficult to discover who could be trusted or their political loyalties.
Selby had served with 11 Commando before joining SOE and arrived in Yugoslavia with another SOE agent, twenty-six-year-old John Rochester who was of Yugoslav extraction whose family name was Yovanovic.
Dressed as peasants they attempted to contact the partisans but were captured by pro-German forces and handed to the German authorities. There is much contradictory evidence surrounding the fate of Selby and Rochester. It cannot be confirmed Selby was shot whilst attempting to escape and there is no reliable information concerning the fate of Rochester and both were originally listed missing presumed dead.
Stephen Reiss was a Jew born in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia and was serving with the Palmach in Mandatory Palestine when he was recruited by SOE in 1943 and served under the name Stephen Rice. In December 1943 Rice along with other Jewish agents from Palestine (now Israel) serving with SOE ‘A’ Force were sent to contact the partisans and assist them in overthrowing the pro-German government in Slovakia and detach the country from the Axis powers.
Over 2,000 Jews fought during the uprising and around 500 were killed but the partisans made considerable gains and on 28 August 1943 the Germans decided to occupy Slovakia and eliminate the resistance.
During a major German offensive on 27 October 1944, German forces occupied Banska Bystrica. Rice with other agents and around 40 Jewish Partisans escaped and built a camp in the mountains but were captured after a few days and the Germans shot most of the Jews including Rice. His remains were recovered in 1952 and reburied in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.
28-year-old Edward Coppin who was known as ‘Ted’, served with the DONKEYMAN circuit and was responsible for organising resistance in the port of Marseille and over time built up a successful sabotage team consisting of railway workers. Apart from derailing trains, in 1942 he was responsible for diverting trains destined for Germany by switching the points and sending them to the Spanish border.
Coppin was arrested at his safehouse on 23 April 1943 but because he used several cover names there continues to be much confusion regarding his fate and a post-war investigation into missing agents failed to identify what happened to Coppin after his arrest.
It is believed Coppin was tortured for information but refused to talk which is evident by the fact no members of his group were arrested but there is scant evidence to support the claim he was executed at Ravensbrûck concentration camp in September 1943, consequently, the fate of ‘Ted’ Coppin is unknown, and Coppin has no known grave.
The American Virginia Hall and her wartime service with SOE is well known but Robert Byerly is less well documented and is sometimes wrongly described as a Canadian.
When Germany invaded France in April 1940 Robert Byerly who has been noted for being pro-British was living in Paris and because he was a citizen of a neutral country was allowed to leave France and made his way to England and in 1941 enlisted into the Canadian Army and trained as a signaller. The date he was recruited by SOE and passed selection varies according to sources, but it is known he arrived in France by parachute on 8 February 1944 near Poitiers to work as the wireless operator for SURVEYOR circuit. His infiltration was arranged by PHONO circuit but unknown to London the circuit had been infiltrated and Byerley along with two other agents were dropped to waiting German soldiers.
Under German supervision Byerly was forced to use his wireless to contact London and within the body of the message inserted a ‘bluff check’ and left out the ‘true check’ to warn London he was sending under duress. As was standard practice London maintained contact with Byerly to create the illusion he was of use to the Germans and hope he would not be executed, but his transmissions suddenly stopped, and was not heard again. After the war it was discovered that sometime during the summer of 1944 Robert Byerly was transported to Gross-Rosen concentration camp where he was executed a few days later.