On 10 June 1944 the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and other Resistance Networks were told to find suitable large and remote fields for mass daylight parachute drops of weapons and other stores.
The first daylight drop of weapons and stores was called Operation Zebra on 25 June 1944 when 180 B-17 bombers of the USAAF with fighter escorts dropped 2,160 containers to SOE and members of the Resistance at Ain, Jura, Haute Vienna and Vercose and due to its success a larger drop by Allied aircraft called Operation cadillac took place on 14 July 1944.
Operation Cadillac consisted of 349 bombers (mostly B17’s) with 534 Allied fighter escorts during which 3,791 containers loaded with 417 tons of weapons were dropped at seven locations. (Photos Musee de la Résistance)
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.
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.
Some historians claim most of the resistance in the Netherlands was nonviolent, but this was not the case. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) had a Dutch Section which supported resistance and it was widely acknowledged gender was an important tool for both passive and aggressive resistance to German occupation.
Hannie Schaft with SOE supplied Sten Gun
It was often easier for women to talk their way through German checkpoints whilst transporting weapons, underground newspapers and carrying messages; there are accounts of young women walking hand-in-hand with Jewish children whilst escorting them to safe houses whilst appearing as an older sister walking with a sibling, and there are several accounts of female members of the resistance seducing German soldiers to obtain intelligence before luring them to remote areas and killing them. After the war Truus Oversteegan said she compared the Nazi regime as “cancerous tumours in society that had to be cut out like a surgeon… For Hannie, Freddie and me there was no other solution than to resist, fighting fire with fire… That is the cruelty of war.
It was in Haarlem, a city outside Amsterdam in northwest Netherlands, where the three teenagers: Truss Oversteegan, her sister Freddie and Jannetje Johanna ‘Hannie’ Schaft killed collaborators and German soldiers. The Oversteegane sisters started their resistance activities by distributing anti-German flyers and newspapers before becoming skilled assassins. The three women shot dead Dutch collaborators who were giving the names of Jewish families to the German authorities and they were killed in the street during daylight to act as a deterrent. They also flirted with collaborators and German soldiers and took them to woods and shot them, and the thrree were also involved in street shootings from bicycles so they could get away quickly.
The Oversteegan sisters after the war
The Oversteegan sisters survived the war, married and had families but Hannie Schaft who had distinctive red hair was captured and executed on 7 April 1945. It is known at one point she dyed her hair black and assumed the name Johanna Elderkamp but by this time she was too well known by the Gestapo.
Micheline Dumon (code names Lily and Michou) served with the Belgium Resistance and worked on the Comet Escape Line and her surname often appears misspelt as ‘Dumont’.
As a member of Comet, she helped allied aircrews shot down over Belgium and France evade capture and was credited for assisting 250 aircrew by guiding them through Belgium and France to neutral Spain, and is noted for being one of the most experienced and longest serving member of the escape line.
In August 1942 her father who also worked on the Comet Line was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a concentration camp where he later died.
In 1944 the line was infiltrated by a double agent named Jacques Desoubrie a Belgium working for the Gestapo infiltrating resistance groups in Belgium and France and after finding herself on the Gestpo wanted list was forced to escape to England where she spent the remainder of the war training MI9 agents.
After the war Micheline Dumon said, “I knew a lot of people and I moved around a lot. I never stayed in one place, and so I was always alone. Also, I was lucky.”
Andree (code name Nadine), Micheline Dumon’s sister, was in charge of safehouses where aircrews were hidden until they could be moved down the line and she also prepared false identification cards and connected escapers with escorts to take them from Belgium to neutral Spain by bicycle, train and on foot. After a narrow escape from the Gestapo, she went underground and lived in a safehouse for several weeks and obtained false identity papers which said she was 15-years-old and accoding to several airmen she looked about 12 or 13 and dressed accordingly. She also spoke English and interacted with allied airmen who rarely spoke French.
In June 1943 the Comet Line was close to collapse after many arrests by the Abwehr and Gestapo and Andree Dumon took on a leadership position which she described as “A sort of odd-job woman: looking after safehouses, escorting aircrews, recruiting new agents, collecting food coupons and repairing escape routes after waves of arrests.”
By January 1944 it was too dangerous for her to remain in Brussels so she moved to Paris and then to Bayonne in southwestern France to work with Elvire de Geer who was the leader of that end of the line during which she escorted two groups of 10 allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain, and in March 1944 she was one of three Comet Line leaders who attended a meeting in Madrid with senior MI9 officers to plan their activities for D-day.
After the meeting she went to Paris and shortly after arriving was arrested by the French police and spent two nights in jail. From the time she was in police custody she behaved like a young girl and the way she was dressed supported the deception and instead of being handed to the Gestapo the police commandant released her becuase she was a child. After this close escape she found a new safehouse and continued her resistance work until France and Belgium were liberated.
Leigh ‘Paddy’ Fermor served with the Irish Guards but due to his knowledge of modern Greek history he soon came to the attention of the Greek Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He fought in Crete and mainland Greece during the German occupation and infiltrated Crete three times once by parachute to organise the Cretan Resistance whilst disguised as a shepherd and lived in the mountains for two years.
Fermor with SOE officer William Stanley ‘Bill’ Moss as his second in command and a small group of Cretan Resisters received orders to capture the German commander of Crete General Muller but before the start of the operation Muller was unexpectedly replaced by General Kreipe and after informing SOE they were instructed to capture Kreipe.
General Kreipe was a career officer who served at the Battle of Verdun during the Great War and during the Second World War participated in the Battle of France, the Siege of Lenigrad and after a short period working in Germany he returned to the Eastern Front. On 1 March 1944 he was appointed Commander of 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division stationed in Crete and replaced General Muller as the senior officer on the Island.
On the night of 26 April 1944 General Kreipe was driven by staff car from his headquarters in Archanes without an escort to his well-guarded Villa ‘Ariadni’ approximatley 5 km from Heraklion. Fermor and Moss dressed as German Military Police Officers waited some distance from his residence for his car to arrive.
After being flagged down by the two SOE officers the car stopped at what appeared to be a routine security check. As Moss asked the driver for his identity papers Fermor opened Keipe’s door, jumped in and threatened him with his pistol. Moss then shot the driver, got into the driving seat and quicklt drove away.
They successfully drove through 23 German checkoints before abandoning the car and with assistance from members of the resistance disappeared into the mountains. It was not long before the alarm was sounded, and the small team was being pursued across Crete by large numbers of German troops supported by a spotter aircraft, but the Crete resistance was familiar with the mountains and various caves where they could hide and eventually guided them undetected to the pickup point on the south coast where they were taken by boat to Egypt.
After completing her training and being accepted as an agent by the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) on the night of 5/6 April 1944 Lilian Rolfe was dropped by parachute onto remote farmland near Orléans in north-central France to be the wireless operator for the Historian network supporting the Maquis (French Resistance). Apart from reporting German troop movements, arranging and organising arms and supplies to be dropped by parachute she also worked alongside the Maquis and is known to have been involved in a firefight in the town of Olivet south of Orleans.
Shortly after D-day her circuit leader, George Wilkinson, was captured by German troops and Rolfe continued sending messages to London to support the Maquis but was later captured by the Gestapo whilst transmitting from a safe house in Nargis. Although she was repeatedly tortured for information her wireless was not ‘played back’ to London by a German operator which means she refused to reveal her codes and in August 1944 Rolfe was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration camp in northern Germany. During an investigation after the war it was discovered Rolfe was so ill she was unable to walk (later reports state this was due to leg injuries sustained during torture) and on 5 February 1945, 30-year-old Lilian Rolfe was executed and her body disposed of in the camp crematorium.
Johnny Ramensky spent most of his life in and out of jail.
Several agents who served with the Special Operations Executive who graduated from the Beulieu finishing school mentioned a larger than life Glaswegian career criminal called Johnny Ramensky who was also known as ‘Gentle Johnny’ because every time he was arrested he was polite to the police and owned up to his crimes. Ramensky had a Polish Father and Scottish mother and was released from prison after agreeing to train students to become safecrackers and cat-burglars and after disappearing from Beulieu it was rumoured he was back in prison after being caught breaking into a safe.
Due to his criminal skills still being in demand he was released from prison again in 1943 and enlisted into the Fusiliers, but throughout the remainder of the war he served with 30 Commando and was later awarded the Military Medal. Apart from cracking safes and sabotage operations behind enemy lines it was widely said Ramensky found time to loot the Germans and find ways to transport various valuables back to Scotland and even gave an expensive ‘stolen’ present to the governor of a prison where he previously served time for burglary and during a short time in hospital a senior police officer who arrested him several times over many years sent a letter addressed to ‘Gentle Johnny’ wishing him a speedy recovery.
Ramensky started his long criminal career shortly after leaving school and spent 40-years of his life in and out of various prisons and after the war returned to crime. Sometime in 1972 Ramensky was sentence to one-year in prison after being caught on the roof of a shop and whilst in prison ‘Gentle Johnny’ suffered a stroke and died at Perth Royal Infirmary on 4 November 1972.
Due to lack of records which adds to the difficulty of researching SOE there is little information about the war service of Denise Gilman (Gilman, Denise, Irene, Marguerite) and I have to thank Christine Quintlé for filling in many of the gaps as well as providing the only known photograph of her. Gilman was born on 30 June 1921 in Waziers (North), a commune in the Nord department in northern France, 4 km northwest of Douai and 25 km south of Lille, and at the time of her resistance activities she was 22-years-old.
Gilman fits the description of a woman driving a charcoal burning van which broke down in front of German soldiers near their barracks who insisted on pushing her vehicle to their workshop for repairs. Whilst working on the vehicle the woman thought to be Denise Gilman flirted with the soldiers to draw attention away from her cargo. Fortunately, they did not open the rear doors and see it was loaded to the ceiling with explosives and weapons. After repairing her vehicle, she warmly thanked the soldiers and continued her journey. It is known Gilman worked as the courier for SOE agent Michael Trotobas (mentioned in another post) and both were part of the Farmer network (also known as the Sylvestre Farmer Network) which operated in Lille; it is also known Denise Gilman and Michael Trotobas had been wanted by the Gestapo since August 1943. Gilman travelled extensively whilst liaising with members of the Resistance and SOE agents in Lille, Arras, Amboise and Paris and on the evening of 26 November 1943 after arriving from Paris she Stayed at a safe house at 20 boulevard de Belfort Lille with Trotobas and were due to move to another safe house.
Although complicated and beyond the scope of this post, essentially, a captured agent gave their safehouse address to the Gestapo.
At 6 am the safehouse was surrounded by German Field Police and although greatly outnumbered Gilman and Trotobas refused to be taken alive and engaged the Germans in a firefight during which both were fatally wounded. Several days after their deaths members of the resistance searched the flat and found a traumatised black cat hiding under a bed and the cat became the symbol for local resistance by the Farmer circuit.
There is much we don’t know about Denise Gilman but her heroic stand with Michael Trotobas is well documented.
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.
Yvonne Rudellat was an SOE Courier who was involved in a number of operations and the following is an overview. On 20 July 1942 after crossing from Gibraltar by felucca under the cover of darkness she arrived by rowing boat on a deserted beach a few miles from Cannes. She used the cover name Jacqueline Gautier but used other identities whilst working for various networks. She took a train from Cannes to Lyon and from there took a train to Paris where she hid in the tender of the locomotive to cross the demarcation line. From Paris she went to Tours and worked for the Monkeypuzzle circuit where she organised agents and supplies to be dropped by parachute and also travelled by bicycle to liaise with scattered members of the resistance. After Monkeypuzzle was infiltrated by German agents she teamed up with SOE agent Pierre Culioli and took the cover of a married couple with the surname Leclaire and continued organising parachute drops.
Working as a married couple they picked up two Canadian SOE agents, John Macalister and Frank Pickersgill who arrived in France by Parachute a few hours previously. Culioli was driving the car, Yvonne was sitting next to him and the two Canadians were sitting in the back when they reached a roadblock in Dhuizon. The reason why the Canadians were ordered out of the car and why their covers were blown is beyond the scope of this post. After German soldiers ordered Rudellat and Culioli out of the car Culioli put the car in gear and accelerated away and soldiers started firing at them. They were quickly pursued by a vehicle full of German soldiers who were shooting at them and Yvonne was seen leaning out of the car window returning fire before slumping back on her seat after being shot in the head, shortly afterwards Culioli was shot in the leg and the car crashed into a wall. Yvonne was taken unconscious to Blois Hospital where doctors found the bullet had not entered her brain and decided it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. When she gained consciousness she was confused, did not know her name or understand why she was in France.
On 2 March she arrived at Bergen-Belson concentration camp during a typhus epidemic during which an estimated 20,000 prisoners died. Rudellat never recovered her memory and eight days after the camp was liberated Yvonne Rudellat died of typhus and dysentery and was buried in a mass grave along with 5000 other bodies.