Elaine Madden Special Operations Executive T Section (Belgium)

Elaine Madden

This section became operational in December 1940 as an independent offshoot of the French Section and was commanded by Grenadier Guards officer Claude Knight and later by Hardy Amies. When it comes to agent fatalities as a result of wireless deception by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) the methods used in Belgium have many similarities to those experienced by SOE’s N section (Netherland).

Belgium under occupation and the Special Operations Executive

Emile Tromme, thought to be the first T Section agent to arrive in Belgium.

Emile Tromme is widely said to be the first agent to arrive by parachute: some writers claim in May 1941 he landed inside a prisoner of war camp and it took him four months to escape and after escaping he continued his resistance work; It has also been claimed on 13 May 1941 he arrived safely by parachute north of Vielsalm and formed a group of saboteurs around Verviers. The only reliable record confirms he was executed by the Germans sometime in February 1942.

According to former T Section agent Jacques Doneux who arrived in Belgium by parachute in 1943, in October 1942 his headquarters in London were unaware out of the 45 agents and 18 wireless operators sent to Belgium only 13 had not been captured, most of their wirelesses and codes were in German hands and being ‘played back’ to London. This deception is sometimes referred to as the ‘wireless war’ which was also being successfully employed in the Netherlands and both sections found themselves dropping agents and weapons to the Germans, but for various reasons this ploy was less successful in France.   

  Due to the politics of the period not least the political rivalries between various groups of Belgium resisters, apart from published war memoirs of a non-political nature written by former T Section agents such as ‘They Arrived by Moonlight’, by Captain Jacques Doneux, and Elaine Madden’s ‘I heard my country Calling’, reliable information and official accounts on SOE operations in Belgium are difficult to find.

Elaine Madden

Elaine Madden was only 16 (some claim she was 17) when Belgium, France and the Netherland was invaded by Germany and Elaine and her aunt Simone Duponselle were making their way to the coast in the hope of avoiding the German advance and were later found by British troops hiding in a barn, another source said the soldiers passed them in a car and offered them a lift, Irrespective of which version is correct, the soldiers said they would attempt to get them on a boat leaving Dunkirk for England.    

When they arrived in Dunkirk British troops gave Elaine and her aunt greatcoats, helmets and gas masks to disguise them as soldiers and whilst climbing a rope ladder onto a trawler the captain noticed the two women but decided to turn a blind eye to his two stowaways.  After reaching England they were questioned by MI5 before being allowed to stay with an aunt living in Streatham London.    

On 7 May 1944 Elaine was twenty and apart from being of recruitment age MI5 had already marked her file as a potential agent and this information had been passed to SOE.   Elaine was discretely approach by an SOE recruiter and asked whether she was willing to volunteer for hazardous missions in Belgium and after being warned of the great risks she would face Elaine volunteered.

  Madden successfully passed the Students’ Assessment Board (SAB) in Cranleigh, Surrey before passing the comprehensive course on subversive warfare in Scotland and the mandatory trade craft at the Beaulieu finishing school on the edge of the New Forrest in Hampshire. She was then formally a member of SOE and given the cover name Elaine Meeus and provided with forged identity papers. She also had to remember back stories to support her fictitious life.

Sometime in 1944 she arrived in Belgium by parachute with instructions to act as a courier for circuit leader André Wendelen who was running a group of saboteurs and their wireless operator Jacques Van de Spiegel. As a courier Elaine Madden was responsible for the difficult and dangerous task of liaising and passing orders to scattered members of the resistance to ensure their activities supported the allied strategy: some targets such as bridges, railways and communications had to be destroyed whilst others were only disrupted and could easily be repaired and used by the allies.   

During her resistance work Madden was given a lift in a vehicle by a German officer whilst carrying a wireless transmitter in her suitcase and on several occasions was forced to use various counter-surveillance drills to lose members of the Abwehr and Gestapo she noticed following her.  

After the war Madden worked for an organisation responsible for tracing missing T Section agents and political prisoners during which she conducted investigations at Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Flossenberg Concentration Camps and after a long investigation she only found two survivors the remainder had been executed.

Although Madden was almost captured several times she always said, “I wasn’t a heroine… Just young and excited…  but I can still look in the mirror and feel proud.”

        

      

George Begue: SOE’s first Agent/Wireless operator in France

George Bague whilst serving in the French Army prior to Dunkirk and joining SOE

On the night of 5/6 May 1941 George Begue (aka George Noble) was listed as the first SOE agent and wireless operator to arrive in wartime France after parachuting ‘blind’, that is, with no friendly contacts on the ground and several days later he transmitted the first wireless messages to SOE in London.

 Suitcase Morse transceiver of the type popularly used by SOE in France.

As increasing numbers of non-wireless trained agents arrived in France his wireless traffic also increased, and he used several safe-houses scattered over a wide area to avoid his signal being detected and his position located. He was aware the full resources of the German wireless detection section were attempting to find him but due to a backlog of messages waiting to be sent to London he decided to regularly transmit longer than the recommended twenty-minutes and was aware this made it easier for the Germans to track him down.  

George Begue. Thought to have been taking whilst convalescing with his wife and children in England after Dunkirk.

It was George Beque who arranged the first weapons, explosives and finance to be dropped to the resistance by parachute, he also arranged the first agent pickup by Lysander Aircraft from No. 161 Special Duties Squadron RAF which landed on remote farmland, and to maintain regular contact with London Begue frequently took calculated risks.  It was also George Beque who developed wireless security procedures through a dangerous process of trial and error.

Although wireless detection teams failed to find him, on the 24 October 1942 Begue was arrested at a safe house in Marseilles by the Milice; it is believed the property had been blown and was under surveillance and this is supported by the fact several agents and local French resisters were also arrested after visiting the same property.   

On the night of 16 July 1942 George Begue along with other agents and members of the resistance escaped from a prison camp in Mauzac. For several days they lived off the land deep inside a forest before travelling separately to meet guides working for an escape line and all eventually crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. 

After returning to London Beque became the Signals Officer for the French Section based at their headquarters at Norgeby House in Baker Street London where he was widely known as George Noble and he held this position until the end of the war.  The majority of agents who escaped Mauzac later returned to France but most did not survive.  

Robert Benoist, SOE (Special Operations Executive)

 

Robert Benoist was a French Grand Prix racing driver who escaped to England when France was occupied in 1940. Whilst in England he successfully passed selection and training for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to France to establish clandestine networks. He was also responsible for the reception of arms and explosives dropped by parachute and setup arms dumps in the Rambouillet Forest. Sometime in June 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and whilst being driven to Gestapo Headquarters he threw himself from the moving vehicle and escaped and was eventually extracted and returned to England. Several months later he returned to France to continue his resistance work and was later recalled to England for a briefing and additional training. In February 1944 he undertook his third mission to France and arrived with orders to prepare clandestine circuits in the Nantes region and ensure they were ready to support the Allies during D-Day by attacking prearranged targets to slowdown the German advance to Normandy.   

On 18 June 1944 Robert Benoist was again captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald Concentration camp where, along with fifteen other SOE prisoners was executed by slow strangulation after being hung with piano wire from hooks on the wall in the crematorium. Captain Robert Benoist is recorded on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and also on the SOE memorial in Valençay.   

Execution hooks on the wall of the crematorium at Buchenwald

Auxiliary Units: Britain’s Resistance Network during WW2.

Documentary 2008

I found the interviews of former members of the Auxiliary informative but have mixed feelings about the dramatic reconstructions although these were based on events in occupied Europe and would have occurred in the UK if Germany had successfully invaded.

The Night Pilot Who Helped the French Resistance.

No. 161 Special Duties Squadron

Hugh Verity was a night fighter pilot until 1942 when he volunteered for RAF special duties and became involved in one of the most extraordinary and effective operations of the secret war – flying from England’s Sussex coast in a single-engine Lysander aircraft and landing in German occupied France delivering and collecting SOE, SIS agents and members of the French Resistance. This Timeline production examines these moonlight missions between 1941 to 1944.

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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.