SOE action in France
Article by Hervé Larroque:
Special Operations Executive and it’s action in France. Extracts from the brochure edited by J.D. Sainsbury for the inauguration of the SOE F-Section Memorial, May 1991, in Valençay (France)
What was SOE ?
S.O.E., the Special Operations Executive, was a British secret service formed in July 1940 – soon after the fall of France – to foster resistance among the civil population in Nazi-occupied Europe and to promote sabotage and subversion. Winston Churchill inspired the formation of S.O.E. and continued to support it until it was dissolved in 1946, its wartime task completed.
Headquarters, schools and other bases
S-O-E-‘s headquarters were in Baker Street in London – best known for its association with Sherlock Holmes – where the administrative and country sections occupied three office blocks. Other premises, generally within easy reach of Baker Street, were used mainly for interviews and for briefing agents. Country houses known as ‘stations’ were used for other activities. Most of these stations were schools for training agents, including wireless (radio) operators. Others were for research into, and manufacture of, equipment and material for sabotage – oil cans filled with sand and grease guns filled with abrasive, much used on railways, and so on (…) Not least in importance were the stations that exchanged wireless messages with agents in the field.
The sections operating in France
S.O.E.’s operations in France were directed by two London-based country sections – ‘F’ Section, under British control and strictly non-political, and ‘RF’ Section, which was linked to General de Gaulle’s Free French headquarters. There were also two smaller sections – ‘DF’, which ran escape lines and ‘EU/P’, which dealt with the Polish community in France. Late in 1942 a further section known as ‘AMF’ was set up in Algiers. It took over most operations into southern France and was concerned with planning and preparing for Resistance support of the eventual landings on the Mediterranean coast.
The “Jedburgh” teams
In the early months of 1944 a large number of three-man teams, always containing one Frenchman but otherwise a mixture of American, British and French, were trained in England. They were known as the ‘Jedburgh’ teams, from the code word assigned to this plan, and were dropped in uniform between early June and mid-September 1944 with orders to make contact with the Resistance, now mainly organised in Maquis groups. They brought with them radio communications by means of which they were able to caIl for further supplies of arms, ammunition and explosives but their chief task, as weIl as providing additional leadership, was to encourage Resistance groups to coordinate their efforts with the local plans of the advancing Allies and thus be of maximum assistance to the liberating forces.
Communications and transport were of vital importance in building up and maintaining the forces of resistance. Communications depended mainly upon direct two-way radio-links, which were extensively supplemented by pre-arranged ‘messages personnels’ broadcast by the B.B.C. The principal use of these messages was to announce air operations – the parachuting of agents or supplies and the landing or pick-up of agents by light aircraft. They were also used, for example, to confirm the bona fides of agents or financial transactions.
For some time S.O.E. ran what amounted to a small private navy using a variety of craft – including French fishing boats – based in the Helford River in Cornwall, and offering passage to the north and west coasts of Brittany. On the other hand a rather similar organisation, manned largely by the Free Polish Navy, and based in Gibraltar transported more than 50 F Section agents to or from the (stiIl unoccupied) south coast of France between April and November 1942. Submarines were sometimes used to carry agents. Important as this sea traffic was, the majority of personnel and practically all supplies were delivered by air, principally by two ‘special duties’ squadrons of the Royal Air Force -138 and 161- based at Tempsford in Bedfordshire. A forward base at Tangmere in Sussex was used by 161 Squadron to mount clandestine landing and pick-up operations by Lysander and Hudson aircraft. From early 1944 other squadrons of Bomber Command, transport aircraft of 38 Group and aircraft of the United States Army Air Force were involved, increasingly so as D-day approached and while the Resistance engaged in more open warfare in the summer of 1944. From the early summer of l943 air support to the south of France came chiefly from Algiers. By September 1944, F, RF and AMF Sections between them had arranged delivery to France, mainly by parachute, of more than l0,000 tons of arms and stores, including weapons to arm over 200,000 resisters. As many as 2,000 personnel, including the Jedburgh teams and others who went in uniform, were sent into France by the same three sections.
The F section agents
More than half of the men and women recruited as F Section agents were British; the remainder were of many different nationalities. Their background and occupations were very diverse too, although many of them were too young to have chosen, let alone advanced in, their careers. Some had been engaged in education, the arts, commerce and the law; others were landowners, Jockeys, motor racing drivers and circus entertainers. Among the women, many were married, several had children, one was a grandmother, two were sisters; there were two brother-and-sister teams. All, men and women alike, were motivated by a loathing of the Nazi ideology, a love of freedom and a desire to make an individual contribution to the liberation of France. Before joining they had been warned that their chances of survival were estimated at about evens, but in fact something like three agents in four survived. (…)
More than four hundred F Section agents, 39 of them women, from May 1941 to August 1944 landed from the sea or from aircraft or dropped by parachute to serve as circuit organisers, liaison officers, radio operators, arms and sabotage instructors or couriers. Between them they set up circuits which eventually covered most of France.
Personal code names
Each agent was assigned an operational code name before leaving for France. F Section’s operational code nines were mainly taken from trades and professions (e.g. PLUMBER); a smaller number, usually allocated earlier, were trees and plants (e.g. REDWOOD). These code names were not used in the field, indeed some agents seem hardly to have realised their significance; but they were in daily use in Baker Street, where each circuit (réseau) was named after the code name of the circuit organiser (e.g. MUSICIAN). Each agent was also given a ‘field name’, normally a French Christian name or nickname, which was the normal means of identification in the field and in radio messages, which were often prefixed e.g. ‘for Marie’, ‘from Nicholas’, etc. Finally, there was the name – necessarily French – that appeared in the agent’s false papers. In France, since the war, F Section circuits have tended to be referred to by the field name of their organiser, sometimes in association with the operational code name (e.g. Sylvestre/Farmer). They are also frequently described as the ‘Réseaux Buckmaster’ or ‘Réseaux Buck’, after Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, who took over F Section from Major H.R. Marriott late in 1941 and headed it until the liberation of France.
The first agent dropped ; the first circuits founded
The first F Section agent successfully dispatched to France was the radio operator Georges Bégué, who was commissioned in the British Army under the alias of George Noble. He dropped by parachute between Valençay and Levroux on the night of 5th-6th May 1941 under the code name BOMBPROOF, chosen because he had survived a bomb dropped during the London blitz, which had killed two of his friends and badly injured a third. Bégué’s mission, which he completed swiftly, was to contact Max Hymans, at one time member of parliament for the Valençay constituency, whose country house was nearby. Bégué was able to report that Hymans was willing to work in co-operation with London and support the formation of local resistance groups, whereupon Pierre de Vomécourt was parachuted to the area with the code name AUTOGIRO to set up the first F Section circuit with Bégué as his radio operator. AUTOGIRO was active until early 1942, when the circuit was broken up after the arrest of Pierre de Vomécourt, who survived the war in Colditz. Georges Bégué escaped into Spain and regained London, where he worked on F Section’s staff in charge of radio communication with agents in the field. He is credited with the invention of the system of messages personnels broadcast in the overseas services of the B.B.C.
SOE operations : 1941-1943
For the rest of 1941 and the two frustrating years 1942 and 1943 it was the task of the circuits to build up resistance groups, initially by forming ‘reception committees’ to guide in ships or aircraft and take charge of personnel, arms and explosives, speeding newly arrived agents on their way and storing arms for later use. Training of local resisters in the use of arms and in sabotage methods followed and a campaign, albeit scattered, of harassment of the occupying forces began. While most of the effort was directed to the cutting of railway and telephone lines and ambushing of German convoys and patrols (at risk of severe reprisals against the civilian population), there were some spectacular, and highly successfu1, major sabotage actions, of which those by the STOCKBROKER circuit against the Peugeot works at Sochaux-Montbéliard, by TINKER against railway engines and a turntable at Troyes, and a series of operations by MUSICIAN in north-east France are but examples.
SOE operations : D-Day
The circuits’ most important task while the allied armies were gaining a strong foothold in France was to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the Normandy battlefield by cutting road and rail links leading to the front. They were further charged with interfering with the enemy’s command and control, especially by cutting telephone lines. Tasks for each circuit had been designated in advance and these were implemented on receipt of agreed messages personnels, mainly during the night of 5th-6th June. As an example, one of the most notable Resistance successes at this time was the series of delays and considerable damage imposed on the SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ as it struggled from the south of France to take part in counter-attacks on the allied bridgehead. It failed to arrive in time to effect the outcome of the battle. Once the allied forces had broken out of their bridgeheads and begun their advance across France, Resistance groups provided valuable assistance by taking to the field in more open warfare, in many cases liberating towns and villages before the Allies arrived, and by providing reconnaissance and intelligence and generally paving the way for the various thrusts towards the Low Countries and Germany.
The cost in lives
These results were achieved at great cost in human lives and suffering. Tens of thousands of French men and women were deported and perished in concentration camps. They are commemorated by the splendid monument behind Notre-Dame, on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. All over France there are monuments to the Resistance, ranging from small stones where individual members fell in action, through those in towns and villages which frequently give the name of the Maquis or Réseau whose members are commemorated, to the big national memorial on the Mont Mouchet (Haute-Loire). The Valençay monument commemorates by name 91 men and 13 women, all agents of F Section of S.O.E., who lost their lives – most of them in concentration camps – as a result of their work with the French Resistance.
The monument – the inspiration for the project
The F Section Memorial was inaugurated on 6th May 1991, the fiftieth anniversary of the despatch of F Section’s first agent to France, by Monsieur André Méric, Secretary of State for Veteran Affairs, in the presence of Her MaJesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. The idea of a memorial came about through two happy coincidences – the preparation of a design and the compiling of a roIl of honour of agents who lost their lives – which took place separately. The results were passed to the Fédératíon Nationale Libre Résistance (Amicale ‘Buck’) for such action as the Fédération saw fit. Two members of the Amicale des Anciens Résistants Nord Indre-Vallée du Cher, Mrs Pearl Cornioley, who as Flight Officer Pearl Witherington, W.A.A.F. had led the WRESTLER circuit in the northern part of the Indre in 1944, and Monsieur Paul Guerbois who had been a young officer in the Maquis alongside which Wrestler worked, saw and seized the opportunity. They were responsible for convincing the mayor and town council of Valençay that it was in Valençay itself, the hub of early F Section activity, that the monument should be erected, and for setting up a charitable association to raise the necessary funds and oversee the building of the monument. Monsieur Jean-Bernard Badaire, President of the Fédération Nationale Libre Résistance was elected president of the new ‘Association Nationale pour l’Edification du Mémorial des Agents du S.O.E. et Aviateurs Alliés des Services Spéciaux Tombés en Mission’ . The town of Valençay came forward with a splendid site and the council of the Indre Département readily fell in with the project and assisted in the preparation of the site as part of a traffic management scheme.
The Monument – hope becomes reality
Under the direction of the architect appointed by the association, Monsieur J.P. Caillaudeau, construction took place between December 1990 and April 1991 . The cost of construction was some Frs- 500,000 (£50,000), of which most was raised in France, where nearly 500 individuals joined with central and local government, veterans’ associations and commercial concerns in a splendidly successful fund raising effort. The British contribution, of more than £15,000, was provided by substantial grants from the Gerry Holdsworth Special Forces Charitable Trust and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as from private subscriptions. After the inauguration the monument was made over to the town of Valençay, to which succeeding generations will always be grateful, and it is now in the safe-keeping of the town council.
The Monument – interpretation of the design
The monument was designed under the title ‘Spirit of Partnership’ by Elizabeth Lucas Harrison, herself a refugee from Hitler, resident in London and the designer of other works on similar themes, notably the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society memorial in the crypt of St Clement Danes Church in London. It symbolises the partnership between S.O.E. and the Resistance in the form of two columns – the black representing the night and the essential secrecy of resistance operations, the white the shining spirit which ultimately triumphed. The two columns are linked by the moon, which brought together S.O.E. and the Resistance in all forms of clandestine operations, but especially the landing or parachuting of agents and stores. Three floodlights at the base of the monument recall the L-shaped flarepath laid out by ‘reception committees’ to enable Lysander and Hudson aircraft of 161 Squadron, Royal Air Force to touch down by night on improvised landing strips.
ROLL OF HONOUR OF F SECTION AGENTS WHO DIED FOR THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE
- Agazarian, Hon. Flight Lieutenant J.C.S., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
- Alexandre, Lieutenant R.E.J., General List.
- Allard, Lieutenant E.A.L., General List.
- Amphlett, Lieutenant P.J., General List.
- Amps, Lieutenant J.F., General List.
- Antelme, Major J.A.F., General List.
- Barrett, Flight Lieutenant D.J., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
- Beauregard, Lieutenant A., Canadian General List.
- Bec, Lieutenant F.E., General List.
- Beekman, Hon. Section Officer Y.E.M., Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Benoist, Captain R.M.C., General List.
- Bertheau, Lieutenant L.E.D., General List.
- Bieler, Major G.D.A., Régiment de Maisonneuve, Canadian Infantry Corps.
- Bloch, Lieutenant A.G., General List (sous le nom de A.G. Boyd)..
- Bloch, Ensign D.M., Women’s transport Service (F.A.N.Y.).
- Bloom, Lieutenant M.R., General List.
- Borrel, Lieutenant A.R., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.).
- Bouguennec, Lieutenant J., General List (served as F. Garel)..
- Byck, Hon. Assistant Section Officer M.T., Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Byerly, Lieutenant R.B., Canadian General List.
- Cauchi, Captain E.J.D., General List.
- Clech, Lieutenant M., General List.
- Clement, Lieutenant G., Royal Armoured Corps.
- Coppin, Lieutenant T.C., General List.
- Damerment, Ensign M.Z., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.).
- Defence, Captain M.E., General List.
- Defendini, Lieutenant A., General List.
- Demand, Lieutenant G.W.H., General List.
- Deniset, Captain F.A., Royal Canadian Artillery.
- Detal, Lieutenant J.T.J.M., General List.
- Dowlen, Lieutenant R., General List.
- Dubois, J.R.A.
- Duboudin, Captain E.G.J., General List.
- Duclos, Lieutenant P.F., General List.
- Finlayson, Lieutenant D.H., General List.
- Fox, Lieutenant M.G.F., General List.
- Frager, Commandant H.J.P., General List.
- Gaillot, Lieutenant H.H., General List.
- Garry, Lieutenant E.A.H., General List.
- Geelen, Lieutenant P.A.H., General List.
- Graham, Sergent H.H., Royal Artillery..
- Grover-Williams, Captain W.C.F., General List.
- Hamilton, Lieutenant J.T., General List.
- Hayes, Captain V.C., General List.
- Noor Inayat Khan, Hon. Assistant Section Officer, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Jones, Captain S.C., Royal Engineers.
- Jumeau, Captain C.M., Intelligence Corps.
- Landsdell, Lieutenant A.R., General List.
- Larcher, Lieutenant M.L.M.A., General List.
- Leccia, Lieutenant M., General List.
- Ledoux, Captain J.P.H., Highland Light Infantry.
- Lee, Captain L, M.C., Royal Armoured Corps.
- Lefort, Hon. Assistant Section Officer C.M., Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Leigh, Ensign V.E., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)
- Lepage, 2nd Lieut. M.A., United States Army.
- Lesout, 2nd Lieut. E., United States Army.
- Levene, Lieutenant E.F., Royal Artillery. (*)
- Macalister, Captain J.K., Intelligence Corps.
- McBain, Hon. Pilot Officer G.B., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
- Makowski, Captain S., General List.
- Malraux, Lieutenant C.R., General List.
- Mathieu, Sergeant R.M.A., French Army.
- Maugenet, Lieutenant A.A.J., General List.
- Mayer, Lieutenant J.A., General List.
- Menesson, Captain J.F.G., General List.
- Michel, Lieutenant F.G., General List.
- Montalembert, Lieutenant Comte A. de, General List.
- Mulsant, Captain P.L., General List.
- Newman, Captain I., General List.
- Norman, Major G.M., Durham light Infantry.
- Pardi, Lieutenant P.B., General List.
- Pertschuk, Lieutenant M., General List.
- Pickersgill, Captain F.H.D., Canadian Intelligence Corps.
- Plewman, Ensign E.S., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)
- Rabinovitch, Captain A, General List.
- Rafferty, Captain B.D., Royal Berkshire Regiment.
- Rechenmann, Captain C., General List.
- Renaud, Lieutenant J., General List.
- Renaud-Dandicolle, Captain J.M., General List (served as J. Danby).
- Rolfe, Hon. Assistant Section Officer L.V., Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Rowden, Section Officer D.H., Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
- Rudellat, Ensign Y.C., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)
- Sabourin, Lieutenant R., Canadian General List.
- St.Genies, Captain M.J.G. de, General List.
- Sarrette, Captain P.F.M., General List (served as P. Sawyer).
- Schwatschko, Lieutenant A., General List (served as A. Shaw).
- Sevenet, Captain H.P., General List (served as H.P. Thomas).
- Sibrée, Lieutenant D.W., General List.
- Simon, 2nd Lieut. J.A.R., General List.
- Simon, Lieutenant O.A.G., General List.
- Sinclair, Lieutenant J.A.E.M., General List.
- Skepper, Captain C.M., General List.
- Soskice, 2nd Lieut. V.A., United States Army.
- Steele, Captain A., General List.
- Suttill, Major F.A., East Surrey Regiment.
- Szabo, Ensign V.R.E., Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)
- Tessier, Captain P.R., Reconnaissance Corps.
- Trotobas, Captain M.A.R., Manchester Regiment.
- Ullman, Lieutenant P.L., United States Army.
- Vallee, Captain F., M.C., French Army.
- Wilkinson, Hon. Flying Officer E.M., Royal Air Force, Volunteer Reserve.
- Wilkinson, Captain G.A., General List.
- Worms, Lieutenant J., General List (served as J. de Verieux).
- Young, Lieutenant J.C., General List.
(*) Felangue, Lieutenant E.F., Royal Artillery (served as Levene) – note from his son, Nigel Felangue (FELANGUE@aol.com)
The Roll of Honour
Extracts from “Le Mémorial de la Section F”. Appear with the permission of the editor, JD Sainsbury, and the holders of the Copyright, The Special Forces Charitable Trust.