Discover more from World War II Today
'SOE in France 1941-1945'
The secret work of the Special Operations Executive in supporting the French Resistance, as recorded in the first history, written immediately after the war
When the war ended the Special Operations Executive was wound up. Its files were weeded and what remained were locked in secret archives. Its various agents dispersed, many continuing to keep silent about their wartime activities. The dramatic stories of being parachuted into France at night, of safe houses and secret radio communications, of arms drops, of raids against the occupying German forces, of being hunted by the Gestapo, of arrests and torture and executions - all of these emerged gradually over the years.
But a comprehensive history had been written. in 1946 Major Bourne-Paterson worked quickly to summarise as much as possible using the available records, before he too slipped back to the obscurity of life as a solicitor. SOE in France, 1941–1945: An Official Account of the Special Operations Executive's 'British' Circuits in France was the first publication of his hitherto secret report, in 2016, now re-issued.
Almost every page contains tantalisingly brief descriptions of operations that called for enormous courage on the part of the agents and their French counterparts. Many paragraphs are the only record we have of the tragic end of some heroic individuals. This raw history is the best overall guide we have to the range of SOE operations and their contribution to the liberation of France. For many people, this volume is just a starting point for further reading and research.
Although written in the form of a formal report and necessarily summarising a great deal, these brief histories provide a fascinating insight into the work of the SOE. The following excerpt concerns just one agent in one of the many underground circuits operating in France:
[T]he British organisation was without a representative in the region until May 1943, when Captain Harry Ree (pronounced to rhyme with Hay) arrived in Montbeliard.
Captain Ree's Organisation: The Stockbroker Circuit.
Operational name of organisation: The Stockbroker Circuit.
Operational name of organiser: Cesar.
Name by which known in the Field: Henri.
4. Henri had been dropped on the 15th April, 1943, as assistant to Captain Rafferty (Dominique), who, after the arrest of his head organiser, Captain Hudson, was in charge of a circuit in Clermont- Ferrand. In the course of his work he had picked up contacts in Dijon and in the Jura and Doubs, and it was to the development of these that Henri was to devote himself.
5. In May 1943 he came for the first time to Montbeliard. His mission here was to make contact with Andre, a lieutenant in the French Army with a group at Valentigney.
6. After carrying out a successful reception of stores for him, Henri returned to Lons-le-Saunier, where he heard of the arrest of Dominique and of the arrival in Dijon of Bob and Gabriel (Captain J.A.R. Starr and Young, radio operator). The next step was to install these two by making over to them the joints of the organisational work already carried out in that town. Henri then proceeded to the Belfort region in order to establish a line for communication to London through Switzerland.
7. This done, he returned to Montbeliard just in time for the first R.A.F. raid on the Peugeot works at Sochaux. (Before dealing with the effect of this raid on Henri's work it may be advantageous to digress a little in order to clear the stage of the affairs of Bob and Gabriel.)
In June Henri was in the Dijon region for the purpose of organising receptions of materials there, and on the 14th July he had a rendezvous with Bob, which the latter did not keep. On the 19th Henri learned of Bob's arrest, having been betrayed by a double-agent, by the name of Pierre Martin. On the 23rd Pedro (Lieutenant Cauchy) arrived, parachuted to assist Gabriel. With him Henri made plans for the liquidation of Pierre Martin.
8 The next stage was to find safe quarters for Gabriel whose bad French made such dispositions necessary. This was done, and he and his courier Paulette were accommodated at M. Poly's sawmill at Clairvaux (Tura) There all went well with Gabriel transmitting messages quite normally until he and Paulette were arrested in mysterious circumstances connected with the arrival of Lieutenant Maugenet, whom London had sent out, by Lysander, to act as his assistant.
9. The R.A.F. raid mentioned above was a tragic affair. The factory was untouched, and the bombs fell wide, causing very heavy casualties in the neighbouring village.
10. In early July 1943 Henri had made his first contact with the Peugeot management in the person of Paul Sire, Director of Co-ordination for all Peugeot factories, who proved very helpful indeed. Much to his interest Henri found that the Peugeot people themselves were toying with the idea of sabotaging their own factory, in order to stop production and thereby prevent a repetition of the disastrous bombardment by the R.A.F. Nothing could have been more convenient from Henri's point of view.
Through Roger Fouillette, an Alsatian Artillery Captain, he made the acquaintance of Pierre Lucas, chief electrician of Peugeot, who became wildly enthusiastic, when Henri was able to point out to him the practicability of putting the factory out of action by sabotage. Delighted with the possibility of avoiding further loss of life through R.A.F. action, he showed Henri all over the factory and machinery.
11. (The treatment applied to Peugeot became the prototype for operations at other factories. It was evidently not absolutely necessary for the management to be spontaneous co-operators, since the menace of R.A.F. action was frequently sufficient to "persuade" the most recalcitrant of managements.)
12. In the meanwhile Henri had advised London of what was going on and London had obtained a grudging - and conditional - agreement from the R.A.F. to postpone further efforts against what was rapidly becoming their favourite target.
13. The condition, reasonably enough, was that really effective action should be taken from the ground.
14. 3rd November, 1943, was therefore, a rather important date, for on that night a party of six workmen, under the leadership of Andre, entered the works to make the first attack. They had been carefully coached by Henri in what to do and they carefully placed their charges on transformers and compressors, made their way out, and sat back in pleased anticipation, to await the expected results. Alas! Nothing happened, and subsequent examination revealed that, despite the careful coaching, the detonators had been put in the wrong way round!
15. On the 5th November (Guy Fawkes no doubt providing the inspiration) the attack was repeated, this time with success.
16. Thereafter many successful attacks were made on Peugeot and similar works in the district. These attacks were carefully analysed in London, and although it was often touch and go, the R.A.F. were successfully dissuaded from making another attack.
17. Henri himself had not participated personally in these attacks, and this proved to be as well, since his own personal contact with the district was some-what brutally cut short on 27th November when the Peugeot plan was still in its infancy. On that day he was calling at the house of M. Hauger, schoolmaster in Sochaux, and on the door being opened was greeted by a Feldgendarme who pointed a pistol at him in an unfriendly manner, and told him to come inside. It appeared that arms had been found in the house and that Henri would have to remain with his host until 6 p.m. when they would both repair to the Police Station.
18. Making the best of a bad job, Henri suggested to his captor that a drink would not come amiss, and a bottle and glasses were produced. During the next half-hour conversation proceeded on the war and other general matters, while Henri contemplated the skull before him with a view to deciding where its softer spots might be.
Unfortunately the theoretical was not borne out by the practical, as the application of the bottle to the chosen target was almost entirely unproductive. Indeed, the result on balance must be accounted negative, since in reply the German fired on him at point-blank range, and although Henri felt nothing at the time, he afterwards found that he had been shot right through the chest.
19. Thereupon ensued a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, each of them employing all the methods he knew. For fully half an hour the fight swayed, in and out of the rooms and up and down the stairs. At the end, each of them leaned fainting against a wall. Henri, recovering first, was about to rush at his opponent again, when the German shouted "Sortez" and remained propping up the wall. Henri staggered out of the house, and in spite of his punctured condition, made his way across the garden, over tine wall, across a field, over a small stream and to a house 3 kms. away where he was taken in and bound up. As soon as he was able he crossed over into Switzerland.
20. A statement is attached (Appendix A) of the various sabotage actions carried out by Henri's circuit mainly against Peugeot and similar works in the neighbourhood. One thing, however, was never attacked, and this the most important of all, the Peugeot Main Transformer. This was, of course, well guarded and was surrounded by blast walls, but it appeared feasible to attack it by Mortar fire from the window of a neighbouring workers' hostel. After many delays the necessary weapon and ammunition were delivered.
21. Unfortunately, Henri's departure for Switzerland had occurred shortly before, and none of the members of Inis circuit knew how the weapon worked. Worse still, a successor sent from London on 14th April, 1944, and specially trained in its use was killed by the Gestapo immediately on arrival.
In May 1944 he was succeeded in his turn by another American officer, but it transpired later that he was no more familiar with the weapon than the local members of the circuit. So the main transformers survived, which was in the end a good thing, since the Peugeot production was already so reduced as to be of little value to the Germans, who in fact began removing the machinery from the factory into Germany.
22. Under Pascal's leadership the circuit played an effective part in the closing stages, although severely hampered, as was everyone in this part of the world, by a lack of arms and ammunition. Pascal, a capable, rugged individualist, apparently managed to disagree profoundly with local F.F.I. Commanders, but there is no doubt that his groups were well in evidence in action against the enemy.
Appendix A runs to several pages and briefly details the thirty-three operations undertaken by the Stockbroker circuit. These range from the destruction of machine tools needed for the German war effort, including some specialist American lathes - used for making fuses - that were irreplaceable, to a series of railway derailments, including the derailment of a German troop train carrying men on leave, which killed 37 men.
This excerpt from SOE in France, 1941–1945: An Official Account of the Special Operations Executive's 'British' Circuits in France appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.