Clandestine Operations 1939-45

Notes & Extracts

The following notes and extracts are reproduced merely to clarify or illuminate articles elsewhere on this site. They are by no means comprehensive or representative of British clandestine operations and personnel during World War ll!

By Christopher Long

See Main Index

See Other WWll Items

Secret Papers: Escape & Evasion World War ll France (1941-43)

George Rodocanachi & 'Pat Line' (1940-43)<

François Charles-Roux: De Gaulle & The Free French, London (1942-43)

A Bibliography On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France

Notes On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France

Bruce Dowding

Recommended Reading — Clandestine Warfare, SOE, MI9, Escape & Evasion

Odette Hallowes

Obituary in The Times March 17th 1995

Odette Hallowes, G.C., M.B.E., wartime heroine of the Special Operations Executive, died on March 13 at her Walton-on-Thames home aged 82.

She was born in Amiens on April 28, 1912. Of all the women who took part in special operations in France, Odette – as she was universally known in spite of having borne three married surnames in her lifetime – perhaps best symbolised the indomitable spirit of resistance to Nazism.

Captured by the Gestapo in France and consigned after being cruelly tortured in Paris's notorious Fresnes prison, to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she emerged emaciated, weak and gravely ill at the end of the war. But in the years that followed, her undiminished mental and moral energy, combined with a complete absence of bitterness towards her tormentors and the nation that had spawned them, became a beacon to others who had suffered disfigurement, pain or bereavement.

Indeed the theme of her postwar working life, with its service to various charities and help for the underprivileged, was the healing of those wounds, both physical and mental, which had been inflicted upon individuals by the war. Her George Cross, she always maintained, was not to be regarded as an award to her personally, but as an acknowledgement of all those known and unknown, alive or dead, who had served the cause of the liberation of France.

Her wartime experiences had taught her two great truths; that suffering is an ineluctable part of the human lot, and that the battle against evil is never over. Fame came to her – notably, through the film Odette which celebrated her life – but she never sought it.

In her entry in Who's Who she styled herself simply: housewife. She was born Odette Marie Celine Brailly in Picardy, the daughter of Gaston Brailly who was killed towards the end of the First World War. She was educated privately and at the Convent of Ste. Therese in Amiens.

She always said that she had been determined at the outset to marry an Englishman, after a series of young British officers were billeted on the family house during the First World War. At any rate, when the son of one such man, whom her mother had nursed back to health, visited the family after the war to improve his French, romance soon blossomed.

She married Roy Sansom, who worked in the hotel industry, in 1931, and settled in London, where she had three daughters. British domiciled she might be, but her heart remained French. After the catastrophe to French arms in the early summer of 1940, she longed to do something more active than looking after her young ones.

By a stroke of luck she got in touch with the independent French section of the Special Operations Executive. Yet when she was first interviewed there were some doubts about her suitability as a clandestine SOE courier. Would she be able, as a mother of three young daughters who might be constantly on her mind, to undertake missions requiring steely nerves and an ability to concentrate on the task in question to the exclusion of all else? On the other hand, from certain points of view she seemed an ideal candidate.

She was young, attractive, vivacious. She knew France, she had a winning manner. Furthermore, she had a burning desire to redeem by direct action the disgrace her country had suffered in its capitulation of 1940. Accepted, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (since membership of a service organisation was a prerequisite of working for SOE, and the FANY provided basic training in such matters as driving, wireless operation, etc.) and did well in all her courses.

She returned to France secretly, by small boat from Gibraltar to Antibes, on the last night of October 1942, with orders to join a new circuit in Burgundy. There she got on so well with Peter Churchill, SOE's organiser on the spot, that he secured London's leave to keep her on the Riviera. Within a fortnight, the Germans and Italians over-ran all southern France.

Churchill and Mme. Sansom continued to try to provide contact between London and a large – and as it turned out, a purely imaginary – secret army that was supposed to be organised by a friend of Churchill's codenamed "Carte", the father of Danielle Darrieux the film star.

Unfortunately quarrels between "Carte's" friends became so acute that next February Churchill took Mme. Sansom and his wireless operator, Adolphe Rabinovich, away to St. Jorioz near Annecy in the French Alps. Churchill then returned to London for instructions. While he was away, Odette was approached by a "Colonel Henri" who represented himself to be a German officer who wanted to defect to the Allies.

She was highly suspicious of "Colonel Henri" – with some justification since he was in fact Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr. But one of the more impetuous of the "Carte" members was taken in by him and imparted some names and numbers of the members of the circuit in and around Annecy.

Churchill returned to France by parachute on April 14-15, 1943, and was met by Odette, with whom he returned to St. Jorioz. He had already been warned against "Colonel Henri" in London. But their operation had been fatally undermined by the indiscreet disclosures of their "Carte" comrade.

After dark next evening Bleicher and a detachment of Italian troops arrived at the hotel in Jorioz where Odette and Churchill were staying. He arrested her in the hall and, going upstairs, where he found Churchill sound asleep in bed, arrested him too. Churchill and Odette passed themselves off as married, and as relations of relations of Winston Churchill (he claimed to be Churchill's nephew). They were, therefore, for a time treated with a mixture of savagery and deference.

Odette was sent to Paris where, at the notorious Fresnes prison, she endured excruciating torments, including having her toenails pulled out (for a year after her homecoming she could not wear shoes and had to walk on her heels until several operations restored her to normal mobility). In June 1943 Odette was condemned to death and eventually sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, north of Berlin.

The sentence was never carried out but for the remainder of her stay there her lot was one of alternate molly-coddling and beating which is the traditional procedure of the interrogator. Neither of them (Peter Churchill had been sent to join the Prominenten at Sachenhausen) made any admissions of importance. Meanwhile, Rabinovich, who had evaded arrest, escaped to England only to be dropped back by an unhappy staff error straight into the arms of the Gestapo next year.

At the end of the war, when the Red Army's advance approached Ravensbrück, Fritz Suhren, the camp commandant, drove in a sports car with Odette beside him into the American lines in the hope that he could use her charms to save himself. She at once denounced him and he was hanged after trial. Odette became a national heroine, subject of innumerable newspaper articles, a book by Jerrard Tickell and the film Odette which starred Anna Neagle in the title role. She was appointed MBE in 1945 and in the following year awarded the George Cross.

In 1950 she was made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur. She believed that the George Cross had been given to her, not because she had been especially gallant, but because she had had the good fortune to survive, unlike 11 other women in her section who had died in German hands, some of them shot within earshot of her cell. Her first husband died and she married Peter Churchill in 1947.

In 1956 that marriage was dissolved and she married Geoffrey Hallowes, a wine importer, who had also served – in another section – with the SOE in France. He was a constant support to her throughout the years when her life was lived in the glare of often unexpected bursts of publicity, not all of them welcome; there were, for example, criticisms of the effectiveness of SOE's operations in southern France.

But there was also publicity of a more light-hearted kind. On one occasion her mother's house in Kensington was burgled, the thief making off with some silver spoons and Odette's George Cross and Legion d'Honneur. Distraught at the loss of her daughter's treasures, Mme. Brailly appealed through the press for their return. The thief, evidently a humane soul, obliged. His letter accompanying the decorations read: "You, Madame, appear to be a dear old lady. God bless you and your children. I thank you for having faith in me. I am not all that bad – it's just circumstances. Your little dog really loves me. I gave him a nice pat and left him a piece of meat – out of fridge. Sincerely yours, A Bad Egg."

Odette was active in many organisations; she was on the committee of the VC and GC association, she was a vice-president of the FANY, an honorary member of the St. Dunstan's Ex-Prisoners of War Association, President of 282 (East Ham) Air Cadet Squadron, Founder Vice-President of the Women of the Year Luncheon for the Blind, and Vice-President of the Military Medallists League.

Last year, though already frail, she revisited Ravensbrück. For her it was the first time since 1945. The occasion, the unveiling of a plaque remembering the courage of the SOE women who had died there, was for her a profoundly moving experience. Her husband and the three daughters of her first marriage survive her.

F.A.N.Y. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was founded in 1907 by Captain E. C. Baker, sometime a cavalry Sergeant Major. The experience of being wounded in the Sudan with the Kitchener expedition led him to create a small unit of nurses on horseback. They were to provide a link between the fighting units at the Front and the Field Hospitals. At the outbreak of the First World War, the services of the Corps were turned down by the War Office but were quickly accepted by both the Belgian and the French Armies. The first FANY reported for duty in Antwerp in September 1914.

During the War the FANY’s ran Field Hospitals, drove ambulances, set up soup kitchens and troop canteens, always under difficult conditions and often in great danger. At the end of the War, the Corps received decorations from the French, the Belgians and the British: 19 Military Medals, including the first one awarded to a woman, 1 Legion d'Honneur, 27 Croix de Guerre, 1 Ordre de la Couronne and 2 Ordre de Leopold Chevalier, as well as 11 Mentions in Dispatches.

Between the Wars, the emphasis in training shifted from Nursing to motorised transport and the Corps became known as The Women's Transport Service (FANY) in response to the Army Council’s recognition of it as a "voluntary reserve transport unit... for service in any national emergency". It was this specialisation which enabled the Corps to provide the 3000 or so driver-mechanics who formed the nucleus of the newly formed Motor Driver Companies of the ATS.

However, the FANY spirit of independence burned on, and it was this spirit of independence which led many members of the Corps down another path that of SOE, Special Operations Executive. FANYs were not forbidden to carry or use small arms, as were the ATS and the other women’s services. Most of the female agents sent by the SOE to France were FANYs. Thirteen of them died in concentration camps. Three of these women agents won the George Cross, two of which were awarded posthumously. Some 2000 other FANYs provided the backbone of SOE, working in ciphers and signals, as agent-conducting officers, administering the Special Training Schools and, amongst others, with the Jedburgh teams and, latterly with Massingham and Force 136 and 139. One section of the Corps was attached to the Polish Army for the duration of the War. Yet another, a small unit formed in Kenya in 1935, became the Women’s Territorial Service (East Africa), a military unit of the African Colonial Forces.

The WTS (FANY) is now based at the Duke of York’s Headquarters, Chelsea, London. It is still an all-woman volunteer organisation. FANYs now specialise in communications for the Army and the City of London Police. Corps members are trained in radio communications, paramedical skills, map reading, navigation and, shooting, self defence and survival techniques, advanced driving and casualty bureau documentation. The Corps recruits women between 18 and 45, once a year in the early Autumn.

By 2005 the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) headquarters had moved from the Duke of Yorks HQ in Chelsea to:
TA Centre
95 Horseferry Road
London SW1P 2DY

Death of a Double Dealer

Admiral Jean François Darlan, leader of the armed forces of Vichy France, was assassinated in Algiers in 1942. By Kelly Bell.

When Anglo-American armies invaded North Africa in November 1942, the objectives of Operation Torch far exceeded merely clearing the region of operational Axis forces. Besides the crucial objectives of obtaining a jumping-off point for the later invasions of southern and western Europe, and establishing a secure base for the strategic bombing offensive, there was the matter of heading off any establishment of revolutionary leftist movements or governments that might prove a prickly postwar problem. With the international tide finally beginning to turn against the Axis, the emergence of the opposite, Communist extreme in newly de-Nazified countries was a disagreeable possibility.

The situation moved American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recognize the collaborationist (but right-wing) Vichy French government of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and to assert to his allies that the United States would assume the dominant role in the reconstruction of postwar Europe.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill shared Roosevelt's detestation of communism and had no major objections to America's receiving the lion's share of the say in the settlement of European matters when peace returned. However, FDR's recognition of Vichy placed Churchill in an awkward position because of his commitment to the Free French government-in-exile of General Charles de Gaulle. Because of animosity between Roosevelt and de Gaulle, Churchill was forced to walk a tightrope to remain on good terms with both and to otherwise maintain unity in the anti-Hitler coalition.

Never was this more difficult than during Operation Torch. Roosevelt refused to allow de Gaulle to participate in the liberation of his own country's territories, and not solely for personal reasons. FDR blamed de Gaulle for the almost total lack of organized French Resistance in North Africa to the Germans or Vichy. With the limited resources at his disposal, the French general had been unable to set up a Resistance network of any consequence in Africa, and the president's attitude complicated the delicate political situation unfolding as the Free World coiled to strike back at its Nazi tormentor.

In June 1940, as his country reeled under the grinding, hobnailed boot of its ancestral German enemy, Admiral Jean François Darlan commanded France's navy. After the fall of France, Darlan quickly became a key figure in the collaborationist Vichy regime, and two years later Roosevelt hoped he might be wooed into again switching sides and aligning himself with the Allies. Because of FDR's choosing him as a French leader, Darlan did appear to be the one high-ranking Vichyite in a position to collaborate with both sides while still serving his own interests. While Roosevelt had no great affection for Vichy or its leaders, the Americans maintained the relationship on a day-to-day basis because of shared anti-Communist sentiment and for the valuable information Vichy periodically provided them. It was also hoped American influence might deter borderline French collaborators from going completely over into the German camp.

It is also probable that Roosevelt saw in Darlan the ideal pawn for his postwar plans for France--a country for which the president had low regard. He not only favored stripping the French of their sprawling overseas empire but intended to carve up the nation, significantly reducing its area, to deny France any part in the eventual peace settlement, membership in the United Nations, or role in the postwar occupation of Germany. Darlan evidently struck Roosevelt as a malleable puppet whom he could use to further his ideas for postwar France.

In April 1942, the admiral was ousted by his rival, Pierre Laval, from all positions except commander in chief of the French armed forces. By this time Darlan, who realized he needed an ally, had begun to sense the latent power of America. He had also noted Hitler's initial military difficulties in the Soviet Union, and predictably withdrew increasingly from the Axis cause now that his prior assumption that Hitler would win the war was doubtful. Darlan adopted a borderline, mugwumpish stance to await developments that would indicate definitely which side would be the final victor, and hence his ally. This ambiguity fueled British mistrust and frank loathing as well as a desire to rid themselves of this worrisome opportunist.

Unfortunately, the British had irretrievably alienated themselves from the Vichyites on July 3, 1940, when Churchill unleashed the Royal Navy on the French fleet moored at Mers el-Kebir, to prevent its falling intact into Axis hands. Furthermore, the British blockade of Vichy ports raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic; Roosevelt's indignation increased when his ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, erroneously reported that the French populace was united behind Pétain and opposed to de Gaulle.

Roosevelt refused to be swayed, and when Operation Torch commenced on November 8, he immediately began dealing with Darlan through his roving emissary in North Africa, Robert Murphy, as if the admiral were the legitimate, internationally recognized head of the French administration. Indeed, on December 12 an unsurprised Churchill was informed of FDR's stated intention "to work with Admiral Darlan for a very long least until the end of the war in Europe."

On May 14, 1941, three days after an affable meeting with Hitler, Darlan had broadcast to his countrymen that only within the confines of a victorious Third Reich could Vichy survive and secure "an honorable, one might say an important, role in the Europe of the future." Two weeks later he told France that "Germany was a better friend than Britain could ever be." Yet even these hostile proclamations had done nothing to shake Roosevelt's pro-Vichy inclinations.

By mid-1942, British intelligence services had noted a rather large community of youthful, pro-Allied expatriates living in some of the larger North African cities. Fleeing the German conquest of their French homeland, these disgruntled people were fervently anti-Nazi, and the British hoped they could be used as a saboteur-partisan force when the Torch landings came in autumn.

Taking it for granted that all French collaborators were favorably disposed to Allied intervention, FDR assumed Torch would be a cakewalk; but knowing they would eventually encounter both German and hostile Vichy defenders, the generals preparing to lead the invasion never expected it to be easy. An effective, well-armed force of highly motivated freedom fighters operating from behind the front would be a great asset for the invaders. The British perceived another use for irregulars. Although they conceded the government of a liberated North Africa did not necessarily have to be pro-de Gaulle, it would need to be non-Vichy. The rabidly anti-Vichy expatriates would not object to the expulsion of collaborators from the post-liberation government. Furthermore, since they were French rather than English or American, they were politically attractive potential assassins if it should ultimately become expedient to kill Darlan.

It had been hoped Darlan was among the casualties of the Royal Navy attack at Mers el-Kebir, but he had not been present. Almost 1,300 French seamen were killed in the engagement, with the result that innumerable wavering Frenchmen, convinced Britain was indeed a worse enemy than Germany, rushed into the arms of Darlan. His power continued to increase, and two years later it was decided he would have to be eliminated.

Darlan had deviously taken steps to assure he could again switch sides if he so chose. He refused to commit his remaining fleet, based at Toulon, to either side. This was significant in light of the Royal Navy Mediterranean fleet's losses in the spring of 1941 and during the Crete campaign. At this point, active support by the French navy might well have given Hitler control of the Mediterranean, but this step was not forthcoming from Darlan. He was waiting to be bribed. Hitler was infuriated by Darlan's crafty political manoeuvring, but with the colossal invasion of the Soviet Union approaching, he was in no position to risk alienating his Vichy vassals--precisely as the admiral had foreseen. The possibility that Hitler might buy Darlan's support in the future was noted in Washington and London.

While the Germans had little alternative to tolerating Darlan's manoeuvring, the American response was to try harder to bribe him. The British, however, came to believe that if Darlan acquired sufficient power to affect the outcome of the war, he would have to be violently removed.

While Darlan rode the fence, the British counterintelligence and sabotage organ, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), began plotting his demise. In June 1942, an internal memorandum circulated within the organization outlining its subversive action policy. "One of the really great virtues of this new instrument of war [SOE] is that you can use it without committing His Majesty's government," the paper said. "Even if there is a suspicion that HMG may be behind any subversive movement, there is usually no proof to that effect; even if there is proof that British authorities are responsible the necessary gestures of repudiation can be made." The essence of SOE is easily gleaned from the standard pronouncement given new recruits: "You shouldn't object to fraud – and you mustn't object to murder."

Early in 1942, Darlan's virtual banishment from metropolitan France by Laval, who was increasingly influential over the aged, ailing Pétain, forced him to become dependent on American support. Fortunately for Darlan, it was Roosevelt's intention to divorce Vichy Africa from all Axis connections and exploit the situation for his own wartime and postwar purposes, and he needed a dependable minion to manage it for him. It was evident that the admiral had the U.S. sponsoring he required. It was not apparent to him alone, and as summer faded into the pivotal autumn of 1942, events began moving quickly in the complex North African theater.

Clutching the invaluable title of military commander in chief, Darlan arrived in the Algerian seaport Oran on October 2 and within days was scheming with Robert Murphy, FDR's emissary, to consolidate total power. Darlan evidently believed that if he could convince FDR to immediately bestow upon him complete political control of North Africa, he could return to France as head of state after the war. In exchange, he offered to "entrain" his Toulon fleet to southern Mediterranean ports, presumably to be placed at the service of the Americans.

Murphy was caught in the awkward position of having to deal with Darlan without alienating another powerful Frenchman--de Gaulle's rival for control of Free French forces, General Henri Giraud. Yet on October 17, Roosevelt effectively rejected Giraud, a staunchly anti-Nazi French patriot, by authorizing Murphy to conclude any agreement with Darlan he felt would aid Allied military operations. To further complicate the situation, nobody bothered to inform the SOE or U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied military commander, of these instructions to Murphy.

Darlan gained further Washington support by passing on certain important information to Murphy--later confirmed by Allied intelligence--that he had gleaned from his German and fellow Vichy contacts. Darlan grabbed American attention by revealing he knew that the Wehrmacht fully intended to resist to the best of its ability any invasion of North Africa. He gave his sponsors further incentive to listen by hinting that Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco was considering entering the war on the side of the Axis. This convinced the Americans that they were dealing with a very valuable Frenchman and, along with lingering doubts about the local French military's possible reaction to the coming invasion, moved Eisenhower to dispatch Maj. Gen. Mark Clark to meet with Darlan in mid-October. Clark hoped to learn everything else Darlan knew and was empowered to offer virtually anything in exchange for his allegiance.

During the night of October 21, the Royal Navy submarine Seraph landed eight American and British officers on the chilly beach at Cherchell, 42 miles west of Algiers. Commanded by Clark, these officers had been charged with assuring a friendly or at least indifferent overall French reaction to Operation Torch. Clark spoke no French, did not know the country or its peoples' way of thinking, and was serving in a diplomatic capacity quite unfamiliar to him. His selection for this mission presumably was motivated by his being Eisenhower's deputy commander in the field, and the supreme commander may have felt it would require someone of such standing to banish any lingering doubts Darlan may have had about his own bargaining position.

The admiral's son, Alain, was critically ill with poliomyelitis, and it was hoped an offer of advanced medical aid would further sway Darlan into siding with the Allies. Although he seemed eager to accept the proposed hospitalization for his boy, he remained tight-lipped on what the Vichy reaction to the invasion would be.

By October 23, the second battle of El Alamein was underway, and within 10 days the Germans were in full retreat toward Tunisia. This would seem to have been the sort of development that would strengthen the likelihood of the admiral's joining the Allies. Still he waited.

Resistance groups might be able to seize and secure Algiers, but there was little doubt the irregulars would be unable to withstand a counter-attack from the powerful Vichy Service d'Ordre Legionnaire (SOL: Vichy's version of the SS) garrison. The tenuousness of the partisans' potential hold on Algiers would make quick assistance from the advancing invasion force imperative.

On October 28, Darlan arrived in Algiers to await further developments that would give him a clearer picture of what moves would be in his own best interests. By this time the American troop convoys were in the mid-Atlantic and at risk of detection by U-boats. Ship-cluttered Gibraltar was a dangerously conspicuous sign that an invasion was coming, but Darlan still declined to commit himself. The possibility of coordinated French resistance to the landings was real and dire, and with this in mind an agitated Murphy, despairing of de Gaulle's or Giraud's abilities to command more local French obedience than Darlan, cabled Washington to plead for the assault to be postponed for two weeks. With no room for the approaching convoys at Gibraltar and the Atlantic thick with wolf-packs, there was no realistic alternate destination for the flotilla. Roosevelt shot back the only possible reply: "The invasion must proceed; it cannot be delayed." Giraud, meanwhile, was convinced he was the Frenchman of destiny.

Late on the night of November 2, the British sub Minna made the first attempt to land weapons for the Algiers partisans, but the insurgents failed to show for the rendezvous. Two later attempts were similarly unsuccessful, and the SOE and the American Office of Strategic Service (OSS) began to realize these delivery attempts would never succeed because of the recipients' understandable fear of being detected by the numerous German and Vichy night patrols. By the time of the initial Allied landings on November 8, the partisans still had not received their arms.

Still in Algiers, Darlan was closely watching developments. His powers already seemed consequential, for as the British Foreign Office noted at the time: "Frenchmen everywhere are looking for a new center of authority." Although this pronouncement was a thinly veiled plea for Gaullist unity, it correctly evaluated another situation. For the moment there was a French power vacuum that Darlan was dangerously close to filling. Because of his mighty supporters in distant Washington, he was on the verge of becoming perhaps a greater threat than Rommel to the Allies in North Africa.

At dawn, November 8, 1942, shoals of green American troops swarmed ashore on Algerian and Moroccan beaches without the slightest idea what resistance to expect. Darlan's refusal to align himself with, or confide in, anybody rendered intelligence reports useless, since agents could only guess at his intentions, forcing the invaders to assume the worst. Roosevelt had remained unmoved by Churchill's reports that Darlan was motivated solely by self-interest and that FDR's antagonism toward de Gaulle was depriving Frenchmen of a realistic alternative to Vichy. Giraud would never be able to match the dynamic de Gaulle's standing in the eyes of their countrymen.

American and British secret services had not effectively forged contracts with anti-Vichy factions or melded them into a unified, effective fighting organ. Furthermore, they had no reliable communications or chain of command with their distant leaders in Washington and London. These limitations, coupled with the weapons shortage, prevented the partisans from aiding in the invasion. Now the problem would be saving them to fight another day.

Roosevelt disliked confiding in anyone; that tendency, combined with faulty communications, kept his operatives unaware of his plans. The president also remained ignorant of the fact that Vichy had no intention of ever fully cooperating with the Allies. British unwillingness to risk a serious breach between themselves and Washington still dissuaded them from employing deadly force against Darlan, but political events would soon compel them to risk a family quarrel.

Eisenhower realized that anything short of quick success by his invasion forces might lead to wavering Vichy elements' going completely over to the Germans, and that furthermore, Torch was not developing into the easy task his president had envisioned. If local French military units were to join with the Afrika Korps, a disastrous situation might ensue.

Vichy hostility was already evident as collaborationist French artillerymen opened fire on landing beaches, and French warships attacked the American battleship Massachusetts and her accompanying vessels outside Casablanca harbor. Although the U.S. task force, with air support, quickly overcame its assailants, there was little doubt that all was not well between a sizeable portion of the local French populace and their would-be liberators.

Even if the Allies eventually were victorious over the Germans and a hostile French military, a bellicose colonial population would be a major headache for the U.S. Army to control. Clark was thus ordered from on high to do anything necessary to coax Darlan into the American camp.

Clark arrived in Algiers on the afternoon of November 9 knowing that Roosevelt's aim was to establish Vichy independence in North Africa for the benefit of American interests regardless of consequences to France; he rightly felt empowered to pay the admiral's price. That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull loudly and publicly defended FDR's Vichy policy, strengthening Darlan's ability to make substantial demands.

Roosevelt anticipated that, in exchange for a significant position within the American sphere of influence, Darlan would immediately place the French fleet based at Toulon under American command, and Clark harped on this point during negotiations on November 10 and 11 without specifying what the admiral's reward would be. Darlan predictably refused to commit himself in any way until he was guaranteed a precisely defined and substantial office. By the 11th, a flustered Clark, wary of Eisenhower's watchful, expectant presence at Gibraltar, was willing to give Darlan anything he demanded if it would anchor him within the American fold. On the same day the admiral surprisingly agreed to something of a compromise. He ordered all Vichy land, sea and air forces in North Africa to "cease the fight against forces of America and her Allies, as from receipt of this order, and to return to their barracks and bases and to observe strictest neutrality." He also ordered an exchange of prisoners and announced, "I assume authority over North Africa in the name of the Marshal (Pétain)." The fact that Pétain had in no fashion given Darlan such endorsement was of little consequence; it would take a while for the ancient warrior back home to learn of the audacious proclamation, and even when he did, there was no assurance he would react adversely to it. Furthermore, if he did, what difference it would make to Vichy supporters in North Africa? Besides, tacit American approval alone carried a great deal of weight, moving many vacillating Frenchmen to rally to Darlan's side. The admiral still did not neutralize the Toulon fleet, retaining a substantial bargaining tool should he again elect to switch sides.

Darlan's position and value to the U.S. government was further increased the same day as the Germans launched Operation Atilla, taking over previously unoccupied southern France. North Africa was now isolated from Vichy France and Darlan could use the phrase "in the name of the Marshal" to create his personal African domain. Even if Pétain were to publicly disown him, he could simply claim the feeble octogenarian had been forced to do so by the newly arrived Gestapo.

In fact, Darlan felt secure enough on that eventful day to boast to British Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson: "I have repeatedly told Hitler and Göring that to win the war they must hold North Africa and so complete their mastery of the Mediterranean. They wouldn't listen to me, and now that you have come I am quite certain that you and the Allies will win in the end. The difference between Laval and myself is that he has always been certain that Hitler would be victorious, but I have always had my doubts." It was a crafty, clear way of telling the Allies, through a senior officer, that if they would allow him to rule North Africa he would give them no problems.

Later that same afternoon, Clark and Murphy finally agreed in so many words to install Darlan as "political head in France", indicating a postwar position, and on November 14, they signed the written agreement. Outraged reaction to the news spread swiftly and far. British and Free French opposition was uncompromising and intense. The British Foreign Office voiced the need to "eliminate" Darlan. Eisenhower's half-hearted attempts to justify the action by pointing to the possibility that rejection of the admiral would result in the loss of the Toulon fleet did not still the outcry. In an apparent attempt to convince the objectors that repudiation of Darlan was pointless, Ike called attention to the fact that Darlan had invoked Pétain's prestigious name in his latest pronouncement. This, too, failed to mollify Darlan's many enemies, particularly since, now that he had unconditional American support, the marshal's opinion of him was of little consequence anyway.

Perhaps the gravest consequences of Darlan's merger with the Americans was the serious threat it posed to Anglo-American unity and to the very existence of French resistance, particularly Gaullist.

With their strong support for de Gaulle, the British were even further inclined to eliminate the admiral by one of his moves as nominal head of state: in an apparent attempt to buy Giraud's loyalty, Darlan offered the general the position of "head of the armed forces." The British attitude was crystallized by Churchill on November 16. Incensed by a communiqué he had received the previous day alerting him to Darlan's intention to eradicate Gaullism, Churchill exclaimed, "Darlan should be shot!" It was noteworthy support for coming events. On November 18, 20-year-old expatriate Frenchman Fernand Bonnier, at an SOE outpost in Cap Matifou, pulled the short straw as he and a handful of comrades drew lots to assassinate Darlan.

As November faded into December, the military situation continued to look bleak for the invaders. General Anderson's attempt to drive his troops eastward and capture Bizerte as a prelude to another strike on Tunis was stopped cold by Afrika Korps counterattacks out of rugged terrain east of Beja and south of Tamera. The hapless general's woes were compounded by the ambivalence and occasional outright hostility of many French officials and residents. Noting how his forces were on the defensive throughout Tunisia, Eisenhower, who had come to see Darlan for what he was, ruefully voiced in a December 8 radio message to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall his greatest fear at this point: "If things go on like this, Darlan will change sides again." Yet the supreme commander was unable to convince his president of the looming danger.

By now Darlan felt secure enough to openly repudiate even Pétain in what seems to have been a ploy to convince his underlings that he ruled independently, and to establish a power base that would entrench him as, in his words, "head of state." His position seemed firm and formidable.

During late November, Darlan wrote numerous letters to international Vichyite diplomatic missions in an attempt to rally them to his banner and further increase his non-American following. As he was thus engaged, the would-be assassin Bonnier was undergoing a firearms course in preparation for his upcoming assignment.

Darlan's uneasiness about being dependent on American backing was precipitated by the Free French scuttling of the Toulon fleet on November 27, which deprived him of his main leverage while simultaneously defying Vichy authority. The scuttling further increased tensions between Gaullist and Vichy factions and increased the likelihood of outright civil war in France--a war Darlan feared might bring him down if he continued to rely solely on U.S. aid, which could end at any time. However, if Darlan could be disposed of, the possibility of an internecine conflict would be dramatically reduced since he would be the focal point of such a struggle.

Still, the overriding motive prodding the British toward assassinating the French admiral was their conviction that they needed the support of active Resistance movements in the drive to liberate Europe and that Darlan's determination to crush all underground elements to prevent their opposing him would disrupt British strategy. In the minds of Churchill and his commanders, the wealth of considerations outweighed the fear of alienating Roosevelt.

On December 4, while Allied ground forces were frustrated by Rommel outside Tebourba, Bonnier was in a back room at Algiers' Le Club des Pins, practicing with a .38-caliber Webley handgun.

The invaders' military situation had improved little by mid-December because a hefty percentage of Eisenhower's troops were held back in Morocco to guard against a possible Axis thrust from Spain. However, if the battlefield action was sluggish, undercover activity rushed forward feverishly.

One of the main requirements of the assassination plot was that neither the British nor the Free French was to be definitely implicated. Since Bonnier was a Frenchman who had never been associated with an openly Gaullist faction, he would do nicely. Christmas Eve was set as Darlan's execution date.

December 24 dawned cold and cloudless in Algiers, and the admiral spent the morning with Murphy discussing the possible release of political prisoners and interned Jews. Bonnier, meanwhile, attended confession after exchanging the Webley and a backup Browning .45 for a German Walther 7.65mm automatic. Besides making less smoke, the Walther was not American, British or French.

Accompanied by a bodyguard and driver named Pierre Raynaud, the young hit man set out in a stolen car for Darlan's office in the Palais d'Eté, arriving shortly before 3 p.m. Raynaud waited outside in the car, hoping Bonnier would be able to make an escape.

Although his civilian clothes immediately drew attention, Bonnier's forged pass granted him access to Darlan. Pushing through the office door, the nervous killer fired two shots into Darlan's stomach. Bonnier then tried to shoot his way back outside, but he was overwhelmed by SOL guards. Two hours later, as a surgeon named Tolstoy hovered over him, Darlan died on an operating table at nearby Maillot Hospital.

Throughout North Africa and Europe news of the killing was met with a fatalistic lack of surprise. Even the victim on his deathbed muttered: "I knew the British would get me at last". While Roosevelt condemned the act as "murder in the first degree", a more realistic Churchill remarked that it had "relieved the Allies of an embarrassment".

De Gaulle realized his moment had arrived. After publicly and truthfully disavowing involvement in the assassination, he began making arrangement for a new "provisional administration" in French North Africa, graciously inviting Giraud to participate.

German propaganda broadcasts did their best to drive a barrier between the British and the Americans by announcing the killing was "engineered by the British Secret Service at Churchill's direction to get even with Roosevelt". The BBC responded with complete silence which helped the furor blow over more quickly.

Bonnier was immediately court-marshaled by a Vichy military tribunal and, with unsurpassed valor, claimed to have acted alone and for reasons of his own. He was convicted and shot by firing squad in the courtyard of the police barracks in the Algiers suburb of Hussein-Day at 7:30 on the morning of December 26. He left behind a heartbroken fiancée.

Darlan's death not only resulted in increased activity by Resistance movements in both Africa and France but also simplified the political situation and removed the threat of a French civil war. Eisenhower could finally concentrate on directing his armies, and after arranging for Madame Darlan and her sick son to be granted asylum in the United States, he turned to tactical matters, freed from the threat of attack by powerful Vichy forces. With Darlan no longer there to lead them, the forces of Vichy would wane in power, and North Africa would soon be secured by the Allies.

By late spring 1943, de Gaulle would firmly establish himself as leader of Free France, forcing FDR to belatedly concede that the valiant Frenchman could no longer be dismissed. The president would even supply Gaullist forces with American weapons.

British strategy would prevail, as the war indeed was won with a great deal of aid from de Gaulle and his faithful freedom fighters.

[Kelly Bell, a frequent contributor to Cowles Enthusiast Media publications, writes from Texas.]

Between Silk and Cyanide: The Story of SOE's Code War

By Leo Marks — HarperCollins 1999

Leo Marks joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was charged by Winston Churchill with setting "Europe ablaze", in early 1942. He was appointed head of SOE's code department, when he was only twenty-three. His long-awaited book has at last been cleared for publication.

He gives a considerable amount of new information about Nordpol, the "Funkspiel" operated by the Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst in the Netherlands, which led to the arrest and deaths of more than 50 agents, including some from MI6. Marks was suspicious about messages from the Dutch agents from an early stage, but his superiors would not act on his warnings. They seem to have been influenced by worries that admitting that SOE's Dutch nets had collapsed would lead to SOE being distrusted by the Chiefs of Staff, or even dissolved. They ought to have relied on him since he was clearly extremely competent. Colonel John Tiltman, the Government Code and Cypher School's (GCCS) chief 'cryptographer', held him in the highest esteem although, being an iconoclast, Marks had previously failed a GCCS training course. He was forbidden to discuss his misgivings with all but a few members of SOE. He could not even mention them to Tiltman, lest the latter should inform his Director (and head of MI6), Brigadier Stewart Menzies, who opposed SOE's very existence.

Most agents in occupied Europe made mistakes when using SOE's double transposition ciphers which were difficult to use, especially in the field. Marks therefore had to train unskilled young female coders to break 'indecipherables' (garbled messages): sometimes a single message took thousands of attempts to solve. Initially, 20 per cent. of agents' traffic was indecipherable, because of coding errors. However, messages from the Netherlands were faultless. Marks reasoned that they were not being coded by agents operating under stress, but by the Abwehr.

Most of Marks' wartime reports, including a post mortem on Nordpol, have been destroyed. His account of what went wrong in Nordpol relies only on memory. But it rings true and fits with what is already known. It shows that there has been some misinformed comment by historians who know nothing about codes or radio procedures. Even the report of the 1949 Dutch Commission on Nordpol must be regarded as incomplete, since it took no evidence from SOE's coding personnel.

Marks briefed many agents himself. They included 'Tommy' Yeo-Thomas GC, who made a personal appeal to Churchill to support the Free French, and the heartbreakingly innocent Noor Khan GC, whose complete unworldliness (she could not tell a lie, even as a cover story) led to her receiving "unsuitable" reports from her training officers. Marks sometimes knew, from agents' so-called 'security checks' (on which he has wise words) when agents had been captured, and was haunted by their fates. He cared immensely about all of them.

Marks has a gift for words. His splendid book is informative, intelligent and amusing – and very moving. It is essential reading for students of the SOE or Nordpol, and can be thoroughly recommended to any one interested in the period.

[Ralph Erskine, Belfast]

An Extract from Conscript Heroes

Extracts from the resumé written in Gibraltar 1941

Reproduced by courtesy of Keith Janes

"... Then one day a tall man walked in and said in English 'I am a British Secret Service agent, do you want to come to Spain with me?' Well I at least did not want to but we arranged to go if Arthur would go too. He jumped at the chance and so on Sunday the first of September [31st August] we said goodbye again and set off to Lillers. We had arranged to sleep at Madame Whyght's but as we visited several friends on the way we did not arrive before eleven o'clock.

We slept the night in Lillers, Wilkinson and I in one room and Yvonne and Mme and her daughter in the next door so that any farewell presents were not possible. Yvonne had her miscarriage the day before so it was just as well. We were up at 6.00 the next morning and after goodbyes all round went off to the station. There was no-one there so I went off towards Burbure to meet Arthur and Eileen, who came along just before 6.45. We then had a drink in a café and Du Bois gave us our new passports then we got on to the train for Béthune. To my surprise the girls came too, although the train was full of Germans. We passed Chocques and saw some of the damage done by the RAF and then arrived at Béthune. One of the Germans on the platform had a Lee Enfield rifle on his shoulder. We then went to another café and were told that we had to wait another couple of hours so we went to see a friend in the centre of Béthune. It was market day and the sides of the streets near the Grande Place were crowded with boxes of fruit, mainly tomatoes and apples but bags of other stuff was there as well. We had a hard job to find this house and when we did the people were not yet up. They were very surprised to see such a crowd of us but asked us in and made us coffee. They had a Mills bomb on the mantle-piece but all of the explosive had been taken out of it. I took it to pieces and had a job to put it back together again. It has always been a disappointment to me that I carried more Mills bombs about than anyone else whom I ever met (when captured I had fourteen) and yet have never yet seen one go off.

Well at ten o'clock we were back at the café and met again the officer who had been to see us, a young Frenchman who we called Roland [Lepers] and another fellow like Du Bois. They had only two guns with them and I rather regretted that mine had been left behind. We asked him by which route we were going and when he said Abbeville it rather upset me because that place has always been a bit of a hoodoo with me. I've been there three times before and never had any luck at all connected with it.

Cole was in charge but in my mind did not inspire much confidence. He was tall and thin with reddish hair and small moustache. His whole appearance was the continental's idea of a typical Englishman. His French was deplorable and spoken in an accent unmistakably British. He was loud-mouthed, perhaps to cover his nervousness, although while I knew him, he knowed no fear. (Arthur Fraser 1958)

Well on the train we were introduced to four other fellows, Crowley-Milling an English pilot-officer, 'John Love' a Czechoslovakian sergeant-pilot and 'George Brown' and 'Archie' both Poles. We had to say goodbye to Yvonne and Eileen on the platform, Yvonne was crying but Eileen was all right and then we got away.

We were all a bit diffident at first but long before we got to Colonne Ricourt we were all pretty good friends except Crowley-Milling who never during the whole trip forgot that he was an officer and we were not. When we went past the Mairie of Colonne I felt that I was losing something that meant a lot to me, I don't know what the other two felt. It was not a particularly long journey to Abbeville and at the time (1st September) there did not appear to be many Germans there.

We went from the station in pairs and were to follow the party in front at a distance of about a hundred yards, by no means an easy job in a busy city. We got to a house and gave up one of our photographs which were then put into genuine identity cards and stamped with stamps that even an expert would have had a great deal of trouble to identify as fake.

We were led to the house of Abbé Carpentier, a brave man, later to be betrayed by Cole and executed by the Germans. Head of the local organisation, he had collected identity cards and passes from his townspeople. Their photographs were detached and ours, which had previously been taken, were fixed in their places and counter-stamp faked over. (Arthur Fraser 1958)

It was a bit of a rush as we had to catch the four o'clock train to Paris. The purpose of these cards was to allow us to pass over the Somme which forms the barrier between La France Occupée and La Zone Interdite, in which of course we lived.

To get over the river we went up to the bridge one by one and handed an enormous sentry the two cards, one the ordinary identity card for occupied France, for which incidentally I used my own that I'd had for a year and not the new one, and the 'laissez passer' which is printed in both German and French, bears the Nazi eagle and the signature of the town Kommandant. It was only then that I found out that I was supposed to be a clergyman, which of course I did not in the least resemble.


Be that as it may we all got across without a question asked but on the train both of them ejected cartridges from their automatics. We each bought tickets to Paris separately, the place was absolutely full of Germans who seemed to be going to Paris, unlike the town in which there was not a great number. We reached the Gare du Nord at Paris about seven o'clock and very nearly lost ourselves in the Metro, which is the underground railway, every bit as noisy and full of people as the Inner Circle of London. Each and every one of us was jammed in between German soldiers but we were about used to them by now and took no notice of them. We stayed the night in a hotel that was in reality nothing else but a brothel, each bed for instance was surrounded by huge mirrors so that as Roland quaintly put it: 'You can lay and see yourself fucked in forty one different positions'. We had just put our gear in the rooms, I had one to myself, when they called us to go out to dinner. We had quite a decent dinner which cost about fifty francs each, say about six shillings, but had to surrender quite a lot of ration tickets for it. The wine was very good, it seemed a pity to drink beer with it. The Parisians and Parisiennes did not impress us much in that particular place although it was very far from being a dive. On the way back to the hotel we had three women stop us and say 'Fait d'amour mes enfants' but we did not like the looks of them and passed on. John found a nice one and took her to bed but found that he could not do anything with her and asked for his money back.

We had a good night and set out early the next morning before it was light. There were huge piles of cabbage stacked on one side of the street, more cabbage than I've ever seen before in my life and vans unloading it every minute. We had coffee and rolls at a small café where they seemed to know all about us and fixed us up with real coffee, which has been a rarity in France ever since the New Order cast its influence over Europe. Then on to the train again, this time for Tours, a big town very near the demarcation line between La France Occupée and La France Libre.

We got there about two o'clock and there saw for the first time the German version of the ATS, a big strapping wench wearing a fine looking uniform with the trappings of an Oberleutnant particularly took my eye, she seemed to be the very personification of German womanhood militarised. She was a girl of about twenty-five, tall, say five foot ten and weighed perhaps twelve stone, of which not much was fat. With her were two full corporals and five or six other girls, one or two of whom seemed a bit scared of their surroundings. So would our ATS be if they were suddenly dumped in Magdeburg or Essen among people whose only thoughts are hatred for the people who have conquered them. The station was however packed tight with German troops of all sorts, the usual Army of Occupation but also Gestapo and Death's Head men as well as dozens of Military Police and a good few Luftwaffe men. There were also sailors, some of them from submarines though what on earth they were doing here was and still is a puzzle to me.

We had some food in a hotel near the station and then the officer left us and went to make arrangements to take us over the border. About 5.00 we got on a local train but about five minutes before it started got off again because there were too many Germans on it. Again at seven we boarded the train, each one in a different carriage, with our instructions as to which station to get off at and what to do. The first three stations that we passed I failed to see the names and so was forced to ask which station was mine. A woman who was in the carriage and who had evidently been shopping said 'But St Mary [Martin] le Beau, that is my station also, get off where I do'. Whether or not she knew I was English, she certainly suspected that my objective was to cross the border. Well at the station it must have looked suspicious to anyone watching to see nine fellows, all between twenty and thirty and all carrying suitcases, dive off the train and, studiously avoiding each other, make straight for a little pathway. It was worse still when we got to the road because we were strung out but all plainly visible to each other. A man approached me and asked me something in an unintelligible patois so I just shook my head and walked on.

We all hid behind a big barn at the corner of a field, the people who were working at the other side must have seen us. After about half an hour a gendarme came round to see us, he seemed to guess what we were for, he asked if we were all prisoners to which we all said yes although only Arthur and myself had ever been prisoners. We had to wait until well after dark before we could move, Roland and Paul were nervous because a man who used to help them and incidentally earn a good deal of money by it came nearly to our hiding place and then went away again. They had not used him for some time because they were afraid that he was planning to sell us out at the first chance. At last however it was dark enough to move but the moon was full and in places it was as bright as day. We moved in single file across the fields and came to a partly completed bridge over a fast river. Getting across this without being seen was not easy as we walked on a single plank about a foot wide – and the river was nearly sixty feet below us if we lost our footing. However we did it and successfully located our guide who was to take us across.

All went well for about five miles when, after moving across fields we came to a big road. I was two from the last and the guide had just got in the middle of the road when he turned and ran and the others followed him. Five or six men went past me in a mad rush and so I also joined in. Then a voice hailed us from the road 'Eh bah, tu es malade ou qu'est que c'est?' and rather shamefaced we made our way back; it turned out to be only two men on cycles who were probably engaged in a little marché noir business. About half an hour later we crossed the actual line and then after a swig of cognac that I had brought along we sent the guide back and set off.

On the way we tried some of the grapes that were growing in the fields but they were so bitter (they were wine grapes) that it was impossible to eat them. We walked fast all night, about four o'clock we knocked up a farmhouse and tried to get some food but all that we could get was some milk. Then soon afterwards, because we found that we should get into Loches earlier than was convenient we lay down and tried to sleep for half an hour. I myself slept but the others could not because it was too cold. Towards seven o'clock it was a job to keep going, we had been walking for ten hours and had done thirty miles and three of us had trouble with our feet and one of the Poles said that he could go no farther. At last however we staggered into the station and dropped wearily into the train for Chateaurault. It was not a long journey but most of us were asleep by the time we arrived.

We had another meal and sent off cards to our families and then got on to yet another train for Toulouse. Again we slept for most of the journey but also talked a good deal; by now we had got each other roughly summed up. John, the big Czech pilot was the life and soul of our party but Roland was a bit of a comic too, although he made us a bit nervous at first by speaking in English wherever we happened to be. Crowley-Milling was still reserving the benefit of his wisdom for more intelligent company and the two Poles kept very much to themselves. Paul [Cole], who was in charge of the job told us a good deal about his life in England but very little of what he had done in France. Well at last we got to Toulouse quite late in the day and almost at once got still another train for Marseilles.

This did not leave until midnight but as it was crowded with passengers we had to get our seats at about 10.00. When it did eventually move every available inch of space had been filled up, the corridors and lavatories included. Paul slept in the luggage rack and seemed to be quite comfortable while we tried to fit ourselves in as best we could. We slept on and off but a French train has not much to recommend it as a substitute for a bedroom. Just as it got light we got into Marseille, that port that had been the Mecca of so many of our boys and which, even at that moment held three hundred of our boys in the prison at St Hippolyte.

We had to show our cartes d'identité at the barrier but it was only a superficial glance. I was very much impressed by the city, the second greatest in France I believe, although I did not see much of it. We went down a long flight of stone stairs and along to a café where we had chocolate and long hard bread rolls. There was not enough sugar in the chocolate but it went down very well after our journey. Then we went to a barber and had ourselves made a little more respectable, in fact when he had finished with me I owed him thirty francs, which is a lot of money in La France. We had to spend the rest of the day somehow by ourselves and went to three cinemas as well as doing a bit of shopping as our suitcases containing the spare kit of Arthur, Wilkinson and myself had been lost at Tours. I had a long conversation with John Brown, one of the Poles and got very friendly with him. Then about nine o'clock we found that we had lost another of the suitcases and Arthur and George went back to get it. When they came back Paul told us that it contained not only enough papers to get us all ten years but also his Mauser automatic and a hundred rounds and about eighteen thousand francs. Luckily it had not been searched or our gang would have lost at least two of it number.

As we were going along the harbour Paul said 'Be careful now, there is a man who has been following us for four hours and I want to lose him.' I laughed and said 'If you lot walk on I'll lose him for you – in the harbour'. My intention being to knife him and push him into the water but Paul would not have it, saying that he would fix him the next day when we were well on our way to the Spanish border. So we lost him and then found that we had also lost ourselves and had to get a taxi.

Arthur, John and George came with me to a hotel where we met a very charming gentleman [Louis Nouveau] who showed us to our rooms and gave us our instructions for the morning. The others were off at a big private house [the Rodocanachi residence] and appear to have had a very good time. We spent a good but very short night and were up at five the next morning. The man told us that he had a son in the concentration camp in Spain and that we would all have to pass through it as well. This was the first intimation that we had of what was going to happen in Spain; up to now it had been all a nebulous uncertainty, even now we felt that we should have rotten luck if we did wind up in a prison of any sort. Perhaps had we known what the future held we should not have been so jubilant.

Eventually reaching Marseilles, we were received by other members of the Resistance who made arrangements for our escape into Spain. Cole was replaced by another guide who took us to a village at the base of the Pyrenees, where a local smuggler was to lead us to Barcelona. This was not to be, for after experiencing severe conditions in the mountains, we decided to take our chances along the lower slopes of the foothills. Our guide wisely refused to accompany us and soon we were captured by Spanish frontier guards, near Figueras and sent to Barcelona. (Arthur Fraser 1958)

It was still dark as we made our way to the station, about the last thing our friend said was 'When you get to Miranda ask for Peter Bider'. Then off again, this time to Perpignon. The train was terribly slow and we gave up our role as deaf mutes and talked away cheerfully in our respective languages, that is to say English for most of us, French for most of us, Polish for three of them, German for five of them, Czech for four of them and a little Hungarian by way of a diversion.

There were four men talking in English in our carriage who were also going to Spain, from their conversation I took them to be journalists, either American or English. At about two o'clock we arrived at Perpignon and after being carefully scrutinised by the police we went down into the town and into a garage. Here we were received by a man who spoke not only every language that we did, viz six, but also four more, he also told us that he spoke eleven more but not so well. A most remarkable linguist. We gave up our cards and also most of our money, I had nearly three thousand francs, which was more than any two of the others put together. He then gave us the rather startling advice to give ourselves up to the police as soon as we got to Spain. He then gave us twelve hundred pesetas in exchange for our money and took us by car to a dirty little café in Banyuls, a village about two miles from the foot of the Pyrenees. It was the sort of place that one sees on the pictures, a sort of hiding place for doubtful characters, in which nomenclature we doubtlessly figured at the time.

Well after waiting in a back room for about two hours we met the man whom we had to contact. At first, speaking very bad French he said he knew nothing about getting us over the hills but at last admitted that he did and then said that we should have to wait several days as all the guides were away at the time. We told him that that was impossible and so he went out muttering to himself to return abut four hours later with the news that he had found a man, a smuggler, who would take us across the next evening. So we had to spend the night in the café. Luckily the beds were good and we got some coffee in the morning which was very bad indeed. John then asked the woman to send out for some tomatoes and we also drank a good deal of wine. This wine was some of the best that I tasted in France.

We waited all day until seven o'clock in the evening and then went out of the place two by two and made our way to the rendezvous which was a wood by the side of a vineyard. In about an hour everyone was there except the guide and we were all eating huge clusters of purple grapes as fast as we could eat them, I suppose we ate about two pounds each, all one had to do was pick them.

Just as it was getting dark our guide turned up and then we had an argument because he said that he was only paid to take us to the frontier, which is in the middle of the mountains. At last by giving him a thousand pesetas extra, that is about twenty-five pounds, we induced him to take us another ten kilometres. It was getting dark when we got to the foot of the mountains, the way was through hundreds of cork trees and the slope was very steep. Within twenty minutes we were all panting for breath and Arthur and Crowley-Milling were in a bad way. We had very little luggage with us and what we did have was passed from hand to hand. We had left one of the Poles, Archy, behind in Marseilles because when he had jumped from his plane he had hurt his ankle and the long march at Tours had made it worse. The way was by now all rock, rock such as I have never imagined before in my life, huge single rocks sixty feet high lying loose on the side of the mountain as well as smaller ones, with not a scrap of vegetation growing except small grey leafless bushes with innumerable thorns on them.

It was now quite dark and the pace was of necessity slower but it was still quite severe on most of us. Towards eleven o'clock I was taken ill with violent cramp in my stomach, in addition I found a lot of difficulty in breathing. All at once I collapsed and everything went black. At first my place had been at the end of the column but for some reason I had slipped up one, otherwise I should have been left behind. Four times I collapsed, getting weaker and weaker because each time I had to be sick before my breath would come again. Then it started to rain and in ten minutes we were soaked to the skin, it simply poured down with the wind driving great gusts into our faces which stung like so much rice. Towards midnight I felt that I was finished, my breath simply would not come but kept staggering on as best I could. In all we crossed five mountains and my condition was all right in the lower parts, it was on the high parts that it was worse. None of the others were ill but they told me afterwards that they were glad of the rest afforded by my halts. At ten to one we crossed into Spain and the worst of the night's journey lay in front of us. All the time the rain did not let up for a single minute. On the high plateau, covered with coarse short grass we were surprised to find a lot of cows, each one with a bell round its neck, also several bulls. About four o'clock the guide left us and the rain changed to a steady drizzle. We soon saw ahead of us some lights and as they were in the right direction made for them.

At first they looked to be about three miles away but after two hours solid slogging they seemed to be even further away than ever. The ground here was covered with huge rocks and small, incredibly thorny bushes which tore our hands, legs and faces to ribbons. The scratches on my legs were visible four weeks later and two slashes on my right hand were not healed three months later. The ground was more or less flat but cut by innumerable small water courses, each one of which was of course full of water.

By six o'clock we were about all in but still kept plugging away to the south. The lights had disappeared by now and the rain had almost stopped. The mountains seemed to be very close to us still, we could not have been making much progress. Then we found a rough track that led nowhere, then another and still another, losing more and more time and energy. Then we came to another vineyard and knew that houses could not be very far away. Just after dawn, about half past seven, after ploughing through acres of mud and water we saw a building in front of us. It was just a square affair with a door that we could not open but as it got lighter we saw another about fifty yards away. We managed to get a door open and get inside, it was an earth floor and a low rough affair, also someone else had had a fire in one corner of it although there was no chimney hole. In about four minutes I had a fire going using a small book of Shelley and a couple of five franc notes for paper and the few charred sticks of the previous fire. After a quick look round we found several small sticks which kept the fire going until John and I had broken up the door into enough small pieces to put on. For the rest of the day the place was like a nudist camp for not one of us had a dry rag on us. George the Pole had a dry shirt in his bag but all the rest of us had their stuff round the fire, crouching down because all the smoke was collected on the ceiling and it was impossible to stand up without getting half blinded by the smoke. Some of us tried to sleep but it was a hard job on the iron-hard floor. About one o'clock the rain stopped and Wilkinson, having dried his clothes decided to go to the nearest house and find out if we could get any food and what were our chances of getting to Barcelona.

While he was gone I went outside, as naked as the day I was born, to have a look around. The building had obviously once been a water mill but had not been used for some years. It had a huge stone mill pond because these streams flow only for a few days at a time when there is rain or snow on the mountains. The stream was about forty feet wide but not more than four feet deep at any point, the whole bed being of solid rock which was worn to the smoothness of glass. Near to the mill was a garden, in which to my delight were growing tomatoes and peaches, both of them ripe. It did not take me long to get a good few of them and carry some back to the mill for the others. The beauty of the mountains with the sun on them was striking, enhanced by the clear blue sky and pure white clouds. The Pyrenees at this point are not very high, I think that the highest mountain was not much more than three thousand feet but the very mass of them was a grand sight to anyone who like myself had never seen a mountain before. Then there were hundreds of olive trees with the tiny green olives on them and also huge brakes of canes or bamboos, some of them very tall.

At about two o'clock a man came down to do some fishing and immediately saw us. We could speak no Spanish and he no French but after a bit we managed to tell him our yarn, we were all British airmen who had escaped from a German prison camp at Cologne. He was as excited as a schoolboy and rushed off, to come back later with wine and potatoes and salt. He said that he could get no bread as it was strictly rationed. About six o'clock he came back yet again on his bike and told us to get going as the Civil Guard knew that we were there and were going to arrest us. As this was what we wanted we stayed where we were and just before seven o'clock we saw the first of them and I went out to him. He held his rifle at the ready and called out to me to put up my hands, which I would not do but called out for the others. I then saw that there were six of them and that they had the mill surrounded..."

The following are footnotes to the text above

  1. Harold 'Paul' Cole (1906-1945) was the organisation's man in Lille and his job was to collect escapers and evaders and bring them down to Marseilles. Cole was a British traitor and double agent who eventually betrayed the whole network [but see Fanny Rodocanachi's account]. Later sentenced to be shot on sight by MI9, he survived the war but was shot dead by French police officers in Paris.
  2. Madame Whyght and family lived at 82 Rue Savenoal, Lillers
  3. Drotais Dubois was a coal miner from Burbure and one of Cole's principle helpers in the Lillers region. Betrayed by Cole and arrested 9 December 1941, he was executed 30 June 1943 at Dortmund along with the Abbé Carpentier and others.
  4. 78274 Flight Lt Denis Crowley-Milling of 610 Squadron. 'John Love' was 787437 Sgt R. Ptacek of 222 Czech Squadron RAF, 'Archie' was 784763 Sgt Pilot A. Pietrasiak of 308 Squadron RAF and 'George Brown' was Polish Cadet Henryk Stakera (Stachura) who had escaped from Germany.
  5. In the name of Pierre Bertinchon
  6. According to Murphy (109) 'John' had been sharing a room with Crowley-Milling but this arrangement resulted in C-M moving down the hall to share Cole's room.
  7. My dad, Arthur Fraser, 'John' and 'George' stayed at Louis Nouveau's flat whilst Fred Wilkinson, 'Archie' and Crowley-Milling went to the home of Dr Georges Rodocanachi
  8. Louis Nouveau's son had papers identifying him as Jean Pierre Bedard
  9. Arthur Fraser remembers that their guide to Perpignon was called Jacques – 'Jacques' was Alex Watteblad
  10. The man who owned the garage at Perpignon was 'Parker' – Michael Pareyre
  11. This is significant because by international law, evaders (in this case most of the party) who entered neutral territory were supposed to be interned for the duration whilst escapers should be allowed to contact their relevant military attaché.

Recommended Reading
Clandestine Warfare, SOE, MI9, Escape & Evasion

HMS Fidelity

I'm grateful to Keith Janes for the following notes on HMS Fidelity

HMS Fidelity was a French 2,400 ton armed merchantman formerly known as Le Rhin. Her captain, Lieutenant de Vaisseau Claude André Peri had taken her from Marseilles on the signing of the French Armistice and sailed to England where he was turned her over to the Royal Navy. Peri renamed himself 'Jack Langlais' and was given the rank of temporary Lieutenant Commander RN whilst his ship became Fidelity and commissioned for 'special services'. Included in her crew as First Lieutenant was an SOE-trained Belgian doctor named Albert-Marie Guérisse who had changed his name to 'Patrick Albert O'Leary' and also given the temporary rank of Lieutenant Commander RN. Another crew member was Madeleine Gueslin who changed her name to 'Barclay' and was appointed First Officer WRNS, the only woman engaged in active service during the war on a Royal Navy fighting ship. In the summer of 1941, after work in the Western Approaches, Fidelity was sent to land agents and bring off Polish troops from southern France. It was on 26 April, during the first of these operations, that O'Leary and three other crew members, Fergusson, Rogers and Forde, were left behind and all but NCO Forde subsequently arrested by French officials. Her last Mediterranean operation was AUTOGIRO/URCHIN when she landed four SOE agents at Barcares on the night of 19/20 September 1941 and Fidelity was then returned to England and re-equipped and armed for work in the Far East. In December 1942, she was travelling with convoy ONS 154 when it was attacked by a big submarine wolf pack and on the 29th Fidelity was finally torpedoed by U435 and lost with all hands off the Azores after picking up survivors from other ships.

Further reading:

See Main Index

See Other WWll Items

Secret Papers: Escape & Evasion World War ll France (1941-43)

George Rodocanachi & 'Pat Line' (1940-43)<

François Charles-Roux: De Gaulle & The Free French, London (1942-43)

A Bibliography On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France

Notes On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France

Bruce Dowding

Recommended Reading — Clandestine Warfare, SOE, MI9, Escape & Evasion

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