When Henri-Philippe Petain signed an armistice with Nazi Germany on 22nd June, 1940, the British government began to consider what it could do to help those French people who wanted to continue fighting. A meeting was held at the Foreign Office on 1st July and the following day Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, wrote to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, suggesting "a new organization to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants."
Lord Halifax passed the letter onto Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill and after much discussion it was decided to ask Hugh Dalton to implement the project. Churchill directive to Dalton was "now set Europe ablaze." The new organization became known as Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the staff were given an office at 64 Baker Street in London.
Colonel Colin Gubbins was Director of Operations and Training at SOE. Those recruited usually had considerable experience of the country they were to be sent to help the local resistance. Recruits were sent for initial training to Wanborough Manor near Guildford. Later they would be toughened up for the field by attending a commando course in the Scottish highlands. They were taught how to use guns and explosives, sabotage, wireless telegraphy, and how to live secretly in occupied territories. They also needed to master the techniques of unarmed combat and silent killing.
Some members of the armed forces were unhappy about this type of warfare. Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the chief of the air staff, wrote to a fellow officer: "I think that the dropping of men dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated. I think you will agree that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time honoured operation of the dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins."
In 1940 Colin Gubbins made contact with the commandant of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and arranged for her to provide personnel for the SOE. At first the women were used to produce passports, ration cards, and other forged documents for use in occupied Europe. They were also employed to transmit, encode and decode messages to and from the field.
SOE agents were sent to any country under the occupation of Nazi Germany including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Denmark and Yugoslavia. The SOE was extremely active in helping the French Resistance. The French Section of the SOE was led by Maurice Buckmaster. His deputy was Major Nicholas Bodington and Vera Atkins was put in charge of preparing the agents for the field.
In April 1942, Winston Churchill gave his approval for women in the SOE to be sent into Europe. It was argued that women would less conspicuous than men. In countries such as France women were expected to be out and around whereas the Gestapo were suspicious of men on the streets. Women were used as couriers and wireless operators. Women were never sent to Europe as circuit leaders although Pearl Witherington became leader of the Wrestler Network after the arrest of Maurice Southgate in May 1944. She organized over 1,500 members of the Maquis and they played an important role fighting the German Army during the D-Day landings.
During the Second World War the SOE sent 470 agents into France including 39 women. This included Jack Agazarian, Claude de Baissac, Lise de Baissac, Gustave Bieler, Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Francis Cammaerts, Peter Churchill, Madeleine Damerment, Henri Dericourt, Victor Gerson, Christine Granville, Virginia Hall, Noor Inayat Khan, Andrezej Kowerski, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Gilbert Norman, Sonya Olschanezky, Harry Peulevé, Eliane Plewman, Harry Rée, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, George Starr, Brian Stonehouse, Francis Suttill, Violette Szabo, Michael Trotobas, Edward Yeo-Thomas, Nancy Wake, Pearl Witherington and Yvonne Rudelatt.
SOE wireless operators took with them a short-wave morse transceiver that could send and receive messages. It weighed 30 pounds and fitted into a two foot long suitcase. Its frequency range was 3.5 to 16 megacycles a second. The main problem for the operator was that the transceiver needed seventy feet of aerial to function properly.
It was estimated that in towns it would take the Germans around 30 minutes to discover where the transceiver was being used. Where possible, operators worked in isolated areas. They were also under strict instructions to transmit briefly, at irregular intervals, at various wavelengths and from various places.
Each wireless operators was instructed to always spell certain words incorrectly. The reason for this was that if the Germans captured the operator and code books and tried to use the transceiver to trap other agents, the SOE in London would be able to discover what had happened and would warn all its agents in the field.
SOE agents were taught that once captured they must try to stay silent when interrogated by the Gestapo for 48 hours. During that time all the people who had been in contact with the arrested agent were supposed to move house and cover their tracks.
In 1942 the SOE decided to establish a new network in and around Paris. Called Prosper it was to be led by Francis Suttill. On 24th September, 1942, Andrée Borrel was parachuted into France to prepare the way for Suttill who arrived on 1st October. A wireless operator, Gilbert Norman arrived in November and a second operator, Jack Agazarian, arrived the following month.
On 22nd January 1943, Henri Déricourt, a former pilot in the French Air Force, arrived back in France. His main task was to find suitable landing grounds and organize receptions for agents brought by air. He worked mainly for the Prosper Network and over the next few months he arranged the transport by plane of over 67 agents.
Jack Agazarian became increasing concerned about the loyalty of Henri Déricourt and after being taken out of France on 16th June, he passed on these fears to Nicholas Bodington and Maurice Buckmaster. However, they were unconvinced and refused to recall Déricourt to Britain.
On 23rd June, 1943, three key members of the network, Andrée Borrel, Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman, were arrested by the Gestapo. When Noor Inayat Khan discovered what happened she reported back the disaster to the Special Operations Executive in London.
The three agents were taken to the Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Francis Suttill was tortured for several days and according to Ernest Vogt he eventually did a deal with the Germans. This included Suttill giving the Germans details of ammunition dumps in exchange for the promise that the people guarding them would not be killed. However, according to another German agent, Joseph Kieffer, it was Gilbert Norman who gave the Gestapo this information.
Messages from the wireless owned by Gilbert Norman were still being sent to the Special Operations Executive in London. Instructions were passed on to Bodington by the SOE to arrange a meeting with Norman at the address he had sent them. Bodington later claimed that he and Agazarian tossed to decide who should visit the address. Agazarian, who was convinced it was a trap, lost, and when he arrived at the address he was immediately arrested. Over the next few months Gilbert Norman, Francis Suttill, Andrée Borrel, Jack Agazarian and Noor Inayat Khan, were all executed.
A more successful circuit was the Jockey Network led by Francis Cammaerts. By the autumn of 1943, Cammaerts had established a network of small independent groups up and down the left bank of the Rhone Valley. He developed a secure system where although he knew how to get in touch with members of the group, they had no idea where he was living and could only leave messages for him in letter boxes (somebody with whom one could leave a message to be collected later by another person giving the right password).
Cammaerts's two main lieutenants sent by the SOE were Cecily Lefort and Pierre Reynaud. In September 1943 Lefort was arrested while visiting the house of a corn-merchant at Montélimar. She was tortured by the Gestapo but the system Cammaerts had set up enabled the Jockey Network to survive. On 6th July 1944 Lefort was replaced by another woman agent from Britain, Christine Granville.
By the time of the D-Day landings Cammaerts had built up an army of 10,000 men and women. His area of operations went from Lyons to the Mediterranean coast and to the Italian and Swiss frontiers.
It is estimated that around 200 agents lost their lives. Most of these were executed on instructions from Adolf Hitler in September 1944 and March 1945. Those who did not return included Jack Agazarian, Gustave Bieler, Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Gilbert Norman, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, Francis Suttill, Violette Szabo, Michael Trotobas and Yvonne Rudelatt.