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Yolande Unternahrer was born in Paris, France, in 1911. Her father, Jacob Unternahrer, was a businessman, moved the family to London and Yolande was educated at Hampstead Heath. She also spent time in Switzerland, and by the time she finished her education could speak English, French and German fluently.
On the outbreak of the Second World War she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) where she trained as a wireless operator. She worked at several Royal Air Force fighter command stations, before joining the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in February 1943.
In August 1943 she married Jaap Beekman, a sergeant in the Dutch Army. The following month, on 18th September, she was landed in Tours and went to work as a radio operator for Gustave Bieler, the head of the Musician Network at St. Quentin.
In January 1944, Yolande and Bieler were arrested while together at the Café Moulin Brulé. Bieler was shot soon after by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) at Fossenburg. Yolande was interrogated by the Gestapo before being transferred to Fresnes Prison.
On 13th May 1944 the Germans transported Yolande and seven other SOE agents, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky to Nazi Germany. Yolande Beekman was executed at Dachau in September, 1944.
(1) Captain Selwyn Jepson was SOE's senior recruiting officer. He was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum for its Sound Archive.
I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, "What are you doing?" I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you'" That was my authority!
(2) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)
Gustave Bieler asked for a tough assignment, and he was right, for by reason of his size alone, he would have been conspicuous in, say, Toulouse or Paris, and the tough areas were in the north and east of France. We settled on St. Quentin, for we knew of a group of patriots there who were anxious for liaison
with London, and St. Quentin seemed likely to develop into a key town for German railway and canal communications.
The next thing to decide was the composition of the team. Bieler had such an outstanding personality that it was difficult to find a suitable partner for him. After a good deal of thought, we decided on Yolande, a girl of Swiss extraction sent to us by the W.A.A.F. Her French was perfect - the touch of Swiss accent was a positive advantage, as it diverted attention from her rather typically English appearance. She was very quiet and homely - she had gained immense popularity at the wireless school by taking over unofficially the duties of darner of socks for the men-and her unruffled cheerfulness and good humour were a great asset. She quickly developed an easy camaraderie with Bieler which promised well for their future work.
Bieler had towards all the women engaged in our work a kind of amused tolerance which some might have faintly resented. But Yolande took his attitude without offence, and her very unaffectedness and simplicity evoked his esteem and admiration.
(3) On 13th May 1944, Odette Sansom was moved by the Gestapo from France to Germany with Yolande Beekman, Vera Leigh, Madeleine Damerment, Elaine Flewman, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky. She was interviewed about these experiences by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field.
We travelled from Paris to Germany together. We did not know each other before. We all did our training at different times, we all went to France at different times. I had never seen the others at Fresnes, although I heard the voice of one of them once. They were not in a solitary cell like mine and they were able to communicate a little with people outside through the top of their windows. We met for the first time in
the Avenue Foch.
It was a lovely hot day, a beautiful day. And the Avenue Foch is beautiful, and the house where we were was a beautiful house. I remember little things. One of the girls had a lipstick and we all used it, passed it around and put it on. It was quite a treat. We were young women, after all. And we talked and talked and talked, of course. We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought about it, what that other one had to say about it. I remember what one of them said because I had the same feelings. She and I, we had a feeling that something had been wrong. The others thought they had been captured because of the work they were doing or the people they were with. She had the feeling, because she had been arrested as soon as she arrived in France, that there was an informant. And I did too.
We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be - helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone - the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.
Everybody tried to be a little braver than they felt. All of us had a moment of weakness, we did all cry together at one moment, there were a few tears, but after all it was a lovely spring day in Paris. Riding in the van from the Avenue Foch to the station we could get a glimpse of what was going on in Paris, people sitting on the terraces of cafes drinking their ersatz coffee or whatever. I was looking forward to the trip. I had spent a year alone in my cell and I thought. Now I am going to be with these other women.
On the train we were handcuffed, each one of us handcuffed to somebody else, so we were not free to move around or anything, but we did not look absolutely miserable. No, we made the best of it. I remember one of them even asked a guard for a cigarette, and he gave her one.
We were frightened deep down, all of us. We were wondering what was the next thing, a normal thing to ask yourself in those circumstances. Were we going straight to our death, were we going to a camp, were we going to a prison, were we going to - what? We couldn't not think of those things. Our only hope was maybe to be together somewhere.