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In 1942 the SOE decided to establish a new network in and around Paris. Called Prosper it was to be led by Francis Suttill. Two French women, Yvonne Rudelatt and 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.
Francis Suttill arranged with the Special Operations Executive in London to drop arms and explosives to be used by the French Resistance. On 12th June Yvonne Rudelatt was sent to Neuvy to receive the armaments. Several of the containers exploded and several members of the reception committee. A local farmer reported the incident and as a result 500 members of the SS were sent in to search for the special agents in the area.
On 20th June 1943, Rudelatt returned to the area to pick up two new SOE agents, Frank Pickersgill and John Mcalister, who had just been parachuted into France. They were stopped by the SS and although they tried to race away shots were fired and Rudelatt was hit by two bullets before the car crashed. She was arrested and died in Belsen Concentration Camp two weeks before the war ended.
Three days later three other key members of the Prosper 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.
In the last few months of the war, Gilbert Norman, Francis Suttill, Andrée Borrel, Jack Agazarian and Noor Inayat Khan, were all executed. After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Henri Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several SOE agents including those in the Prosper Network.
In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt's work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.
During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Henri Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.
(1) Francine Agazarin, was interviewed by Liane Jones for her book A Quiet Courage (1990).
Although in the same network, my husband and I were not working together; as a radio operator he worked alone and transmitted from different locations every day. I was only responsible to Prosper (Francis Suttill) whom we all called Francois. He liked to use me for special errands because, France being my native land, I could get away from difficulties easily enough, particularly when dealing with officialdom.
Francois was an outstanding leader, clear-headed, precise, confident. I liked working on his instructions, and I enjoyed the small challenges he was placing in front of me. For instance calling at town halls in various districts of Paris to exchange the network's expired ration cards (manufactured in London) for genuine new ones. Mainly I was delivering his messages to his helpers: in Paris, in villages, or isolated houses in the countryside. From time to time I was also delivering demolition material received from England. And once, with hand-grenades in my shopping bag, I travelled in a train so full that I had to stand against a German NCO. This odd situation was not new to me. I had already experienced it for the first time on the day of my arrival on French soil, when I had to travel by train from Poitiers to Paris. A very full train also. I sat on my small suitcase in the corridor, a uniformed German standing close against me. But, that first time, tied to my waist, under my clothes, was a wide black cloth belt containing bank-notes for Prosper, a number of blank identity cards and a number of ration cards; while tucked into the sleeves of my coat were crystals for Prosper's radio transmitters; the crystals had been skilfully secured to my sleeves by Vera Atkins herself, before my departure from Orchard Court. My.32 revolver and ammunition were in my suitcase. The ludicrousness of the situation somehow eliminated any thoughts of danger.
In any case, I believe none of us in the field ever gave one thought to danger. Germans were everywhere, especially in Paris; one absorbed the sight of them and went on with the job of living as ordinarily as possible and applying oneself to one's work.
Because I worked alone, the times I liked best were when we could be together, Prosper (Francis Suttill), Denise (Andrée Borrel), Archambaud (Gilbert Norman), Marcel (Jack Agazarin) and I, sitting round a table, while I was decoding radio messages from London; we were always hoping to read the exciting warning to stand by, which would have meant that the liberating invasion from England was imminent.
(2) William Stephenson, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service in the United States, later wrote about Noor Inayat Khan in his book A Man Called Intrepid (1976)
Ten days after Professor Balachowsky retrieved her luggage on a peaceful June night, he was arrested. During the following week, dozens of French agents were rounded up. In London, a signal was delivered to Maurice Buckmaster at Baker Street. It reported the destruction of the Prosper network. All the leaders and their equipment had been captured, and only one transmitter remained in operation. That was Madeleine, whose call sign ended the message.
Buckmaster surveyed the area of disaster. He was to say later that Berlin security headquarters regarded the French network as the heart of the secret army that was most dangerous to the Third Reich. Now it was smashed. Buckmaster told Madeleine to get out of Paris; an aircraft would be sent to pick her up. The girl replied no. She was the only operator left in the Paris region. Without her, all communication would be lost. She could pick up some threads and reconstruct at least one circuit, if not more.
Buckmaster made a hard decision. If the girl stayed, it could be only a matter of time before she was caught. Yet the catastrophe had left her as the most important "station" in France. He signaled approval, but warned her not to transmit. All Gestapo detection gear would be trained on her transmitter now that the rest had been wiped out.
The girl, on her own now, moved about Paris looking for old school friends. She found her former music
teacher, Henriette Renie, for instance. One contact led to another. She stayed briefly in different parts of the city, trying not to compromise those who showed hospitality. She had a bicycle and carried the transmitter with her. Despite Buckmaster's warnings, she began regular transmissions from the first week of July and she continued until October, when she was caught and taken to Gestapo headquarters.
(3) Joseph Kieffer, statement to Vera Atkins (19th January 1947)
Suttill did not want to make any statement, but Gilbert Norman, who had not the integrity of Suttill, made a very full statement. Through Norman and through the documentary material available we received our first insight into the French section.
(4) Report on an interview carried out with Robert Arend, the brother-in-law of Andrée Borrel, about the destruction of the Prosper Network on 15th May 1945.
About 9.30 in the evening of July 19th 1943, while Arend was out meeting his wife at the station, Archambaud (Gilbert Norman) turned up at 12 Rue Champchevrier with three Germans in civilian clothes in an open car. Archambaud asked Arend's parents to give him the W/T set. This had never been properly hidden, because they had not found a suitable place to hide it, but Arend's father could only find four of the five parts, the fifth being put away somewhere. Arend therefore went to fetch his son, and told him he thought the Germans had been won over, probably by bribery, and were working for the Allies. Arend returned with his father, to find Archambaud and two of the Gestapo in the house, the third Gestapo man remaining in the car. Archambaud and the Germans wanted to leave immediately but Arend pere offered them drinks and cigarettes. He then became more communicative and told them that his son was a refractaire. The Germans thereupon asked for Arend's papers, and took him away to verify them. Archambaud left with them.
(5) Jean Overton Fuller, open letter to the makes of Churchill's Secret Army, broadcast in January/February 2000.
Ernest Vogt, through whom Kieffer (unable to speak either English or French) had conducted the interrogation of Prosper, had told me he was brought in shortly after midnight 24 June 1943; Kieffer had said what was important to him was to get in the dumps of arms and munitions before they were used to kill German soldiers; If Prosper would disclose the locations of all the dumps, neither he nor any of the agents guarding them would be executed; they would be held in prisons until the end of the war. Prosper asked what authority Kieffer had to promise that; Kieffer sent to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Berlin, and the authority arrived by breakfast time. Archambaud was then brought in and acquainted with the pact that had been made. Prosper wrote a note to Darling telling him to hand over the arms "to bearer", but when he had done so he was arrested.
Prosper now disappeared from the scene (Vogt did not know where he was taken to) and Archambaud left to explain the pact to further prisoners as they were brought in and to advise them to fall in with its terms, and some supposed him to be the author of it. So long as the Germans remained in Paris, the prisoners were kept in Fresnes or other prisons round about, but after the Allied landings, the Germans, in their retreat, did not leave them to the liberated by the Allies - they would have given away the radio game still being played by the Germans in their retreat. Probably because, as in their retreat they were constantly moving from one town to another which would have made in inconvenient to take a large number of prisoners, Kieffer must have been looking for some place where he could deposit them, and thereby lost the control of them, and (this he learned only from his Allied captors after the war) they got deposited in concentration camps, Buchenwald and others, where the guarantee that had been given of their being kept alive and well treated was ignored, or perhaps even not known about, and in the last stages of the war they were all murdered.
(6) M. R. D. Foot, SOE in France (1966)
It is said to be widely believed in France that Suttill's circuit was deliberately betrayed by the British to the Germans; even 'directly by wireless to the Avenue Foch'. An assertion as absurd as this last one calls to mind the Duke of Wellington's reply to the man who called him Captain Jones: 'Sir, if you can believe that, you can believe anything'. The Avenue Foch could only be reached by wireless by someone who knew the frequencies it used; it was the task of one of the British intelligence departments to hunt for these frequencies and, having found them, to watch the traffic on them. It is not seriously conceivable that any transmission could have been made to the Gestapo direct from any British-held set without giving rise to widespread and elaborate inquiries involving several different secret services: how on earth could they all be hushed up ? Such a conspiracy to betray Prosper, whether per impossible by wireless or by any other means, appears in any case quite pointless. What object useful to British strategy could have been served by it ?
(7) Francis Cammaerts was interviewed by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field.
Francis Cammaerts dismisses as 'a fantasy' the theory put forward by those like his one-time deputy Pierre Raynaud and the BBC's Robert Marshall that Dericourt was run by MI6. He thinks men like Bodington and Dericourt became double agents because 'they had a freak sense of adventure and thought it was a clever way to play it.'
One of the F Section agents recruited in the field, Jacques Bureau - Prosper's radio technician - also is convinced that the Prosper agents were used to deceive the Germans about the time and place of the invasion, but he sees it as an indispensable, a justifiable strategy for defeating the Nazis and saving countless lives. His attitude is one more of sorrow than of anger, an acknowledgment of the tragic ironies of the situation rather than an indictment of the British.
He believes that Suttill and Norman behaved honourably, following orders that were designed, although neither they nor the French Section staff were aware of the fact, to set up the radio games that, along with
Dericourt's passing of the mail, would keep the German forces in the north-west of France in a constant state of expectation of invasion there between the spring and the autumn of 1943, when they might have been used against the Allies on other fronts. Although they were unaware of it, as he sees it the weapons he and the other Prosper agents wielded were the lies that successfully protected the real invasion plans.