IN THE early history of the Special Operations Executive, Georges Bégué has a place of honour. In 1941 he was the first SOE agent to be dropped into France. Thereafter he was the crucial link in the development of several networks of agents which were eventually to become a powerful focus of resistance activities. Unfortunately he was not given the opportunity to see the task through. In the interval between his being captured, escaping and making his way back to Britain, the leadership of SOE had changed, and his talents were not thereafter deployed to the full.
Georges Bégué was the son of a French engineer who ran the tramway system in Alexandria, Egypt. He, too, trained as an engineer and was sent to the University College of Hull to learn English. He did his national service in the French Army as a signaller and was recalled in 1939. His English got him a liaison job with a unit in the British Expeditionary Force with which he escaped to Britain through Dunkirk. After France's surrender Bégué volunteered for the British Army as a sergeant in the Royal Signals.
In 1940 SOE's newly formed French Section was looking for recruits to send to France. In charge of recruitment was Thomas Cadett, seconded by The Times to be F Section's deputy head who described Bégué as the "pick of the bunch". After a shortened training course he was chosen as the first agent to be parachuted into France: On May 5, 1941, he dropped "blind" in the Indre, just inside the Unoccupied Zone under Vichy rule.
In 1941 many Frenchmen were still
undecided between following Pétain in subservience to the Germans, or answering the call to resistance from General de Gaulle. One man in France had up his mind: he smuggled out a letter to a friend in London saying he was prepared to do anything for the Allies. He was Max Hymans, a Socialist deputy for the Indre. His letter reached Tom Cadett who decided to take a chance and send Bégué to him. Carrying his heavy transmitter in a suitcase, Bégué trudged to the village of Valençay where Hymans was lying low. It took five hours to persuade Hymans that he was indeed an agent sent by the British and not a German agent provocateur.
Once persuaded of Bégué's good faith, Hymans introduced him to some of his fellow Socialists. Bégué was found lodgings in Châteauroux where he set up his transmitter and on May 9, 1941, sent the first message to London. It gave the address of a chemist whose shop could be used as a "letter-box" through which incoming agents could contact Bégué. Three of these parachuted on the next two nights, among them Pierre de Vomécourt who, with his two brothers, was to form SOE's most extensive early network.
It was on their estate near Limoges that on June 13, 1941, Bégué arranged the first drop of arms. On September 4 he arranged the first
Lysander landing, to set down one agent and pick up another.
On September 6 he organised the first reception party for six agents who dropped near Châteauroux.
SOE's men were spreading out over France, but all depended on Bégué for their communications with base. He often transmitted three times a day, spending hours at his set: in six months he handled hundreds of coded messages. He often had to act as his own courier, travelling by train to collect or deliver messages. It was exhausting and nerve-racking work. German direction-finding vans were closing in on his transmitter; French police were actively searching for foreign agents. To cut down the time he was on the air, Bégué suggested to base that they use the BBC to broadcast pre-arranged mesages about pick-ups or drops. This system was eventually used all over Europe.
Bégué knew his luck would run out, yet when disaster struck it was through no fault of his own. The agent brought in by the September Lysander, Gerry Morel, had made contact with Bégué but gone off on his own to sound out potential resisters. He was arrested by French police at Limoges on October 3. On him they found a paper with the address of a garage owned by Marcel Fleuret, one of Hyman's stalwarts, in Châteauroux which Bégué was now using as a letter-box.
The police arrested Fleuret, and staked out his garage. Max Hymans eluded capture as did Bégué and Pierre de Vomécourt. But they could not prevent other agents falling into the police trap. One of these gave away the address of an SOE safe house in Marseilles to which several agents went only to fall into the hands of waiting police. On October 26 Bégué himself was caught.
A dozen SOE agents now found themselves in a prison at Périgueux under indictment for "undermining the security of the French state" - a
capital offence. They endured a freezing winter, racked with hunger
and plagued by vermin. They were not, however brought to trial but transferred to a concentration camp at Mauzac in
Bégué's qualities of leadership and resourcefulness again came to the fore. He kept up his comrades' morale by getting them to plan their escape; he smuggled out a coded message telling London the situation; and he made contact with the newly-formed "Vic" escape line. Money was smuggled in to bribe the guard in one of the watchtowers on the night chosen for escape, and it was Bégué who fashioned a key to open the door of their hut, and helped devise a series of carefully timed movements to elude observation as they crawled through the wire.
Once outside, all agents were eventually smuggled across the Pyrenees into Spain and brought to Britain. Bégué took longer than some to get back. He was caught by the Spanish police and detained in Franco's notorious camp at Miranda do Ebro, only reaching London in October 1942. He found that F Section's top personnel, Harry Marriott and Tom Cadett, had been ousted and replaced by Maurice Buckmaster, for whom he came to have little respect. Although he was awarded the MC and appointed Signals Officer in F Section, Bégué did not feel his talents were given the full scope thereafter.
Soon after the war Bégué emigrated to the United States where, with characteristic modesty, he did a variety of menial jobs until was allowed to exercise his profession as an electronics engineer. He eventually became a US citizen but should be remembered - in Tom Cadett's fitting accolade - as "a prince among French patriots".
Georges Bégué is survived by his wife, Rosemary, whom he met while a student in Hull, and two daughters.