`Now look here,' said Sir Charles, `If SOE is to have any justification it must be as a military operation, properly planned with a definite object. We must build up an organization and have it ready for use when it's most needed.'
That made sense and, in fact, Hambro was making an understatement. In May 1941 the first agents of the French Section had reached France. They were Commandant Georges Bégué, Captain Pierre de Vomécourt and Roger Cottin.
Their despatch was arranged by Marriott's deputy, Thomas Cadett, a former Paris correspondent of The Times.
Although Cadett's spell at the French Section was brief - he left SOE in September to join the BBC - it must be put on record that the dispatch of the first agents of SOE to France goes to his credit. Cadett did not hesitate to infringe the order that only British and Commonwealth citizens must be employed. Both Bégué and de Vomécourt were, of course, Frenchmen, but he certainly could not have found better and braver men.
Thus on 17 March 1941 Maurice Buckmaster arrived at Baker Street and strove to wrest the Bottin directory from its tenacious guardian. Within a few months he was Commanding Officer of the French Section. When he took over, his staff at Baker Street numbered eight. During the year following it increased to twenty-four. His assistants were not mere pen-pushers. Several of those who joined him later had been in the field in France, some of them several times. Some had been wounded or had escaped from German or Vichy prisons - men such as `Gerry' Morel, Jacques de Guélis, Georges Bégué, Francis Basin, Harry Rée and Jean Le Harivel.
If anybody ever considered the men around Buckmaster as a `chairborne platoon', the story of Major Gerard Morel, affectionately called `Gerry' by all his comrades, will quickly correct this impression. Morel had been a liaison officer to a British regiment in the spring of 1940. he was captured on a beach at Dunkirk, having missed the last transport when lying seriously ill and exhausted on the ground. The Germans released him later from the prison camp, because they thought he was too ill to survive for very long. Hardly recovered, Morel went to Spain and, knowing nothing of SOE but determined to fight again, he signed on a ship going to Brazil, hoping to reach England somehow. From Rio de Janeiro , he returned to Portugal, contacted British Intelligence in Lisbon, and finally landed at Baker Street. On 4 September 1941 he was one of the first SOE agents back in France. His poor health precluded parachuting and he was the first man to be landed from a Lysander. Indeed, it was the first time since the Fall of France that a British RAF plane had landed on French soil. He had come to learn what had happened to Georges Bégué. While trying to to re-establish radio contact with headquarters, he was betrayed after six weeks, taken by the Vichy police to the prison at Périgueux, went on hunger-strike and fell seriously ill. Removed to a hospital at Limoges, he was operated on and, with the stitches still in his stomach, escaped from the prison hospital and again crossed the Pyrenees. Caught by Spanish frontier guards, he was interned at the Miranda de Ebro camp. He got out and eventually reached London. At Baker Street this gentle and brave man felt he must apologize for his `failure'.
His health ruined, Morel subsisted throughout the remaining years of the war on dry biscuits and milk, plotting hundreds of operations for the agents in the field. Once more, in February 1944, he returned to France with the unpleasant task of fetching a French SOE agent on whom suspicion had fallen.
Major Georges Bégué, the very first radio operator who had preceded Pierre de Vomécourt in May 1941, had returned in the autumn of 1942 to become the Signals Officer of Buckmaster's section. Arrested four months after his arrival, he had been held in solitary confinement at Périgueux prison and later at the Mauzac gaol, together with ten of the early SOE agents, including Pierre Bloch, the Socialist Member of Parliament for Aisne. Bloch had helped organize the first SOE réseau in the Dordogne. By means of a daring rescue operation, led by Madame Bloch and Virginia Hall, the prisoners were freed - under the noses of their guards - on France's national holiday, 14 July 1942. After many adventures they reached London, where Bégué (as `Major George Noble') continued his work. To comprehend his determination, it be worth mentioning that Bégué, in his prison cell at Mauzac, assisted by a sympathetic French guard, contrived of a crude radio transmitter, which he tuned to the Baker Street frequency. Thus a few faint Morse signals from inside a prison in France first informed Buckmaster that his first radio operator was still alive and that some of the other SOE agents were still free and functioning.
Hence we return to 5 May 1941, when the first agent of the French Section, Georges Bégué, alias George Noble, was dropped with his large and rather inefficient transmitter in the Dordogne. He proceeded to the region of Châteauroux where he was to go to an address given to him in London - the house of Max Hymans, former Socialist Member of the Chamber of Deputies for the Indre constituency. On 10 May, Pierre de Vomécourt, and on 13 May Roger Cottin, were dropped, also `blind', not far from Châteauroux. If all went well, Pierre was to visit his brother Philippe, who lived on his estate at Brignac, not far from Limoges. Cottin was to go to Paris, where he had worked before the war, and Pierre was to rejoin him in Paris. Then, with the `pianist' Bégué, they would set up the first radio post and try to establish the first réseau.
The F agents had been preceeded by several sent by BCRA and DF section, particularly a party of five French officers and NCO's, led by Captain Bergé, who were droped on 15 March in Britanny. Amongst them was Joel Letac, who subsequently established the important RF circuit `Overcloud'. Roger Cottin was a big, sturdy man nicknamed `Roger les cheveux blancs' on account of his prematurely white hair. He was born in France of British parents and had travelled the world as the representative of a famous Paris perfume firm. Like Pierre de Vomécourt, he had escaped from France to England in 1940, with one of the last units of the BEF, after Dunkirk.
Pierre de Vomécourt reached his brother's house safely. He learned with relief that his wife and children whom he had left behind almost a year ago, were well in his Paris apartment. His brother, Philippe, immediately offered to work with him for SOE and told him that their eldest brother, Jean, the RAF pilot of the First World War, would also join them. Within a few days the three brothers and two of Philippe's friends, the Marquis de Moustier and Henri Sevenet, began to organize the first SOE network, code-named `Autogiro'.
They decided that their first meeting with Bégué and Cottin would be at Châteauroux, rather than in Paris, and the two SOE officers came south. They all agreed that Jean de Vomécourt should operate a réseau at Pontarlier in the German-occupied zone, where he had an estate; Philippe would stay in the unoccupied Vichy zone, building up his network based on Limoges, where he could count on many local helpers. Pierre, Roger Cottin and `George One'1 (Bégué) would go to Paris, whre Pierre could use his house near the Bois de Boulogne as a temporary foothold.
Thus the original SOE networks were set up in Francein the early summer of 1941. They consisted of the three French brothers de Vomécourt, the Frenchman Georges Bégué, and Roger Cottin, helped by several friends of the Vomécourts. The very first signals which `George One' sent to London asked for `stuff', so that they could begin serious business. It was agreed that the moon period in June should be used for the first drop of containers, and that Philippe would mark the dropping grounds in a field about a quarter of a mile from his house at Château Bas Soleil, near Brignac.
Four times Baker Street signalled that an aircraft had left, but for two nights Philippe and four helpers waited in vain. On the third night they saw a plain circle overhead and return. At last, on the fourth night, when the saml reception committee had diminished to two - Philippe and Gabie, a young man from the Lorraine, the flight succeeded. Two containers were dropped, but one fell outside the marked ground, more than a mile away into a chestnut wood near the hamlet of Chabeau. The two men dragged the heavy loads across a stream, up a steep hill and over six fences to the house. They hid the buckets in the cellar and covered them with straw and apples. This, as far as I know, was the first drop of SOE material into France.
Early in the morning Philippe de Vomécourt went into the village. he was soon surrounded by excited peasants. They had heard aircraft circling during the night, not one, but two ... no, three ... five, ... six! Anxiously they asked him if the British would bomb the locality. He drove to the gendarmerie post at St. Léonard-de-Noblat and reported that he, too, saw planes flying during the night over the district and that he believed that men had been dropped by parachute.
`You'd better come and investigate,' he told the gendarmes.
They visited the estate, plodded over the fields and, of course, found nothing. They left satisfied that it was just gossip.
The ruse had been successful, and Philippe and his friends could now unpack the containers. They looked at the few tommy guns, revolvers and knives and half a dozen packets of explosives, like children with glistening eyes on gaily wrapped presents under a Christmas tree.
For the next few weeks the activities of the little band of SOE men developed quickly and satisfactorily. In August Major Jacques de Guélis came from London to see for himself how things were going. He met the first agents of the French Section in Châteauroux, and he surmised that many more agents would be soon arriving and that supplies of arms, explosives and money would be stepped up.
During the night of 6 September six agents were dropped from a Whitley bomber near Argenton-sur-Creuse; several of them to play important parts. They were Ben Cowburn (`Benoit'), Michel Trotobas (`Sylvestre'), Victor Gerson (`Vic'), who later was to accomplish no less than five other dangerous missions., George Langelaan, the French Count Maurice du Puy, and André Bloch, their `pianist'.
They were received by Bégué, Hymans and Octave Chantraine, the mayor of Tendu, who provided their first `safe house'2. Cowburn was an oil mining engineer, 33-year old, born at Leigh in Lancashire, who had spent many years in France. At the outbreak of the war he joined the British army, later enlisted in SOE, and was trained with Pierre de Vomécourt and Roger Cottin. He went to Paris to meet his two friends, who had taken a small office in the building of the Lido nightclub in the Champs Elysées. Pierre, believing it wiser to leave his own home, shared a small apartment with Roger, while Cowburn took a studio at Neuilly. They found a `safe house' for André Bloch's radio post, but later decided it would be safer if he were to work outside Paris, and the `George IX' station was erected in the house of a Resistance friend at Le Mans. For several weeks the radio link with Baker Street functioned satisfactorily and the SOE agents could send encouraging reports about their work.
They travelled to many French districts. Pierre set up several réseaux in the North; his brother Jean was in Besançon, organizing networks in the Franche Comté and arranging an escape route for British pilots to Switzerland. Cowburn travelled south and recruited helpers as far as Montauban and Toulouse.
Langelaan's orders were to find Edouard Herriot, France's GOM, and persuade him to come to Britain - another attempt at replacing de Gaulle. But Herriot refused and Langelaan was caught a month later by Vichy police.
Two more teams arrived on 19 September and 10 October. The first came by sea, and disembarked north of Perpignan from the Fidelity. It consisted of a French merchant sailor, Robert Leroy (who after sabotage work at Bordeaux docks returned five months later to England), Robert Roche (destined for Marseilles), Georges Dubourdin and Francis Basin3. The second party was parachuted in the Dordogne, north of Bergerac, and received by Pierre Bloch. Code-named `Corsica', its members were Jack Hayes, Claude Jumeau (who on his second mission was to die from wounds sustained at landing), Jean Le Harivel, a radio operator, and Denis Tuberville. who landed a mile away from his comrades, lost contact, and was picked up by Vichy gendarmes the next day. The `Corsica' team and several agents already in the field, had been given at Baker Street `Christophe's' (Turck's) address at the Villa des Bois at Marseilles as a `safe house'. Turberville carried a note with this address when he was arrested, and Vichy police waited there when the three `Corsicans' arrived.
One by one, the agents were trapped at the villa: Robert Lyon and Pierre Bloch, the French Socialist député, enlisted by Jacques de Guélis, and on 24 October Georges Bégué also. The debacle was complete when two agents who had arrived with Ben Cowburn - the radio operator André Bloch on 9 November at Le Mans, and Michel Trotobas at Châteauroux - were also arrested. Despite torture André Bloch kept silent, and was shot a few weeks later.
With the capture of the `pianists' Bégué and Bloch the radio link had gone, and all SOE agents were cut off from Baker Street.
Of the score of agents in France, most were now in various prisons, soon to be reunited at the Vichy concentration camp of Mauzac in the Dordogne. They stayed there until July 1942 when, as already mentioned, they managed to escape. Among them were Michel Trotobas, Robert Lyon Jack Hayes and Philippe Liewer (`Staunton'), who were to become organizers of important circuits in 1943.
In this extraordinary escape, made possible by smuggling duplicate keys to the
prisoners, two women played a remarkable part: Madame Bloch, the wife of the French
député, and Virginia Hall.