In spite of everything, SOE did score a few early successes. On the night of May 5, 1941, the first F section agent actually to parachute into France, Georges Bégué, dropped about 20 miles north of Châteauroux, in the unoccupied zone. Carrying a heavy radio transmitter in his suitcase, he walked to the home of a retired French politician who was a personal friend of F section's second-in-command. When the old Frenchman got over his surprise, he agreed to help, and within days Bégué was able to report back to London the addresses of sympathetic contacts in the area. Three more agents followed almost at once, and in the early hours of June 13 and RAF Whitley bomber, guided by lights set out on the grounds of a château near Limoges, dropped two long metal containers packed with submachine guns, fighting knives, plastic explosive and mines with delayed-action fuses. For the French patriots waiting in the darkness, the shadow war could at least begin in earnest. Those two containers were the first of nearly 100,000 supply packets to thud onto French soil during the German occupation.
While making the arrangements for the airdrop, Georges Bégué had an unpleasant foretaste of the dangers in store for all radio operators working with the Resistance. Almost as soon as he began calling London for instructions, the German wireless interception service picked up onhis Morse transmissions and tried to jam them by transmitting a signal on the same frequency. Vichy police were alerted to look for strangers around Châteauroux, and direction-finding vans, each one containing a device that could home in on a radio source by means of a special antenna, started cruising the streets to find him. He knew that his freedom depended on keeping transmission time to an absolute minimum.
How could he get information from London without using his transmitter to make radio contact? The solution was simple but brilliant: Enlist the BBC. To cut down the number of transmissions he and his fellow agents would have to make, Bégué suggested that the BBC foreign service should beam messages to underground operatives. This idea was to have far-reaching consequences, leading to an elaborate system of "personal messages" broadcast every evening over the BBC's powerful transmitters to agents and resistance movements throughout Western Europe. Some sounded like simple family greetings ("Jean sends a kiss to Nicole"), some were pointless ("Flora had a red neck") and some were utterly meaningless ("Is Napoleon hat still at Perros-Guirec?"). But to SOE agents who were aware of their significance, they meant a courier had arrived safely, or a parachutage would take place that night, or a railway line should be sabotaged. The Germans expanded endless energy trying to fathom this primitive code, to no avail.
SOE was learning fast from experience, but there was a great deal to learn. The first agents who parachuted into the occupied countries had no reception committees to greet them when they hit the ground. Like Georges Bégué, they carried only the name and address of a stranger who might be willing to help. Often the names of these first contacts were provided by expatriates who had made their way to London when their countries had been overrun. If an SOE agent was lucky, his contact either would be already involved in an embryonic resistance network or would know someone who was. In areas where there were no known sympathizers, the agent was obliged to make cautious inquiries about local resistance. If no resistance group existed in the area, his orders were to attempt to start one. Sometimes an agent was fortunate enough to be dropping into a locale he knew well, where he had friends he could trust. Even in such promising situations, he became a fugitive once he touched the soil of Europe. Unfriendly police and Gestapo spies were everywhere, and a single mistake could lead to capture, torture and death.
The agents who volunteered for this hazardous duty, both men and women, were recruited from
all walks of life. The first requirement, of course, was an ability to speak the language of the
country concerned. In the Dutch and Scandinavian sections of SOE almost all the recruits were
of those nationalities, but in the French and Belgian sections a fair number of agents were bilingual
British. Among those recruited during 1941 were bankers, actors, journalists, wine merchants,
lawyers, artists, teachers, film directors, dress designers, mothers and housewives.