The first agents whom SOE's F Section sent to France were Frenchmen. The first to be parachuted in, George Bégué, was dropped early in May 1941. Bégué had attended an engineering college and had acquired an early interest in radio. During the inter-war years he had been unable to find work which provided an outlet for his engineering skills and he was employed in the sales department of the Simca Company. As a reserve officer he was recalled to the colours in 1939, but he found service in the Maginot Line a dispiriting experience. He was glad therefore when his knowledge of English brought him an appointment as liaison officer with British forces. In this capacity he came to England through Belgium and then Dunkirk.
In England he spent some time in hospital and afterwards had convalescent leave with his English wife and their small child, who living near Hull. This interlude gave him time to consider closely his future course of action. Most of the Frenchmen in England with whom Bégué was in touch at that time wanted to return home to their families, the prospect of service with de Gaulle appealing only to a minority.
Bégué himself visited de Gaulle's headquarters, was not very favourably impressed with what he saw, and declined to take an oath of personal allegiance to the general. Together with a group of some twenty other Frenchmen he enlisted in the British forces, an oath of allegiance to the symbol of the crown seeming a more acceptable commitment than the personal one demanded by de Gaulle.
Bégué was at first enrolled as a private soldier in the Royal Corps of Signals, but his expert knowledge of radio was placed on record, and before long he was called for an interview at one of the war Office rooms used by SOE as cover. Here he was confronted by Thomas Cadett, one the pioneer figures in SOE's F Section, who was known to the British publicas the BBC's Paris correspondent. Bégué agreed with little hesitation to Cadett's suggestion that he should be dropped into France to provide a radio link. The only proviso he made was that his mission should serve some useful purpose.
The training Bégué received was inevitably much sketchier than that given to agents who went in later. His radio set was cumbersome and not very convincingly disguised in a suitcase. The ration cards he took with him were, he was to discover, not valid. By way of contacts he was given simply the name and address of Max Hymans, a former Socialist member of the Chamber of Deputies, who was known to officials of F Section, and some personal messages which he had to memorize carefully.
Bégué was dropped some ten miles from the landing point chosen. He came down in a ploughed field, where he spent most of the rest of the night, yet as he looked up at the moon and silvery clouds he decided he had just made the best journey of his life. Lugging the heavy suitcase containing his radio, he made his way to a hotel, which was just inside the unoccupied zone and where a maid gave him some valid bread coupons. After making a number of enquiries he reached the house whose address he had been given in London, only to find that Hymans was away from home.
He had therefore to return later. When he did so he repeated the messages he had memorized, satisfied Hymans of his bona fides, and was put in touch first with a chemist and then with a garage-owner. Through these contacts he found a room where he could establish his radio set and the long aerial it needed, and so was able to transmit the first radio message sent to SOE from France.
The radio contact which Bégué established allowed prepared parachute drops to be made, but the maintenance of communications was, for him, continually hazardous. The Germans were quick to exploit the use of detector vans for locating sets which were transmitting. As the resistance organizations grew, radio operators were able to transmit from a number of different sets placed in different houses, and the smaller the sets became the easier they were to conceal when a raid did take place. Bégué had none of these advantages, and he had the added problem of continually having to repair his set without access to suitable spare parts.
To reduce radio traffic Bégué suggested that the BBC should broadcase en clair certain prearranged phrases which would indicate to him that a parachute drop would or would not take place or other information of importance. He thereby became one of the originators of a system with would later have widespread application. In time it was even used to inform SOE agents who had left pregnant wives behind of the sex of the children born while they were on operational duty in enemy-occupied territory.
Bégué continued to operate for nearly six months from May to October 1941. When the almost inevitable arrest did take place in Marseilles it was made by the Vichy authorities, not the Germans. Bégué was imprisoned, but through the intercession of the admirable American Consul-General, Hugh Fullerton, was transferred to the Mauzac prison camp. Within the camp he succeeded in rigging up a radio transmitter, which was instrumental in bringing about the escape which was organized for him. He crossed the Pyrenees and reached London.
Here the knowledge he had acquired of the conditions in which radio operators had to function in France was considered of such importance that he was appointed, under the name of George Noble, F Section's signals officer. He was thereby precluded from further operational duties.