Tag Archives: France

Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal
Advertisements

Greater Love Has No Man Than This – Noel Chavasse

Following on from my previous article about the Royal Army Medical Corps I wanted to pay tribute to one of the heroes from the Corps who dedicated his life to helping those who had been wounded in battle, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse.

Noel Chavasse VC

Chavasse was born in Oxford on 9th November 1884, 20 minutes after his twin brother Christopher. The family moved to Liverpool when their father, Rev. Francis Chavasse, was made Bishop of Liverpool. Both boys did well at school where they excelled at sports, before going to Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating with a First-class honours degree Noel continued to study medicine at Oxford, and during that time both he and Christopher represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games. In 1909 Noel joined the Officers Training Corps Medical Unit at Oxford University, later being promoted to Lance-Sergeant. He passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was awarded the Oxford University’s premier medical prize, the Derby Exhibition. In 1913 Chavasse joined the Royal Army Medical  Corps as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Territorial 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.

Christopher (left) and Noel

When war broke out in 1914 Chavasse, like many other young men, was eager to serve and was happy to be in France by the end of the year. He initially wrote home to say that as he was not particularly heroic he was pleased that doctors were not allowed in the trenches so he would run little risk. Yet the young doctor soon saw the horrors of trench warfare as men were rotated back from the frontline in terrible condition, and he wrote home to say that they all came to hate the war worse than they had thought they could. Yet, despite everything, Chavasse continued to work hard, being amongst the first doctors to use the new anti-tetanus serum to help the wounded, and when the troops in nearby trenches were terrified by the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans he arranged for his father to send a gramophone to help raise their spirits.

For a man who did not feel heroic Noel Chavasse was to become the most highly decorated officer of the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Bellewaarde near Ypers on 16th June 1915 where he spent 12 hours helping to treat and rescue casualties in no man’s land (more than 1,000 men died during that offensive). Chavasse was promoted to Captain in 1915, and was also mentioned in despatches later that year.

In 1916 Chavasse was awarded the first of two Victoria Crosses. His unit suffered heavy casualties at Guillemont on 9th August with 230 out of 600 men killed, wounded or missing. Chavasse worked for more than 24 hours, disregarding sniper, machine gun and mortar fire to tend the wounded, bury fellow officers and collect ID from the dead. Although wounded in the back by two shell splinters, he refused to retire behind the lines and worked on, rescuing men from as close as 25 yards to the German line. His VC citation read:

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, M.C., M.B., Royal Army Medical Corps.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.

During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.

Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy shell fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey. The same night he took up a party of twenty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.

Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands. His courage and self-sacrifice, were beyond praise.

In a letter to his parents Chavasse described his work at the front line: “We found a man bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood… The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud…We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.”

Memorial to Noel Chavasse

Chavasse’s second Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions during the period of the 31st July to 2nd August 1917, at Wieltje in Belgium. On 31st July Chavasse’s unit were trying to recapture Passchendaele Ridge at Ypres, and whilst tending the wounded he was hit in the head but refused to be sent from the line. The weather was terrible and he was under constant heavy fire, but time and again Chavasse went into no man’s land to help the wounded. Early on 2nd August he was resting in his first-aid post when it was hit by a shell. Everyone in the post was killed or wounded; Chavasse himself had at least six injuries but crawled for half a mile to get help for his colleagues. He was taken to a casualty station suffering from a serious stomach wound and died there at 1pm on 4th August 1917, aged 32. The citation for his medal read:

War Office, September, 1917.

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of a Bar to the Victoria Cross to Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V.C., M.C., late R.A.M.C., attd. L’pool R.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.

Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.

During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground.

By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.

This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.

One soldier who witnessed Chavasse’s actions said “Gee! He did work! I was beginning to think he was not human, because nothing made him flinch or duck…The first wound that he received was in the head, and all he did was to take his tin hat off, put a bandage around his head, and carry on…This he did all day and all night until the next wound he got, in the side, did for him…a VC is too small a reward for such a man”.

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Chavasse is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge. His military headstone is unique as it depicts two Victoria Crosses, underneath is an inscription chosen by his father: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Chavasse’s heroism is still remembered by the people of Liverpool where he came third in a BBC poll in 2003 to find the 100 Greatest Merseysiders, above Bill Shankly, George Harrison and William Gladstone, and behind only Ken Dodd and Lennon and McCartney.

Chavasse has had at least 16 memorials dedicated to him, more than any other VC holder, including one at Liverpool Cathedral. He is the only VC and Bar of World War I and one of only three since the honour was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857.

In this video athlete Sally Gunnell talks about Noel Chavasse.

Blitzkrieg – the ‘lightning war’

On 10th May 1940 Hitler launched an attack into Belgium and France. What no one could have imagined on that day was that just six weeks later Marshall Pétain would sue for peace, signing an armistice which ceded three-fifths of French territory to the Germans. To add insult to injury, Hitler insisted that the armistice was signed in the same railway carriage in which Germany had been forced to admit defeat at the end of the First World War. So what had gone wrong for the Allies?

Signing the Armistice 1940

World War 1 had been a long-protracted conflict in which the opposing armies were static for the majority of the time, dug-in in extensive trench systems across northern Europe. Between the wars the Allies had assumed that if there were to be another war it would also be trench based and so they had planned accordingly. The French had used their huge defence budget to build a line of super-trenches with fortifications, tunnels, and underground bunkers on the German border (the Maginot Line), whilst the BEF supported French troops on the Belgian border. Therefore, when the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France at the outbreak of the Second World War they were ready for the prospect of a static defensive war. What the Allies were not prepared for, however, was Hitler’s intention to fight a swift, offensive war.

The Maginot Line

At dawn on 10th May 1940 29 German divisions began an invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium; in response the Allied commanders positioned the bulk of their forces defensively inside Belgium, playing into the hands of the enemy. What they were initially unaware of was that this attack was a feint and a further 45 divisions were thrusting forwards through the Ardennes. The French had believed this forested area to be impassable by enemy troops and so had left it woefully undefended. This second German force swiftly breached the Allied right flank, pushing them back towards the English Channel. With the fall of France and the disastrous retreat of the BEF from Dunkirk blame was placed on an innovative German tactic of blitzkrieg in which the enemy used the new technology of tanks and dive-bombers to force a swift victory. In German blitzkrieg means lightning war, a term which seemed apt for surprise attacks which made lightning fast advances into enemy territory, and in which air power supported ground troops to overwhelm the defenders. But blitzkrieg was not, in fact, a completely new idea.

Blitzkrieg – German attack through the Ardennes forest

The key elements of blitzkrieg are speed, surprise and superior firepower, and as such the concept can be traced back to Prussian military tactics in the early 19th century where limited resources meant that the only route to victory for the Prussians was through swift, powerful attack. Carl von Clausewitz, who made a detailed study of generals from Alexander the Great to Frederick II of Prussia, argued in his 1832 book ‘On War’ that all military force should be focussed in a single action against the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’, its Schwerpunkt. Once this vulnerable point has been identified a frontal attack combined with a double flanking movement should crush the enemy, even if attacking troops had to be withdrawn from other areas and risks taken to achieve this objective.

Carl von Clausewitz

The German Alfred von Schlieffen developed a plan for a swift attack against his country’s old enemy, France, and this plan was put into action at the beginning of the First World War. Developing the ideas of von Clausewitz, Schlieffen’s aim was to achieve a swift victory by using 90% of the German army to move through Belgium and northern France to take Paris in a quick and decisive campaign. The plan was good in principle, but the attacking forces were slowed when they met with unexpected Belgian resistance, and this in turn gave the British time to prepare a defence at Mons. Although the Schlieffen Plan had failed it was believed to have a solid basis and so the idea of a lightning fast attack was used again in the spring offensive of 1918 when German armies reached within 75 miles of Paris before their advance was halted.

Heinz Guderian

Between the wars the theory of blitzkrieg was further developed by Heinz Guderian who advocated the integration of light tanks and dive-bombers to improve the manoeuvrability of the German army, insisting that every tank should have a radio to give them an added advantage. Hitler had fought in the trenches during World War 1 and wanted to avoid further trench warfare if at all possible, so when he saw Guderian’s plan he was very taken with the idea of victory through speed and movement. The German High Command were derisive of Guderian’s plan, telling Hitler that his claim that he could reach the French coast in a matter of weeks was idle boasting, but Guderian insisted that if they could break through the enemy frontline the panic and confusion caused amongst the civilian population would hamper any defending army’s movements to the front and so make success even more assured. Despite the misgivings of his senior officers Hitler was prepared to take the gamble. Germany tested its modern blitzkrieg tactic with a combination of both air and land action in the Spanish Civil war in 1938 and in Poland in 1939, with promising results.

When Germany pushed into the Ardennes in 1940 stukas were sent in just ahead of the armour to soften up the target and destroy rail links and communication centres. The German tanks, supported by infantry in half-track vehicles, began their advance at the same time with the bombing only stopping at the last minute, leaving the Allies no time to re-group. Once the first objective was taken the attacking army moved on leaving civilian refugees to clog the roads needed by the defending army, and also attacking the fleeing civilians to add to the fear and panic. The use of FM radio communication gave yet another advantage to the attacking army, enabling quick decisions to be made based on reliable evidence rather than waiting for orders from HQ. It was left to units following this initial attack to secure the gains made, thus freeing the panzer units to move on to the next Schwerpunkt.

French refugees, 1940

Blitzkrieg was so successful in the initial phase of the war that Germany went on to use the tactic on the Easter Front against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, and in the North Africa campaign (Rommel, who commanded the German Afrika Korps, had been involved in the May 1940 attacks which forced the surrender of France). The Allies also adopted the ‘lightning war’ tactic in the Western Desert, on the Eastern Front, and after the D Day landings, relying on firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. Germany last used the blitzkrieg tactic during the Battle of the Bulge, yet the Allies continued to push forward and by the end of the war Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated by the very tactic which had brought it such success in 1940.

Fall of Berlin

Bibliography:

  • The Roots of Blitzkrieg by James Corum
  • Panzer, a Revolution in Warfare: 1939–1945 by Roger Edwards
  • The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl Heinz Frieser
  • To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne.
  • History of the Second World War by B H Liddell Hart
  • A History of Blitzkrieg by Bryan Perrett

Recommended Read – House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

France, 1935: At the poor man’s end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. His past, though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all those he holds most dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and the people he loves…?

House of the Hanged is a thriller with the majority of the story set in the mid-1930’s when the threat of war hangs over Europe once more, but no one is sure whether it will be fascist Germany who is the enemy, or communist Russia, or maybe a combination of the two.

The novel begins almost twenty years earlier in revolutionary Russia with the main character, Tom, failing to save the life of the woman he loves. The story swiftly moves on to the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War where Tom has given up working for British Intelligence and settled down in the south of France. As the novel progresses we learn more about Tom’s work, how it affected him, and how he is now trying to redeem himself, put the past behind him, and enjoy a life of peace. Each year Tom invites friends to join him at his villa for the summer; he also extends a welcome to refugees, particularly from Russia, as though his efforts to help them may in some way atone for not saving his love. After the thrilling opening the pace of the novel slows as we settle into the relaxed lifestyle of cocktail parties, sailing, swimming etc. in the south of France, but there is already a feeling that this year will not be like those which have gone before. When an attempt is made on Tom’s life the pace quickens again as he begins to question those around him – one of the people he is close to, perhaps someone he loves, has betrayed him.

Mr Mills has created a cast of well-drawn and believable characters in this novel, and the reader will enjoy learning about them and how they could be involved in the attempts to kill Tom. Is the threat to him linked to the current political climate, or has his past in Russia finally caught up with him? (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Tom is so unsure of the people around him that he keeps the danger to him a secret; all is calm on the surface, but the author has deftly created an undercurrent of fear and suspense which draws the reader in, helped in no part by his skilled writing, particularly in dialogue. Mr Mills has obviously researched this period of European history and has therefore been able to contrast the relaxed lifestyle of a particular social group on the French Riviera with the tension of a continent edging ever closer to all-out war. He has an evocative style which leaves the reader feeling immersed in a particular place and time – it is almost possible to feel the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the coolness of the water and the everchanging breeze – yet, at the heart, this is a well-paced cat and mouse thriller in which the pace is not slowed by the historical detail.

House of the Hanged is a classic spy story which would make a great holiday read for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries and intrigue. I will certainly be trying other books by this author.

House Of The Hanged can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Mark Mills and his work here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A life on the line – SOE radio operators in the Second World War

England. June 1940. Things looked bleak for the Allies after the fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, Britain was on the defensive and most people believed that the invasion of England would soon begin. In an effort to take some of the fight to the enemy Winston Churchill authorised Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to set up a clandestine organization to help form, supply and run resistance movements in occupied countries. This new Special Operations Executive (SEO) was to be responsible for recruiting and training agents who would then be sent behind enemy lines. (The work of the SOE). One of the most difficult roles which members of the SOE undertook was that of wireless operator.

The early equipment needed by radio operators was cumbersome – a short-wave morse transceiver (capable of both sending and receiving messages) weighing a hefty 30 pounds along with a flexible aerial 70 feet long – all of which had to be concealed in a suitcase 2 feet long. It was hard to be inconspicuous and not act suspiciously whilst carrying such incriminating equipment in enemy held territory. The SOE realised how important the correct equipment would be for the survival of their agents and began to design their own lighter and more portable sets. The culmination of this work was the Paraset, a major improvement as it weighed just 9 pounds and was small enough to carry in a small attache case yet powerful enough to send and receive messages over distances in excess of 500 miles.

Paraset Mk II, 1943

An SOE wireless operator had to know the area they worked in intimately. It was vital that they transmit from a different place, and only very briefly, each time they made contact with base as it was estimated that, in an urban environment, the Germans were able to track down a transmitter in around half an hour. Agents also had to create schedules for their transmissions which did not involve making contact on the same day of the week or at the same time of day, as any sort of pattern which could be identified by the Germans would be disasterous. The ideal for an agent was to set up, transmit, dismantle and get away within a maximum of 20 minutes to avoid capture and torture. To be found transmitting would almost certainly mean death to the operator, but it could also be devastating to the resistance group they worked with. If the enemy captured a transceiver and code books they would try to use them to trap the rest of the grouup. To try to prevent such deceptions each wireless operator was instructed to spell certain words incorrectly – if a transmission was made with the word spelt correctly the handler back in England would know that the operator had been compromised and, hopefully, have time to warn field agents in time for them to make good their escape.

Noor Inayat Khan, a member of the SOE who was executed by the Germans

The majority of radio operators sent behind enemy lines by the SOE were women as it as believed that they would be able to move around with their equipment without drawing as much attention to themselves as a man would. After all, it was quite common for women to be out shopping with a bag during the day whilst a man in a similar situation would be much more conspicuous. The women who signed up to do this work were under no illusions as to the importance, and the danger, of what they were committing to – the life expectancy of as SOE wireless operator working in Occupied France was just six weeks. (The Women Who Spied For Britain)

Some resistance groups were set up by the SOE whilst others were formed by locals with SOE support, yet regardless of how they began all groups received their instructions directly from England (or one of the subsidiary bases in other theatres of war, such as Cairo). The wireless operator in the ‘circuit’ lived in isolation with only brief contact with a single member of the group. It was a lonely existence in order to protect the remainder of the group. A wireless operator would not take part in operations such as sabotage, their only role was to be responsible for transmitting orders, or arranging the transport of agents and drops of supplies. In the early days all transmissions went through the radio station at Bletchley Park but the SOE later had its own stations at Poundon and Grendon Underwood – messages from the field would come in there to be forwarded to SOE HQ in London by teleprinter.

Security was vital in this clandestine world, both for the agent in the field and the information being transmitted. One way of ensuring security was by having an agent who knew how to transmit safely and securely, but the use of codes was also incredibly important. To begin with insecure poem codes were used, but these led to a number of disasters and so Leo Marks was made chief cryptographer. As part of his role Marks helped to develop single use ciphers printed on silk in an effort to save agents lives. The reason for such an expensive material was simple – it didn’t make a rustling sound like paper so, once concealed in the lining of clothing, it would not be detectable during a casual search.

Wireless operators who served behind enemy lines played an incredibly important role during the Second World War, particularly in the weeks leading up to the D Day landings in June 1944. Without their courage and sacrifice the war could have dragged on for months longer, and many more lives been lost. In my novel, Heronfield, one of the characters is a young woman who places her life on the line to be an SOE wireless operative in St Nazaire. My creation is an amalgamation of many women who served, and is my tribute to them all.

 

The women who spied for Britain

The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.

German soldiers in Paris

Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.

Paraset Mk II, 1943

It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.

One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.

Virgina Hall

Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan

Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).

Violette Szabo

Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and  Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and  Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.

Monument remembering all women who played a part in winninng the Second World War

The 39 female SOE agents who served in  France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…The French Resistance during the Second World War

Members of the maquis
Members of the maquis

How would you feel if your country was invaded, your homeland occupied and your government capitulated? Would you give in or would you fight to free your country? Citizens of France, like people in many other countries, had to face this dilema during the Second World War. For many people the thought of living under German rule was intolerable and so they chose to fight.

There was not just one resistance movement in France, different groups of like-minded people – from communists to Catholics, anarchists to aristocrats – came together to do what they could to oppose the Nazis. The German Blitzkrieg had overwhelmed France in 1940 and left a country divided with the north occupied by the Germans and the south run by the puppet Vichy government. Desperately unhappy and determined to drive out the conquerors many French joined the resistance; their initial aim was to attack the Germans wherever possible but over time they also developed intelligence networks which gathered information for the Allies, and also helped downed airman to escape. At first these resistance fighters worked in individual groups and had no contact with like-minded people but, over time, networks were set up which enabled better co-ordination and greater success. Soon postal workers were intercepting messages and telephone workers destroying lines, the railway workers blew up bridges and rails as well as diverting and derailing trains. There were other groups (notably the PAT line and Comet line) which helped downed American and British airmen get back to England, travelling through France and over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain before being sent back to England.

Escaping over the Pyrenees
Escaping over the Pyrenees

A tank corps officer who had escaped from France just before the surrender set up an official resistance in England with the help of the British Government. His name was Charles de Gaulle. On 18th June 1940 the BBC broadcast his call to the French people to start a resistance movement. His words were a call to arms: ‘Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is a world war. I invite all French officers and soldiers who are in Britain or who may find themselves there, with their arms or without, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die.’ Churchill publicly recognised de Gaulle as the leader of the ‘Free French’ and denounced the Vichy government which held a court-martial and sentenced de Gaulle to death in his absence.

Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC
Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC

To make the resistance more effective Jean Moulin convinced de Gaulle to unite all of the disparate resistance groups into one great army of resistance to give the Allies a better chance of defeating Nazi Germany. de Gaulle asked Moulin to set up a National Resistance Council which promised resistance fighters that they would get arms and money from the British if they agreed to fight together, which they eventually did in early 1943. Moulin was later betrayed and arrested.

Jean Moulin
Jean Moulin

Many people think that de Gaulle and the Free French were the only resistance in France, but that is incorrect. Some resistance movements took their orders directly from de Gaulle, others from the SOE (Special Operations Executive set up by the British to train and operate agents in occupied countries), there were regional groups, and groups which consisted of specific racial or political members such as communists or Jews. Over time people began to realise that this disorganised resistance was not as effective as it could be and, in June 1941, all communist groups joined together to improve their ability to fight the enemy. The Communist resistance fighters were not fighting for France to return to the way it had been before the war, their loyalty lay with international Communism and to Russia which was fighting with the British against Germany, their objective – to set up a communist government in France which would owe allegiance to the Soviet Union. These communist resistance fighters were renowned for capturing and killing German army officers; not unexpectedly this led to swift and brutal reprisals, sometimes as many as 50 hostages were shot in retaliation for the death of one German officer.

The SOE in France
The SOE in France

One of the best know resistance groups is the Maquis which was a group of guerrilla fighters who operated independently and fought in the rural areas of France, especially the high mountain regions. These ruthless fighters were experts at hiding out in the bushes which lined the roads then ambushing Germans, so they took their name from the maquis bushes that grow alongside country roads. In preparation for D Day the British dropped arms and money to the Maquis who were able to use the resources to prevent German reinforcements reaching the beaches of Normandy. German reprisals became evermore extreme, including the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944.

Oradour-sur-Glane
Oradour-sur-Glane

Jewish resistance fighters often felt that they had more reason than anyone to fight the Germans. One example was Andre Scheinmann who was a German Jew who fled to France with his parents after the infamous Kristallnacht. Andre joined the French army at the outbreak of war, was captured and then escaped before pretending to be a collaborator and getting the job of running the railways in Brittany. In reality Andre was a member of the French resistance and was second in command of a complex network of almost 300 spies which reported German troop movements to the British. With this excellent information the British were able to bomb troop transports from the air whilst the group also blew up trains on the ground. Andre Scheinmann’s luck eventually ran out. Captured by the Gestapo he spent almost a year in a French prison before being sent to a concentration camp, finally ending up in Dachau where he survived to be released by the Americans. Andre was one of the lucky ones, it is estimated that there around 56,000 French resistance fighters were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps during the occupation, half of them paid the ultimate price and never returned to their homes.

Jewish resistance
Jewish resistance

The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the Germans and so de Gaulle chose the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol for the Free French and encouraged people to fight under this banner, particularly after D Day when the Allies asked that all resistance fighters wore armbands showing the cross to make them easily identifiable. These brave French fighters played a vital role in the early days of the invasion.

Cross of Lorraine
Cross of Lorraine

Of course, there were more ways to resist the Germans than by sabotage or guerrilla warfare. The coal miners of France bravely went on strike and so slowed the delivery of coal which was much needed for the war effort in Germany. Some groups produced clandestine newspapers which encouraged all kinds of resistance, from asking doctors to only approve known collaborators as fit to be sent to Germany on forced labour to letting farmers know how they could get food to resistance fighters. By far the greatest contribution, however, came from those who worked to gather intelligence for the Allies which was vital in the planning stages for the invasion of Europe. By early 1944, sixty intelligence cells were working flat out, in the month of May alone they sent almost four thousand reports to the Allies.

It was not only men who played their part. During the early years of resistance, when supplies were limited, many laboratories were set up to make explosives. France Bloch-Serazin was a scientist who made explosives in her apartment for the communist resistance; she also made cyanide capsules for the fighters so that they could avoid torture if they were ever captured. Bloch-Serazin was arrested and tortured in February 1942 before being sent to Hamburg where she was eventually executed by guillotine a year later. Then there was Madame Lauro who destroyed food supplies intended for the Germans by pouring nitric acid and hydrochloric acid onto the food in freight trains. The most famous resistance network, the Alliance Réseau, was led by another woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. The Alliance worked with the SOE gathering information on German plans and military strength. Madame Fourcade gave animal code names to her network (she herself was called Hedgehog) and so the Alliance became known as Noah’s Ark. Madame Fourcade was captured but escaped and joined the Maquis; she fought with them until the end of the war when she was able to return home.

Marie-Madeleine Foucarde
Marie-Madeleine Foucarde

It is difficult to estimate the value of the work carried out by the resistance in France, but Eisenhower said that the resistance had made a contribution equal to ten to fifteen divisions (one division would have around ten thousand soldiers). It is also hard to gauge how effective these resistance fighters were, but it is known that 10,000 German troops were held back to deal with the Maquis du Vercors and so could not be moved to the front line immediately after D Day. It is impossible to say how many were involved in the resistance although the post-war government put the figure at around 220,000 men and women. And the casualties amongst the resistance? No-one really knows although estimates have been put at 8,000 killed in action, 25,000 wounded and around 56,000 sent to concentration camps, 27,000 are believed to have died there. As many as 5,000 aircraft men and possibly 1,500 POW’s escaped via the ‘lines’ thanks to the resistance; casualties amongst the French were high with possibly as many as one death for each escapee who reached safety.

Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad
Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad

It took a special kind of bravery to live in occupied territory for years, hiding your true feelings, acting in the dark to fight the oppressor, living in fear for yourself and your families. My novel, Heronfield, pays tribute to the French men and women who fought so hard for their freedom during those dark days of the Second World War.