Tag Archives: France

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.

Type 3 Mark II (B2),

Type 3 Mark II (B2),used when longer range was required

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.


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.

Under the jackboot

Do you enjoy watching films about the Second World War? There is such a wide variety out there from action packed battle scenes to sagas on the Home Front, and many give us an insight into what it was like for civilians living in England – the bombings, the shortages, the evacuation of children – the list could go on and on. But what do we know about life for civilians on the other side of the Channel during World War 2? What would it have been like to live under Nazi occupation? Northern France is just a short ferry ride from the south coast of England, but life there was more complex and more difficult for ordinary people, people like you and me, who lived the unimaginable.


The biggest psychological issue for the French was to see their towns and villages patrolled by German soldiers, the swastika flying above the Hotel de Ville and at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The disassociation of seeing the unfamiliar in familiar places, of no longer seeing the French flag or feeling at home in the towns and villages where they had lived all their lives must have been an incredibly shock.

The other psychological problem for French civilians was not knowing what was happening in the rest of the world as the Nazis had a stranglehold on the media. The Paris daily newspaper, Pariser Zeitung, was written in German and contained around ten pages of news; this was usually summarised in a single page translated into French so real news was scarce and only what the Nazi regime wanted to tell people. This was the only news available, including heavily edited ‘news’ from the Vichy press. Pariser Zeitung was anti-communist, ant-semitic and anti-British; there was even a daily propoganda cartoon with an anti-British theme. Yet this was the only newspaper available to people in Occupied France.


As well as having to cope with enemy soldiers in their towns and villages, everyday life was also constrained by a curfew lasting from 10pm until 5am. No one was allowed out at night without an Ausweis, a German pass. The curfew combined with the blackout created a situation where, as dusk fell, people found themselves confined at home, curtains drawn, with no entertainment as their radios had been seized; it must have filled many people with despair.

Added to these problems was the endemic shortages which the French people suffered from almost the first day of the Occupation. The armistice which France signed with Germany meant that the French were responsible for the costs of the occupying German army of around 300,000 men; a cost of 20 million Reichsmarks every single day for the duration of the Occupation. As it was the Germans who set the exchange rate, obviously in their favour, this meant that there was little money to buy food. There was also little coal or petrol, which disrupted transport and meant that it was difficult to get food supplies from the villages to the large towns and cities. Imports were no-existant because of the Allied blockades, and labour was short on the farms because so many prisoners of war were being held in Germnay, as well as other able men being sent there to work in labour forces, so there were not enough people to work the land.

Many French families were divided by the occupation, either because some members lived in the Vichy controlled area whilst others were in the occupied zone, or because they lived many miles away from each other. An Ausweis was needed to cross the ‘border’ between the zones, and these were very difficult to acquire. The only correspondence allowed was between family members for which pre-printed cards were provided and people had to tick whatever applied to them (something like the postcards provided for prisoners of war). Little could be communicated with these if you could only tick words such as ‘prisoner’, ‘dead’ ‘in good health’ etc.

Of course, good health was something which was lacking as the food shortages increased. A huge amount of French food production went to the Germans, a situation which was exacerbated by a fall of about 50% in food production due to the lack of labour, fertilizer and fuel. Despite these problems with production the Germans seized about 20% of all crops and dairy produce, 50% of meat and a huge 80% of the champagne production. Such problems of supply and demand inevitably led to rationing with coupons issued to be exchanged for bread, butter, cooking oil and meat. Even so, the rationing only allowed civilians around 1,300 or fewer calories a day so home grown vegetables, home raised rabbits and chickens, and black market produce became key to survival. As hunger increased, particularly for young people in urban areas, queues outside shops became longer with no guarantee that there would be anything left to buy once you reached the front of the queue. Only those who could afford the ridiculously high prices could benefit from buying food on the black market, or buy the counterfeit food coupons which were often available. If a person was lucky enough to live in the countryside they could get more food by bartering cigarettes or skills although, as with most things, this was forbidden with confiscation of the food and imposition of fines if you were caught.

The Germans, to their credit, realised that this poor diet was bad for the youth of France and issued children and teenagers with vitamin tablets or biscuits through the schools. For most people, though, the only way to get some products was by substitution. Ersatz produce (ersatz being the German word for substitute or replacement) became the norm – coffee was replaced by toasted barley mixed with chicory, saccharin replaced sugar, wood replaced leather for the soles of shoes and wood gas generators on trucks and cars burned wood pellets or charcoal as a substitute for petrol. There was also a shortage of textiles so that clothes were often made from curtains or old blankets. Life for French civilians was, in a word, grim.

Allied bombing of Caen (Normandy, France) in 1944 Date: 1944
Allied bombing of Caen (Normandy, France) in 1944 Date: 1944

The population of France, bowed, hungry and desperate, was also subject to periodic bombing by the Allies which intensified as the Allied invasion approached. 550,000 tons of bombs were dropped and almost 75,000 civilians killed by Allied bombing during the war. In the weeks and months leading up to D Day the Allies targeted French railways, rail yards and railway bridges in particular, hoping to disrupt German troop movements immediately after the landings. On just one night, 26th May 1944, five cities in south-eastern France were hi,t with over 2,500 civilian deaths.

We often think of how difficult life was for civilians on the ‘home front’ back in England but forget their counterparts in France. The main characters in my novel ‘Heronfield’ see life on both sides of the channel, from the bombing of Coventry and rationing in England to life in the city of Saint Nazaire and the surrounding countryside. It is my tribute to those who were not in the armed forces but who suffered greatly during the dark days of the Second World War.