They Fought Alone

Title:                      They Fought Alone

Author:                 Maurice J. Buckmaster

Buckmaster, Maurice J. (1958). They Fought Alone: The Story of British Agents In France. London: Odhams

LCCN:    58003155

D802.F8 B82 1958


Date Updated:  February 10, 2017

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

An improvement over the author’s first book[2] on SOE F Section’s operations into France in World War II. Buckmaster gives a hint of the political problems the British found in dealing with de Gaulle and the Free French in London. There is still a reluctance to speak frankly of these difficulties and those with SOE’s RF Section in sufficient detail, which few could supply with first-hand authority and accuracy. He provides one explanation for the absence of many important facts about his stewardship of F Section during most of the war: the section, he informs us, did not keep complete or proper records, and he was too busy to do so. Further, he was little inclined to think of the historian while the war was on. Another improvement over the earlier book is his inclusion of a number of humorous anecdotes that enhance the interest of a well-paced narrative. Foot’s comment in SOE in France is that there is no claim that this new book is completely accurate.[3]

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[4]

Further memoirs by the one-time chief of F Section of the SOE. No claim to accuracy is claimed in this later book (see also entry for Buckmaster, listed below). Compilation of case histories with details on resistance tradecraft.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[5]

Site 72: Orchard Court, Portman Square. In a four-room flat on the second floor, officers of SOE’s F Section met the new recruits before they began training and again before they left for France. Agents weren’t to know the postings of fellow agents and were thus bundled from one briefing room to the next—even into the .legendary bathroom—like “characters in a French farce”, the head of F Section would recall. The famous black bathroom was theatrical in its own right. It had a black-tiled bathtub, an onyx bidet, subdued pink lighting, thick carpeting, and peach-pink mirrors engraved with scantily-clad maidens. Redecorated in 1965, this bathroom still exists vividly in memoirs and memories.

F was SOE’s “independent” section for France, not to be confused with the Gaullist section known as RF (see Site 60 1 Dorset Square). SOE had wanted to operate in France without de Gaulle and, for security reasons, without connection to the centrally organized Gaullist resistance in France. The separate RF Section was formed in belated recognition of de Gaulle’s importance and, it must be said, in response to his fury over F Section’s existence. F Section continued to build its many small networks unconnected to each other and to the larger resistance organizations in France. This did not eliminate security problems for F’s agents in France, of course, nor did it eliminate the difficulties between F and RF in London.

The head of F Section tried to maintain perspective about these legendary difficulties: “I always tried to have as little as possible to do with the politics of the Resistance both in England where I found them distasteful and in France where we were bound, by the terms of our mission, to avoid all interference in internal matters. Our job was, at all times, strictly military.” Not really. The OSS/SOE presence in enemy-occupied areas was inherently political. The communists weren’t the only ones who fielded guerrilla groups. OSS and SOE officers on the ground often determined policy towards political parties, trade unions, religious groups, ethnic minorities, and the like. Giving or withholding support for these other politically partisan groups often had an impact on the postwar situation.

Leading F Section from September, 1941, until just after D-Day was Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. He had run Ford Motor Company’s European department in Paris before going into France with the British Expeditionary Force. He was among the last to leave Dunkirk; because his French was so good (Marcel Ruby reports in F Section, SOE[6]), his commanding officer told him he might have to stay there, pretending to be French. But he spoke little Italian, and in 1941, about to be sent to Libya as an intelligence officer to interrogate Italian prisoners, he sought another posting. SOE took him on as an information officer and within six months he was in charge of F Section—all eight staff members.

One of the eight was Vera Atkins, said to be “the real brain of the French Section” and also its heart. A WAAF squadron officer before joining SOE; she became head of F Section in June, 1944 (when it had been “reduced to a rear link”), and at war’s end she spent a year in Germany tracking down 117 of the section’s 118 missing agents. Those who hadn’t died in action or in captivity were executed just before Germany surrendered. The one agent whom even the impressively capable Vera Atkins couldn’t trace had apparently run off with three million francs of SOE’s money—a singular act of misconduct among the section’s 470 agents sent into France.

F’s agents were not French. They were supposedly French-speaking, although at least one spoke French with a Scottish accent thick enough to endanger himself and others. They included Britons (many from the Anglo-French business community), Mauritians, French-Canadians, dual-nationals, Americans, even, writes Foot, a few “of enemy nationality” (mostly Jewish and therefore “thoroughly anti-nazi”). [7]

A fair number were women, because women could often go unnoticed where men would be suspect. One of F’s bravest agents was.Yvonne Rudellat (see Site 18, The Ebury Court Hotel, 26 Ebury Street), originally considered for the job of receptionist at Orchard Court. Another was the American journalist Virginia Hall. (She had an artificial foot she referred to as “Cuthbert”; when she radioed London expressing the hope that Cuthbert would not be troublesome during her escape over the Pyrenees, an unknowing radio operator replied that if Cuthbert became troublesome she should kill him.) Still another was the courageous Violette Szabo, who twice went into France and died there. Of 52 women sent into France by F Section, 12 were killed.

Agents practised derailment on a disused railway branch in the Midlands; they studied demolition on replicas of French factories and power stations (one large model almost filled a room here at Orchard Court). For industrial sabotage, agents learnt the trick of wrecking the same part on every machine and then wrecking the replacement parts before any could be installed. Agents also used blackmail, telling factory owners that their production would be halted one way or another—either by Allied bombing, which would ruin the plant and cause heavy civilian casualties, or by carefully targeted sabotage.

Each day the BBC’s French Service sent scores of messages personnels to France, instructing agents to proceed with predetermined tasks or convincing the wary French to trust these visitors from Britain. (To verify an agent’s legitimacy, a prospective recruit could make up his own message and expect to hear it on the radio within hours.) Instructional messages were prearranged: “Charles est tres malade … Marcel aime Marceline … Yvette a dix doigts .. .” (German codebreakers sought in vain some meaning in the words and letters.) Most messages were phoney, not only inflating the size of the activity in the enemy’s mind but also camouflaging the arrival of D-Day; on the eve of D-Day, all 306 messages were genuine.

“Ours was not a disjointed series of defiant and foolhardy acts,” Buckmaster writes, “but a unified tactical and strategic operation”; (by 1943 strategically linked to SHAEF). London directed almost 100 independent networks large and small, which committed enough industrial sabotage to earn Foot’s judgment that F Section’s record “compares favourably with that of the much less economical RAF bomber command”.

The triumphs were not without cost. Some agents were destroyed through their own foolishness or by SOE error. Some simply had the bad luck to be caught; the Germans were quite good at disabling networks, although they were themselves hindered by the fierce conflict between Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst. In the end, one quarter of F Section’s agents died in France—fewer than the one in two anticipated, but still a very high percentage—and some died after horrendous torture. Because of de Gaulle’s bitter animosity towards F Section, it would be 50 years before a memorial would be unveiled in France to honour the fallen of F Section.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 99-100

[2] Buckmaster, Maurice J. (1952). Specially Employed: The Story of British Aid to French Patriots of The Resistance. London: The Batchworth Press

[3] Foot, M.R.D. (1966). SOE In France: An Account of The Work of British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944. London:H.M. Stationery Off

[4] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 199

[5] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 176-180

[6] Ruby, Marcel (1988). F Section, SOE: The Buckmaster Networks. London: Cooper

[7] Foot, M.R.D. (1966). SOE In France: An Account of The Work of British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944. London:H.M. Stationery Off


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One Response to They Fought Alone

  1. Pingback: SOE—The British Special Operations Executive, Chapter 17 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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