Although the commemoration of D-Day will focus on men who came ashore to liberate Europe, the drama of those who awaited them in occupied Europe is no less compelling. After the War British intelligence tried to discover the fate of British women SOE agents who were captured and executed in the concentration camps. Finding out what happened became the private crusade of Vera Atkins, who was assistant to the head of the French Section of the SOE. And the answer after 60 years is that nobody really knows. One of the reason perhaps, is that some of the agents died from the the SOE’s mistakes or the underground’s. In the years immediately following the Second World War, the exhausted victors naturally wanted to move on. Failure, no less than the dead, were buried where they lay.
Since the British believed that women could more easily slip unnoticed through the Continental streets, they concentrated on recruiting dark haired women who could pass for French. One of them was Violette Szabo of French and English extraction. Szabo was captured just after D-Day, three days after she parachuted in. Her story is told in Wikipedia.
Immediately on arrival, she coordinated the activities of the local Maquis (led by Jacques Dufour) in sabotaging communication lines during German attempts to stem the Normandy landings. She was a passenger in a car that raised the suspicions of German troops at an unexpected roadblock that had been set up to find Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe of the Das Reich Division, who had been captured by the local resistance. A brief gun battle ensued. Her Maquis minders escaped unscathed in the confusion. However, Szabo was captured when she ran out of ammunition, around mid-day on 10 June, 1944, near Salon-la-Tour. Her captors were most likely from the 1st Battalion of the Deutschland Regiment. In R. J. Minney’s biography, she is described as putting up fierce resistance with her Sten gun. German documents of the incident record no German injuries or casualties.
She was transferred to the custody of the SD in Limoges, where she was interrogated under torture, enduring sexual assault, rape and severe beatings. From there, she was moved, first to Fresnes Prison in Paris, then in August 1944 to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where over 92,000 women died. There, she endured hard labour and malnutrition.
Violette Szabo was executed on or about 5 February, 1945 and her body disposed of in the crematorium. She was 23 years old. Three other women members of the SOE were also executed at Ravensbrück: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, and Lilian Rolfe. Of the SOE’s 55 female agents, 13 were killed in action or died in Nazi concentration camps.
Another SOE agent sent into the underground was the Indian Sufi Muslim Princess, Noor Inayat Khan. Her father was a mystic and she was one herself. “After studying music and medicine Noor became a writer. Her children stories were published in Figaro and a collection of traditional Indian stories, Twenty Jataka Tales, appeared in 1939. “Although Noor Inayat Khan was deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, she and her brother Vilayat decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny. So on November 19th 1940 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, she was sent to be trained as a wireless operator.”
Noor Inayat Khan was sent to France in 1943 and against all expectations, continued to evade the Nazis. She was for a time, the only comm link between Paris and London. But inevitably the end came.
Finally Inayat Khan was betrayed to the Germans, either by Henri Dericourt or by Renée Garry. Dericourt (code name Gilbert) was an SOE officer and former French Air Force pilot who has been suspected of working as a double agent for the German Abwehr. Renée Garry was the sister of Emile Garry, Inayat Khan’s organizer in the Physician network. Allegedly she was paid 100,000 Francs, but acted mainly out of jealousy because she had lost the affection of the SOE agent France Antelme, as she believed, to Noor.
On or around 13 October 1943 Inayat Khan was arrested and interrogated at the SD Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris. Though SOE trainers had expressed doubts about Inayat Khan’s gentle and unworldly character, on her arrest she fought so fiercely that SD officers were afraid of her and she was thenceforth treated as an extremely dangerous prisoner. There is no evidence of her being tortured, but her interrogation lasted over a month. During that time, she attempted escape twice. Hans Kieffer, the former head of Gestapo in Paris, testified after the war that she didn’t give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently. …
Although Inayat Khan did not talk about her activities under interrogation, the SD found her notebooks, in which she had kept, contrary to security regulations, copies of all the messages she had sent as an SOE operative. Although she refused to reveal any secret codes, the Germans gained enough information from it to continue sending false messages imitating her.
As London failed to investigate properly anomalies in the transmissions which should have indicated they were sent under enemy control, three more agents sent to France were captured by the Germans at their parachute landing, among them Madeleine Damerment, who was later executed.
The princess was taken to Germany and imprisoned at Pforzheim in solitary confinement (she was considered dangerous and uncooperative). Inayat Khan continued to refuse to give any information on her work or her fellow operatives. On 11 September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan, along with three other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to Dachau Concentration Camp. The other three women were lined up and forced to kneel, after which each was executed by a single shot to the head. Noor was shackled in chains for months and beaten until she was a bloody mess and then shot. Her last word was “Liberté”
Although it cannot be said for sure, Khan’s place of execution is held to be at the pistol range in Dachau. “The traditional method of execution was a shot in the neck at close range, which was the method used by the Nazis to kill traitors, spies, saboteurs and resistance fighters at a pistol range in front of a wall north of the crematorium. … A ditch was dug about six feet from the execution wall to catch the flow of blood.”
Many agents died because of the amateurish or inefficient methods of the underground or the SOE. One of the men who was aware of the terrible danger these agents was exposed to was the Jewish cryptographer Leo Marks.
His original and unorthodox mode of thought led to him being the only one of his class judged not good enough to be sent to Bletchley Park; instead, he was sent to a rival organisation of the intelligence services, the recently formed Special Operations Executive (SOE). When his abilities subsequently became evident, he was referred to by Bletchley Park as “the one that got away”.
Marks personally briefed many of the Allied agents being sent into occupied Europe, including Noor Inayat Khan, the Grouse/Swallow team of four Norwegian Telemark saboteurs and his own close friend, the legendary White Rabbit, ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas. A highly empathetic and imaginative personality (as well as a self-professed coward), Marks continually acted on the rarely expressed premise that agents in occupied territories deserved every conceivable bit of support that those enjoying safety and freedom could provide.
Although personally in charge only of agent codes, the young and “cowardly” Marks frequently walked into bureaucratic lion’s dens in order to save lives in the field. One of his first challenges (stubbornly resisted by the establishment) was to phase out the use of double transposition ciphers using keys based on preselected poems. These poem ciphers had the limited advantage of being easy to memorize, but a number of significant disadvantages, including limited cryptographic security, substantial minimum message sizes (short ones were hopelessly easy to crack), and the fact that the method’s complexity caused a significant number of encoding errors.
Cryptographic security was greatly enhanced by Marks’s innovations, especially “worked-out keys”. He was widely credited with inventing the letter one-time pad, but while he did independently discover the method he was later to find that it was already in use at Bletchley.
He tried to get his SOE superiors to discard their reliance well known (‘the easier to memorize, Old Boy’) English poem codes for original compositions whose text the Germans could not simply look up.He wrote some of the original code-poems himself. Marks tried at times to convince his superiors that agents had been captured based on the absence of the statistically expected error rate. But the full extent of the disaster was only known after the war.
The code-poem he wrote and gave to Violette Szabo on her wartime mission is a now famous not only because of its wartime associations but because of its literary merit. It memorial to a time when a Muslim and a Christian secret agent, and Jewish cryptographer found the common ground to fight Hitler, with one word that described the goal of both the men of D-Day and the agents on the ground: the last word on Noor Inayat Khan’s lips. Liberte. This was Violette Szabo’s code poem.
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
(This is a reworked version of an older post I did on the old Belmont Club)