November 07, 2012

Simone Weil

A while ago I came across some new evidence that Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, had been recruited by SOE.

A fellow classmate of Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Schumann, Weil was a courageous, original thinker, whose passion for communism and political activism led her to support striking miners and voluntarily take up factory labour (coming from a bourgeois family she wanted to experience the hardships of working-class life firsthand, even though the work nearly killed her). When the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, she moved south with her family and did some minor resistance work in Marseille, before leaving for New York in the summer of 1942.

She got to England as quickly as she could and found a job collating political information for the Free French. Although she wanted to work behind enemy lines, the view until now has been that no-one had taken her requests seriously. But it's now clear that someone did refer her to SOE for consideration.

I came across her file by accident at the National Archives, and made an FOI request earlier this year to open it (the connection was easy to miss, since her name had been misspelt and catalogued under “Weill”). Its brief contents show that Weil was interviewed by the SOE's Gaullist RF Section, probably in March or April 1943, with a view to sending her back to France as a wireless operator. She was painfully thin - she restricted her diet to what she thought people living in Occupied France ate - and had suffered crippling headaches all her life, but perhaps her undoubted strength of character, coupled with SOE's desperate need for wireless operators, was enough to convince the recruiting officer to give her a chance.

In Weil's vetting report, MI5 described her interests as “entirely sociological and her political colouring Socialist” but concluded that there was “no reason to doubt her reliability”. That could not be said for her health: in April she collapsed and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, though it doesn't appear she was in a hurry to tell her new employer.

On 3 May, RF Section was anxious for Weil “To be trained as [an] agent for France immediately”, and two weeks later the section's head, Bickham Sweet-Escott, requested the training staff to “Please arrange for this student to begin training at STS 52 [codename for Thame Park, SOE's wireless school near Oxford] as soon as possible as it is intended that she should be sent to France as a W/T [wireless] operator”.

There her file ends. Weil's condition worsened, and three months later she died in a sanatorium in Kent, at the age of 34.