‐ or F ‐ Section is now well known. Atkins' meticulous detective work, which continued long after SOE was officially snuffed out in 1946, eventually revealed how most of those captured by the Germans had been deported to concentration camps, and through interviews with former prisoners and captors she obtained disturbing evidence about the manner of their deaths. Not all cases were solved, however. Many question marks linger, and although 104 F Section casualties are commemorated by the monument at Valençay, the truth of how, when and where many of them died remains unknown.
Atkins' investigations depended greatly on eyewitness reports, which began to trickle out as Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945. Initially the prospects for locating agents who'd been deported together in groups looked relatively good. A contingent of British or French parachutists arriving at a concentration camp often attracted the attention of other prisoners, and might lodge in the memory of a kapo, SS guard or officer on duty. And agents who managed to escape or survive beyond liberation often submitted remarkably dispassionate and thorough accounts ‐ a testament to their resourcefulness under pressure, and to the work of their SOE instructors ‐ of what had happened to their comrades.
By contrast, lone prisoners could very easily be swallowed up by the system and forgotten, leaving no footprint behind. Take the case of Ted Coppin, a taciturn, mature‐looking 26‐year‐old recruited in 1941. Having run his family's yachting business in Cannes before the war, his local knowledge and fluent Marseillaise French made him a promising if inconspicuous student ('not a high flyer', an instructor noted, 'just a good sound average type who puts his back into a job'), and after returning to the Riviera in June 1942 Coppin quietly built up his own network of railway workers to sabotage the train lines between Marseille and Nice.
In April 1943, news broke of a wave of arrests across the region, in what the Gestapo coined l'affaire Flora: Coppin and his courier, Yvonne Experton, fifteen years his senior, were among the the first to be hunted down, being arrested at the Hotel Sainte‐Marie in Marseille. For two years F Section heard nothing more, then Experton returned from Ravensbrück to tell her tale.
She and Coppin had first been held in miserable conditions at the city's old St Pierre prison, then in June 1943 they were transferred to the Gestapo's rue Paradis headquarters, which had earned a fearsome local reputation: although tortured there, Coppin remained silent and maintained his cover story. On 28 June both were transported with 33 other victims of Flora to Fresnes prison in Paris, where they were separated. What subsequently happened to Coppin was, and still is, a complete mystery. In 1946 Coppin's father, having lost patience with SOE's apparent indifference, took up the search himself, convinced that his son was still alive, perhaps still lost in the chaos of Germany or even in Russian hands. An encouraging sighting placed him at the notorious Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in April 1945. Then the trail went cold.2
Commanding officer Maurice Buckmaster's final evaluation of agent Coppin's efforts was peculiarly sanguine, rounding off with 'I guess that if we ever see him again he will have a lot of interesting things to say'. No‐one ever did, and despite an absence of evidence Coppin's death was recorded as 27 September 1943; he was mentioned in despatches in 1947.3
Neither did Buckmaster see Charles Skepper again. A particularly tough character who'd escaped from the Japanese earlier in the war, Skepper had taken over F Section's Marseille operations and was also classified as 'missing, believed killed' following his own arrest a year after Coppin's (rumours of his deportation from Compiègne and a supposed sighting of him in Hamburg in late 1944 couldn't be verified).4 The same went for Jack Sinclair, a hapless 22-year-old sent in from Algiers to be Skepper's new assistant: he was parachuted by mistake to an enemy-controlled landing ground and last seen in Baumettes prison.
According to his French cellmate, the British agent had 'had an excellent morale', 'talked gaily' and 'slept well'. Then four or five days later the Germans came for him. Bundling up his few possessions, Sinclair was led away 'without any explanation' and disappeared.5 The fates of two others remembered at Valençay, Jean Renaud and René Mathieu, also remain undiscovered.
Unlike the grisly deaths of women agents at Natzweiler, Dachau and Ravensbrück, which aroused a morbid fascination in the press and later provoked awkward questions about SOE's own conduct, these unsolved cases never made the headlines, making them all the more poignant. However, another group of around 20 F Section agents were also never satisfactorily accounted for, despite the best efforts of Atkins and British war crimes investigators to trace their final movements. Sifting through the bewilderingly complex and often contradictory evidence, the reasons why become quickly apparent.
The case begins in the spring of 1944, when several dozen F Section agents were being held in prison cells across Paris. They were a very mixed bag, ranging from old campaigners to raw novices. Some had been casualties of German counter-intelligence successes during the previous summer. Others were the victims of treachery, routine police work, lax security or just bad luck. And a particularly tragic bunch had been dropped straight into German hands, the result of F Section's failure to accept that for months the Paris Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, had been impersonating captured wireless operators and effectively directing its own operations. A number had been tortured. One or two attempted to escape but were easily recaptured.
On 18 April 1944, a bus was sent to collect 19 of these prisoners, stopping off first at the transit camp at Compiègne, then the Gestapo prison on Place des Etats‐Unis and finally Fresnes Prison. One of them, Marcel Rousset, was later able to recall all but two of their names7:
|1||Roland Alexandre||Surveyor||March 1944|
|2||Jean-Roger Dubois||Inventor et al.||December 1943|
|3||Francis Garel* †||Butler||September 1943|
|4||John Hamilton||(Special mission)||January 1944|
|5||Victor Hayes||Scientist||October 1943|
|6||Sidney Jones ‡||Inventor||November 1943|
|7||John Macalister †||Archdeacon||June 1943|
|8||George McBain||Musician||March 1944|
|9||Claude Malraux||Salesman||March 1944|
|10||André Maugenet||Acrobat||November 1943|
|11||Isidore Newman ‡||Salesman||March 1944|
|12||Gilbert Norman ‡||Physician/Prosper||June 1943|
|13||Paul Pardi||Scientist||November 1943|
|14||Frank Pickersgill †||Archdeacon||June 1943|
|15||Marcel Rousset||Butler||September 1943|
|16||Ernest Wilkinson ‡||Privet||June 1943|
|17||John Young ‡||Acrobat||November 1943|
‡ Later executed at Mauthausen concentration camp, September 1944
† Later executed at Buchenwald concentration camp, September 1944
From the Parisian suburb of Vaires‐sur‐Marne they began a long train journey east, passing through Dusseldorf, Leipzig and Dresden to Breslau in Silesia, and from there to Rawicz prison, about sixty miles south of Poznan, now in western Poland. Though roughly treated and kept in solitary confinement, they were allowed brief periods of exercise in the yard, and Rousset got the opportunity to spy around 50 Dutch SOE agents ‐ caught as a result of the Abwehr's triumphant Englandspiel deception ‐ who had arrived there a week earlier. (His estimate was pretty accurate: the actual figure was 51, and he later identified about half of them from photographs8.)
Neither Rousset nor his comrades knew why they'd been brought to Rawicz, but according to a postwar deposition by Horst Kopkow, a senior SS counter-intelligence officer who dealt with the cases of SOE agents, their records were receiving consideration at the highest level. Classified as 'NN' (Nacht und Nebel) or 'Night and Fog' prisoners ‐ a category associated with resisters and political opponents, whose identities were purposely suppressed from the outside world ‐ they could expect particularly harsh treatment. But these F Section agents were reportedly of such 'great interest' to Himmler that he requested their files from Paris and personally reviewed each one before scribbling orders in green pencil for their executions. Further instructions were sent to the Gestapo station at Breslau, which would organise the shootings to take place at Gross‐Rosen concentration camp, about 70 miles south of Rawicz.9
On 18 May another 6 agents arrived at Rawicz, among whom Rousset recognised France Antelme, an F Section veteran who'd been parachuted into German hands in February10. That night, Rousset, Pickersgill, Garel, Macalister and McBain were suddenly roused and flown back to Paris for further interrogation. Back in a cell at Place des Etats‐Unis, Rousset was now intent on escaping, and asked if he could be allowed to sweep the corridor, giving him the chance to survey possible exits. A gambler and opportunist by nature, he saw that a door leading to the back garden might offer a way out, and on the morning of 8 June it was left unlocked: knocking out a guard, he ran into the garden and jumped over a side wall. Fortunately the electrified fence surrounding it had been switched off. After a week or two lying low, Rousset attempted to bribe some Georgian SS guards into releasing his fellow prisoners, but he was told that all agents had already been removed from the cells at Place des Etats-Unis and were rumoured to have been deported to Germany.11
In September, with Paris liberated, Rousset reappeared at F Section's new makeshift office at the Hotel Cecil. He'd been incensed by F Section's negligence during that past year, particularly in ignoring its own rules on wireless security, and made sure his feelings were known. Nevertheless, he fully cooperated during his debriefing, which provided a mass of invaluable information about the last known movements of his fellow prisoners - aside from odd fragments of intelligence sent across from France, F Section had been completely ignorant about the whereabouts of those who'd been captured. Certainly no‐one had an inkling that every agent Rousset had recalled seeing in Paris and Rawicz was now either dead or earmarked for execution.
Progress in the search for these agents was infuriatingly slow. Over the following months the floods of refugees, newly freed prisoners and stateless stragglers spreading across central Europe created more uncertainty and confusion, which was only compounded by SOE's initial reluctance to add agents' names to the War Office casualty lists and distribute their details to the Red Cross and similar agencies. The liberation of Rawicz and Gross‐Rosen by Russian forces in the first months of 1945 produced no new clues (a rumour that John Hamilton had been sent east to a hospital in Odessa turned out to be a case of mistaken identity12) and the drawing of the Iron Curtain meant that all further enquiries would have to contend with formidable Soviet bureaucracy.
Yet some leads did emerge. Several survivors of Buchenwald were able to confirm that Pickersgill, Garel and Macalister, who'd been recalled to Paris with Rousset in May, had been hanged in September. And a further breakthrough came when the deaths of 47 agents from Rawicz ‐ 40 Dutch, 7 from F Section ‐ were traced to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Fortunately detailed documentary evidence in the camp's archives had not been destroyed, and a register of their arrival on 6 September 1944 listed their names and personal details. All were certified auf der flucht erschossen, or shot while trying to escape, a euphemism in camp administration for summary execution.13
Testimony from witnesses in the camp provided grim detail of their last hours. After being processed and dressed in rags, the men had been individually numbered with an indelible pencil and marched off to the camp's infamous quarry, where they were forced to carry increasingly heavy loads while being beaten and kicked by guards. Though accounts differed somewhat, it became clear that around 21 were killed that afternoon, some being shot, others succumbing to exhaustion or being thrown into the quarry.14 A Czech prisoner, Vaclav Pistora, reported how that evening the remainder had returned 'surrounded by armed SS men, being led off to the camp prison (Buncker)' and were 'dragging carts in which were piled the bodies of their murdered comrades'15. Dutch prisoner Bernard Slier added that this group was tortured using a specially trained dog called 'Lord' before they too were shot the next morning.16 Another Czech, Premsyl Dobias, who became an interpreter for the Americans in their investigations, described how he later identified all the corpses from the numbers daubed on their chests.17
However gruesome the events of 6 and 7 September may have been, the survival of records in the Mauthausen archives at least established their deaths beyond all doubt. It also confirmed that two more missing agents, Marcus Bloom and George Clement, had almost certainly been deported to Rawicz with Antelme in May 1944. But as one mystery was solved, another appeared. The day after the group of 47 had left for Mauthausen, another 14 prisoners also departed Rawicz - probably the remaining 11 Dutch, and three unnamed F Section prisoners. No trace of this second transport was ever found. They may have been deported to another camp, or simply driven to a quiet location and also shot 'while trying to escape'. Perhaps they were bound for Mauthausen too, but for some reason never arrived. Frank McKenna, the RAF officer investigating the executions of Allied officers taking part in the Great Escape breakout from Stalag Luft III in March 1944, could only speculate that this party headed in the direction of Dresden, and was liquidated somewhere unknown.18 It's worth noting that the missing Dutch agents were left for the Dutch government to investigate, and were not pursued by SOE.
As for those others who'd been held at Rawicz, a prison register, now held in the Posnan State Archives19, indicates that 10 prisoners left on 24 June for an unknown destination. According to a deposition given by Robert Schroeder, the personal driver of the Breslau Gestapo chief Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, a delivery of a group of 'about ten prisoners' from Rawicz to Gross‐Rosen concentration camp had taken place in the 'early summer of 1944'. Scharpwinkel told him they were among a group of parachutists who had 'committed sabotage' and were 'supposed to have been arrested in France'.20
Rawicz prison register
|Register entries (1944)||+/–||Total||Description|
|15 April||+51||51||Arrival of 51 Dutch agents|
|22 April||+19||70||Arrival of Rousset's group of 19 agents|
|18 May||+6||76||Arrival of 6 agents, including Antelme|
|18 May*||‐5||71||Departure of Rousset and 4 others to Paris|
|24 June||‐10||61||Departure of 10 agents to Gross‐Rosen|
|8 July||+3||64||Arrival of 3 unknown agents|
|9 July||‐3||61||Departure of 3 unknown agents|
|3 September||‐47||14||Departure of 47 agents to Mauthausen|
|4 September||‐14||0||Departure of 14 agents to ?|
* Rousset stated that his group left in the early hours of 19 May, but the departure was logged on 18th.
Depositions from a dozen or so former Gross‐Rosen prisoners supported Schroeder's claim, describing how these new arrivals were housed in the so-called 'weather station', a newly‐built block isolated from the others and surrounded by barbed wire. There was clearly something special about this group. They were not entered into the camp's register and were given preferential treatment, keeping their hair and their own clothes, as well as being exempted from work. But sometime in late July or early August all were called out at dawn before reveille and marched naked to a spot behind the crematorium. According to one deposition, a proclamation ‐ presumably an execution order ‐ was read out before they were shot in two groups by an SS firing squad.21 The witness described how the men were 'calm and self-possessed till the end', and gave the 'impression that they were officers'.22 Schroeder said he'd heard from another driver that one had shouted 'Long live France' before being killed.23 When the usual crematorium returns for 10 deaths were found to be missing, the doctor responsible simply removed the relevant names from the clerk's records, making it impossible to register them.24 This was an event that officially never happened.
These depositions became key evidence at a war crimes trial, held at a British military court in Hamburg in September 1948. It received no coverage in the national press. Accused of the killings were Gross‐Rosen's former commandant, Johannes Hassebroek, SS Rapportführer Helmuth Eschner and SS Rottenführer Eduardas Drazdauskas, a Lithuanian (Drazdauskas was also accused of ill treating several of the officers, but was not found guilty). All had pleaded not guilty to the charges, but on 22 October all were given the death penalty. These sentences were soon commuted, however: there had been clear weaknesses in the prosecution, not least in failing to prove that Eschner and Drazdauskas had known the executions to be unlawful. In 1953 a West German court sentenced Eschner to a further 12 years for war crimes; Hassebroek was released in 1954.
The defence lawyers at the 1948 trial had pounced on many discrepancies among former prisoners' statements. Nearly all witnesses said that about 10 prisoners arrived in late July, not June, and the actual date of execution was vague, though references were made to the last Sunday in July or the first Sunday in August. Some also stated that additional prisoners were brought to the camp in separate transports and executed around this time. (The Rawicz register does indicate that a further three prisoners arrived on 8 July and left the next day, so perhaps these were F Section agents being sent to join the others at Gross‐Rosen.) A number of potentially useful witnesses, including three French generals being held at the camp, were not interviewed by British war crimes investigators.
Before the trial Atkins had been asked to supply 18 photographs of missing agents, which witnesses might be able to recognise. They included those agents already cited by Rousset in his report, but she also added several others (*) known to have been held in Paris in the summer of 194425 :
|1||Roland Alexandre||Surveyor||February 1944||2 witnesses|
|2||France Antelme||Bricklayer||February 1944||4 witnesses|
|3||Marcel Defence*||Satirist||March 1944||1 witness|
|4||Francois Deniset*||Phono||February 1944||1 witness|
|5||Jean-Roger Dubois||Inventor et al.||November 1943||1 witness|
|6||Philip Duclos*||Delegate||February 1944||3 witnesses|
|7||David Finlayson*||Liontamer||March 1944||2 witnesses|
|8||Henri Gaillot*||Parson||February 1944||2 witnesses|
|9||John Hamilton||Special mission||January 1944||3 witnesses|
|10||Victor Hayes||Scientist||October 1943||1 witness|
|11||Jacques Ledoux*||Orator||February 1944||1 witness|
|12||Lionel Lee*||Bricklayer||February 1944||1 witness|
|13||George McBain||Musician||March 1944||2 witnesses|
|14||Claude Malraux||Salesman||March 1944||0 witnesses|
|15||André Maugenet||Acrobat||November 1943||1 witness|
|16||Paul Pardi||Scientist||November 1943||1 witness|
|17||Adolphe Rabinovitch*||Satirist||March 1944||3 witnesses|
|18||François Vallée*||Parson||December 1943||0 witnesses|
Atkins had already learned the limitations of such evidence. In 1945 she had expressed her frustrations after a similar ploy failed to establish the identities of agents at another camp, commenting 'I find it extraordinary that photographs which one would imagine would be of great help in identifying people are really of so little use'26.
It was therefore no surprise that positive identifications at Gross‐Rosen were few in number, and open to doubt. Depositions had been taken four years after the event, and the former prisoners' powers of recall were questionable: at least two had suffered nervous breakdowns after liberation, and their recognition of photographs of agents taken in London, based on dim memories of ragged prisoners who'd been subjected to months of incarceration and torture, were dubious. Even the agents themselves had sometimes found it difficult to recognise each other: for example, before his own death at Buchenwald Frank Pickersgill had described Gilbert Norman as looking 'very thin and hardly recognisable'27 when they were deported together in April 1944, and that was before enduring the hardships of Rawicz. Moreover, most of the sightings of the agents at Gross‐Rosen had been necessarily brief, since prisoners had been forbidden from making contact with anyone in the weather station (those who'd witnessed the actual executions had done so in secret, peering through a hole in the wall of their block). Only 7 witnesses recognised any agents shown in the photographs; and two agents, Malraux and Vallée, were not remembered at all.28
It's interesting that Atkins overlooked a few other missing agents in the photographs she submitted. Octave Simon, who had been caught with Marcel Defence and was seen by Rousset at Place des Etats-Unis in April 1944 'in a terrible condition as the result of torture'29, had been rumoured to have been at Dachau but could just as easily have ended up at Gross‐Rosen, yet he was not included. Maurice Lepage and Edmond Lesout, both OSS agents seconded to SOE's Liontamer mission, had vanished after being captured on landing with their wireless operator Finlayson but were left out too. Also absent was another American, Robert Byerly, a wireless operator who'd parachuted with Alexandre, Deniset and Ledoux and was seen at Place des Etats-Unis in June, before being transferred around 1 July to an unknown destination with Deniset and several other agents.30 Since, as Rousset had been informed, the prison at Place des Etats-Unis was being emptied at this time, it's reasonable to believe that all other prisoners reported being there ‐ Defence, Gaillot, Lee, Vallée, Ledoux, Finlayson and Duclos ‐ were deported together, quite possibly to Gross‐Rosen.31
Whatever the shortcomings of the trial, there was no doubt that executions of British officers had taken place at Gross‐Rosen, and it seems likely that the eight remaining F Section agents identified by Rousset at Rawicz (Antelme, Dubois, Alexandre, Hamilton, Maugenet, Malraux, Pardi and Hayes) were indeed among those murdered there that summer.32 As for the others, including the three who disappeared in last transport from Rawicz in September 1944, we will probably never establish who they were, or how or where they died. The only certainty we have is that Night and Fog did a terrifyingly effective job of erasing all trace of their lives.
|F Section agents commemorated at Gross‐Rosen|
Today, the names of 19 agents (the 18 listed by Atkins, with the addition of Byerly) are displayed on the SOE memorial at Gross‐Rosen. It may well be inaccurate, but at least missing agents are being represented somewhere. Edmond Lesout and Maurice Lepage are commemorated on the Tablets of the Missing at the Ardennes American Cemetery at Neupré in Belgium. Octave Simon is not remembered at any camp.
My grateful thanks go to Lucas Bruijn, who provided many useful insights and was a great help in checking my deductions. He and Ewa Pekalska did a painstakingly thorough job of following up all possible leads at archives in Poznan, Gross‐Rosen and The Hague.
(TNA - National Archives, Kew: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk)
1. Sarah Helm, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, Little, Brown, 2005.
2. Coppin Personal File, HS 9/350/9, TNA. Coppin (under his alias 'Jean-Pierre Vidal') and Experton are listed in the German document on Flora, held in the Bouches-du-Rhône departmental archives. A translated transcript is available on Arnaud Duny-Pétré's blog.
3. London Gazette mentioned in despatches notice: ; and the CWGC entry for Coppin.
4. Skepper Personal File, HS 9/1370/1, TNA.
5. Sinclair Personal File, HS 9/1365/4, TNA.
6. Rousset's interrogation by Dutch Section, 12 September 1944, HS 7/275, TNA.
7. Note on Rousset interrogation, 29 September 1944, WO 309/2055, TNA.
8. Netherlands Section War History, p.189, HS 7/275, TNA.
9. Deposition of Horst Kopkow, 5 February 1947, WO 235/552, TNA.
10. Memo from Delaforce to Boyle, 14 September 1945, in Antelme Personal File, HS 9/44, TNA.
11. Interrogation of Rousset, 11 September 1944, Rousset Personal File, HS 9/1286/3, TNA.
12. Memo to War Office, 6 June 1946, in Hamilton Personal File, HS 9/650/6, TNA.
13. 'Liste der zugange von 6 September 1944', in WO 311/607, TNA.
14. Pistora to Pat O'Leary (real name Albert Guérisse), 4 December 1945, WO 311/607, TNA. See also the testimony of Maurice Lampe, Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Volume 6, pp.185-186; and testimony of Jean-Frederic Veith, ibid., pp.234-35.
15. Pistora to Pat O'Leary, 4 December 1945, WO 311/607, TNA.
16. Testimony of Bernhard Slier, 17 October 1945, HS 6/743, TNA.
17. Dobias to Atkins, 11 April 1946, Vera Atkins papers, Imperial War Museum (IWM).
18. Mckenna to WO, 29 July 1946, Vera Atkins papers, IWM.
19. 'Belegungsbuch, Stammlager Haftanstalt 1942-1945', in collection 53/282/0 Zakład Karny w Rawiczu, Archiwum Panstwowe w Poznaniu. This register, which recorded SOE agents under the column heading 'Sonstige' or 'Other', corroborates the numbers and arrival dates of F Section agents given by Rousset for April and May 1944.
20. Robert Schroeder deposition, 16 July 1948, WO 235/553, TNA.
21. Deposition of Harry Richard Wolfram, 23 March 1948, WO 235/553, TNA.
23. Robert Schroeder deposition, 16 July 1948, WO 235/553, TNA.
24. Deposition of Willy Doose, 1 April 1948, WO 235/553, TNA.
25. Alexander Nicholson to Norman Mott, 8 March 1948, WO 235/553, TNA. A list of the agents is given in the affadavit of Major H E Martin, 13 August 1948,WO 235/552, TNA.
26. Atkins to Hazeldine, 31 May 1945, Brian Rafferty Personal File, HS 9/1225/2, TNA.
27. Interrogation of Pierre Culioli, 26 April 1945, Pierre Culioli Personal File, HS 9/379/8, TNA.
28. 'Resumé of Prosecutor's Closing Address', WO 235/553, TNA. An image of Malraux was probably not submitted to the court, as he'd been recruited in the field (photographs of locally recruited agents were typically not included in SOE's files).
29. Interrogation of Rousset, 11 September 1944, Rousset Personal File, HS 9/1286/3, TNA.
30. Memo dated 8 December 1945, Byerly Personal File, HS 9/251/1, TNA. In a deposition given on 19 January 1947, the Paris SD commandant Hans Kieffer contradicted this evidence, stating that Byerly was sent to Rawicz, but gave no further details (Vera Atkins papers, IWM). To further complicate matters, Byerly's file also includes an unsubstantiated claim made by a French prisoner, who said he met Byerly at Flossenbürg concentration camp in the autumn of 1944.
31. Nearly 10 days after Rousset's escape, another F Section agent, Paul Tessier, broke out of his cell at Place des Etats-Unis. Although he remained in Paris, he sent to London a list of those agents still incarcerated. The message appears to have been destroyed, but the personal files of agents concerned include notes confirming that Tessier's report cited their names (Tessier was killed in action during the liberation of Paris, before SOE could interrogate him).
32. Mott to Nicholson, 22 December 1947, WO 235/553, TNA.