Execution of British SOE agents
There were at least 6 male British SOE
agents who survived both Natzweiler and Dachau. There were 4
women SOE agents who were brought to Natzweiler to be secretly
executed, and 4 women SOE agents taken to Dachau to be secretly
executed. The executions at Natzweiler took place a couple of
weeks after the male SOE agents were transferred from the Mauthausen
concentration camp to Natzweiler; then less than a week after
the men were sent to Dachau, four more executions took place
In January 1945, 3 more women SOE agents
were secretly executed at Ravensbrück, according to the
confession of one of the SS men in the camp. On May 1, 1945 just
days before the Ravensbrück camp was liberated, another
SOE agent, Cicely Lefort was killed in the gas chamber, according
to the eye-witness testimony of one of the prisoners.
The women who were allegedly killed at
Natzweiler were Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diane Rowden,
and Sonia Olschanezky. Those allegedly executed at Dachau were
Noor Inayat Khan, Eliane Plewman, Yolande Beekman, and Madeleine
Damerment. At Ravensbrück, Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, Violette
Szabo and Cicely Lefort were allegedly executed.
What was so different about the 12 women
who were executed, as opposed to the men whose lives were spared?
What heinous crime had the women committed that was worse than
anything that the male SOE agents had ever done? And why were
8 women taken to Natzweiler and Dachau, both camps for men, to
be secretly executed, instead of being taken to Ravensbrück,
the camp for women? Why were four women SOE agents at Ravensbrück
executed in the middle of a typhus epidemic, six months after
they were brought to the camp?
According to Rita Kramer, the American
author of a book published in London in 1995, entitled "Flames
in the Field," the organizers of the SOE were all men, while
the couriers were almost all women. In other words, the women
were low-ranking members of the SOE, while the men had far more
important positions. This makes it even harder to understand
why the women, who were just following the orders of the men,
were executed while the men were spared.
Why had the Germans left no official
documentation of these executions, although it was not a violation
of the Geneva Convention to execute spies who were not in military
uniform when captured?
The 12 women who were executed were all
members of the F section that operated in France and all except
Noor Inayat Khan, Yolande Beekman and Denise Bloch were couriers.
The F section was considered by the Germans to be the most dangerous
and even Hitler took a personal interest in the work of the Gestapo
in capturing SOE agents in France. The work of the F section
was directly related to the plans for D-Day and the SOE had been
instrumental in fooling the Germans about the date and location
of the invasion.
So why were important male SOE agents
in the F section, such as Henri Déricourt and Bob Starr,
kept alive until the camps were liberated, while 12 female SOE
agents in the F section were secretly executed? Of course, not
all the women in the F section were killed. Yvonne Rudellat was
in the Prosper Network, but she was sent to Ravensbrück,
then transferred to Bergen-Belsen where she was reported still
alive when the camp was liberated, although she disappeared without
a trace a short time later. She could have been among the 13,000
prisoners who died after Belsen was liberated; their unidentified
bodies were shoved into mass graves by British bulldozers.
Andrée Borrel was captured on
the same day as Gilbert Norman, a wireless operator in the Prosper
Network, whose code name was Archambaud. Noor Inayat Khan was
a radio operator for the Prosper line in the Cinema circuit organized
by Emile Garry. She was betrayed by the sister of Emile Garry
and after she was captured, her radio was used by the Germans
to send messages to London. In fact, her radio was used by the
Germans to make arrangements for Madeleine Damerment's parachute
jump. The Gestapo was waiting for Damerment, who was a courier
for the Bricklayer Network, and she was captured the moment that
she landed on February 28, 1944. Of the 12 women, who were allegedly
executed, Damerment was the last to be captured.
On page 93 of "Flames in the Field,"
Rita Kramer wrote:
The German Military Command had decreed
that men helping or hiding Allied servicemen on the run would
be executed; women would be deported to the camps. The reward
for denouncing them was ten thousand francs.
Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh and
Madeleine Damerment, three of the 8 women who were executed at
Natzweiler and Dachau, had formerly worked with Albert Guérisse,
who was the head of the PAT line which helped Allied servicemen
to escape. If the decree of the German Military Command had been
followed, Guérisse would have been shot or hanged, and
the three women would have been sent to the women's concentration
camp at Ravensbrück. Instead, Guérisse became a Nacht
und Nebel prisoner under another decree that was issued by Hitler
himself, and the three women who worked under him were executed.
The Nacht und Nebel prisoners were made
to disappear into the "night and fog" so that their
families would think that they were dead. They were not allowed
to send or receive letters and their families were not notified
if they died while in captivity. The purpose of this was to discourage
resistance activity by making the families think that their loved
ones had been executed. Natzweiler was one of the main camps
where N.N. prisoners were sent by the Gestapo. Female N.N. prisoners
were mostly sent to Ravensbrück, the women's camp.
Seven of the women who were later executed
were sent to the civilian prison at Karlsruhe, where they arrived
on May 13, 1944. Accompanying the seven women on the train to
Karlsruhe was Odette Sansom, an SOE agent in the Spindle network.
According to Sarah Helm's book, Odette was allowed to serve tea
to the women before they left on the trip to Karlsruhe, a town
on the French-German border near the Black Forest. On July 18,
1944, Odette was transferred from the Karlsruhe prison to Ravensbrück,
where she survived.
The 8th woman, later allegedly executed
at Dachau, was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan; she was sent on November
27, 1943 to a civilian prison at Pforzheim, 15 miles from Karlsruhe,
after she tried twice to escape. Because of her escape attempts,
Noor was classified as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner. She was kept
in chains most of the time at Pforzheim because if she had managed
to escape again, she could have revealed that the Gestapo was
using the radios of the captured agents to communicate with the
British. The Germans were getting drops of ammunition and other
supplies from the British who thought that they were sending
packages to the French resistance.
After the war, Odette Sansom was interviewed
by Vera Atkins, an SOE agent who took it upon herself to find
out what had happened to the agents who had never returned, although
she was not given any official authority to do so. Odette provided
the information that Andrée Borrel, Diana Rowden, Vera
Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Eliane Plewman and
another unidentified woman were on the train with her on the
trip to Karlsruhe.
The unidentified woman was Sonia Olschanezky,
who was released from Karlsruhe and sent to an unnamed concentration
camp on July 6, 1944, the same day that Andrée Borrel,
Diana Rowden, and Vera Leigh were also released. Odette did not
know Olschanezky because she had never been at the Fresnes prison
with the others.
When Vera Atkins found the record of
Sonia Olschanezky's imprisonment at Karlsruhe, she assumed that
this was an alias for Noor Inayat Khan, who fit the description
of one of the women that Brian Stonehouse had given her. According
to Rita Kramer's book "Flames in the Field," Sonia
Olschanesky had been recruited by a Jewish Réseau agent
connected to the Prosper Network in the spring of 1942 and there
was no record of her in the SOE files.
The last letter that Noor supposedly
sent to her family from Pforzheim prison was dated September
11, 1944, the same day that 3 other women SOE agents left Karlsruhe,
although this was not known until many years later. This letter
was a clue that Noor Khan had been taken that day to Karlsruhe
and then on to Dachau where she was allegedly executed on September
12, 1944, although the British PRO file gives her date of death
as September 13, 1944. However, according to a recently published
book entitled "A Life in Secrets," by Sarah Helm, Vera
Atkins learned from her interrogation of Hans Kieffer, the head
of counter intelligence in Paris, that Noor Inayat Khan was a
N.N. prisoner at Pforzheim which means that she was not allowed
to send letters to her family.
In 1952, a book entitled "Madeleine,"
written by Jean Overton Fuller, was published. During her research
for the book, Fuller had done extensive interviews with John
"Bob" Starr, one of the agents in the Prosper line
who had been held at the Gestapo prison on Avenue Foch, along
with Noor Inayat Khan, whose code name was Madeleine. In talking
with Starr, Fuller stumbled upon the secret of the "radio
game." The Gestapo had used the radios of captured SOE agents
to send messages to London, pretending to be the SOE agents.
If some of the women were secretly executed
to prevent them from revealing the German "radio game,"
why was Bob Starr allowed to live? Starr not only knew all about
how the Germans had fooled the British, he had cooperated and
helped them do it, according to Sarah Helm's book "A Life
in Secrets." This was confirmed during Vera Atkins's interview
in January 1947 with Hans Kieffer, the head of counter intelligence
in Paris, when he told her that Bob Starr had checked the messages
sent by the Gestapo to London to make sure they were in typical
English. The formal deposition that Atkins wrote after her interrogation
of Kieffer was kept secret until the SOE files were opened 50
years later in 1998.
Bob Starr was first sent to Sachsenhausen
and then to the Mauthausen concentration camp where he was rescued
by the Red Cross a few weeks before the camp was liberated by
American soldiers. When Starr returned to London, he wrote a
report about how the Gestapo had played the "radio game,"
but according to Sarah Helm's book, his report "completely
Bob Starr was called a traitor to his
country because it was known that he had cooperated with the
Gestapo, but he was never put on trial. Hans Kieffer was tried
by a British Military Court at Hameln in June 1947 and sentenced
to death. When the verdict was read, Kieffer saluted Bob Starr
who was a witness at the trial. Starr testified that Hans Kieffer
had treated the F section prisoners humanely at Avenue Foch.
The prisoners ate the same food as the Gestapo men and were never
Madeleine Damerment was a courier for
the Bricklayer Network; she was captured on the day she landed.
She had done nothing and knew nothing, so why was she executed?
Eliane Plewman was a courier for the Monk Network; she was not
involved in the "radio game." Yolande Beekman was pregnant
when she left for France to work as a wireless operator with
the Musician Network, according to her mother's statement that
was entered into the official records of the SOE. Pregnant prisoners
were usually sent to the women's camp at Ravensbrück.
Sarah Helm wrote in her book "A
Life in Secrets" that Kieffer told Vera Atkins that he knew
nothing about women agents in the F section being secretly executed.
When he learned from Atkins that Noor Inayat Khan had been executed
at Dachau, he wept. He had great admiration for Noor because
she never gave any information to the Gestapo and never cooperated.
Kieffer told Vera Atkins that Noor was "treated extremely
well and was even served English tea and biscuits, which she
refused, although she accepted the English cigarettes."
Francis Suttill was taken to the Gestapo
headquarters at Avenue Foch after his arrest. He was immediately
sent to Germany after he allegedly made a pact with the Germans
to supply them with information.
Around the end of March 1945, Francis
Suttill and another SOE agent named William Grover disappeared
from the Sachsenhausen camp where they had been imprisoned in
the Zellenbau (camp prison). Paul Schroeder, a prisoner in the
camp, told Allied investigators, regarding Suttill and Grover:
"They were transported by ambulance car to the Industriehof
where they were most certainly executed by either hanging, shooting
or lethal chamber." The Industriehof was a section of the
camp, located outside the prison enclosure, where there were
factories as well as a gas chamber and an execution place where
condemned prisoners were shot.
The British Public Records Office files
say that Suttill was hanged on March 21, 1945, but his date of
death is also given in the same files as March 23, 1945. The
camp records at Sachsenhausen were confiscated by the Soviet
Union and if the record of the execution of Suttill was ever
found, it was not released by the Soviets. During the trial of
the Sachsenhausen staff, by the Soviet Union in 1947, testimony
was given about Suttill's execution, but the SOE was no longer
in existence by that time and Suttill's family never received
confirmation of his death; they always believed that he was still
Jean Overton Fuller's second book, entitled
"The Starr Affair," was all about Bob Starr; his role
in playing the "radio game" was revealed to the public
for the first time. When Starr returned to London after the war,
he had been ignored by everyone, according to Fuller's book,
and he soon learned that he had been blackballed because he was
suspected of being a traitor.
Vera Atkins learned from her interview
with Hans Kieffer in 1947 that Henri Déricourt was a double
agent who was working for the Germans. At that time, Déricourt
had just been arrested by the French and was scheduled to be
put on trial as a traitor.
Fuller's third book was entitled "Double
Webs." She interviewed Henri Déricourt himself for
the book and learned that he had given information to the Gestapo,
but he claimed that he was acting on instructions from a higher
authority in London. This started the rumor that Déricourt
had been planted inside the SOE by MI6, the British special intelligence
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