Execution of British SOE agents at Natzweiler

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 at Dachau.

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 disappeared."

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 tortured.

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 alive.

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 service.



British SOE agents executed at Dachau

Trial of Werner Röhde and 8 others

French Resistance

Nacht und Nebel prisoners

Albert-Marie Guérisse

General Charles Delestraint

Alliance Réseau


This page was last updated on September 13, 2006