Women of the S.O.E
Posted on 9th June 2021
The Special Operations Executive or S.O.E was formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 22 July 1940 for the carrying out of espionage and sabotage at a time when Britain was incapable of taking direct military action on the Continent.
Experts would be recruited from various fields and trained as agents before being landed by submarine or parachuted in to work with local Resistance Groups to destabilise German rule, or as Churchill put it – set Europe ablaze.
This is the story of four female agents of the Special Operations Executive.
Eliane Browne-Bartroli was the daughter of a Spanish father and an English mother who during the early years of the war worked first at the British Embassy in Lisbon and later Madrid. In the late summer of 1942, she returned to England to marry an Army Officer Thomas Plewman.
Described as intelligent, resourceful and hard-working she was also fluent in a number of languages. Considered an asset she was hastily recruited into the Special Operations Executive. Having received only minimal training and codenamed Gaby, she was parachuted into France in August 1943, where she worked as a courier for seven months in Marseilles the city of her birth.
It was a dangerous job traversing the streets of the city delivering packages from one safe house to another and she was often stopped and questioned but her feminine genteel demeanour made her an unlikely spy and she was always permitted to continue on her way. But it remained a nerve shredding experience, nonetheless. Even so, her commitment never flagged until like so many others who fought the secret war she was betrayed by a close colleague and arrested. Handed over to the Gestapo she endured prolonged torture but revealed no secrets.
Yolande Elsa Maria Untenahrer was a Swiss national who born in Paris spoke French as a first language. Her family had moved to Britain when she was still a child. Upon the outbreak of war enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she trained as a radio operator. Her training and her fluency in French made her an obvious recruit for the S.O.E.
In early March 1943 she married a Dutch soldier, Jaap Beekman, and it was commented upon just how much in love they were. But any connubial bliss that resulted was to be short-lived.
On the night of 18 September, she was flown to France to operate behind enemy lines where using the code name Mariette she became the wireless operator for Gustave Bieler who ran the spy network in the region of Saint Quentin. As well as being responsible for the radio transmissions she also distributed supplies and propaganda.
On 13 January 1944, she and Bieler met at the Moulin Rouge Cafe unaware that the Gestapo had been informed and were waiting for them. After a brief but violent struggle both were arrested. Taken to different prisons, Bieler was soon after executed but the Gestapo kept Yolande alive believing that she would crack under torture – she didn’t. Despite being brutalised to the point where she could barely stand up let alone walk, she told them nothing. Left alone to rot in her cell she spent the time doing make believe embroidery and drawing pictures on toilet paper in her own blood.
Madeleine Damerment (codename Dancer) was born in Lille on 1 November 1917. Following the surrender of France in June 1940, she joined the Resistance and for two years ran an escape line for downed Allied pilots. When the escape line was betrayed, she managed to avoid capture and make her way to England.
Described as a brave but gentle young woman her previous experience made her an obvious candidate for the S.O.E. On 28 February 1944, she was parachuted back into France where she was arrested the moment she landed.
It transpired that she had been betrayed by a man she had previously helped and worked with, Harold Cole, a captured British Serviceman. He had been a petty criminal in civilian life and upon the outbreak of war had been conscripted into the Royal Engineers. While serving in France he had deserted but been quickly picked up by the Germans. Ever resourceful, he had managed to evade his captors and make his way to Marseilles where he made contact with Madeleine and helped her to establish an escape line but later captured by the Gestapo, he accepted a financial inducement to cooperate. As a result of the information he provided, more than a 150 resistance workers were arrested, tortured. He was described by Scotland Yard as the worse British traitor of the war. He was killed in Paris in January 1946, during a shoot-out with French police.
Noor Inayat Khan (codename Madeleine) was a Muslim of Indian descent, her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was an eminent scholar of Sufism who claimed noble ancestry. Her mother, Ora Baker, was an American from Alburquerque in New Mexico.
The family initially settled in London before moving to Paris when Noor was still a child. Happy in the city that undisturbed was to fascinate her she grew into a shy, sensitive young lady and somewhat of a dreamer.
Noor studied music at the Sorbonne and become an accomplished poet and writer of children’s books but upon the outbreak of war, and contrary to her strongly held pacifist beliefs, she was determined to resist Nazism which she considered an abomination. So, she returned to England where she enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. There as an Aircraft Woman Second Class she trained as a radio operator. Her polyglot background and multi-lingual skills brought her to the attention of the S.O.E however, who recruited her soon after.
On 17 June 1943, Noor was parachuted into France despite her instructors doubts that she was emotionally stable enough for the tasks she was expected to undertake. She soon proved them wrong by becoming a dedicated, resourceful and successful S.O.E Operative. When in late August the mission was compromised and a great many agents captured, she continued to transmit messages to London despite being ordered not to do so for her own safety.
She continued to evade capture by roaming the streets of Paris at night so that she could always transmit from a different location. Her Spymasters in London were aware that the Gestapo were closing in on her and offered to fly her out, but she refused.
On 13 October, her luck finally ran out when the small apartment where she was staying was revealed to be a resistance safe house. Quickly surrounded she was ordered to come out with her hands up but she refused and instead barricaded the doors. When the Germans finally burst in there was a violent struggle and it took many men to finally subdue her. Indeed, her ferocity was such that Gestapo Officers refused to be left alone in her presence.
On 11 September 1944, Eliane Plewman, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Demarment, and Inayat Noor Khan were transferred from various prisons in France to Dachau Concentration Camp. The following morning the women were led in pairs into the courtyard, they were holding hands. One by one, their hands now bound, they were forced to their knees before an SS Officer stepped forward to shoot them in the back of the head. Noor Inayat Khan was the last to die.
She had been a difficult prisoner who had lied repeatedly to her interrogators weaving a complex web of deceit that led to the Gestapo to embarking upon numerous wild goose chases. She had also not been slow in showing her contempt for her captors - she had been marked out for special treatment.
The SS Officer in charge Major Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert pistol whipped Noor before repeatedly punching and kicking her until semi-conscious and unable to stir for herself she was raised from the ground by her hair. Forced back onto her knees she could see through her bloodied face and swollen eyes the bodies of the other dead women. As the pistol was pressed to her head she was heard to mumble – Liberty! It was the last thing she ever said.
All the women had died on active service and were just four of the sixteen female S.O.E agents who were to do so None of them had revealed secrets even under torture and all of them were recognised for their courage after the war.
Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, who had commanded the execution squad and had seemed to take such pleasure in his work, was hanged for war crimes in 1946.
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