Prince Charles and the British establishment have taken more than 70 years to mark some incredible heroism in the fight to defeat the Nazis says PETER FROST
On Tuesday this week, (Dec 2013) in Bedfordshire, Prince Charles finally unveiled a memorial to honour and remember the brave women who flew out of RAF Tempsford to aid resistance movements in occupied Europe during the Second World War.
The unveiling marks the end of an, almost year long, campaign to set up the Tempsford memorial. This means that, at last there is a fitting tribute to some of the wonderful women agents who flew on those secret missions from this Bedfordshire field.
Some eighty odd women agents left the small Bedford Airfield. The worked as radio operators, couriers, and in many other roles. All of them were also trained in military skills and in spy-craft.
They worked with the Free French Forces and well as the many French Communists who played such an important part in the French Resistance.
Between them they won nearly a hundred high commendations including Four George Crosses – the highest British civilian honour; one George medal; one CBE; 16 MBE’s and 4 OBE’s.
There were French awards too including 27 Croix de Guerre and ten Légion d’Honneur.
The first to go were two young women Andree Borrel – codename Denise and Lise De Baissac – codename Odile who flew out on the night of 24th September 1942.
Yolande Beekman – codename Marriette had married just a month before, she was flown out from RAF Tempsford on 18 September 1943.
>She worked as a wireless operator for Gustave Bieler, the head of the Musician Network in the St. Quentin district of Belgium.
After many close escapes, Yolande and Gustave Bieler were finally captured by the Germans on 12th January 1944.
Bieler was shot soon after capture by the S.S. at Flossenberg. Yolande however, was brutally tortured during Gestapo interrogation. Like so many of her comrades she said nothing. Yolande was executed at Dachau Concentration Camp on 12 September 1944, aged 32.
Australian Nancy Wake was married a French businessman in 1939 and fled France when the Germans invaded in 1940.
Back in England, she joined the S.O.E. There was no moon on 28th April 1944 so her flight into occupied France from Tempsford had to be postponed until the next night.
The next night Nancy parachuted into the Auverne District of France to help the French rise up on D-Day.
Another airfield with a similar story is just off the A14 at junction three in Northamptonshire. It stands behind a scruffy lay-bye in front of a huge field.
In the lay-by is a memorial to the ‘801/492 USAAF squadron’ this memorial also carries a more romantic message. “Harrington Airfield” it tells you “was home to the Carpetbaggers”.
So who were these strangely named bands of heroes? Fortunately a tiny but packed museum just down the lane tells the full and fascinating story.
The Carpetbaggers were the American flyers that secretly supplied the French Resistance with all they needed for their heroic war work of spying and sabotage. Every moonlit night a couple of dozen black painted and unmarked B 24 bombers would take off for France.
The bays would be full of parachute canisters, boxes and baskets of weapons and ammunition, civilian clothes, counterfeit Nazi uniforms, radio sets, even bicycles. The one hundred and one things the French Resistance needed to carry on their essential but dangerous work behind Nazi lines.
The BBC would broadcast to France coded messages identifying the drop zones. The Carpetbaggers would fly low over occupied France avoiding anti-aircraft fire to drop their parachutes.
And as if this wasn’t heroic enough some nights the cargo was even more precious, even more secret. It was from Harrington too that the brave men and women agents were flown into France under the noses of the enemy. Their average life expectancy was just three months.
Perhaps the best known was Violette Szabo. So secret were the exploits of the agents that we still don’t know which routes she used to enter France.
Violette started the war on the perfume counter of the Bon Marché store in Brixton. Her mother was French, her father a London cabbie. She joined the undercover SOE and carried out three dangerous operations to occupied France.
After training by the SOE and was dropped into occupied France three times! The best evidence suggests she flew out of both Tempsford and later from Harrington.
Just four days after her last landing in France on 10 June 1944, she was ambushed near Limoges by the Nazis.
Cornered, wounded and alone, she fought off the crack Geman SS troops with her machine gun, until her ammunition was exhausted.
Despite brutal torture and interrogation, she gave nothing away. Sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was eventually shot on 25 January 1945 …She was just 23 years old.
You may have seen the film ‘Carve her name with pride’ it tells the story of one of these brave female French agent like Violette far better than I could.
Many of these heroes like Violette, sadly were never to return. But we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude for the contribution they made to the defeat of Fascism – and now, after seventy years, it seems our government is belatedly paying tribute too.
Now, at last, Violette and her comrades have the memorial they have long deserved.
Code Poem of the French Resistance
Violette Szabo, like all agents, had her own code poem. Britain’s top code master, Leo Marks, wrote it and gave it to her as the key to her own personal cipher.
Leo grew up in his father’s famous bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Road – made famous in Helene Hanff’s book – and made pocket money in his teens setting fiendishly difficult crosswords for the Times.
The poem he gave to Violette is still well known today. Violette memorised the poem and each line had an alternative coded meaning. The BBC could broadcast a line from the poem and Violette would understand the real coded message.
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Variations on this article first appeared in the Morning Star and in various other publications during autumn and winter 2013