Daughters of Yael - Two Jewish Heroines of the SOE
By Martin Sugarman
(Archivist, British Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women – AJEX - Jewish Military Museum, London)
Jewish participation in the hazardous war of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War Two was - as in all theatres of the war - far out of proportion to the community's numbers in the general population.
Some of the Jewish SOE agents are quite well known; Captain Adam Rabinovich (codename 'Arnaud'), Cr. de Guerre, murdered by the Gestapo; Captain Isadore Newman ('Julien'/'Pepe'), MBE, murdered at Mauthausen Camp; Captain Maurice Pertschuck, MBE ('Martin Perkins' aka 'Eugene'), murdered at Buchenwald Camp. In addition, hundreds of other Jews fought with SOE agents in the Resistance groups of occupied countries, especially in France and Poland (1). Much less well known, however, are two of the Jewish women who fought the secret war in France - Denise Bloch ,Cr. de Guerre (who was French but served in the British Forces) and Muriel Byck, Mentioned in Despatches, who was British.
The SOE was a British secret war department formed in 1940 to 'Set Europe Ablaze' by organising and supplying the underground Resistance movements against the Nazis (and later the Japanese) in all occupied countries. It was one of several Secret Armies commanded from London by General Colin Gubbins, who was Vice-Chair of its Council; the Chairman was the Jewish banker Charles Hambro - until succeeded by Gubbins in September 1943(2). The French section of SOE, however, was commanded by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, a Dunkirk veteran, working from secret offices at Marks and Spencer's HQ in Baker Street, London.
This section infiltrated thirty-nine women into France by plane, boat, submarine and parachute between May 1941 and July 1944. Whichever service they were recruited from - WAAF's, ATS, etc - the women were often enlisted into the F.A.N.Y.'s (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in order to go some way towards complying with the Geneva Convention that women in the Services should not bear arms - though this was not consistently practiced by SOE. Of these thirty-nine, fifteen were captured and only three of these survived. Of the twelve murdered by the Nazis one was the Jewish agent Denise Bloch (3) and a thirteenth girl , Jewish agent Muriel Byck, died of meningitis after six weeks of intense work in the field, on 23 May 1944 (4). (The Free French section sent in a further eleven girls from the Corps Auxiliere Feminin or French ATS, all of whom survived, making a total of fifty women in all who served in France).
Ensign F/27 Denise Madeleine Bloch - code name Ambroise - First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, SOE, received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct, Legion D 'Honneur, Cr. de Guerre avec Palme and Medaille de la Resistance avec Rosette. Denise was murdered by the Nazis at Ravensbruck death camp near Mecklenburg together with Violette Szabo, GC and Lilian Rolfe, Cr. de Gu., sometime between 25 January and 2 February 2nd. Denise (who had three brothers) was aged twenty-nine years, the daughter of the Parisian Jewish family of Jacques Henri and Suzanne Barrault nee Levi-Strauss (5). She is commemorated at Brookwood Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Surrey, panel twenty-six, column three and on a separate plaque with Szabo , Rolfe and agent Lefort; also on the F.A.N.Y. memorial on the wall of St Paul's Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge; on a plaque at Ravensbruck death camp itself (5i) and on the F Section memorial at Valencay in France, unveiled in May 1991 by The Queen Mother (6).
Denise has been described as being 'broad shouldered and blonde' (7) but her Service photograph (8) reveals a dark haired beauty! She in fact dyed her hair blonde in France (9) as the police had raided her flat in Lyons and stolen photographs of her with her black hair (10).
In F Section of SOE Denise enlisted under the assumed name of Danielle Williams,1 though some SOE documents (11) insist on spelling her real name as 'Block'. Vera Atkins - Squadron and Intelligence Officer in SOE F Section and Personal Assistant and number 2 to Buckmaster - remembers her (12) as tall and sturdy and also argumentative, but explains this trait as being due to the fact that she had already had a lot of experience in the Resistance in France before her exit to England (see below) and knew better than her trainers what Nazi Occupation really meant.
The archives of the Special Forces Club in London (13) and the SOE files (14) reveal that Denise and her family were living in Lyons where she worked as Secretary to Lieutenant Jean Maxime Aron (code name 'Joseph') an employee of Citroen and Jewish Resistance leader. She was engaged to an M. Mendelsohn (himself an agent) but this was allegedly an engagement of convenience to assist her work (15). She was recruited in July 1942 in Lyons by M. Rene Piercy (codename 'Adolphe/Etienne') (16) and in turn she recruited her 'fiancee'! Denise worked first in the 'Detective' circuit, commanded by Captain Henri Paul Sevenet (codename 'Rodolphe') (17) with the wireless operator (w/o) Captain Brian J. Stonehouse (codename 'Celestin' - who died 2.12.98). As well as being a courier, she was meant to look after and accompany Stonehouse, whose French was not too good.
In her London de-briefing on 11 June 1943 (18) Denise described how she saw Stonehouse in the street in Lyons with two men on 24 October 1942, followed them and saw that he was taken to a police station: she realised he had been arrested. Stonehouse was good at drawing and always had his sketch book (which Denise often carried) despite Denise's warnings to him not to carry such incriminating items with him. He also once addressed her loudly in the street in English and said 'After the war you must come to Scotland to see my house'. Denise alleged he was homesick and too young for his job. Curiously, Stonehouse's debrief document (19) does not mention Denise at all for some inexplicable reason, and yet he clearly worked closely with her for some time.
Being in danger, following Stonehouse's arrest, she left for Marseilles on 26 October. Whilst there she was sent to a rendezvous at her hotel to receive secret papers about landing grounds and other matters from agent 'L'Allemand' at 7pm on the evening of 31 Oct . The next day he was arrested but she could not explain to her de-briefers why this had happened (20).
From Marseilles she volunteered to return to Lyons with the papers she had been given, instead of Aron, but he and Sevenet insisted on accompanying her because she was a woman alone. However, unbeknown to them they had been betrayed to the Gestapo and Aron was arrested at the station near the small entrance by a Gestapo group that had his photograph from a raid on his flat (he later escaped and got back to Britain on 26 July 1944). Sevenet was right behind Aron but slipped through. Denise also evaded capture by accidentally leaving by the main exit and she and Sevenet were met by Amedee Contran; all three then went into hiding in St Laurent de Chamousset near Lyons on 3 November 1942, in the house of Mme. St Victor.
Denise admitted to having sent a cable to her mother (which had been intercepted by the police) in Lyons. The police had searched the mother's flat, finding nothing, but the cable may have been the reason why the police were waiting at the station in Lyons for her and her two comrades. However, the Gestapo were expecting Denise to arrive with Aron and so missed her - by sheer good fortune - when Aron left the station alone!
Denise then moved to Villafranche-sur-Mer on 10 November, remaining in hiding and out of action until January 1943. She made only one trip - to Nice to get her hair dyed. She then moved to Toulouse and Sevenet introduced her to Sergeant Maurice Dupont of circuit 'Diplomat' (21) who was to help her cross from Oloron into Spain and out of danger. However, deep snow and enemy patrols prevented this and they had to return to Toulouse.
In Toulouse they met Colonel George Reginald Starr (code named 'Hilaire/Gaston') of circuit 'Wheelwright' who took her to work in Agen with Phillipe de Vomecourt (later commanding officer of Muriel Byck - see below). After two other Jewish SOE agents, Lieutenant Maurice Pertschuk ('Eugene') and his w/o Lieutenant Marcus Bloom ('Urbain'), were arrested in April 1943, Starr decided to send Denise to London as his courier, with Dupont, as they now had no wireless transmission facility. Denise knew and had met Pertschuk several times whilst carrying messages between Toulouse and Agen and described him (22) at their meetings as often dishevelled and worried, seeing him last on 12 April for their usual lunch together. The following week Pertschuk never arrived for his lunch appointment. She and Starr waited in vain at an agreed safe address and made inquiries, but later they discovered that Pertschuk had been arrested the next day ( 13 April ). Yet again Denise had had a very close shave!
In her London de-brief, Denise gave much useful information describing, for example, how there were many young men who were constantly picked up on the street by Gendarmes and Gestapo for labour work in Germany, warning that agents sent to France in future should not look too young , therefore, or they will often be stopped automatically and arrested! She also emphasised to SOE that future agents must speak excellent French, for anyone suspected of having a foreign accent was deported at once to Germany. In addition she described how the Gestapo agents spoke such good French - many having lived there for twenty years or more - that you did not know if you were talking to a French national or a German!
Denise went on to graphically describe how on one occasion she was carrying her radio in the usual suitcase pack when about to travel on a bus. She saw a Gestapo inspection in progress at the bus stop. So she engaged one of the Gestapo in poor German, causing him some amusement, and asked him to hold her case whilst she bought a newspaper. She then showed her papers to a civilian inspector, returned for her case and got cooly on the bus with no trouble - something out of a wartime movie! (23).
She also related how she and Sevenet found by chance a sympathiser contact in the Deuxieme Bureau (French Internal Security) who would issue agents with forged Cartes D'identite.
EXIT TO ENGLAND
Denise and Dupont finally left Agen on 29 April via Toulouse, Montrejeau (where they spent the night) and then travelled for three hours by train seventeen kilometres to Cirs De Luchon, on the first stage of the journey to get to Britain. Starr had promised her a route out of the country of only three kilometres on flat ground. At Cirs, she told the chef de gare she had urgent papers to get through to Britain. He said she was mad and there were six hundred yards and several patrols to pass before reaching the hotel where she could get 'help'. But they went on and met no Germans; the proprietor of the Hotel des Trois Ormeaux found her a room for the day until he arranged two 'passeurs' for the price of five thousand francs (24) to get her over the Pyrenees. She left at half an hour after midnight, and after fifteen hours hiking across the Pyrenees at 3,300 metres, with bare legs and a half length coat (at one point her guides stopped and made her a fire to warm by) they reached Bausen at 3pm on a Saturday. Here she had to wait three days for the bus, but was glad to be able to rest. The Spanish police, meanwhile, confiscated all her papers including Colonel Starr's report. She then proceeded via Veille to Lerida, arriving on 5 May, where she met the British Consul from Barcelona and had dinner with him. He gave her documents to proceed to Madrid (8 May ) where she stayed for five days and in her hotel met four Allied escaped airmen (two American and two British) . From Madrid Denise continued to Gibraltar (Saturday 15 May) for three days, then Lisbon and then ultimately to London , arriving on 21 May 1943, after a twenty-two-day journey.
There she gave her report verbally (25) to SOE underlining the lack of arms, money, w/t's and general stores such as clothes and food of which Starr was especially short. She also warned that Starr asked that the SOE should be careful to whom they supplied arms as some Resistance groups were Left wing and may attempt to take power after the Nazis were ejected.
Denise's de-briefers (26) commented afterwards that she was very anxious to return to Lyons to work, but SOE warned her that she was almost certainly by now known to the Gestapo. She disagreed and said that if it was so, then Starr also needed to be brought out as they were often seen together. She added that as she had been at the same address for months, the Gestapo would have picked her up by now. She also told her de-briefers that she had managed to meet her mother for a meal three months ago, and that she had alternative cartes d'identite in the names of Katrine Bernard and Chantal Baron.
Denise now proceeded to formal training for ten months as a w/o and parachutist with SOE in Britain, and was enlisted as a F.A.N.Y Ensign.
According to B E Escott (27), F Section training began at Wanborough Manor near Guildford for those who had passed the first, stiff interviews in London. From here they continued to Arisaig House in Inverness-shire for training on arms and explosives. Those requiring very specialist instruction (industrial sabotage, wireless, and so on), continued to specified specialist centres round the country. Then came parachute training at Ringway, near Manchester, whilst living at Tatton Park, and finally security training (use of safe houses, letter boxes and so on) at Beaulieu in Hampshire. For SOE in general, however, there were as many as fifty training schools up and down the country, mostly in isolated country houses.(28).
At her initial training school, the following comments (29) were written about Denise's progress; 'An experienced woman with knowledge of the world. She has courage and determination and a thorough understanding and hatred of the Boche. Has complete self-assurance and is capable of handling most situations. Has a feeling of physical inferiority which limits her athletic activities. Keen to get back into the field and under a good male organiser would make a very good W/T operator or courier. Is not physically suited to the training of Group A (ie para-military training)'.
Vera Atkins recalls one of Denise's final pre-mission briefings at a commonly frequented secret location used on such occasions, in an SOE flat at 6, Orchard Court, Portman Square (30) as well as the final kitting-out in authentic tailor made French clothes (31). Denise also met Leo Marks, MBE (the Jewish Chief Cryptographer - Chef de Codage - at SOE throughout most of the War) in February 1944, for a code briefing and was given her "code poem" by him which he had composed (31a).
RETURN TO FRANCE
Denise returned to work in France on the night of 2-3 March 1944 with Captain Robert Benoist (code name 'Lionel'), landed by an RAF Westland Lysander at Soucelles, ten kilometres south of Vatun and two-and-a-half west of Villeneuve, near Nantes. The secret drop was code-named 'Laburnum' (32). Her circuit (or Reseaux) , called 'Clergyman', was a large one consisting of two thousand armed members of the F.F.I (Forces Francaises de L'Interieur) which had to be re-established after its collapse the year before. One source (33) alleges that the plane was met by Resistance leader and former pilot Clement Remy, code name 'Marc'. Denise had returned to France now running the double risk of being both an official SOE agent AND Jewish (34).
Her orders were to act as courier, encoder and w/o and assist in the attack on high pylons over the River Loire at Ile Heron and cut railway and telephone lines converging on Nantes, before D Day, to disrupt German communications . Benoist's orders were that Denise 'will be under your command but it must be understood that she is the ultimate judge in all questions regarding the technicalities and w/t and w/t security. She will encode the messages herself........and it is of the utmost importance that her time on the air should be reduced to the minimum' (35). She contacted London within two weeks, on 15 March (36) and worked for three months sending thirty-one messages and receiving fifty-two (37).
Benoist, a wealthy racing driver, was sadly captured on 18 June 1944 in Paris visiting his dying mother and hung later at Buchenwald death camp. Denise was captured the day after, following a Gestapo raid on a chateau belonging to the Benoist family (Villa Cecile ) in Rambouillet at Sermaise (38) west of Paris on 19 June 1944, where she was based,with agent Jean-Paul Wimmelle (who managed to escape). Vera Atkins (39) said that it was clear there had been a betrayal - and they knew immediately she was captured by a message from their agents - but it would never be known now who was involved unless it was possible to scour the German documents on the issue. Nazi spies and sympathisers were rife in France at the time and so such incidents were commonplace. Only the German archives might reveal how the Gestapo knew of the presence of the SOE agents at the chateau, and so who the informers were, but then SOE had neither the ability or time to get to the truth whilst the war had to be won. After the German surrender, SOE was wound up very quickly (1 January 1946) and as it was felt that no good could come of finding the traitors - and what with the turmoil in post war Europe - matters like these were often left uninvestigated and unsolved.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
As the Allies approached Paris, the Germans were forced to move all their prisoners further east and into Germany. Imprisoned at the infamous gaol in Fresnes twelve miles south of Paris, Denise was taken to Gare de L'Est by coach on 8 August with Szabo and Rolfe. They had all been in Fresnes prison at the same time, but unbeknown to each other. A report written by Vera Atkins - when seconded to the Judge Advocate General's Branch HQ BAOR, 13 March 1946 (40) - mentions that Denise had also been seen in interrogation centres at both 3, Place des Etats-Unis and the notorious 84 Avenue Foch, in Paris, Gestapo HQ.
Each prisoner was given a small parcel by the Red Cross, enough to last for two days. Their third class railway wagon was attached to the end of a heavily guarded train carrying three hundred German wounded as well as male prisoners. The women prisoners - separated from the men, who included Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas, 'The White Rabbit' - were chained by the ankles in pairs.Vera Atkins' report (41) states that other SOE agents on the train with them included Major Peuleve and Squadron Leader Southgate en route to Buchenwald. After many hours delay,the train left on that hot August late afternoon en route to Germany.
The following day the train was attacked and damaged by the RAF, so they had to continue the journey on trucks later that night. (During this attack occured the famous incident when Violette Szabo crawled into the male prisoner section to bring them food and water). On reaching Metz, they were billeted in stables for the night; agent Bernard Guillot alleges he saw many women prisoners at this time whilst he was being moved between prisons and especially mentions Denise in his de-brief of 12 April 1945 (42) .
From here the girls were then sent on to Gestapo HQ in Strasbourg. Later they reached Saarbrucken; here the three girls were seen by Mlle. Monique Level, a French prisoner, as they arrived, with Lilian looking quite ill (43). Finally, they arrived at Ravensbruck after a week's brutalising journey. The date was 22 August 1944 (44).
Details of Denise's imprisonment and death are described by E H Cookridge's 'Inside SOE' (45). The three SOE girls managed to share the same bunk in their hellish prison hut. Here they were seen by SOE agents Yvonne Baseden and Eileen Nearne (46). But after three weeks at Ravensbruck (the world's largest prison for women ever known) she and Szabo and Rolfe were taken to Torgau (with Nearne) on 3 September, a Labour camp one hundred and twenty miles south of Ravensbruck where conditions were slightly better and they worked in a factory. Nearne said they were in good spirits, especially Violette, who was constantly planning an escape (47). Lilian, however, was unwell (48). Later, Nearne was sent elsewhere and never saw them again.
Several weeks later (5 October) they were returned to Ravensbruck. Again after two weeks (19 October) they were moved (49) and sent east to join an Aussenkommando - three hundred miles away near Konigsburg - labouring in heavy forestry and building work at an airfield. They travelled by truck arriving in November 1944 and worked for three months in the harshest conditions of an East European winter, mainly with Russian and Polish POW's (50). Both Lilian and Denise were very unwell as a result of the ill treatment here whereas Violette had stood up to it better. Witnesses described how all three always stuck together and showed remarkable spirit (51).
Violette became particularly friendly with Solange (note 50), whilst Lilian (who was increasingly ill and in the hospital) was befriended by Renee Corjon (note 48). Then on 20 January, the three agents were again returned to Ravensbruck; they speculated (Solange and Corjon) that it might be for repatriation via Sweden or Switzerland. Little did they know that it had been decided by Berlin to carry out systematic mass executions; the Allies were fast approaching and the Germans wanted to kill prisoners who had witnessed atrocities or who were considered 'important' and constituted a 'danger' to the German State (52).
At Ravensbruck, Baseden saw them yet again and was shocked at their much deteriorated health. They told Baseden that they had managed to contact some male POW's on their transport back and given them a list of agents they had seen imprisoned, hoping it would get back to London. Baseden alleges they were optimistic about getting onto another transport perhaps to perform lighter work outside the camp, and that a French prisoner, Mary de Moncy - who worked in the infirmary - had been able to get them some food and clothes (53) It was de Moncy who told Yvonne Baseden later that one day the girls had been taken to the punishment cells for solitary confinement, all three being in a poor state and Lilian unable to walk. After a further three days they were moved to an "L" shaped block of cells called the bunker (a kind of prison within the prison) and were seen by an unnamed Czech woman (54). Odette Churchill, GC (55) describes this abominable place thus - 'A short passage with a barrel gate at the end with spikes leading to the floor and ceiling , had on one side the cheerful rooms of the SS.....the gate swung on a spring hinge and led to a flight of stairs descending to a stone underground second passage with white electric light, and cells on one side, which were all in darkness inside....the cell doors had hatches through which food was passed'.
A day or two later all three agents disappeared.
After the war, it was discovered, however, (see below) that the three women were taken from their cells to the yard behind the crematorium at about 1900 hrs one evening. Denise and Lilian had been badly treated and were on stretchers; only Violette was able to walk. Camp Commandant SS SturmbannFuhrer Fritz Suhren read the death sentences ordered by RSHA in Berlin, with Second in Command Schwartzhuber also present. SS Sergeant Zappe guarded the girls whilst this was done . SS ScharFuhrer (Sergeant) Schulte (or Schulter) - a block leader from the mens' camp - then shot each girl in the back of the neck as they knelt down with a small calibre gun, as SS Corporal Schenk (in charge of the crematorium) brought them forward and held them. Camp doctor SS SturmbannFuhrer Trommer certified the deaths and the clothed bodies were removed singly by internees and immediately cremated. The camp dentist, Dr Martin Hellinger, was there to remove any gold teeth.
Suhren was arrested by the Americans on 3 May whilst bringing Odette Churchill GC from Ravensbruck to the American lines as a mitigating offering. He escaped, was recaptured, escaped again for two years, was recaptured again in 1949 by the British when he was found working in a brewery, and then handed over to the French. They - as Peter Churchill wrote (56) 'had no foolish sentiment about these murderers' and tried and then executed him in - ironically - Fresnes prison. The dentist received 15 years in prison, was released in 1951 and practised in Germany for years afterwards (57).
For months after the war, it was unofficially believed that the three girls had been liberated by the Russians and that they were possibly on their way home via Siberia, or even Sweden. This had happened before to some survivors of the German camps. A document in the SOE files, however, (58) dated 28 April 1945, states that SOE believed the three girls were still at Ravensbruck! Then in April 1946 a newspaper story about the missing girls was seen by a Mrs Julie Barry living at Joyce Grove, Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. She was a Guernsey woman who had been deported to Ravensbruck and allegedly forced to become a Kapo (No. 39785) in the Strafeblock (59). Barry was in fact a Jewish refugee who had arrived in Guernsey in July 1939 as Julia Brichta and in April 1942 married a local man Jeremiah Barry. However, she was denounced by local Guernsey residents and deported to Ravensbruck via France on 5 May 1944 (60).
When interviewed by two War Office officials, Barry's story was that she saw the three girls at Ravensbruck in rags, faces black with dirt and hair matted, spoke to them and gave them food and clothing. She especially remembered Violette Szabo.But her story cannot be confirmed. Another British POW at Ravensbruck was Mary Lindell. Escott quotes her (61) as affirming that the usual method of execution there was by hanging, and she had it on reliable authority from others in the camp that the girls clothes were returned to the stores intact after execution. Baseden (62), however, disputes this based on information from Mary de Moncy, who said their clothes were never returned.We will probably never know the truth of the manner of their death (63).
Meanwhile, Vera Atkins went to Germany on her own initiative and got herself attatched to the Nuremburg War Crimes Investigation team (64). She began conducting inquiries in Germany on all missing agents. At Minden prison she found and interviewed ObersturmFuhrer Johann Schwartzhuber, SS, the Second in Command (Schutzhaftlagerfuhrer or Camp Overseer ) at Ravensbruck, and previously a prominent prison guard at Auschwitz, on 13 March 1946 (65).
After some strong words from Atkins, a guilty looking Schwartzhuber admitted that the three women had been brought back from Konigsburg and put in the cells at Ravensbruck. He then confirmed how the girls were killed (see above) adding that a female overseer escorted them to the crematorium yard (Barry?) but was sent back before the excecution. He said 'All three were very brave and I was deeply moved......we were impressed by the bearing of these women....and annoyed that the Gestapo thermselves did not carry out these shootings.....I recognise with certainty the photograph of Danielle Williams (Denise Bloch) and I think I recognise the photograph of Lillian Rolfe. I know that the third had the name of Violette.' The translation was confirmed by a German linguist Captain A Vollman.
Schwarzhuber also confirmed that Lilian Rolfe was unable to walk and had to be assisted to the place of execution; this was a long trek, from the cells via the kitchen, through the main gate, past the garage, to the crematorium itself. Barry insists that only Violette walked and the other two were on stretchers. Violette was shot last and had the final agony of having to watch her friends murdered in front of her.
Like Suhren (who also testified to the supreme courage and cheerfulness of the girls), Schwartzhuber was sentenced to death after his trial in Hamburg and hanged. Thus, the indefatigable Vera Atkins was only able to write letters of condolence to the girls' families in the Spring of 1946 and only after this evidence from Vera Atkins was Whitehall able to issue death certificates for the three agents - over a year after the murders.
Thus was Denise Bloch's short, brave life. Like many others she has no known grave but her name is proudly carved on four memorials - lest we forget!
In 1968, Alan Rolfe, brother of Lilian Rolfe who was murdered with Denise, saw an announcement in 'The Daily Telegraph' of 24 May in memory of Denise Bloch, signed 'Dave'. After enquiries at the newspaper, Dave replied to Alan Rolfe, and turned out to be Flt Lt David Lomas who knew Denise when she was training in England. He was lobbying Lambeth Council to name a block of flats after Denise Bloch, as they had done for Rolfe and Szabo on the Vincennes Estate at Norwood, South London. However, he never succeeded - Lambeth Council claimed all the flats had been named already, and in July, Lomas was killed in an aircraft crash in the Far East, it is thought. The matter was never pursued. Perhaps it was because Denise was French - or Jewish? - or both; we will never know. But Vera Atkins does confirm that perhaps there had been a romance (interview 25.4.98 East Sussex), though she pointed out that the private lives of the agents in their free time on leave from training, was their own.
(Original correspondence in the author's possesion, donated by Alan Rolfe to the AJEX Museum).
1 M Sugarman Jews in the SOE and French Resistance
(AJEX Museum files 1998). This is an incomplete but growing list.
5(i) The ceremony at Ravensbruck took place on the morning of June 10th 1993, organised and led by Gervase Cowell of the Special Forces Club, with representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The British Embassy in Berlin and the Ravensbruck Museum. The plaque was unveiled by former agents Odette Hallowes-Sansom, GC, MBE; Eileen Nearne MBE; and Yvonne Baseden MBE. Present were Vera Atkins, Francis Cammaerts DSO (senior SOE officer in France), Brian Stonehouse, Leo Marks (SOE Chef de Codage) with representatives from the FANY (WTS), WAAF (WRAF), the sister of Lillian Rolfe, the daughter of Violette Szabo, Judge John de Cunha (a prosecutor at Nuremburg) and several former members of the French Resistance. There was a large article in the Daily Mail on the following weekend.
6 J D Sainsbury The F Section Memorial (IWM Library,
32 H Verity We Landed by Moonlight (Ian Allan,
1978, London) 220
65 VA F&CO - After approaching agencies such as the Red Cross, Military Intelligence and others, she finally spoke to the Commanding Officer of the Legal Department. of the British War Crimes Offices in Germany at Bad Oynhausen near Hanover (then HQ, BAOR), Group Captain Tony Somerhough, who allowed her to interview some imprisoned Nazis; she realised after this experience that she may make some headway in her own investigations. Even though she was not legally trained and that there were no vacancies in the War Crimes offices, the CO allowed her to stay. MI5 paid her Army salary and she stoically continued with her work - as a matter of honour - until the end, driven by her determination to get to the truth both for herself and the families of the agents whose whereabouts had not been known after they disappeared - and most of all in memory of the agents themselves.
Hon. Assist. Section Officer 2071428 WAAF/SOE agent 9111 seconded to the F. A. N.Y., Muriel Tamara Byck, MiD, codename 'Violette' and 'Michele' (1) was born on 4 June 1918 in Ealing, daughter of French Jews Luba Besia (nee Golinska) and Jacques Byck, who had both taken British nationality. Her parents were divorced and Jacques (born in Kiev, Russia) was in 1943 living in New York; Luba was born in Lvov, Russia and was living, re-married , in Torquay in 1943, as Mrs G E Leslie at 2, Bayfort Mansions, Warren Rd, (2). Muriel joined the WAAF's in December 1942 (3) and became a full member of the SOE in July 1943.
Muriel's background information file (4) reveals that she spoke fluent French and moderate Russian and in 1923-4 had lived in Germany (Wiesbaden). She went to school from 1926-30 at the Lycee de Jeunes Filles, St Germain, France; and from 1930-35 attended the Lycee Francais in Kensington, London, SW7, where she took the Baccalaureat and then proceeded to University in Lille, France.
RECRUITMENT INTO SOE
From 1936-38 she was a secretary in London; and from 1937-39 an Assistant Stage Manager at the Gate Theatre. Muriel had a strong sense of duty and from 1939-41 was a voluntary worker in the Red Cross,WVS and as an ARP Warden in Torquay. From 1941-2 she worked as a National Registration Clerk in Torquay and then joined the WAAF's as a clerk in December 1942, pending a Commission. She was recruited into the SOE in July 1943 because of her excellent French and began initial training in September 1943 at Winterfold, Cranleigh , in Surrey. From here she proceeded to para-military training at Meoble Lodge, Morar, Invernesshire until October and w/t training at Thame Park, Oxfordshire in November/December 1943.
Whilst in training she was graded Average as a General Agent, but with a high intelligence rating (eight out of nine), with a high grade for Morse and Mechanical Aptitude. She was described as ' a quiet, bright, attractive girl, keen, enthusiastic and intelligent. Alert but not very practical and as yet lacks foresight and thoroughness. She is, however, self-possessed, independent and persistent, and warm in her feelings for others...a girl of considerable promise who will require much training to help her to overcome her lack of experience, her complete ignorance of what the work really involves and her general guilelessness. Her temperament would appear to be suitable for work as a courier, or possibly propaganda' (5). Vera Atkins remembers her as being very self-asssured and being comitted completely to wanting to go into this very hazardous work, to defeat Nazism and all it stood for.
At Meoble she showed little aptitude for para-military training (close combat, fieldcraft, weapon training, explosives and demolition), except for signalling. She was not physically very strong, though successfully completed parachute training. She was commissioned (WAAF Hon. Assistant Section Officer) on 1 April 1944.
Muriel - petit, dark and aged 25 - was engaged to be married to a French agent in the offices of the OSS (American Secret Service), a Lieutenant Morange (an alias) whom she had met whilst training (6) , and he had given her a leather covered powder compact. When her circuit leader Major Phillipe Albert de Crevoisier de Vomecourt , DSO (codename 'Antoine') met Muriel in London and was security-checking her possessions before her jump, he told her she could not take the gift with her as it was too new and nothing like it could be bought in France. If she were caught with it, it would give her away as a foreign agent (7). Muriel insisted on taking it but he agreed only if he could make it look old, which he achieved by rubbing it with ammonia!
Muriel was given three sets of identity papers with photographs that differed only by her arranging her long black hair in different styles. Her operation was codenamed 'Benefactress' and her forged papers named her as Michele Bernier (8). She was told that if for any reason she had to change identities, she should inform London of the details immediately. In fact SOE were so concerend about her youthful looks, they gave her special training with a make-up artist in London on how to look older by using a pencil under her eyes (9).
Her flight took off from Tempsford aerodrome near Bedford after 4 nail-biting delays due to bad weather, and she parachuted into France on the night of 8/9 April 1944 with agent Captain Stanislaw Makowski, codename 'Dmitri/Maurice' (10) and two other agents, Captain C S Hudson ('Marc/Albin') - who was her CO until de Vomecourt arrived by plane - and Captain G D Jones ('Lime/Isidore/Gaston'). Muriel was to work as w/t with Resistance leader de Vomecourt of Reseaux 'Ventriloquist' in the Orleans-Blois area and train any w/t operators whom it was possible to recruit locally (11). She was then to supply London with the details about these new recruits so they could be given code names and status. She was also to establish postboxes for contact should w/t break down. Although under command of 'Antoine', she was ordered to be as self-reliant as possible on all w/t matters. She was to take one hundred thousand francs and for security reasons keep expenses as moderate as possible.
(Interestingly, part two of Muriel's orders (12) mentions an emergency address - handwritten in contrast to the typed order sheets - for her to contact should she become separated from her dropping party and the reception committee on landing; it was Bureaux Agricoles, 10, Place de L'Hotel de Ville, Chalcauoux. She was - in true cloak and dagger style - to ask for M. Chabena or M. Monesher using the password, 'Je viens de la part de Philippe voir si vouz pouviez m'aider' to which the reply was to be 'Veuillez attendre un instant'. Curiously, written next to this instruction is the word 'Blown', suggesting this address had been compromised).
After landing at Issoudun she was taken to Salbris to the home of Antoine Vincent, a member of the circuit. Here she again met de Vomecourt and the two men took her to a meal at a small restaurant by the level crossing just outside town. It was used almost exclusively by Germans and when they arrived, Muriel was terrified. 'We can't stay here' she whispered, 'let's get out while we can!' But Vincent explained that she had been brought here deliberately to get used to the sight of Germans and that once she was, she need not worry too much about them. She did not enjoy her meal that day (13).
Her circuit had four transmitters in different locations covering a wide area within a ten mile radius of Vincent's house, and - in accordance with her orders - were constantly moved about to avoid detection by the Germans, with transmissions being as brief as possible (14). Her first transmission was on 7 May 1944 and she subsequently sent twenty-seven messages and received sixteen (15). She never used the same set consecutively or at the same hour on any day. She was thus continually cycling from one to the other, and although many a man's health and nerves degenerated under the stress, Muriel remained cheerful and buoyant despite her frail and youthful looks. Rushing from location to location, she would encode, send, receive and decode messages, always on schedule, and on her own initiative often do this for other circuits as well, so messages would not ever be delayed. She also acted as a courier, alerting sabotage teams over a wide area (16).
Her base was in Vincent's junk yard, twenty-five yards from his garage which was used as a repair shop by the Germans. Her station consisted of a rickety hut with a rusted corrugated iron roof, with light filtering through cracks in the wall. She was surrounded by old tyres and car parts and the reek of oil and petrol. She had a box and table to work at. Whilst transmitting , a guard was posted at the yard gate to give her warning if need be.
One day in late April, (this date of de Vomecourt's conflicts with the SOE file date given above) whilst transmitting to London, she noticed an eye looking through a hole in the shed wall. Her stomach lurched but she quickly switched to plain language to tell London she was being watched. Continuing to send, she picked up the set and approached the hole, in time to see a German soldier leaving the yard. Full of fear, and not understanding where her lookout was, she packed her equipment, threw dust over her box and table to disguise the fact that anyone had been in the hut, and slipped into Vincent's house and told him what had happened.
He decided at once to get her away in a car after consulting de Vomecourt, who came to collect her. When the Germans arrived - forty of them - they were already sceptical that their soldier had actually seen a pretty woman with a transmitter in a junk yard shed! They searched and found nothing and the soldier was given ten days detention for wasting his officer's time.
Securely relocated in a new safe house (with the help of the Resistance doctor Andrieux) Muriel returned to work ; her story was that she was recovering from an illness and had come from Paris to recuperate. She had to take medicine during the night and her hosts should not be worried by her alarm going off at strange hours (this was, of course, to cover her wireless operations) or visits from her 'uncle', de Vomecourt.
THE LAST DAYS
In early May it was decided by London and the circuit to bomb the nearby German ammunition dump at Michenon. At 2pm on 7 May, Muriel received a message from London saying that the dump would be hit the following night.
The raid was a great success but Muriel had been shaken by the terrific explosions which she had been quite near to. She became very tired and listless and was moved to the house of circuit member Dede and his wife and three daughters at Nouan-le-Fuzelier; later still she was moved to the house of blacksmith Jourdain at Vernou, thirty miles to the west. De Vomecourt had been away but returned when he was told Muriel was ill and told her there was a plane leaving soon for England and she could write to her parents. (these two letters (17) were later delivered by de Vomecourt when he wrote - describing Muriel's death - to her father on 6 Dec 1944).
But Muriel deteriorated seriously and collapsed at Jourdain's home. A physician was called (in his letter to her father, de Vomecourt says three doctors (18) attended her) and diagnosed meningitis, saying she must be taken immediately to hospital. This was a great risk but de Vomecourt decided it must be; she was heavily involved in her work and much admired by all her comrades.
He went alone with her in the ambulance, to the hospital at Romorantin saying he was Muriel's uncle, Monsieur de Courcelles, and that they were evacuees from Paris. Whether the nuns believed him or not they admitted the patient and did all they could to save her. An operation was performed at 10am but she died in Phillipe's arms at 7pm on 23 May 1944 . De Vomecourt described how he 'assisted personally at all the duties generally assumed by the family' after Muriel had passed away (19) and that she was buried secretly in a temporary vault, under a false name in a zinc coffin so that 'you will be able to transport her later if you wish' (20).
De Vomecourt attended her funeral, having great difficulty in persuading her many friends to keep away for fear of arousing Gestapo suspicions. He followed the hearse alone through the town to the cemetery - just escaping the Gestapo - who had come for him there - by jumping the cemetery wall where a car awaited to whisk him away (21). After the war Gleeson (22) alleges her family had her body brought back for burial in England. However, Escott rightly says she was re-buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Pornic, twenty kilometres south east of St Nazaire. She lies in Plot two, Row AB, Grave eighteen (23). When the author visited the site he discovered that the poignant inscription reads "Here rests in peace Muriel Tamara Byck, our only child and beloved daughter". In her will she left her savings of £42 to her beloved fiance.
It emerged subsequently that Muriel had meningitis as a child but she told nobody for fear of being refused enlistment in the SOE - as there is a risk of recurrence. Such was her courage, and determination to take part in the struggle against the Nazis.
In his letter to Muriel's father de Vomecourt added that he would be happy to introduce him to all Muriel's many friends in France as soon as it was possible for him to come, and that a lady who had lost her only son in the Maquis, and at whose house Muriel had once stayed, was writing to him and Muriel's mother to express her appreciation of Muriel's great work and sacrifice for the liberation of France .(This very moving letter, in French and written in March 1945, is a long tribute to Muriel, full of praise for her wonderful personality and beauty , her sense of duty and hard work, her laughter and gaiety, and describes her as a unique person, who died as a soldier, giving her life, like the lady's son, for right and justice).
Muriel never abandoned her Jewish faith and spoke often of her devout family in England, but she nevertheless wore, as a good luck charm, a little gold cross given her by a Resistance man who had met her at the parachute drop at Chateaurenault. To this day Resistance members and their children as well as other local people, of the Sologne area, visit her memorial at Romorantin, Loir et Cher to lay flowers at Remembrance ceremonies (24).
Muriel is also commemorated - like Denise Bloch - on the Knightsbridge and Valencay memorials as well the war memorial at the Lycee Francais in Kensington. These courageous women followed in a long and great tradition of Jews fighting back, helping dispel the anti-Semitic myths that all went like sheep to the slaughter - or worse, avoided fighting at all! (25)
Long may they all be remembered.
1 Cookridge 633
World War II - H Morris We Will Remember Them (Brassey, London, 1989); H Morris The Addendum (AJEX, London, 1994); Martin Sugarman A Well Kept Secret - No 3 (Jewish) Troop No 10 Commando (Medal News , London, April 1996 - the Troop consisted of 120 virtually all Jewish Commandos, 25% of whom were KIA);also Ian Dear Ten Commando (Grafton Books 1987; London); Martin Sugarman Lions of Judah - The Jewish Commandos of the SIG ( Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England , Spring 1999; London) and Confounding the Enemy; the Jewish RAF Special Operators of 101 Squadron, RAF (Transactions Spring 2002; London); Morris Beckman The Jewish Brigade (Spellmount, London, 1998); Peter Masters Striking Back (Presidio Books, 1997, USA); Martin Sugarman Jews at Arnhem, Jews at Dieppe , Jews in the SOE/French Resistance, Jews with the Chindits, Jews in The Korean War (Archives of the AJEX Museum, Hackney,London, 1998); Canadian Jews in WW2 (Canadian Jewish Congress, 1947-48, two volumes, Montreal); South African Jews in WW2 (SA Board of Deputies, 1950, Pretoria); Australian Jewry's Book of Honour WW2 (Australian AJEX, 1973, Sydney); Martin Sugarman Jack Nissenthall - the VC hero who never was (OMRS Journal Summer 1998, London, & Military Advisor, Autumn 1998, USA); Jack Lennard Jews in Wartime (unpublished manuscript, AJEX archives, London; Y Suhl They Fought Back - Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe ( Schocken Books, New York 1975/67); Rabbi Louis Rabinovitz, CF Soldiers from Judea (Gollancz, London,1944).
World War I - Rev Michael Adler British Jewry Book of Honour (Caxton, London 1922 - reprinted by Selous Books , London, 1998); Australian Jewry Book of Honour (Lamson Paragon , Sydney,1923); Martin Sugarman The Zion Muleteers (OMRS Journal Winter 1995, London ; also The Military Advisor Summer 1996, USA; also Transactions of the JHSE Spring 2001); Col J H Patterson With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign (Hutchinson, 1922, London) and With the Zionists in Gallipoli (Hutchinson, 1916, London); V Jabotinsky The Story of the Jewish Legion (Yoseloff, New York,1945); P Gariepy Jewish Soldiers at Gallipolli (The Gallipollean Journal, Winter 1996, Summer 1996, Winter 1997, London); R Freulich Soldiers of Judea (Herzl Press 1964, Israel).
Other conflicts - Harold Pollins 11th Tower Hamlets Volunteers - the First Jewish Unit in the British Army (Bulletin of The Military Historical Society, February 1998, London); A Prago Jews in the Spanish Civil War International Brigade (Jewish Currents, New York, February 1975 - over 10,000 Jews fought against Franco's Fascists, 500 alone coming from Mandate Palestine); also David Diamint's book, in Yiddish and French , Warsaw 1967; Paris 1979 Editions Renouveau - same title; also Martin Sugarman List of Jews in the Spanish Civil War (AJEX Museum, London); E Rubin 140 Jewish Marshalls, Generals and Admirals (Jason Books 1952, London); G L Green The Royal Navy and Anglo-Jewry 1740-1820 (Naval and Maritime Books, London, 1989); several privately published books also on Jews in the USA and Russian Armed Forces, AJEX Archives, London; E Rosenthal Jewish Heroes of the Boer War (South African Jewish Times, Autumn 1948 - contains several other references to the hundreds of Jews who fought for the Boers, copies of which at AJEX Museum archives; at the same time well over 3000 Jews fought in the British Forces).
This article could not have been written without the help, encouragement and advice of the following individuals and organisations, to whom I am greatly indebted -
Vera Atkins (CBE, Cr. de Gu., Com. de Leg. d'Hon.), former SOE 'F' Section Squadron and Intelligence Officer, East Sussex.
Gervase Cowell, Chair of the Historical Sub-Committee, Special Forces Club, London.
Leo Marks MBE (Mil.) Chef de Codage SOE
Henry Morris, Archivist, Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women Jewish Military Museum, Hackney,London.
Alan Rolfe, London, brother of the late Lilian Rolfe, SOE agent.
Duncan Stuart, CMG, SOE Adviser at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London.
My wife Jane Sugarman, for technical advice and putting up with my many absences from home
The staff of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Maidenhead.
Mark Seaman and Nigel Steel, Research Staff at the Imperial War Museum, London, and other library staff in the Reading Room.
Staff at the Public Records Office, Kew, London and Battersea Park Road library, London.
Source: Martin Sugerman, Reprinted with Permission
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