A man enters a café with his right hand dug deep into his trouser pocket. It’s the way my first book, City of Spies begins and the way that during WW2, a Special Operations Executive agent would silently let his contacts know that the Germans were onto him. They had turned the agent into an unwilling trap, waiting to see who would approach him, widening their net before making arrests.
On 27 August 1942, SOE agent Peter Churchill (code-name “Raoul”) was parachuted into the south of France to organise the “Spindle" network. It began to attract other Resistance members and SOE agents. In early spring ’43, SOE agent Francis Cammaerts (code-name “Roger”) briefly visited and assessed the network as likely to be penetrated by the Germans. He was right, as the network soon found out.
Churchill’s courier, Odette Sansom (code-name “Lise”) was approached by a man who called himself Henri. Over a civilised cup of acorn coffee, he pleasantly explained that he was working for the Abwehr, German military intelligence, but claimed he was disillusioned. He said he was working with a contact she had, André Marsac, and although Marsac had been arrested they were trying to bring about the end of the war. He even showed her a letter where Marsac seemingly urged her to work with him.
Sensing something was off, Odette politely declined Henri/Bardet’s offer, informed SOE headquarters on Baker Street.
She was right about that. Hugo Bleicher, a senior non-commissioned officer in the Abwehr had feigned disillusionment to get close to Marsac and Marsac’s associate Roger Bardet. Bleicher arrested Marsac and persuaded Bardet to work for him as a double agent (Henri).
Here Odette made a very brave but very large error: she disobeyed SOE’s orders to flee. Instead, she remained and waited for Churchill. Bleicher arrested them and both were tortured before being sent to concentration camps, Odette to Ravenbruck and Churchill to Sachsenhausen.
Bardet didn’t stop there. He betrayed the Inventor network, leading to the arrests in late ‘43 of its organiser, wireless operator, and courier (all of whom were executed), resulting in the collapse of the network. In ’44, betrayed the head of the Donkeyman circuit, whom Bleicher also arrested, and subsequently executed.
It might read like an espionage thriller, but this was a true story; one with tragic consequences.
Who can you trust, when you’re behind enemy lines?
This is the strapline for my second book, Resistance, which has an element of betrayal from within the Resistance. While the Germans might not have been effective with their agents sent to Britain (all were captured, some turned to work for the Allies), but German Intelligence networks were incredibly effective within France.
In City of Spies as well as Resistance, double agents infiltrated Resistance networks. While the people I described in my books were fiction, unfortunately people like Bardet who were willing to betray their country and their comrades were all too real.
And if a SOE agent or Resistance fighter couldn’t be turned into a willing double-agent through money or threats, they could be used as a trap to attract others.
Or they could be tortured and perhaps give up a name of someone else.
Knowledge of the location of an allied drop, could result not only in arrests and executions, as well as the Germans taking custody of the goods or personnel involved in that drop.
So, imagine it’s 1943 and you’re a new agent for Special Operations Executive. Maybe you were recruited because you spoke French, or maybe you volunteered. On Day 1 of your training, you are told that only half of you are expected to survive. You look at the men and women around you. You’re apprehensive but remain in place.
You spend the next months training. You learn weaponry and weaponless combat. You learn to blow things up, how to follow someone and how to hide in plain sight. You learn a number of skills that you never dreamed of, and then you’re sent behind enemy lines.
Maybe you went by ship, maybe you parachuted out of a plane, or maybe you landed in a Lysander or some other small aircraft. Regardless, you hope that the reception committee hasn’t been compromised.
If you survive getting to France, you might start forging links with other members of the Resistance. Some you tentatively begin to trust.
But trust is a commodity you can’t afford.
Because who can you trust, when you’re behind enemy lines, and not all your enemies are German?
Resistance by Mara Timon (Bonnier Zaffre) Out Now.
Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere. May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cecile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown - something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cecile is ordered behind enemy lines. Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Leonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings. But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything - for not all their enemies are German.