The Special Operations Executive or S.O.E was formed by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 22 July 1940, for the purpose of espionage and to facilitate sabotage in Occupied Europe at a time when Britain was incapable of taking direct military action on the Continent.
British agents would be 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 prosperous Spanish father and an English mother who between 1940 and 1942 worked at the British Embassy in Lisbon and later Madrid.
Described as being sober, reliable, hard-working, and genteel of manner in the late summer of 1942, she returned to Britain to marry an Army Officer, Thomas Plewman.
Recognised as intelligent, resourceful, and fluent in a number of languages she was considered a considerable asset and was hastily recruited into the S.O.E. Too much so perhaps, for she was to be parachuted into France in August 1943, having received only minimal training. Even so, she worked as a courier for seven months in Marseilles, the city of her birth.
It was a dangerous and nerve wracking job but one during which her commitment never flagged but her luck was to run out and like so many others who fought the war in secret she was eventually betrayed by a close colleague and arrested on 3 March, 1944.
Despite prolonged torture at the hands of the Gestapo she revealed no secrets.
Yolande Elsa Maria Untenahrer was a Swiss national who had been born in Paris and spoke French as her first language. Her family had moved to Britain when she was still a child and upon the outbreak of war she enlisted in the Women’s Auxillary 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 much commented upon just how much in love and how happy she was. But her connubial bliss 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 Gustave Bieler met at the Moulin Rouge Cafe where the Gestapo were waiting for them and 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 under torture she would reveal all. They were to be sorely disappointed.
Despite being viciously brutalised to the point where she could barely stand up let alone walk, she told them nothing. Left alone to rot in her cell in conditions of great squalor she wiled away the time doing make believe embroidery and drawing pictures on toilet paper in her own blood.
Madeleine Demarment was born in Lille on 1 November, 1917.
Refusing to accept 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 very gentle and feminine young woman her previous experience soon came to the attention of the S.O.E. and was parachuted back into France on 28 February 1944, 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. Whilst 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 the escape line but later captured by the Gestapo he agreed to cooperate for money and to avoid torture.
More than a 150 of his colleagues were arrested, tortured, and executed as a result of the information he provided and he was to be described by Scotland Yard as the worse British traitor of the war.
After the wars conclusion a massive man-hunt was launched to find him and he was killed in a shoot-out with French police on the streets of Paris in January, 1946.
Noor Inayat Khan was a Muslim of Indian descent, her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a eminent scholar of Sufism and of Royal descent. 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. She was to grow into a sensitive, shy, and gentle girl whom it was said possessed a dreamlike quality.
Noor was to study music at the Sorbonne and become an accomplished poet and writer of children’s books but upon the outbreak of war, and despite her strongly held pacifist beliefs, she was determined to resist Nazism which she considered to be an abomination against humanity. 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.
Noor’s polyglot background and her multi-lingual skills brought her to the attention of the S.O.E. who recruited her soon after.
On 17 June 1943, she was parachuted into France despite the widely expressed doubts of her instructors that she was emotionally suitable for the tasks she was expected to undertake.
Noor 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 and she had been traced to the small apartment where she was staying. The apartment was quickly surrounded and she was ordered to come out with her hands up. 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, so ferocious had her resistance been that some Gestapo Officers refused to be left in a room alone with her.
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 the ground before an SS Officer stepped forward to shoot them in the back of the head.
Noor Inayat Khan was left until last.
She had been a difficult and awkward prisoner who had lied repeatedly to her interrogators, weaved a complex web of deceit, and had led the Gestapo to embark upon numerous wild goose chases. She had also not been slow in showing her contempt for her captors. As such, she had been marked out for special treatment.
The SS Officer in charge, Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, pistol whipped her before repeatedly punching and kicking her until semi-conscious and unable to stir for herself she was raised from the ground by her hair to be mocked and abused before 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 in the front line of Allied resistance to the German Occupation of Europe. 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.