More SOE Exploits

MORE S.O.E. MISSIONS (because it was the right thing to do)

Gilly Halcrow   12 May 2022

Returning to her specialist subject, Gilly, daughter of wartime S.O.E. officer Lieutenant-Colonel E.H. van Maurik, provided some further examples of the work undertaken by operators working clandestinely behind enemy lines.

Trained in physical fitness, sabotage, “murder made easy”, and wireless, men and women were parachuted into occupied France to train local resistance members, appoint new agents, report on enemy troop movements, and arrange for fresh supplies of arms and ammunition.

Churchill charged the S.O.E. with the words “now set Europe ablaze”, and Gilly’s father, at Arisaig House in the Highlands, was an explosives trainer, who also helped prepare Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš for Operation Anthropoid, the assassination, in Prague, of Reinhard Heydrich.

Michael Trotobas, “Sylvestre”, (fondly remembered for a motorcycle accident in Scotland when, inebriated, he had dynamited several salmon in a river) was tasked with the destruction of locomotive sheds at Lille in 1943. Despite nearly being apprehended in a lorry loaded with arms, he eventually managed to get small quantities of explosives smuggled in inside workers’ lunchboxes, and was able, with a few others, to achieve his object, an enormous report in the early hours bringing an inferno to the locomotive sheds. Unsurprisingly, he was hunted by the Gestapo, disguised his appearance, but was finally betrayed and killed in an exchange of fire.

Harry Rée, half-Jewish, had, as his mission, the destruction of the Peugeot factory where tank turrets and V1 components were being manufactured.

Although Robert Peugeot was, understandably, against seeing his factory destroyed, he relented, and dynamite was introduced into irreplaceable machinery, putting the factory out of action in 1943. (Happily, the factory was rebuilt in 1947). Like Trotobas, Rée was hounded by the Gestapo, so fleeing for Switzerland, was apprehended, being shot four times, yet plunged into a river, and, in deliverance from this ordeal, found himself in the arms of Gilly’s father, safe in neutral Switzerland.

Maurice Southgate, “Hector”, was to blow up the Michelin factory at Clermond-Ferrand in 1943. Although factory chiefs were uncooperative, and an RAF bombing raid had to be aborted during a storm, Southgate was able to have maquisards destroy 300 tons of tyres at the plant.

Operation Chariot, one of the most daring raids of the war, entailed an attack on the supposedly indestructible docks at Saint-Nazaire, the only facility where the battleship Tirpitz, then in Norwegian waters, could be serviced. The plan was for an expendable old destroyer, HMS Campbeltown (one of the fifty ships provided by Roosevelt), customised to resemble a German torpedo boat, to sail into Saint-Nazaire, and ram itself, laden with a 4½ ton time-pencilled bomb, enclosed in steel and encased in concrete, into the South Dock gate.

So secret was the mission that men were not informed until its very eve. The party sailed on 26 March 1942. Conditions were favourable, and, two days later, the Campbeltown drove in through the shallow waters, being spotted at 1am. Warnings were flashed and searchlights trained, but the disguised Campbeltown sent a message, in German, stating that she was a damaged Kriegsmarine vessel. This did not fool the authorities, however, who fired heavy artillery at her, while, exchanging her Nazi swastika flag for the White Ensign, she carried on, at 18 knots, crashing, bow first, into the gates at 1:34am, incredibly just 4 minutes later than planned!

Captain Stephen Beattie RN, now captured, had his German interrogator laugh at him, believing such an outrageous and audacious mission incapable of success. Nevertheless, the force of 611 men was to achieve its objective, also damaging pumping and winding gear onshore. Although the 7-hour time-delayed fuse on Cambeltown was itself delayed by 90 minutes, the ensuing magnificent explosion announced the victory of Operation Chariot. Despite the loss of 169 men and capture of 215, the remainder escaped, while Captain Beattie, in a German prison camp, was to learn of the award of the VC for his steely command of the ship during this operation. Hitler was incandescent with rage, as the docks were damaged beyond repair, and his precious Tirpitz was sunk in a Norwegian fjord in 1944.

Stefan Gatward