Thursday, 23 August 2012

Valencay 2012

In early May I attended a ceremony in France to commemorate the achievements of a unique group of people who operated as agents during the Second World War. This video records the ceremony.

In June 1940, in the early days of the War, Winston Churchill created a secret organisation known as Special Operations Executive with the objective of ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’.  It was variously known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’, ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’ (their offices were initially in Baker Street London) and ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’.

SOE’s French section (Section F) sent over 400 agents into France including, controversially at the time, 39 women.  The first of these agents was a man named George Begue who was ‘blind dropped’ (no reception committee) by parachute and landed near a small town called Valencay in the Loire Valley on the night of 5th/6th May 1941.

Many years later  in 1991 a monument was erected in the town of Valencay to commemorate the achievements of SOE’s F Section and in particular the agents who were killed. Every year since, a small, dignified ceremony is held on the 5th or 6th May and is attended by the surviving agents, their families and anyone else who wishes to pay their respects.

Of the 400 agents who were dropped into France, 104 were killed in the course of their duties and many more were captured, horribly tortured and sent to Concentration camps - many enduring and surviving fates that many would consider worse than death. The odds of surviving unscathed were poor but still, knowingly these brave people ran the risk.

This year, of the 400 original F Section agents, only two survive. Bob Maloubier and Marcel Jaurant-Singer are the last of this illustrious group making the Valencay commemoration even more poignant because, as they themselves observed, it may not be long before there are no more survivors able to attend the annual ceremony.

Before the ceremony started I got chatting to various groups of English people who had also made the journey specifically to attend, and with my father was invited to join them for a brief drinks reception and later to join them for a commemorative dinner at a nearby hotel. An extraordinary day unfolded..

One of the first people I spoke to was an elderly man from the North of England. He explained that he had grown up with a girl called Lilian Rolfe and her twin sister Helen. In April 1944 Lilian was dropped into France as an SOE agent. She was captured on 31st July by the Gestapo, was brutally tortured and was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where she was killed in February 1945. The official story is that she was shot. One of the other attendees confided the true manner of her death – it was truly horrific.

Having told me the story of his childhood with Lilian, my new friend from the North turned to an elderly lady sitting quietly alone on a chair a few feet away and said, ‘that’s Lilian’s twin sister Helen, she comes with us every year. Go and talk to her’, he suggested.

I sat down with Helen and tentatively introduced myself. It was difficult to know what to say but reaching for a horribly inadequate string of words I expressed my sympathies for the loss of her sister. She seemed lost in thought but then gently patted my hand and said ‘Thankyou. But it’s all such a long time ago’ and then she reflected ‘but it still hurts’.  I could only begin to imagine.

The two surviving agents Bob Maloubier and Marcel Jaurant-Singer were accompanied by the indefatigable Noreen Riols who worked at SOE’s ‘finishing’ school at Beaulieu in the New Forest.  One of the extraordinary things about all three was that despite being in their 80s and 90s, they all had an energy and zest for life of people many decades younger - that exultation of spirit that the French call ‘Joie de Vivre’.

Noreen explained to me why she and others who operated as agents joined SOE even though the risks of torture and a lonely and painful death was ever present. ‘People say to me that the young people of today would never do what they did then’, she said, ‘Nonsense! It was an adventure. It was the most exciting thing you could do with your life and you just pushed the risks to the back of your mind and got on with it. It was exhilarating.’

Following her time with SOE during the war, Noreen went on to author a series of books which dealt with not only the excitement of wartime espionage but also the impact and difficulties after the war of trying to settle into a normal and far less thrilling life.

I found Bob Maloubier, for a quick chat, propped up on a waste bin outside the reception. He was drawing energetically on a cigarette, closely attended by a beautiful dark-haired female possessed with that effortless elegance and sophistication that is a closely guarded secret known only to French women. I immediately assumed she was his daughter until I noticed him wiggle his moustache at her in a mildly suggestive way and lightly brush her bottom with his hand.  At 89 Bob could clearly still turn on the magic.

Bob was enormously warm and friendly and despite the presence of his far more desirable and interesting companion happily answered my questions and laughed at my pathetic jokes. It was a great honour to meet him - Bob is a truly extraordinary man. I listened with rapt attention to his story.

In December 1943 Bob was caught by a German roadblock out after curfew on his motorbike. A German soldier sat behind him on the bike and he was told to ride to the nearest town to be incarcerated. An armoured car followed immediately behind them as they drove down the road.

Bob knew that if he was interrogated there was little chance that his cover-story would stand much scrutiny so as they approach the town he suddenly wrenched the motorbike sharply, skidded around and threw the German soldier off. He then roared off down the road with the armoured car in hot pursuit.

Shots rang out and one lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) shot hit it’s target. Bob was shot through the chest. The bike slid off on its side one way down the road. Bob flew off in another direction, eventually came to a stop, jumped to his feet and hared off across a field with a group of soldiers behind him.
Scrambling furiously across the countyside Bob came across a stream and threw himself under the water. He stayed there, surfacing only for air every minute or two, for a couple of hours with mud and dirty water swilling into his agonising wound.

Then, confident that his pursuers had lost him, he walked a staggering four miles to get back to the place he had left from earlier. He arrived in a state of collapse. A doctor who worked for the French Resistance was called and declared that he would inevitably die.

Whilst Bob lay in bed enduring the agony of his last hours his friends started detailed planning for his death and the problem of disposing of his body without alerting the German occupiers. Sacks for carrying his body and a coffin were procured while his imminent demise was awaited.

 As 68 years later, Bob leant back on his waste-bin, grinning and blowing clouds of smoke through his moustache at me, I reflected on how mildly premature confident predictions of his death had been!
A few days after his ordeal Bob’s condition started to unexpectedly improve. Ten days later he indignantly dragged himself from his bed late at night, swathed in blood stained bandages, because he had suddenly realised it was New Years Eve and he was missing a party..!

After the liberation of France Bob could have been forgiven for seeking a quiet life but there was no chance that he was going to pursue that course. In August 1945 he parachuted into Laos and was captured by the Japanese. After the war Bob went on to, amongst many other things, help found the French Secret Services, and in 1967 he was still embroiled in conflict in the Biafran war in Nigeria.

Bob has won almost every French honour that it’s possible to win, many honours from other nations and my own personal favourite from the State of Laos, he is ‘Commander of the Order of a Million Elephants’. Brilliant.

What an unbelievable day. I will have to save Marcel’s story and others told by families of other agents for another time – there are so many stories to re-tell.

It was truly humbling to meet such brave and incredible people and hopefully not an entirely unrepeatable experience. I expect Bob has a good few more years left in him and having met his girlfriend I can testify that he has plenty left to live for!


Post a Comment