Secret Agent - Part 1

Juliette Pattinson interviews Yvonne Baseden and tells the story of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during WWII

Flight Officer Yvonne Baseden pictured in WAAF uniform (1946)

Flight Officer Yvonne Baseden pictured in WAAF uniform (1946)

In many ways, Yvonne was a typical SOE recruit. She was born in France in 1922 to a Frenchwoman who had married a British man after the First World War. Thus, like many agents, she possessed Anglo-French nationality. She lived in France for the first eight years of her life and then the family travelled to Belgium, Holland, Poland and Italy. They were living in Spain when the Civil War broke out so returned to France, whereupon she attended a school in Paris. As a result of her upbringing and parentage, Yvonne was a fluent French speaker: ‘My first tongue was French’ she noted. She moved to London to stay with her British grandmother and embarked upon a course of short-hand typing. When the war broke out, she took a job as a typist in Kent and was asked to do some translation: ‘I got my first experience of where my French could be of some use.’ She remembered listening to de Gaulle’s radio broadcast on 18 June 1940 wherein he exhorted those of French nationality to continue the fight to free France and warned that ‘Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will never go out.’ Yvonne was determined to play her part despite being an eighteen-year-old woman: ‘I said “well I think I’ll go and see if I can be of some use there” so father said “ok”. He was always very supportive.’ She made an appointment with a distant relative who worked with de Gaulle in order to offer her services but was told that she was not suitable because her father was British. Greatly disappointed, she decided to join the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force)as her father had been a pilot in the First World War. She was employed as an interpreter-secretary to an MI19 officer at Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, known as ‘The Cage’, where German prisoners were interrogated. She later discovered that her file noted that ‘this airwoman is not to be employed on confidential work.’ She recalled: ‘I couldn’t be employed on any sort of confidential work which meant I couldn’t go into the ops room. I tell you, I was so annoyed at the time!’ Having a British father had prevented her joining the Free French and having a French mother had made the WAAF slightly wary of her. Her mixed parentage, however, recommended her to one organisation, the SOE.

The public have developed a fascination with the female agent who operated behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France…

… an interest fuelled by biographies, films, newspaper serialisations, television documentaries and museum displays. A recently unveiled memorial to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), features a sculpture of one of its most celebrated agents, Violette Szabo. In 2002, she was the subject of a new biography and a Channel 4 Homeground documentary. A biography of fellow agent Odette Sansom has also recently been published. Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom are familiar names, having been awarded the George Cross and been the subject of biographies and films in the 1950s. Noor Inayat Khan, another recipient of the George Cross, also generated much interest and was the subject of a 2006 biography and a television programme. One explanation for why these individuals have struck such a chord is that they were engaged in activities which were considered inappropriate for the female sex. These young women, actively recruited by an official British organisation, were trained in armed and unarmed combat, silent killing techniques and sabotage. Dropped into France, often by parachute, they undertook dangerous clandestine work and if captured were likely to be tortured and executed. Of the thirty nine women employed by the British-run French section of the SOE, fifteen, including Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Noor Inayat Khan, were captured. They were interrogated, physically and sometimes sexually mistreated, and deported to concentration camps. Twelve of the women were executed, including Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan. Odette Sansom, one of three women who survived incarceration, stated that she was married to the nephew of Winston Churchill. Eileen Nearne and Yvonne Baseden, the other two to be liberated, were not identified as British agents and survived by pretending to be local French women involved with the resistance. Their wartime stories featured in a nine-part series in 1950 in the Daily Herald entitled ‘Commando Girls’ and Yvonne Baseden was a reluctant subject of  This is Your Life, broadcast live on 25 September 1955. Yet unlike Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Noor Inayat Khan, few people today will have heard of Yvonne Baseden.

This article uses excerpts from my two interviews with her to chronicle her wartime experiences, examining why she was considered suitable as a recruit, the training she undertook, her mission in France and her experiences during captivity.

Established in July 1940 with a remit to ‘set Europe ablaze’, the SOE used British-trained personnel to recruit, train and arm locals in preparation for an Allied landing, whereupon the resistance circuits they had established would sabotage bridges, railway lines and communications. The French Section began recruiting women from 1941 onwards as it recognised that women might also be useful in clandestine work. An official SOE file offers a number of explanations as to why this was the case:

Girl couriers were used extensively, because it was a fact that women were rarely stopped at controls; and only during the period immediately before the Liberation—and even then rarely—were they searched. They were seldom picked up in mass arrests. They provided excellent cover for their movements about the country by visiting friends, carrying out shopping expeditions and later, foraging the country for food.

Yvonne was invited to attend an interview on 1 June 1943 following a recommendation by fellow WAAF Pearl Witherington who also served in France: ‘Unbeknownst to me, she had been asked “if you see or hear of anybody who could do this sort of work, give us the names.” And I gather she recommended my name.’ Yvonne recalled ‘walking into a nondescript building, into a nondescript office. I couldn’t think why on earth I was here.’ After a general discussion, the recruiting officer asked if she would be interested in doing something more in relation to France:

Of course I was thrilled and I said “yes of course.” He said that “it’s not going to be very easy and you’d have to leave the WAAF for a little time and you’d have to have special training.” And I replied “I don’t mind.” And he said “well, of course, the thing is there are different ways of getting you over there if you are found suitable. It might imply a parachute or landing.” I said “well that all sounds quite exciting” [giggles], particularly at that age. So I said “ok”.

Her ability to speak French fluently and her French looks—dark-hair, olive-skin and small stature—made her the ideal recruit.

Yvonne was seconded to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), a voluntary civilian women’s organisation which was established in 1907 and which recently celebrated its centenary. All female agents were put into FANY uniform to avoid awkward questions being asked by family and friends. She was given the codename ‘Odette’ and embarked on a series of training courses of which she ‘enjoyed every bit’. These were held in secluded country estates located throughout England and Scotland that had been commandeered by the SOE. Here recruits received a form of commando training to improve fitness as well as instruction on sabotage techniques and various weapons. When I asked her if she would have been prepared to shoot someone in the field, she replied abruptly and decisively:

Oh yes. Yes, absolutely. I don’t know whether I would be prepared to knife them because we were trained to do that as well. Oh yes, certainly I would. It was part of the training and a job to be done.

Now It Can Be Told - click to purchase from Amazon

Fellow agent Jacqueline Nearne starred in the film
Now It Can Be Told (1946). This is now available as a DVD ( Imperial War Museum Collection, 2007).

Yvonne showed an aptitude for wireless operating and underwent several months of specialist training. This was the only role which both men and women undertook. Most women were sent in as couriers, while men could be organisers, saboteurs or wireless operators. She was taught how to code and decode, how to send and receive messages in Morse code and how to repair her wireless set. She was also given parachute training which involved making several jumps:

The first jump is frightening and you do it because you’re in a group of people and one person goes, so you go. It’s a marvellous impression when you’re sailing down having leapt from the plane . . . every time you have the same fear. That is natural.

When her training was complete, Yvonne was introduced to Gonzagues de St Genies, codename ‘Lucien’, with whom she was to work. He was French and had been a prisoner in 1940 but had managed to escape by breaking his arm with a hatchet. He arrived in Britain in 1943 and volunteered to return to France. She later discovered that he was a distant relative. Yvonne was given a new identity – she was to become ‘Marie Bernier’ and had identity documents made out in this name. Her cover story stated that she was a secretary. Her hair was cut in a French style and she was given some typical French clothes, a vast sum of money and a cyanide pill which she refused. She was fully aware of the dangers she would face in occupied France: ‘We knew we were going into something pretty dicey.’

See part two of this fascinating story

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