Scrapbookpages Blog

March 5, 2010

Women in the British SOE – what really happened to them?

This morning I got an e-mail from a woman who wrote that she is a cousin of Diana Rowden, a British SOE  agent in World War II, whom she says was murdered at the Natzweiler concentration camp.

This brought back memories of my trip to France and my visit to the Natzweiler Memorial Site a couple of years ago.  I had a hellavuh time getting to the place.  The former Natzweiler camp is located on a steep, winding mountain road, 5 miles from the nearest train station and there is no bus service. I had to hire a taxi driver to drive me there from the nearest town.

While I was in the crematorium building at Natzweiler, I noticed a small plaque on the wall in honor of four women SOE agents who were executed there; their bodies were burned in the one oven of the crematorium.  I remembered that I had seen a similar sign, honoring four other women SOE agents on the wall of the crematorium at Dachau.  I couldn’t help wondering why four women would be brought such a long way,  to a place as isolated as Natzweiler, for execution.  They were brought from a Gestapo prison in Germany to Natzweiler, a camp in Alsace, which is now in France. Why weren’t all eight of the women taken to Dachau for execution, I wondered.

After I got back from my trip, I started doing some research on Natzweiler and I learned that there were several male SOE agents who had been prisoners at Natzweiler and when this camp had to be closed, they were transferred to Dachau.  The SOE men had arrived at Dachau just a week before the SOE women were brought in for execution.  Curiously, the four SOE women had been executed at Natzweiler shortly before the men were transferred.  This struck me as being more than a coincidence.

Did the Gestapo deliberately arrange for several male SOE agents to be at Natzweiler, and then at Dachau, so there would be witnesses to the execution of the SOE women?  And why weren’t the men executed?  Not only were the SOE men not executed, they were privileged prisoners who were treated very well.

One of the SOE men, Albert Guérisse, claimed to be an eye-witness to the arrival of the four SOE women at Natzweiler. Guérisse said that the Commandant of the camp had driven his car down to the railroad station to pick up the women and he drove a couple of laps around the camp, as if he were giving them a tour.  All the prisoners inside the camp were able to  see these women who had been brought to Natzweiler for a secret execution.

Another SOE man, Brian Stonehouse, claimed that he was working near the gate and saw the women arrive on foot; he just happened to be an artist and a fashion expert, so he was able to sketch the women and describe their outfits in detail, right down to the hair ribbons they wore.

The cousin of Diana Rowden, who e-mailed me, wrote that she had met one of the former prisoners at Natzweiler when she visited the Memorial Site. This man told her that he had seen the women SOE agents as they  arrived at night. So we have three different eye-witness versions of the arrival of the women SOE agents at Natzweiler.

I believe that what may have happened is that all three of these witnesses saw the wives and girlfriends of the SS officers at Natzweiler arriving for a party that was going on in honor of an SS man who was leaving because he was being transferred to another camp.

Then I found out that there were four more British SOE women who were executed at Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp.  This makes no sense at all.  Why not take all 12 women to the women’s camp for execution?  Both Dachau and Natzweiler were camps for men.

There was one British SOE woman at Ravensbrück, Odette Sansom, who was not executed; she survived because she was having an affair with the Commandant, Fritz Hartjenstein. Odette claimed that all her toenails were pulled out by the Gestapo men who were trying to make her talk.

I spent a great deal of time researching the British SOE and read several books pertaining to the SOE women. On my web site http://www.scrapbookpages.com, I wrote about what I found out here and here.

Here is a quote from this page of my web site:

Of the four British SOE agents allegedly executed at Dachau, Noor Inayat Khan has become the most famous. Noor has gone down in history as a great heroine because she defied her captors to the end, never cooperating with the Germans in any way.

Noor Inayat Khan was the first woman to be sent to France to work as a wireless operator, even though there were other women in the SOE who would have been better suited for this job. Her trainer thought that Noor was too emotional and when she was given a mock interrogation to see how she would hold up under an interrogation by the Gestapo, she failed miserably. Physically tiny and fearful of guns, she was also “not overly burdened with brains,” according to her instructor. Moreover, her exotic beauty might draw attention to her, causing her to be more vulnerable to arrest by the Gestapo.

Noor Inayat Khan was sent to France, even before she had finished her training, on an RAF Lysander plane on the night of June 16, 1943 to become a wireless operator for the Cinema sub circuit of the Prosper line; her organizer was Emile Garry. Noor was captured around October 1, 1943 after she was allegedly betrayed by the sister of Emile Garry.

According to the book “A Life in Secrets,” by Sarah Helm, Noor was denounced by Renée Garry who told the Gestapo where to find her. Renée was in love with another SOE agent named France Antelme, but when Nora arrived, Antelme gave his affection to her.

Renée Garry allegedly sold Noor to the Gestapo for money and revenge, but what was the real motive for Noor’s betrayal? Did the British deliberately select their least qualified female agent to send to France because they wanted her to be caught? Was this a deliberate plan to allow the Germans to capture a British radio?

In her book “Flames in the Field,” Rita Kramer wrote that Henri Déricourt, who was a double agent in the Prosper line, said that the British had deliberately sacrificed women SOE agents as part of a scheme to distract from the invasion of Sicily. These women were “decoys” who were meant to be captured after the British learned that the Germans had infiltrated the Prosper Network. The purpose was to plant disinformation about the invasion of Sicily.

You can read more about the women who were allegedly executed at Dachau here and about the women who were allegedly executed at Natzweiler here.

There are no records whatsoever that would prove that these 12 SOE women were executed.

So what really happened to the women SOE agents?  My theory is that all 12 were sent to Ravensbrück and they died in the typhus epidemic there, or they were transferred from Ravensbrück to Bergen-Belsen where they died in the typhus epidemic.  The records from Ravensbrück were confiscated by the Soviet liberators and have never been made public.

The British deliberately sacrificed these women SOE agents by arranging for them to get caught, and now the women are being widely promoted as heroines in order to cover up the truth.  I have explained this in another blog post.