My blog post today is in answer to a comment made, by a German reader of my blog, about his search for the fate of Andrée Borrel, who was a British SOE agent during World War II. His comment mentioned that Borrel “joined the (French) Resistance, was betrayed and fled to England via Portugal.” He also mentioned that Borrel was “sent back to France” (by the British SOE) and was then caught by the Gestapo.
Andrée Borrel was one of the first two woman SOE agents to parachute into France. She was tall and athletic, courageous and very beautiful.
What really caught my attention in the comment was these words: “she was working and stayed with the Bielmeier Bakery but was taken away and apparently executed, but where?”
The Bielmeier bakery was in the town of Dachau during World War II, and it was a work Kommando where prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp were sent to work. Dachau was basically a men’s camp; women and teen-aged prisoners at Dachau lived and worked outside the camp in places like the Bielmeier bakery.
Before I began doing extensive research on the fate of the women in the British SOE, I thought that the most logical explanation for the disappearance of the women in the SOE, after they were betrayed by the British, was that they had escaped for fear that they would be killed to cover up the fact that they had been used and betrayed. I dismissed this idea because none of the SOE women who disappeared had ever contacted their families. The story told by the British was that 12 SOE women had been executed at these three concentration camps: Dachau, Natzweiler and Ravensbrück. However, there is no proof that any British SOE women were ever executed by the Germans.
Now this reader’s information, that Andrée Borrel worked in a bakery in the town of Dachau, sheds new light on the story.
Several of the women SOE agents were sent to the civilian prison in Karlsruhe, Germany after they were captured. On July 6, 1944, four of these women (Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diane Rowden and Sonia Olschanezky) were released and allegedly executed that evening at the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace, which is now in France. These women had been sent to France by the British SOE to be caught so that the Germans could be given false information about the D-day invasion. The official story given by the SOE is that four of the women were executed at Natzweiler exactly one month after the Normandy invasion.
The problem is that the Karlsruhe prison has no record of the name of the concentration camp where these four women were sent when they were released. The alleged execution of the women was top secret. So secret that there was no written execution order and no records kept of their deaths.
Why such secrecy? The British SOE was an illegal organization and the women were illegal combatants who had no protection under the Geneva Convention of 1929. If caught, they could be legally executed. There were several male SOE agents who were executed, but there was no secrecy about their executions.
A biography of Vera Atkins, entitled A Life in Secrets, by Sarah Helm gives the following account of what happened when the SOE women were brought to the offices of Magnus Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss in the Political Department, a branch of the Gestapo, in the Natzweiler camp.
The following is a quote from A Life in Secrets:
Then a man from the Karlsruhe Gestapo, who had accompanied the women, walked into Wochner’s office and explained that there were orders from Berlin to execute the women immediately. Wochner disputed this “unorthodox” procedure, saying that such orders usually arrived in Zeuss’s office by secret teleprint, or by letter direct from Berlin to the commandant of the camp. A carbon copy was always immediately made of such an order and sent to the commandant. But the Karlsruhe Gestapo man said the women’s names should not be entered in any records at all. Other witnesses, however, suggested he was simply lying and that the camp executioner, Peter Straub, would never have been authorized to kill a prisoner without Wochner’s order.
Two months later, four more British SOE women agents were allegedly taken to Dachau by Max Wassmer, the same man who allegedly brought the women to Natzweiler. (The Archives of the Dachau concentration camp has no record of Max Wassmer ever being checked in at the gate into Dachau, as would have been the required procedure.) For the SOE women allegedly sent to Dachau, there was no proper order from Berlin, authorizing the execution of the women, and no records of the execution were kept.
Even after the war, at the proceedings against nine staff members of the Natzweiler camp before a British Military Court from May 29, 1946 to June 1, 1946, the names of the women were kept secret from the public, allegedly to spare the feelings of the relatives. However, according to Sarah Helm’s book, the relatives didn’t mind the public knowing the names of the women and had given written permission to reveal their names.
The records of the British Military Court were sealed and the transcripts of the trial were not published until 1949. The fate of the men, who were put on trial by the British, was not publicly known until 1956 when a journalist named Anthony Terry persuaded the legal department of the British Embassy to release the information to him.
According to Rita Kramer’s book, Flames in the Field, Terry also publicly identified the fourth woman who was allegedly executed at Natzweiler after he discovered that Sonia Olschanezky had been taken to the Karlsruhe prison on the same day as Borrel, Leigh and Rowden, and that she was released on July 6, 1944, the same day as the other three. In the published trial transcripts, the fourth woman was not identified.
On September 12, 1944, four more women SOE agents were allegedly executed secretly at Dachau. There are no records of the execution of the four women at Dachau and all of their names were not even known until 1947 when the name Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was added to the list of the Dachau victims. Until Sonia Olschanezky was finally identified as the fourth Natzweiler victim, it had been assumed that Noor Inayat Khan was executed at Natzweiler.
According to Rita Kramer’s book, the Karlsruhe records only show that the women were taken to an unnamed concentration camp. The logical place to send the women would have been Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp near Berlin, where they could have been executed and their bodies disposed of in the crematorium.
The Ravensbrück camp was liberated by the Soviet Union and the records that were confiscated by the Soviets have never been released, even to this day. The Soviets did finally release the records that were confiscated from Auschwitz and Majdanek, but curiously, the records from Ravensbrück are still being kept secret. I wonder why?
The Natzweiler camp is in a remote area in the Vosges mountains in Alsace; it would have been a great place for a secret execution, except that there were at least 6 British SOE agents there who were potential witnesses to the arrival of the women. (Maybe that’s why Natzweiler was chosen by the British for their official story — the six SOE men at Natzweiler could corroborate their false story of the execution.)
Natzweiler had only one crematory oven and prisoners were not normally brought there by the Gestapo for execution since the closest railroad station was 5 miles from the camp.
In spite of the strict secrecy surrounding the alleged execution of the four women at Natzweiler, the Gestapo was remarkably careless in handling this important mission. For one thing, the prisoners at the Natzweiler camp had not seen a woman in quite a while, so their arrival in the camp was bound to attract attention.
Four women arrived in the Natzweiler camp around 3 o’clock in the afternoon and were paraded through the entire camp in full view of all the prisoners who did not work outside the camp. Who were these women? Could they have been the wives or girl friends of the SS men who were there to attend a party that took place that evening? Maybe prostitutes that had been hired for the party?
According to British SOE agent Albert Guérisse, the Commandant of the Natzweiler camp had gone down to the station to meet them and had brought the women back in his car; he then drove around the camp and gave the women a tour. Is that the way the Nazis treated condemned women?
Brian Stonehouse, an SOE agent who testified that he had witnessed the arrival of the four women, was a prisoner in the “Nacht und Nebel” category. The N.N. prisoners were not allowed to work outside the camp, but by some remarkable coincidence, Stonehouse was doing manual labor that day near the gate and he was able to get a good look at the women so that he could identify them later.
Stonehouse noted that one woman had “very fair heavy hair,” but her dark roots were showing; she was wearing a black coat and carrying a fur coat over her arm, although this was in July. Another woman was wearing a tweed coat, while a third woman had a tartan plaid ribbon in her hair. He remembered that the fourth woman was wearing clothes that “looked very English.”
As British spies in France, it was important for these women to pass for French women, especially because they were with the Prosper Network that was based in Paris, but curiously, three out of the four had on something that could be easily identified as British, according to Brian Stonehouse. His descriptions were used to identify the women at the proceedings of the British Military Court held in 1946 at Wuppertal, Germany.
The four women were allegedly taken to the Political Department at Natzweiler, where Walter Schultz, a prisoner who was an interpreter, was a witness to their arrival.
After the stop at the Political Department, the four women were allegedly taken to the Zellenbau, the camp prison, which was at the far end of the camp. The windows on one side of the Zellenbau faced the infirmary where Albert Guérisse and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, two SOE agents from Belgium, were assigned to work. The infirmary, or the camp hospital, was about 10 meters from the prison cells.
According to the book A Life in Secrets, by Sarah Helm, a Kapo named Franz Berg, who worked in the crematorium, had witnessed the arrival of the women and “It was he who passed the word right down to the barracks on the lower terraces that there were British women among the group.” British SOE agent Albert Guérisse, lived in barrack number 7, which was 25 meters from the hospital block.
On page 114 of her book entitled Flames in the Field, Rita Kramer wrote the following:
At the Natzweiler trial, Berg testified as to what had happened on the evening of 6 July 1944. His testimony neatly complemented, like an adjacent piece of a jigsaw puzzle, what Vera Atkins had heard from Dr. Guérisse, who had recognized Andrée Borrel and had managed to exchange a few words with another one of of the women before she disappeared. She had told him that she was English. That was all there had been time for.
Boogaerts and Guérisse told Vera Atkins that they had gotten the word from Berg about the British women. However, during the trial of nine Natzweiler staff members, Franz Berg referred to the women who were executed as “Jewish.” Not being a fashion expert like Brian Stonehouse, Berg had no way of knowing that these women were British.
Boogaerts got the attention of the women by whistling and whispering as loudly as he could through a window in his barrack building. Two of the women opened the window of their prison cell and Boogaerts threw them some cigarettes through the window. One of the women, who told Boogaerts that her code name was Denise, then gave Boogaerts a small tobacco pouch, which Franz Berg delivered to him. Denise was the code name for Andrée Borrel.
Guérisse’s account of what happened was quoted by Sarah Helm in her book:
Boogaerts came to see me after he had first made contact with the women, saying he had managed to get them some cigarettes and he suggested that I should come to his block (barracks) at 7 p.m. in order to talk to them and find out who they were, from the window of his block, which was within speaking distance. And I went to his block and by looking through the window and whistling I could see the head and shoulders of a woman appear in the window of the cell opposite in the prison block, and I noticed that she had dark hair but it was quite impossible to observe more.
It was only later, in another interview with Vera Atkins, that Guérisse remembered that he had recognized the woman with the dark hair as Andrée Borrel. Brian Stonehouse told Vera Atkins that he had identified Borrel as the bleach blonde with dark roots showing, who walked into the camp carrying a fur coat.
According to Rita Kramer’s book, the tobacco pouch that Andrée gave to Boogaerts contained some money. Inside the pouch was a slip of paper with her name on it; after the war he gave the pouch to Leone Borrel Arend, Andrée’s sister.
So we have proof that Andrée Borrel was executed at Nazweiler; she had the foresight to write down her name and give it to another British SOE agent who was a prisoner at Natzweiler.
By another remarkable coincidence, the British SOE men at Natzweiler were then transferred to Dachau where four more SOE women were sent and allegedly executed. Strangely, the Gestapo always arranged for male SOE agents to be kept alive as witnesses to the execution of female SOE agents and they even moved them around from one camp to another for that purpose.
A couple of years ago, I contacted the staff at Dachau and I was told that there are no records at Dachau of any SOE women being brought there. In light of this new information from a reader who was at Dachau after the war, I will have to do some more investigation about Andrée Borrel being a prisoner at Dachau who worked in the Bielmerier bakery.