Described by fellow agent Peter Churchill as ‘a woman full of humour and common sense’, Marie-Thérèse Le Chêne was born on 20 April 1890 in Sedan, France. A small woman, she possessed grey hair and sharp determined features.
Aged 52, Marie-Thérèse was the oldest female SOE agent sent to France where she served from 31 October 1942 until 19 August 1943 as a courier working alongside her husband, Henri Le Chêne, and her brother-in-law, Pierre Le Chêne.
Early in World War Two, Marie-Thérèse fled France for London with her husband, Henri. In London, Marie-Thérèse worked as a cook and manager of a hotel. Henri, a British citizen despite his French birth, had previously managed a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya.
Interestingly, the Le Chêne family decided to join the SOE, and not Charles de Gaulle’s Resistance movement. There was great rivalry between the SOE and de Gaulle’s Resistance movement, and a lot of in-fighting, mainly based on rival political beliefs.
On the night of 3/4 November 1942, Marie-Thérèse landed at Port Miou, near Cassis. She arrived with fellow agents George Starr, Mary Herbert and Odette Sansom and worked alongside her husband as a courier and later as a distributor of political pamphlets and anti-German leaflets. Towards the end of her period in France, she also conducted a sabotage mission on a canal and railway line.
During a visit to Clermont-Ferrand, a town that strongly favoured the Resistance, Marie-Thérèse discovered that the workers at the Michelin Rubber Works were sabotaging production and delivering inferior tyres to the Germans. This not only disrupted the Germans, but also kept the workers in constant employment.
In January 1943, with the Gestapo closing in and Pierre captured, Henri fled France via the Pyrenees, the most popular land escape route at the time. Too tired to join him, Marie-Thérèse hid in friends’ houses until an SOE Hudson evacuated her from a field in Angers on 19 August 1943. Back in Britain, she rejoined her husband who added wryly that he had joined the SOE to get away from his wife, but that she had followed him into the service.
After the war, Marie-Thérèse, Henri and Pierre, who’d managed to escape, returned to France where they opened a hotel in Sainte-Menehould.