Yvonne Cormeau, born Beatrice Yvonne Biesterfeld on 18 December 1909, served the SOE as a wireless operator for the Wheelwright network under the code name Annette. She operated in southwestern France from August 1943 until the liberation of France in September 1944. Yvonne was an unusual SOE agent in that she was a mother.
The SOE acclaimed Yvonne for the quality and quantity of her wireless transmissions. Wireless operators were vulnerable to detection and capture, often within weeks of landing. Nevertheless, she performed her duties with great courage and skill for over a year.
Educated in Belgium and Scotland, Yvonne was living in London in 1937 when she married Charles Emile Cormeau, a chartered accountant. Charles enlisted in the Rifle Brigade and, in 1940, was wounded in France. Tragically, he was killed shortly after his return to London when the Nazis bombed his home. Yvonne survived the bombing when a bathtub fell over her and protected her head. However, her unborn baby did not survive.
Yvonne sent her two-year-old daughter Yvette into the countryside for her own safety. Then she decided to “take her husband’s place in the Armed Forces”. She joined the WAAF as an administrator in November 1941. From there the SOE recruited her to train as a wireless operator. After much agonising and fearing that she might make her daughter an orphan, she joined the organisation on 15 February 1943.
With Yvette in a convent, where she remained until she was five, Yvonne parachuted into France, arriving on 23 August 1943. In common with many agents, she declined to take a cyanide pill with her to commit suicide if captured. The SOE issued her with a .22 revolver, but she did not carry the firearm because discovery of a weapon could lead to instant execution.
Wireless operators transmitted an average of twelve words per minute in Morse code. However, Yvonne averaged twenty words per minute. This meant she was a very talented “pianist”, SOE slang for wireless operators.
Yvonne also worked as a courier, cycling 50 kilometres on regular occasions. As a “district nurse” Yvonne travelled the countryside avoiding the Nazis and the dreaded Milice, a radical and brutal branch of the French police.
A “wanted” poster in Yvonne’s neighbourhood offered an accurate description of her appearance, heightening the danger. On one occasion, the Nazis stopped her at gunpoint at a roadblock. Eventually, they accepted her false papers and her story, passing her wireless equipment off as an X-ray machine.
M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE said of Yvonne, “She was a perfectly unobtrusive and secure craftswoman. She broke one of the strictest rules of wireless security – i.e. always keep on the move – with success: she transmitted for six consecutive months from the same house. She could see for three miles from the window where she worked, which was one safeguard; a more effective one was that there was no running water in the village, so the Germans who knew there was an English wireless operator somewhere close by never thought of looking for her there.”
Yvonne assisted in the cutting of power and telephone lines, resulting in the isolation of the Wehrmacht Group G garrison near Toulouse. In June 1944, she was shot in the leg while escaping from a Nazi attack on Castelnau, but managed to rescue her wireless. The dress she wore on that occasion and the bloodstained briefcase she carried are on permanent display in the Imperial War Museum in London along with her WAAF officer’s uniform.
After the war, Yvonne worked as a translator in the SOE section at the Foreign Office. She also became a leading organiser of veterans’ reunions. Reunited with her daughter, Yvette, she lived in London.