Wow, this week a historian specialising in the Special Operations Executive congratulated me on my Heroines of SOE blog posts. Obviously, I’m delighted about that 🙂
Amazing to relate, but over the past month the Bulgarian version of The Hermit of Hisarya was my most popular book on iBooks. Yesterday broke all records for the book with a 400% increase on the previous best.
Mrs Josephine Skrodenis, 25 of Chicago, was granted a divorce yesterday because she claimed her husband used her as a “corpse” in solving murder mysteries.
When she was looking forward to spending a quite night at home with her husband, he would glare at her from pages of the latest detective novels and order her to “lay on the ground and act dead.”
Then, while she played “the reluctant body” he would try to discover who had “killed” her she told the court.
From the Daily Mirror, 8 May 1944, VE Day
Women in Work
Agriculture 1939, 67,000…1944, 184,000
Civil Service 123,000…495,000
Building and engineering 16,000…23,000
I’m in talks with a narrator about recording audiobook versions of The Olive Tree and my Eve’s War series.
Meanwhile, I was listening to an audiobook chapter of Digging in the Dirt today when my youngest son asked, “Did you write that?”
Wondering what was coming next, I offered a tentative reply, “Yes.”
He smiled. “It’s good isn’t it. It sounds like a real book!”
I’m super excited! Last night, I wrote a song! About tortillas. Although, on reflection, maybe it’s a (w)rap…
The most popular page on my website this week. Harry Rée was a schoolteacher who starred in a documentary-drama film. He also fought the war in an extraordinary way. An inspiration for my Eve’s War series his philosophies continue to enlighten our thoughts today. https://hannah-howe.com/eves-war/harry-ree/
Good news, I’ve got a new job washing dishes and the pay is excellent. Bad news, it’s at a radar station…
Our local castle at Kenfig
My song of the week. “But mama, that’s where the fun is…”
My Women of Courage Heroines of SOE articles will continue in the near future, with male agents included as well.
Meanwhile, here is the first episode in Pearl’s Witherington’s story, as told by her official SOE file.
Pearl Witherington was a remarkable woman. Her life story serves as an inspiration for my Eve’s War Heroines of SOE Series.
In 1943, Pearl underwent training to become a SOE agent. Her file reveals a page of signatures where she practiced her new identity as Genevieve Touzalin, a secretary in a match company.
This note is from the intelligence service M15 who looked into Pearl’s background when she volunteered for SOE training.
Initially. Pearl worked as a secretary for the British Embassy in Paris before making her escape, with her mother and sisters, from France. Her escape entailed many risks and adventures, which are not evident in this rather dry note.
Pearl showed great ingenuity in helping her family to escape and M15 concluded that she was a suitable candidate for training.
From Pearl’s SOE file, her training notes on codes and cyphers.
Pearl’s keywords ‘fou tez moi la paix’ sound very much like her personal selection and offer a direct plea to her instructors to accept her as an agent…’give me a break’.
I’m honoured to have two of my articles featured in the Seaside News this month. You can find them on page sixteen of the magazine.
This is Lilly of the Valley. A French friend informs me that it’s a tradition to share this at the beginning of May to wish friends good luck and happiness throughout the coming year, so I’m happy to share it with you 🙂
We are making good progress with the audiobook version of Digging in the Dirt and hope to publish in early June. Meanwhile, here’s the cover.
The May 2020 issue of Mom’s Favorite Reads is now available to read and download FREE 🙂
Sam visits the Rhymney Valley in Looking for Rosanna Mee.
Lightly populated for centuries, the valley developed through heavy industry – iron, steel and coal.
Local legend states that a giant harassed the fairies. They asked an owl for help and he slew the giant. As the fairies burned the giant’s body the scorched earth revealed the coal.
This is a letter written by Captain Selwyn Jepson of the SOE recommending Jacqueline Nearne for service in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. It’s pure fiction. For this letter to be authentic, Jepson should have known Jacqueline for at least two years (he’d known her for two weeks). Prudence Macfie of the FANY wrote a similar letter, even though she‘d known Jacqueline for a shorter period than Jepson.
Why the deception? The FANY was used as a cover for female SOE agents and in Jacqueline, Jepson saw someone who could serve the SOE well. His judgement proved correct. Jacqueline served the SOE with distinction and was awarded numerous honours after the war.
Local views this week, from Ogmore, Kenfig and the Goylake River.
Wishing you a Happy 75th VE Day Anniversary.
Our ancestors gave so much, including their lives, in the fight against fascism. We owe it to them, ourselves and our children to ensure that the current generation of fascists with their racist views, false smiles and pathological lies do not triumph.
Our ancestors gave their lives for a better world. It is up to us, everyone of us, to make their dream a reality.
Women of Courage Heroines of SOE
Odette Victoria Wilen was born on 25 April 1919. She served the SOE in France under the code name Sophie. Odette’s experiences in France read like a romantic adventure novel, with tragic twists and turns, and a fairytale ending.
Born of a French mother and a Czech father, who served as an RAF officer, Odette became a naturalised British citizen in 1931. In June 1940, she married Dennis Wilen, a Finnish RAF pilot instructor. Sadly, he died during a flying accident in 1942.
In April 1943, Odette joined the SOE. At her request, she trained as a wireless operator and was parachuted into France on 11 April 1944 to join the Stationer network in Auvergne.
Odette’s organiser, Maurice Southgate, believed that she had not received sufficient training, which was symptomatic of the SOE’s desperate need to send wireless operators into the field. Subsequently, she was replaced.
Meanwhile, through a network of contacts, which included fellow agents Pearl Witherington and Virginia Hall, Odette transferred to the Labourer network where she worked in Paris as a courier alongside Marcel Leccia, who became her fiancé. Sadly, through betrayal the Gestapo captured Marcel and two of his colleagues. In keeping with their barbaric code, the Gestapo murdered Marcel in September 1944.
Odette was saved from the Gestapo by Pearl Witherington and by Marcel’s sister, Mimi, who warned her of their impending threat. After trying to secure Marcel’s release, Odette fled Paris by bicycle before following the well-warn escape route over the Pyrenees into Spain, then on to Gibraltar and Britain, arriving in August 1944.
During her exfiltration, Odette met the head of the Spanish escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay. Although they spent only three days together, Odette must have left a strong impression on Santiago because at the end of the war, he left Spain to meet up with her in Britain. The couple married in March 1946 and later settled in Buenos Aires.
Odette and Santiago produced two children. He died in 1997 while she died in 2015, aged 96.
As ever, thank you for your interest and support.
PS Apologies for any formatting errors, these are a result of WordPress’ increasingly unreliable platform.
A busy week with audiobooks with five in production: Smoke and Mirrors, Stardust, Digging in the Dirt, Boston and The Devil and Ms Devlin, all in the Sam Smith Mystery Series. It’s always fascinating to hear how narrators interpret your words and it’s always great to work with other creative people.
As part of the Authors Give Back sale where authors support readers during this difficult time Val Tobin is offering her books for free and at 60% off the recommended retail price.
Nothing is more glorious than finding a book that keeps you turning pages to discover what happens next. Val Tobin’s stories will do just that. Take a journey with characters who will inspire you, intrigue you, and entice you to read just one more chapter.
Earlier this week, I lost my Internet connection. An engineer was due today, so yesterday evening I decided to tidy the living room to make space for him. And guess what I found? In a corner inaccessible to man or beast, the router plug was sitting on the floor. I plugged it in and within ten minutes our Internet was restored.
So, how did the plug get on to the floor? As unlikely as it sounds it seems that one of my children reached for an Easter egg, knocked a small 5.1 music speaker off the shelf, the speaker landed on the plug and knocked it out of the socket. Throughout this a light remained on the router – it’s fed by two sockets – and the corner is inaccessible except for the plug sockets so no one thought to look there.
I told the engineer there was no need to call because I’d fixed the problem. Doubtless, he was impressed. However, I didn’t tell him how I did it 😉
My current reading list for Eve’s War
Madame Fourcade was an amazing woman. Forget de Gaulle, Madame Fourcade was the real leader of the French Resistance. She was the one who rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in when it came to fighting the fascists.
Most of my Eve’s War series is set in Brittany, hence the need to top up my knowledge of that region.
After the war, Ann-Marie Walters established a career in literature and her book is the best written account of an SOE agent’s experiences in France.
“I’m very nervous, but patient. It’s a funny mixture really and you need that for radio work. You need the patience to do the coding and decoding. You need the resourcefulness of nervousness to be able to decide to go on if you think somebody’s listening in (the Gestapo used to listen in to transmissions in vans disguised as Red Cross vehicles) or to cut off and ask for another sked (transmission schedule).” – Yvonne Cormeau.
Yvonne was the ‘fastest finger in France‘. She transmitted Morse code messages at a rate of twenty words a minute (the average was twelve words a minute) and she sent more messages than any other female SOE wireless operator.
In 1944, SOE agent Anne-Marie Walters, pictured below, had a narrow escape when travelling by train to Condom via Tarbes. A Gestapo officer approached to search her cases, which contained small arms and demolition equipment. However, a young woman with two babies, unknown to Anne-Marie, but sensing danger, created a fuss over the Gestapo searching her bags. In the commotion, the Gestapo officer didn’t search Anne-Marie’s cases. When he left the carriage, the young woman offered Anne-Marie a smile of understanding. In that moment she had saved Anne-Marie’s life.
On another occasion, Anne-Marie found herself at a bus stop facing a snap search. While one fascist inspected her (false) documents another searched her handbag and pulled out a crumpled ball of toilet paper. Anne-Marie blushed at the sight and the fascist returned the toilet paper to her handbag. That toilet paper contained thirty coded messages. The BBC broadcast these messages at set times during the day. They carried instructions for the Resistance, informing them of arms drops via parachute, details of other networks and most famously of all the timing of the D-Day invasion. The code for that message was the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne”. The first part of the stanza, Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne (“the long sobs of the violins of autumn”) indicated that the invasion would begin within 24 hours; the second, Blessent mon cœur d’une langueur monotone (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”) was the specific call to action.
A memorial to the SOE agents of the Wheelwright network in Lapeyrade, Landes. Yvonne Cormeau, Anne-Marie Walters and Yvonne Baseden have featured on my website.
Pictures taken near my home in South Wales this week: Kenfig, Mawdlam, Cefn Cribwr, the Goylake River, Kenfig and Ballas
Women of Courage Heroines of SOE
SOE agent Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne was born on 15 March 1921 in London to an English father, John, and a Spanish mother, Marie. She was the youngest of four children while her elder sister, Jaqueline, and her brother, Francis, also became SOE agents.
In 1923, the family moved to France where Eileen became fluent in French. After the German invasion in 1940, Eileen and Jacqueline followed the well-worn path to London via Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar and Glasgow, while their parents and brothers remained in Grenoble.
In Britain, the SOE soon identified Eileen’s talents. Initially, she worked as a signals operator decoding secret messages, often written in invisible ink, received from agents in the field.
After a period of training, on 2 March 1944, Eileen arrived via Lysander in Les Lagnys, Saint-Valentin. Her mission was to work as a wireless operator for the Wizard network. She also organised sources of finance for the Resistance. Over five months she transmitted 105 messages, each one sent at enormous personal risk.
Coincidentally, Eileen’s organiser, Jean Savy, returned to Britain on 9 April 1944 on the same aircraft as her sister, Jacqueline, who had spent fifteen successful months in the field. Savy arrived in Britain with important information about the Nazi’s V1 rockets.
In July 1944, the Gestapo detected Eileen’s transmitter and arrested her. A period of barbarity followed, which included crude forms of inhuman treatment. Nevertheless, despite the torture, Eileen convinced the Gestapo that a businessman had hired her to send messages and that, at the time, she remained innocent of his British nationality.
In August 1944, the Gestapo sent Eileen to Ravensbrück concentration camp then on to Silesia. At the camps, the guards forced her into slave labour. However, she remained defiant and, despite more torture, refused.
On 13 April 1945, Eileen escaped with two French women. Marching to another camp through the snow and dark they hid in a forest then travelled to Markkleeberg where the S.S. arrested them. However, they managed to fool the S.S. (it’s remarkable how many agents managed to do this) and with the aid of a priest they hid in Leipzig until the liberating Americans arrived a few days later.
It’s ironic that Eileen constantly lied to the Gestapo and, for the most part, the believed her. They regarded her as ‘a silly little French girl who was wasting their time.’ However, when she told the Americans the truth they didn’t believe her and it took some time before they handed her over to the British authorities.
After the war, Eileen suffered from what we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jacqueline cared for her and in 1997 she felt well enough to appear on a Timewatch television programme where she discussed her wartime experiences.
Grant is a very imaginative, multi-genre author. Along with his writing talent, he is also very supportive of his fellow authors. All his books are worthy of your attention, especially Love Beyond, his finest book in my opinion.
Porthcawl Seafront and Rest Bay at seven o’clock in the morning
An excellent podcast from the Paris Institute For Critical Thinking
A Schoolmaster’s War
A wonderful book and a wonderful interview. Harry Ree was a fascinating man, a true hero, although he would probably hate that label. Jonathan Ree has done his father, and the literary world, a great service by producing this book. As I wrote elsewhere, it is a book that should be taught and discussed in schools so that young people can gain an insight into the SOE and its role in the Second World War and, more importantly, learn that heroes and heroines take on many forms. While politicians soak up all the glory it is people like the retired school mistress who sacrificed their lives who deserve our greatest respect.
Saint-Leu-d’Esserent is notable for its 3,000 metres of mushroom caves under the Thiverny plateau. In the summer of 1944, SOE agents made an astonishing discovery in these caves, a discovery that had a significant impact on the war. That revelation will appear in Operation Sherlock, book five in my Eve’s War Heroines of SOE Series.
In the autumn of 1940 a German arrived at a school in Alsace to suppress the use of the French language. At the end of his ‘lesson’ he ordered the class to shout, “Heil Hitler!”
However, twelve-year-old Colette Fouillette and her friend shouted, “Drei Liter!” (Three litres).
By 1943, Colette was active in the Resistance, delivering messages by bicycle, and she remained active until the Liberation, a shining example of youthful courage.
Image: View of Église Saint-Martin (Wikipedia)
Women of Courage Heroines of SOE
Yvonne Jeanne de Vibraye Baseden, later known as Yvonne Burney, was born on 20 January 1922 in Paris. Her father, a First World War pilot, crash-landed in France at the home of the Comte de Vibraye. The Comtesse invited him to dinner, which turned into a romantic occasion because he fell in love with the Comte and Comtesse’s daughter. The couple duly married and, at the end of the First World War, lived in France.
Later, Yvonne’s parents lived in various countries within Europe. She was educated in Britain, France, Poland, Italy and Spain learning several languages as a result.
On 4 September 1940, aged eighteen, Yvonne joined the WAAF as a clerk. From there, she worked for the RAF in intelligence where she captured the SOE’s attention.
Recommend by fellow agent Pearl Witherington, Yvonne joined the SOE on 24 May 1943. On 18 March 1944, aged 22, she became one of the youngest female agents to parachute into France.
Under the code name Odette, Yvonne arrived in the village of Gabarret where she linked up with the Wheelwright network. Travelling to Eastern France, she worked for four months as the wireless operator for the Scholar network under the cover of Mademoiselle Yvonne Bernier, a shorthand typist and secretary.
On 26 June 1944, the Gestapo trapped Yvonne and seven of her colleagues in a cheese factory. They shot her organiser, Baron Gonzagues de St Genies, while Yvonne was arrested and interrogated. War is brutal, but Yvonne’s story reminds us that war as practiced by the fascists plunged unacceptable levels of barbarity.
By September, Yvonne was in the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. While at the camp, she became ill with tuberculosis and was transferred to the hospital where she remained, with 500 other women, until the closing days of the Second World War when the camp was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross.
The Swedish Red Cross ensured that Yvonne reached Malmö where they deloused her. She spent her first nights of freedom on a mattress on the floor of the Malmö Museum of Prehistory, sleeping under the skeletons of dinosaurs.
After the war, the Allies arrested the SS guards at Ravensbrück, along with the female Aufseherinnen guards. Between 1946 and 1948, sixteen of the accused were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and were sentenced to death.
In September 1955, Yvonne became the first regular subject of the BBC programme This is Your Life, although later in her life she shunned the limelight. After her second marriage in 1966, as Yvonne Burney, she moved to Portugal before returning to Britain in 1999.
Yvonne died in October 2017 at the age of 95 another example of the remarkable longevity of the surviving SOE female agents.
As ever, thank you for your interest and support.
I never imagined that readers would download over 400,000 of my books, but I have reached that number. Many thanks to everyone who has made this possible.
My merchandiser was kind enough to supply me with a Hannah Howe calendar. Here’s the image for April, Paris in the spring.
My latest translation, the Portuguese version of Secrets and Lies, which will be available soon. Many thanks to Cristiana for her wonderful contribution to this book.
Six new audiobooks are in production. Currently, I have fourteen audiobooks available and with the inclusion of my new Eve’s War and The Olive Tree series I intend to increase this number to forty-two.
Exciting news. My books will soon appear on the Hive website. Hive is the largest supporter of independent bookstores in Britain. More details soon.
A short stroll from my home, Kenfig Pool this week.
Hedy Lamarr’s controversial 1933 movie, Ecstasy, was playing in Eve’s local cinema in Operation Zigzag. Eve used the movie to distract a Gestapo officer who was following her.
Hedy Lamarr was a complex woman, with beautiful looks and a beautiful mind. In fact, physically she was too beautiful for her own good.
She fled Nazi oppression and became a Hollywood star. However, at night she was an inventor and created a weapon guidance system, her contribution to the war effort. The American military were interested in her invention, so interested that they stole her idea.
Hedy’s invention developed into Bluetooth so you can see what a ground-breaking idea it was and how brilliant she was as an inventor. This invention will feature in Eve’s War Operation Treasure.
I’ve just completed the character profiles for Operation Broadsword, Eve’s War Heroines of SOE book three. This book features a farmer and his family. Eve is staying with the family, at Le Bougain in a house similar to the one pictured, on the pretence of being a widow resting in the countryside to overcome nervous exhaustion.
The farmer’s family includes two young teenagers, Paul, who is deaf, and Kadia, a sister who is very protective of him. The teenagers are involved in a particularly dramatic incident in a later book in the series.
In Eve’s War Operation Locksmith Mimi Duchamp can transmit Morse code messages at twenty words a minute, eight words above the average.
Recognising Mimi’s talent, her SOE instructors train her as a wireless operator, arguably the most dangerous job of the Second World War.
When Eve asks Mimi how her training is going, Mimi replies, “It’s very intense. We learn Morse from dawn to dusk. I even dream in dots and dashes.”
In Operation Treasure Heroines of SOE book four the RAF want to bomb a strategic factory, the local Maquis want to bomb the factory and Eve’s SOE partner Guy Samson also wants to bomb the factory. Guy’s motivation is to cause maximum damage while saving lives.
Eve also receives three dinner party invitations…from the third member of her team, Mimi Duchamp – it’s her twenty-first birthday – from the local Gestapo leader, Hauptsturmfuhrer Klaus Raab and from Guy.
This is an explosive episode in the series, in more ways than one.
Through reading personal correspondence sent to the SOE agents who were in France you realise that they were held in great affection by the local people. Quite often the locals regarded these agents as ‘one of the family’ and these families often endured great suffering rather than betray an agent.
Of course, traitors existed, but these people were relatively small in number, soon identified and ‘dealt with’.
Often, whole villages would turn out to greet an agent upon his or her arrival, and feasts were held in their honour.
The correspondence that continued after the war was even more touching as memories were recalled, casualties remembered and remarkable incidents relieved.
Adversity forges strong bonds, and nothing can break those bonds.
Occupied France, 1944
A seven-year-old girl was sitting with her mother in a tram. A big Nazi soldier got on to the tram and the girl noticed his belt.
“What’s that on his buckle?” the girl asked her mother.
”Gott mit uns.”
”What does that mean?”
”It means God is with them,” her mother explained.
The girl paused. Then she raised her head and smiled. ”Well that’s nothing, mother,” she said with pride, “we’ve got the Resistance on our side.”
My Women of Courage Heroines of SOE Series will continue next week. Meanwhile, thank you for your interest and support.