Early on a sunny midsummer morning, a car carrying four British agents through the peaceful countryside of the remote Sologne in the Loire Valley drove straight into a German ambush.
Two of the passengers had just arrived from England by parachute and the car boot was filled with weapons, as well as radio crystals and uncoded correspondence that identified SOE agents across central France.
Their arrest on June 21, 1943, and interrogation by the Gestapo, led to the destruction of Prosper, the biggest SOE network in France.
For the French or ‘F’ section of SOE — the clandestine Special Operations Executive, which fostered local resistance against the Nazis — it was the worst disaster of the war.
It was also one of the most shocking stories of the conflict, involving breathtaking levels of deception and betrayal.
Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the Resistance were either shot or deported — so many that the exact number has never been known. Those who were caught faced torture and death in Nazi hands.
Brutal: A re-enactment of the execution of a French Resistance fighter. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the Resistance were either shot or deported — so many that the exact number has never been known. Those who were caught faced torture and death in Nazi hands
Among the bravest was Noor Inayat Khan (left), a young woman who had lived in London, writing children’s stories, until she volunteered to fly into enemy territory. Andree Borrel (right) was still alive when she was thrown into a cremation oven at Natzweiler
Following the ambush in the Sologne, the success of the Paris Gestapo snowballed.
As more and more agents were trapped, those still at liberty were forced to take suicidal risks.
Among the bravest was Noor Inayat Khan, a young woman who had lived in London, writing children’s stories, until she volunteered to fly into enemy territory.
As the Prosper network collapsed, a message came from SOE HQ in Baker Street ordering her to return to England.
But she refused to leave until she had been replaced. She was arrested when she returned to an address that was under Nazi surveillance.
She twice tried to escape from her interrogators, and an eyewitness reported that she was still fighting the SS guards as they gave her a lethal injection before burning her body in Dachau concentration camp. She was awarded a posthumous George Cross.
Of the 39 SOE agents who could be linked to Noor Inayat Khan, 28 were caught and executed.
They were all trained volunteers who went into the field knowing that they risked torture and a brutal death.
Ten of those who died were women. They included Yvonne Rudellat, who was taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp and died with a bullet in her brain two years later. And Andree Borrel, who was still alive when she was thrown into a cremation oven at Natzweiler.
The execution of a French resistance fighter during the German occupation in the Second World War
Members of the Maquis, the French Resistance, study the mechanism and maintenance of weapons dropped by parachute in the Haute Loire
Another Prosper agent, Edouard Wilkinson, an RAF pilot of joint American-French descent, volunteered for SOE, parachuted into France and agreed to meet an old school friend in a Paris cafe. He was warned not to go. But he took the chance and was promptly arrested.
He was tortured for months, until his wife, who had taken over his circuit, was caught in turn.
The first was the political head of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin
She was stripped, interrogated and beaten for two days, then she was confronted with her husband — who was unrecognisable.
Her interrogators beat her up in front of him, but still neither would talk — and the arms they were hiding were never found.
Yvonne Wilkinson survived two years in Ravensbruck. Her husband was deported to Mauthausen, where he was hanged in September 1944. The guards used piano wire to prolong the ordeal.
Of the 301 men and women deported from the Loir-et-Cher department, 166 were never seen again. Among the dead were the 93 members of the British network who had lived in the Sologne.
The foot soldiers of Prosper who survived started to limp back to France in June 1945.
They returned full of anger and determined to ‘finish the job’ — which meant finishing off the collaborators, and in particular the people who had betrayed their network to the Gestapo.
Because they were convinced that they had not just been ambushed; it was clear to them that someone within their network had been working for the enemy.
Eventually, they concluded that the destruction of Prosper had been set up in Whitehall, as part of an elaborate deception operation designed to mislead German military intelligence about the date of D-Day.
In my book War In The Shadows: Resistance, Deception And Betrayal In Occupied France, I set out to discover whether this could possibly be true.
Was SOE’s biggest French network deliberately sacrificed? Were the trained agents and the French volunteers unwittingly enrolled in a deception operation in which they had been deliberately misled about D-Day, then deliberately betrayed as well, so that under Gestapo torture they might let slip secrets that were in fact false information?
The British government has always denied the existence of any such deception operation, and in 1958 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commissioned an official history of SOE to set the record straight.
In SOE In France, Professor M.R.D Foot attributed the arrest of British officers and French resisters to their own exhaustion and ‘incompetence’, while the French version of history was described as just another ‘conspiracy theory’.
Other British historians have generally supported this conclusion and have pointed out that there is absolutely no trace in the wartime records of any such deception operation linked to the Prosper network.
But now, after many years of research in British and French archives, I have uncovered startling new evidence that Whitehall did indeed mastermind a deception and betrayal that sent hundreds of our own side to their deaths.
The French Resistance: People suspected the destruction of Prosper had been set up in Whitehall, as part of an elaborate deception operation designed to mislead German military intelligence about the date of D-Day
French Resistance fighters about to be shot by the German army around 1940
I have established that two Resistance leaders were sent back to France — one in the spring and the other in the early summer of 1943 — after being deliberately briefed by Whitehall that landings would take place later that year — ten months earlier than the actual date of D-Day in June 1944.
The first was the political head of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin. In March of 1943, he was given the false date at a meeting in London with General Alan Brooke, chief of the general staff. One week later Moulin returned to France.
Then, in May, the commander of Prosper, Major Francis Suttill, on a flying visit to London, was given the clear impression that the invasion was imminent.
So much for misinformation, but what about the betrayal?
I was originally drawn into the story of Prosper after publishing a biography of Jean Moulin, whose codename had been ‘Max’. A month later I received an anonymous letter.
In that biography I had set out to explain how ‘Max’ had been betrayed in Lyon on June 21, 1943.
The anonymous letter writer claimed to have worked for British intelligence during the war. He congratulated me on my attempts to explain the betrayal of ‘Max’ but said that I had missed ‘the jewel in the crown’.
In 16 coded pages the letter set out clues, starting with the fact that ‘Max’ had been arrested in Lyon on the same day that SOE’s largest network in another part of France had been broken.
At first I ignored the letter as a practical joke. But as I began to piece together the story of who had betrayed the SOE agents and hundreds of members of the Resistance, I found I was following a trail leading from London through wartime Europe to rank-and-file Resistance fighters in lost corners of France.
And the trail started with the mass arrests in the Sologne in the summer of 1943. The Gestapo officers who carried out those arrests had inside information — for they turned up with an exact list of the number of arms containers hidden in each village and had always been accompanied by the familiar face of a local Resistance leader who had clearly been turned.
But there was another traitor at the heart of the betrayal. He was SOE F section’s air movements officer, the man who organised the moonlit flights of agents and information in and out of France. A pilot called Henri Dericourt.
At the end of the war, SOE recommended him for a DSO. But overwhelming evidence then emerged against Dericourt.
Documents found in the Avenue Foch, the Paris headquarters abandoned by the Gestapo, proved that he had been an accredited German agent with the codename ‘Boe.48’. And that he had been paid millions of francs to betray his comrades.
Dericourt’s conviction by a military tribunal in 1948, and his subsequent execution by firing squad, seemed assured — but then an unexpected defence witness walked into the Paris court.
He was identified simply as a ‘former British intelligence officer’, but he was, in fact, Major Nicolas Bodington, the deputy head of SOE’s F Section.
In sworn evidence, Bodington said that he had spent a month in Paris in the summer of 1943, and that he did so under the protection of Dericourt, whom he trusted completely.
Young men of the French resistance from Saint Eugene, Saone-et-Loire, captured and shot by the Germans
He also swore, untruthfully, that he personally had authorised Dericourt to contact the Gestapo. The prosecution case collapsed. Dericourt walked free.
Why had Nicolas Bodington, a British major, protected a Gestapo agent?
The resisters came to the only conclusion possible — that they had been sold out to the Gestapo as part of a deception operation.
Of all the wartime intelligence agencies, those concerned with strategic deception remain the most obscure, even today.
Not all the means necessary to ensure an Allied victory in World War II can be revealed. Governments, as well as individuals, sometimes have to hide secrets that are too shameful to disclose.
Research for my book took me to archives in Lyon, Blois and Paris, as well as the National Archives at Kew. I eventually uncovered a folding fan of wartime intelligence committees that were involved in deception operations.
The fan had been carefully constructed to ensure what the professionals prized above all else: ‘deniability’.
Some of their committees have since become famous. The Twenty or ‘XX’ Committee planned ‘Operation Mincemeat’, in which a body dressed in Royal Marines uniform was washed onto the Spanish coast with a briefcase full of false information to mislead the Nazis.
Other triumphs remain largely unknown. But they all shared one rule. A successful deception operation frequently entails the deception of one’s own side, as well as the enemy.
The operation that could have finished off SOE’s Prosper network was called ‘Starkey’, once described as ‘the most important deception operation of 1943’. And in the archives I found that its activities entailed the deception of our security agency, MI5, as well as SOE.
But none of this seemed to have much to do with the betrayal of ‘Max’, or Jean Moulin, General de Gaulle’s delegate at the head of the French Resistance.
Until I noticed the existence of a rogue SIS (i.e. MI6) unit based in Switzerland. And realised that one of its agents had actually led the Gestapo to the house where ‘Max’ was caught.
Because of that betrayal, ‘Max’ met his end, beaten and clubbed by a notably brutal Gestapo officer, Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ who was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in 1987.
‘Max’ had been repeatedly tortured and may have attempted suicide while being interrogated at Gestapo headquarters.
But the Nazis could not break either ‘Max’ or Prosper. And the tragic irony is that both probably died protecting a ‘top secret’ that did not exist.
What is now clear is that British intelligence officers, intent on using deception to save the secret of D-Day, were complicit in their fate.
War In The Shadows: Resistance, Deception And Betrayal in Occupied France is published by Oneworld, £20.