Who was the first agent from the operations branch of F section to reach French soil? The question is straightforward; the answer is not. The war diary for March 1941 includes a laconic remark under a `French section' heading: `After a second failure to land the Brittany Agent, the operation was successfully carried out on the night of the 27th. (A previous failure to land `agents' by sea for the same section on the 19th had been noted.) An undated postwar note of Thackthwaite's in an honours and awards file mentions that this agent was a gaullist one. Nothing else whatever seems to be recorded about him we must assume either that he fell straight into enemy hands or that he joined some other service on arrival. This leaves us with the usually accepted character as the first man in - certainly he was the first man to be parachuted: Georges Bégué, alias George Noble, who was dropped blind on the night of 5/6 May 1941 into unoccupied central France, some twenty miles north of Châteauroux, between the small towns of Valençay and Vatan. The air force claimed he was dropped within a furlong of the chosen spot, but to his annoyance he found he was several miles beyond it. He had a tiresomely long walk, for the rest of the night, carrying his transmitter in a suitcase with his clothes, and came at dawn the to the country house of Max Hymans (Frédéric), a retired politician who was a friend of a French friend of Cadett's. Hymans had not been warned of Bégué's coming, and was away; but they quickly met, and Hymans was happy to co-operate. He introduced Bégué to a Châteauroux chemist called Renan and then to a local garage-keeper, Fleuret, who had the doubtful honour of being F section's first 'live letter-boxes': doubtful because in these early days SOE's agents had yet to learn the value of cut-outs and the overriding importance of security, and Fleuret's garage became a general rendezvous and bicycle park where they met to gossip.
Bégué reported Renan's address back to London promptly, on 9 May. Three more agents were dropped nearby at once, and equally briskly made contact with him: Pierre de Vomécourt (Lucas) and Bernard arrived on the night of the 10/11th and Roger Cottin (Albert) two nights later. Bernard's contribution consisted solely of depositing some money for Bégué at Renan's shop. He was denounced to the Vichy police by peasants who had seen him land, did not manage to make further contact with Bégué or anyone else while under house arrest, and having a wife and child to look after contented himself with talking his way into the regime's good graces. In the end he became a civil servant under Vichy, going as slow as he dared in directing labour to Germany, though never in touch with the large civil servants' resistance movements. When eventually he returned to England after the liberation, he protested that he had never received any further orders.
Pierre de Vomécourt, his companion, was more combative. He was one of the three brothers, barons of Lorrainer origin, landed gentry of the Limousin with strong views on the necessity of keeping up the fight against the Hun; a vigorous, talkative, good-looking man in his middle thirties, a good shot, a fast thinker, full of energy and enthusiasm. Indeed according to his brother Philipe (Gauthier), whom he promptly recruited, but for him F section would never have been founded at all. Such a Vomécourt-centred account of the section's origins is wide of the mark; but there is no doubt that Pierre de Vomécourt's early role was of essential importance. He did for F section's work in France what Gladstone once said Cobden did for free trade, and Parnell for home rule: `set the argument on its legs, so that people could see what the real issues were and make up their minds how they should be tackled.
Encouraged by Pierre's news that they could have influential backing from London, the brothers divided France up informally into three sections. Pierre based himself in Paris, and toured widely round northern and north-western France, seeking out wherever he went the people who were already declaring in private their hostility to the nazis, and assessing their probable future worth to SOE. The best of them he proposed to incorporate in his stillborn circuit, AUTOGIRO. Jean the eldest, who had been badly wounded in the RFC in the previous war, was living at Pontarlier; so he took charge of eastern France and set up several small effective circuits of resisters in place of the escape line he had been running into Switzerland. His organizing ability was marked, and his energies as unflagging as Pierre's; he was soon being trailed by the Gestapo. They caught up with him eventually in August 1942, and sent him to a concentration camp where, in the end, he was murdered within sound of the Russian guns. Philippe was to concentrate on France south of the Loire, and as an outward and visible sign of London's support Pierre arranged for him, through Bégué's wireless, the very first supply drop of warlike stores to be made to France. Two containers, the forerunners of nearly three score thousand, were close to Philippe de Vomécourt's château of Bas Soleil, ten miles east of Limoges. He and his gardener's son-in-law managed the reception between them, hid the stores in the shrubbery near the house, fended off the suspicions of the local police - one of the containers had hung up under the Whitley's wing, and the plane had been circling for an hour, attracting inevitable attention - and found themselves equipped with tommy guns, fighting knives, plastic explosive, and limpet mines with delay fuses for use against ships. They were over a hundred miles from the sea; but to get stores of any kind from London, however inappropriate for the day's needs, was a further stiffener to the de Vomécourt's excellent morale. The Admiralty and the Ministry of Economic Warfare were already a good deal put out by the German blockade runners in Bordeaux, and someone would have to attend to them one day. Meanwhile, the home staff looked on the drop as a substantial achievement.
Bégué had had a lot of trouble arranging it with London, and the trouble brought danger; for the German wireless interception service had detected his transmissions almost at once, had begun to jam them within half a week, and had stirred the Vichy police into keeping a keen look-out for strangers all round Châteauroux. Direction-finding vans soon joined in the search. To keep down his transmission times was therefore indispensable for Bégué; and he proposed the use of teh BBC to indicate whether and even when operations were to take place. From this proposal derived the whole elaborate system of `personal messages', already described , that formed so conspicuous a part of resistance movements all over western Europe.
F's late summer and autumn were dogged by troubles over wireless. It was some months before Bégué's BBC message system was running smoothly, and such agents as there were in France had to make do with communications so inadequate that they endangered themselves and each other by over-using the few channels they had. Cottin for example, a director of Roger et Gallet the French scentmakers, bombarded Renan's shop with postcards for `M. Georges' in which he gave Playfair-coded reports of his efforts to set himself up as a commercial traveler in soap in south Brittany. Arrangements for him to communicate through a courier in Paris broke down; but in Paris he met Pierre de Vomécourt, whose more powerful personality attracted him into AUTOGIRO as de Vomécourt's second-in-command.
Let us return to the main stream of F agents: which was swollen , two nights after Morel's arrival, by the largest drop of men SOE made into France for eighteen months. Six agents went down south of Châteauroux on 6/7 September: gen Cowburn, a tough Lancashire oil technician; Michael Trotobas, later the hero of resistance at Lille; Victor Gerson, an inconspicuous merchant; George Langelaan, formerly of the New York Times: the Comte du Puy; and, for the moment most important, Georges Bloch (Draftsman), a wireless operator and his set. Bégué, Hymans, and the nearest farmer, Octave Chantraine, received them. Bloch like Cottin was promptly annexed by Pierre de Vomécourt, settled in the occupied zone - first his organizer's far too lengthy messages, and any others that his colleagues managed to place in his hands. Cowburn set off on a circuit of oil targets all over France, finding out which were working for the Germans and planning future attacks; this indicated a fairly prompt response from SOE to an important strategic requirement. Hankey and Lloyd had long been pressing on the British high command the vulnerability of Germany through her oil supplies; but the RAF had discovered during this summer that oil plants were targets too small for its bomber crews to hit. SOE had to take over where bomber command left off. SOE's response, though prompt, was equally ineffective; Cowburn produced plenty of useful information, and oil targets were prominent for years in agents' briefings, but few important ones were even damaged; they were too well guarded.
The rest of the party re-acclimatised themselves slowly; du Puy at his own home. Langelaan, engaged in a propaganda mission, did manage to see the aged Herriot, in whom he found `no desire to get away and come to us'; he was the first of a swarm of visitors who descended on the old man, each claiming to be the only authentic allied representative and none knowing anything of the others - none, consequently, was warmly received. While waiting to meet Bégué in a restaurant at Châteauroux and report this meeting home, Langelaan was picked up by the French police exactly a month after landing (6 October). He thus paid with his freedom for his categorical refusal during training to learn to work a transmitter himself. His arrest marked the beginning of the dark age for F section; but before other arrests can be described, eight more arrivals need to be noticed.
They came in two parties of four. Basin (Olive), Leroy, Roche, and Dubourdin were landed from Fidelity on 19 September on the beach at Barcarès, north-east of Perpignan. Bodington flew out to Gibraltar to give them some last minute instructions; he found them `on the top of their form' after a harrowing seventeen-day voyage through U-boats and equinoctial gales, and tehy went their various ways ashore at once: Basin to the Riviera, Leroy to Bordeaux, Dubourdin to Lyons, and Roche to Marseilles and prison. The CORSICAN mission - J.B. Hayes, Jumeau, Le Harivel, and Turberville - arrived by parachute on 10/11 October to a reception near Bergerac arranged by Pierre Bloch (Gabriel), a former socialist deputy recruited by de Guélis. They were all four trained sabotage instructors (Le Harivel was also a wireless operator); and they were all in prison before ten days were out. Tuberville dropped wide of the others, but with all their containers; he was arrested by the gendarmerie next morning, and the others fell successively into a Vichy police trap when trying to make contact with Turck at the Villa des Bois, because his address had been found on Turberville. The same trap, manned by someone who resembled Turck closely enough in voice and figure to deceive several agents, also caught Robert Lyon, Roche, Pierre Bloch, and - last and wost of all, on 24 October - Georges Bégué. On one of these captured agents Fleuret's name was found, and Fleuret was arrested too; Garel was caught at his garage, adn Trotobas also was pulled in at Châteauroux; Liewer was arrested soon after at Antibes on account of an indiscretion of Langelaan's. The result in fact of giving that one Villa des Bois address to fourteen incoming agents had been that five of them had been arrested at it; these arrests had led the police to a sixth newcomer, to several of SOE's new French friends, and to the almost indispensable Bégué. Turberville escaped some weeks later, by jumping off a train while transferred from one prison to another; lay low in an Auvergnat villange; and finally got back to England in 1943. The rest were longer behind bars, though most of them managed a faster return journey.
All the agents taken in the Villa des Bois mousetrap at Marseilles in the previous
autumn were in the noisome Béleyme prison at Périgueux, described by Jumeau
as `degrading and humiliating to the last degree. We were all thrown in amongst
deserters, thieves, murderers and traitors. ... hygiene and sanitation ... were
non-existent. Food was unspeakably bad. In addition to that we were plagued
with vermin and disease'. Only the devotion of Pierre Bloch's wife, who lived not
far away at Villamblard and kept bringing them food parcels, kept the party from
despair through the winter. In the spring, thanks to intervention by the American
military attaché, they were moved to a nearby vichyste concentration camp at
Mauzac on the Dordogne, some fifteen miles upstream of Bergerac. Bégué took
charge of escape planning; got each agent to observe and describe the vital key,
and manufactured a duplicate; got into touch through Mme Bloch with Miss Hall
and so with Philippe de Vomécourt and VIC; and suborned a guard.
Jumeau was his principal assistant; they had some difficulty in making up a team
for their getaway. In the end, at three in the morning of 16 July, they unlocked the
door of their hut with their duplicate key. Trotobas saw Bégué, Jumeau, Bloch,
Garel, J.B. Hayes, Le Harivel, Langelaan, Liewer, Robert Lyon and Roche
through the wire, and the guard came with them. The curly-haired Albert Rigoulet,
who had received CORSICAN the previous October, was waiting for
them with a lorry. He drove them twenty miles to a forest hide-out where they
camped for a week; then they went in twos and threes to Lyons, where Racheline
brothers took them over and saw them through to Spain. This escape released,
among others, Bégué to be F section's future signals officer and four distinguished
circuit heads in the persons of Hayes, Liewer, Lyon, and Trotobas: it must rank as
one of the war's most useful operations of the kind.