SOE: The Trojan Horse

Henri Déricourt after arrest in 1946.

After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Gilbert Norman, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill.

In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt’s work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.

During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.

When Jean Overton Fuller interviewed Déricourt for her book, Double Agent, he told her that leaders of the Special Operations Executive knew the organization had been penetrated by the Gestapo and that men and women were deliberately sacrificed in order to distract their attention from the planned landings in Sicily and Normandy.

Henri Déricourt was reported to have been killed in an air crash while flying over Laos on 20th November, 1962. His body was never found and some writers have claimed that his death was faked in order to allow him to begin a new life under another name.

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The autumn and winter months of 1942–3 were unexpectedly lonely for Léon Doulet, the Air France pilot who had travelled to Britain with Déricourt. In September, after a week in a scruffy hotel near Victoria Station, he and Déricourt were separated from each other. Doulet was moved to an even scruffier bed-and-breakfast establishment, where he lived on his own in the strange city for the next four months. He had no idea of Déricourt’s whereabouts. Doulet had presumed they were both under the authority of the Air Ministry, but neither they nor anyone else could or would tell him anything about Déricourt. Doulet found British indifference very depressing. Having come all this way to fly he couldn’t fathom why he was being ignored. On three occasions, twice in October and again in November, Déricourt contacted Doulet by telephone and arranged a rendezvous at Piccadilly Circus. At their first meeting they had a drink at a nearby pub and Doulet railed about his abandoned state. Déricourt listened to him sympathetically but there was nothing he could do. In contrast to Doulet, Déricourt seemed to have found some occupation, though he wouldn’t reveal what that was or where he was staying. Finally, when Doulet pressed him on this, Déricourt hinted that he was staying with an ex-girlfriend. There was, of course, no girlfriend and Doulet knew it, but he left it at that. He mentioned that no one at BOAC seemed to know anything about Déricourt, but Henri made no comment.

It was remarkable that Déricourt was able to walk the streets with impunity, when everything that was known about him at the time should have been sufficient to ensure he was interned for the duration. He was a known black-marketeer with associates in the so-called Corsican mafia (Doulet at least knew that, as did the Americans in Marseilles); MI5 received reports by the end of the year that Déricourt had been seen in the company of Germans in the occupied zone (this too would have come to Dansey’s attention); and, as Dansey knew himself after his own enquiries, Déricourt was not the person he claimed to be, and was in fact a most accomplished liar. To put it simply, he had all the hallmarks of the kind of person the Germans would have slipped onto the Pat Line for espionage purposes. (It has been speculated that this was actually the case. But German archives contradict that view.) Far from being interned, however, Déricourt was already gainfully employed.

The next time Doulet met Déricourt, Henri led him to a luxurious flat that was shared by the two Belgians with whom they had sailed on board the Tarana. They were joined by ‘an English intelligence officer called FRANCIS, who was very brilliant’. FRANCIS asked Doulet if he had ever been up to Paris since the occupation. ‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘many times.’ He was then asked if he was prepared to do some secret work. Doulet declined. He had come to Britain to fly and that was all he wanted to do. The meeting ended amicably and Doulet departed. It was immediately obvious to him that Déricourt was somehow involved with ‘British intelligence’, and was probably going to return to France. They met on one other occasion, at which Déricourt warned him to keep silent about the meeting with FRANCIS and his return to France.

Déricourt had been working with MI6 for nearly a month. Once he had emerged from the Royal Patriotic School and been separated from Doulet, he was taken to MI6 Section IV – the Air Intelligence branch, where he answered questions about the aircraft he’d flown as a test pilot in Marseilles, gave what information he knew concerning the French aircraft industry’s involvement with German manufactures, made detailed lists of the names of French pilots and their current employment (Déricourt had been a minor official of the French airline pilots’ union), and described the intelligence he had passed to the Americans during the summer. Déricourt also repeated the somewhat startling revelation that he was acquainted with a high-ranking officer in German intelligence, based in Paris.

That kind of information was of little interest to Section IV, but it was something that interested Dansey. Once again, this important piece of intelligence was not communicated to MI5. Déricourt had been put up at a secret address in London, known only to Dansey or one of his contacts, and kept there in isolation until the right opportunity arose to use him.

Everything that Dansey did was cloaked in impenetrable secrecy, the whys and the wherefores often unfathomable at the time, but later revealing a cold logic. As the Deputy Head of MI6, he had the freedom to run his own private operations, answering to no one but Stewart Menzies, and then not always with complete frankness. His manner, both charming and terrifyingly vitriolic, ensured there were no prying enquiries into the precise nature of his work. He garnered new agents at an alarming rate and was reputed in the more mundane levels of the service to be running his own private army – at least, judging by his legendary expenses claims. Dansey enjoyed a singularly close relationship with all his agents, which was another thing that set him apart from his colleagues. ‘Uncle Claude’ made his agents feel that they belonged to an extremely exclusive community, which was deeply appreciative of their invaluable work. Dansey had a deep and genuine affection for his agents.

He was not enamoured of the more technical forms of intelligence-gathering like aerial photography. He preferred the man on the spot, the agent, the human operative – with all the attendant virtues and vices. For many younger men in the service this obsession with the ‘agent’ seemed positively archaic, but it took a lot to convince him that there was a better way of doing things.

It must be remembered that Claude Dansey was a man of 66, who had seen service in the last of the colonial wars, had worked in both MI5 and MI6 during the Great War and who had founded the Z Organization. He had seen it all and knew it backwards – and there were few who would contradict him. Certainly not his chief. Dansey had a talent for attracting the very best, the most unsavoury and often the downright criminal into his world of espionage, and also for extracting absolute loyalty from those he employed.

He also possessed a gift for having the right man in the right spot, someone whose unique position could be exploited with the very minimum of manipulation. He had a particular interest in people who were well known to the enemy. Individuals who had worked for the foe or were currently working for them were an extremely valuable commodity, Dansey recognizing that someone who had already established his credentials had far more value back in the system than locked away and at the mercies of the Special Branch. Déricourt had precisely those qualifications, with the added distinction that his contacts were with the ubiquitous Nazi spectre, the Sicherheitsdienst.

At the end of 1941 the British codebreakers at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) had broken the Abwehr ENIGMA codes, the German military intelligence secret codes. Since then they had been successfully reading the Abwehr’s signals communications, a far greater prize than anything Dansey’s agents could deliver. The British had also broken the German Army, Air Force and Navy ENIGMA codes. The information that was extracted from ENIGMA codes, known as ULTRA, was the single most important British intelligence advantage of the war. Perhaps the most valuable ULTRA material concerned German intelligence operations in Britain and counter-intelligence operations against British agents in Europe – not just MI6 agents, but any British agent. But this intelligence, invaluable though it was, only concerned operations conducted by the Abwehr. The one and only ENIGMA code used by German intelligence that defied Britain’s de-crypters throughout the war was that used by the Sicherheitsdienst – Key TGD, known, somewhat misleadingly, as the ‘Gestapo Enigma’. This ruthless and extraordinarily successful Nazi intelligence organization had defied all British attempts at penetration – its dark internal workings were a complete mystery. Déricourt, if he was exploited carefully, could be a key to unlock some of the SD’s secrets.

It’s worth digressing for a moment to reflect on the price of ULTRA. British intelligence chiefs quickly appreciated how invaluable ULTRA would be to the British war effort, and for that reason great efforts were made to protect that advantage. No operation was ever undertaken that might have signalled to the enemy that his communications were being monitored. Consequently the manipulation of ULTRA was very critical; access to it was highly restricted and virtually at the discretion of ‘C’. SOE’s access to ULTRA material was, like any other operational organization’s, strictly on its ‘need to know’. The question one might ask is: whose needs were greater – SOE’s or MI6’s?

But in the autumn months of 1942, SOE’s access to ULTRA was the least of their problems. Their major preoccupation was their relationship with the RAF. The transport of agents in and out of occupied Europe was most successfully achieved by aircraft, and for this purpose the RAF had established the ‘Special Duties’ squadrons. In 1940 a single flight (419) had been established for MI6’s purposes. Then in 1941 this was reformed into 161 Squadron and later joined by 138 Squadron. They were equipped with Hudsons, Halifaxes, Oxfords, the occasional Beaufighter and of course the remarkable Lysander. The Hudson and the Lysander were designed to land on short rough strips, usually a meadow in some foreign field, where agents could be put down and others collected and returned safely home. MI6 had always expressed a preference for the Lysander pick-up where SOE preferred drops. However, by 1942, SOE had come round to the idea of the pick-up, even though the operation was far more involved.

It was necessary to have someone with knowledge of the right kind of fields for these aircraft to land, to communicate the correct map co-ordinates to London, to organize and transport the homeward-bound agents to the field, to correctly lay out a flare path safe from trees and bogs, and then to get the incoming agents away.

As SOE were expanding in northern France they pressured the RAF for more flights. But as the number of failed operations mounted, the strain began to show in the RAF’s sarcastic memos.

It is most unfortunate that attempts by the pilots of No. 138 Squadron to carry out this operation have been frustrated by the absence of a reception committee. The operation was asked for in all good faith in the belief that the committee would be waiting to receive personnel and stores….

…it is hoped that [in future] the Air Ministry and the officer commanding RAF Station Tempsford will have sufficient confidence in the organization [SOE] to believe that if we are putting the operation on there is a reasonable chance of the reception committee playing its part.

The RAF threatened, and not for the last time, to cancel all flights for SOE. And then, with miraculously good timing, the solution to SOE’s problems in France came to hand.

During the third week of November, the name Henri Déricourt was brought to their attention. By the end of the week, it had been sent to Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s French Section. Buckmaster liked the look of what he saw on paper and put a trace out to MI5, whose reply was received on 23 November. In the meantime, Déricourt was invited to the Northumberland Hotel to be interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, one of F Section’s recruitment officers. Déricourt had the most fabulous qualifications: he had good first-hand knowledge of aircraft similar to the Lysander and had landed them countless times on very rudimentary country strips; he knew the countryside around the Loire well; and he knew Paris extremely well. But Jepson was there to learn about the individual’s character as well as his qualifications, and there was an arrogance about Déricourt that was somewhat disquieting. When Buckmaster received the MI5 file on Déricourt it was a great disappointment – not what he wanted to see at all. It stated that although the RPS had given him a clean bill of health, they (MI5) would not recommend him.

Although MI5 were still under the false impression that he had been an Air France pilot in Syria – a story he maintained even long after the war – their suspicions were based on the assumption that Déricourt had passed through France before coming to Britain, and that fact alone made him a doubtful risk. For if the Germans knew he was bound for Britain, ‘[Déricourt] would have been a likely subject for German attention … [and therefore] … we do not feel [he] can be cleared from a security point of view’.

There is no doubt that if MI5 had learnt what Dansey already knew, that his entire story was a complete fabrication, then Déricourt’s name would not have got anywhere near SOE. As it was, they already felt he was untrustworthy. Was Dansey simply being derelict in not passing on what he knew about the Frenchman, or was there some other reason for his silence?

Then someone spoke up on Déricourt’s behalf. Nicholas Bodington had learnt that his old Paris friend was being considered for work within his section. He immediately declared that he knew the man personally and wouldn’t hesitate to employ him. ‘Déricourt is first class material!’ Bodington’s extremely timely recommendation went a long way towards suppressing any qualms.

But Déricourt’s qualifications were in fact so irresistible that there hadn’t really been any serious doubt about employing him. Buckmaster and his senior colleagues, Gerry Morel, Bourne Patterson and of course Bodington, were of one mind – Déricourt was the answer to their prayers. However, those feelings were not by any means universal. Vera Atkins, whose opinion was always greatly valued, was asked to go and see Déricourt and then report.

When I saw him, my heart sank because I felt that he wasn’t a man that I could trust. Why I had that impression I don’t know, but I suppose one does sum up people in one’s own way. Possibly it was his slightly mocking attitude, perhaps it was that he didn’t seem to look one very straight in the face; but I came back and said that I didn’t like him, and that I wouldn’t trust him.

Unfortunately on this occasion Atkins’s ‘instincts’ were disregarded. Déricourt joined the SOE on 1 December and began an extremely specific and condensed training programme.

Déricourt’s arrival at SOE was, however, far more involved than appears from the account above – in fact there is a great deal of opacity in the official record concerning his recruitment. It was generally held that the individual who brought Déricourt’s name to SOE’s attention was ‘…probably André Simon’. Simon was a logical guess, since he was responsible for liaison between SOE’s F Section and the branch of Air Intelligence concerned with organizing flights of the Special Duties squadrons. Déricourt encouraged this view by later claiming that he’d been in the RAF, flying with the Special Duties squadron when he was ‘talent spotted’ by Simon. Déricourt even fabricated his flight log to support that story. In France, a pilot who deliberately made false entries in his flight log faced a strong risk of losing his licence. Clearly, Déricourt felt it was a risk worth taking. When he left Marseilles in August, the Vichy authorities had just certified his log, which stood at 3658 hours daylight flying and 94.5 hours night flying. Then, a page or two later, commencing on 6 November 1942, Déricourt filled twenty pages of his log adding no less than 150 day-time flights, a total of 1243 hours, and sixty-eight night flights totalling 192 hours; all apparently with the RAF’s 161 Squadron. Not one of those flights actually took place. It was an invention of staggering proportions.

In fact, Déricourt was officially in the RAF. On 1 December, the day he was enlisted with the SOE, he was given an honorary commission as a Flying Officer in the Admin and Special Duties Branch of the RAF Volunteer Reserves. It was a technical requirement of the SOE that all its officers had to have an official rank in some other British service. But Déricourt never flew a single mission for the RAF, and André Simòn was not the man who brought him to the attention of the SOE. Despite what the SOE archives state, senior SOE officers recall that Déricourt’s name arrived at Baker Street at a much higher level.

In mid-November, Air Commodore Archie Boyle handed a slim file to his immediate superior (by then Major General) Colin Gubbins, with the briefest summary of Déricourt’s details. Once Gubbins had read it, he passed it to his deputy, Harry Sporborg, who let it gravitate down to F Section. Who, one might ask, brought Déricourt’s name to Archie Boyle’s attention in the first place?

Air Commodore Boyle’s background was Air Intelligence. After the outbreak of war, he became associated with MI5’s B Division, the section responsible for all counter-espionage work in the United Kingdom. By the end of 1939, B Division had succeeded in ‘turning’ a number of Abwehr agents and making them work for Britain. To operate double agents successfully, B Division needed a good supply of secret or highly confidential information that the ‘turned’ agent could affordably pass to the enemy, along with bogus or misleading material, so that he was not suspected. This genuine material had to be of a pretty high quality and would have to withstand the probability of being checked. Boyle became fascinated with the work of B Division and volunteered, without any official authority, a selection of genuine intelligence from his domain at the Air Ministry.

By 1940 the work of running double agents had grown more complicated. Not only were there more agents to run, but a number of these were operating abroad and foreign operations were technically the responsibility of MI6. It became necessary to establish a new section that would co-ordinate operations between MI5 and MI6 and provide a proper control over the material that was being passed to the enemy. In July 1940 the Wireless Board was created, a lofty panel of senior intelligence officers which consisted of Guy Liddell from MI5 (who was also the Director of B Division), Stewart Menzies (and sometimes Claude Dansey) from MI6, John Godfrey the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Director of Military Intelligence, and Archie Boyle. During this period, Boyle got on very close terms with Menzies and Dansey and although he never cared for ‘Uncle Claude’, he nonetheless admired his acumen.

In June 1941, Boyle became the SOE’s Director of Intelligence and Security and was a magnificent asset to the organization in that role. He used his good relations within the intelligence community to effect a high level of liaison with MI6 and the Security Service. It was from MI6 that Boyle received the name Déricourt.

Boyle was a shrewd and extremely intelligent man, but there is no evidence that he would have given a potentially unsuitable candidate like Déricourt his recommendation, unless, like MI5, he too had been misled. There were no more than three officers inside MI6 who even knew of Déricourt’s existence; one was in Gibraltar, another was Kenneth Cohen and the other was, of course, Claude Dansey. Dansey not only succeeded in slipping Déricourt into SOE, but in doing so he also managed to disguise his own hand.

Before he came anywhere near SOE, Déricourt was told that he would be sent to a section of MI6 that specialized in sabotage operations, called ‘special operations’. In a sworn statement to the DST in 1946, Déricourt wrote:

I was transferred to SOE, a unit specially concerned with sabotage. This service, like all Allied services at the time, was controlled by SIS (MI6). I entered into an additional commitment, through André Simon, about the secrecy of my work.

In a revised version of this statement, made in 1947, he circumspectly removed the reference to MI6.

It would seem, from other evidence too, that André Simon was aware of Déricourt’s links with MI6. Although his name sounds French, Simon was utterly English and, indeed, spoke French very badly. He was the son of the famous wine merchant and had a fairly comfortable lifestyle, with a place in the country where his wife lived and a flat in town where he tended to be for twelve months of the year. Sharing the flat with him was another woman whom he kept secret from his wife, but apparently not from his colleagues at SOE.

During the weeks before Henri was sent to France, he and Simon became good friends. In fact there was a trio of bon-viveurs who would congregate at Simon’s flat in Harley Street to sample his excellent collection of pre-war vintages, the other member being Nicholas Bodington. Bodington, better than anyone, knew about Déricourt’s connection with German intelligence, since he was the man who had introduced him to Boemelburg in the first place. In conversation, Déricourt and Bodington always referred to Boemelburg not by name but by the sobriquet ‘notre ami’. Bodington was also privy to Déricourt’s secret connection with MI6 – and he was the only one to suffer for it.

There was someone else in SOE who suspected a relationship with MI6. Gubbins’s deputy, Harry Sporborg, had been a solicitor with the city firm of Slaughter and May and had initially been involved with SOE’s operations in Scandinavia. He later became head of SOE’s London Group, the directorate responsible for all operations in northern Europe, and he was also the principal private secretary for SOE’s affairs to the Minister. Sporborg was Gubbins’s deputy while he was Head of Operations and then later when he became Head of SOE. The initial details about Déricourt that Boyle brought into Gubbins’s office were of no immediate concern. However, when Sporborg read a transcript of one of Déricourt’s initial interviews he heard the very first faint ring of alarm bells. Déricourt, under the impression that he was talking to another MI6 officer, once again declared his contacts in German intelligence. According to Sporborg,

It emerged during the initial questioning before he was engaged. I think he’d put it forward as an advantage, as something he could contribute, as a plus-point, you see. That he’d be able to get information for us whereas others couldn’t. That was knocked on the head and he was told that he would not be expected to do anything of that sort.

At first Sporborg simply doubted the suitability of the man for a sensitive role such as F Section had in mind. Later, however, his doubts were replaced with a dark suspicion that Déricourt had other allegiances. Sporborg’s account of Déricourt’s declaration has consistently been denied by those who hold the records.

These declarations of Déricourt’s would seem to indicate that he was not as self-assured as reports have made him appear. At least, not in the company of very senior officers. He repeated this detail about his German contacts on at least three occasions (upon his arrival, to Air Intelligence, and then to SOE), assuming, as so many Frenchmen did, that there was simply one great amorphous conglomerate called ‘British Intelligence’. (It never occurred to either the French or the Germans that SOE and MI6 were separate entities.) When he arrived in Britain, Déricourt knew he faced probable internment (no doubt Dansey even threatened him with it), but he also knew that a personal acquaintanceship with figures in German intelligence was currency he could bargain with. Being passed from one senior British officer to another, Déricourt never knew to whom he was talking at any one time. Eventually, he would learn to be more circumspect.

Claude Dansey had plucked Déricourt out of the stream of unsavoury life that inevitably washed up on Britain’s shores during times of war. He then disguised the truth of the man’s origins from MI5 and proffered his services to an organization that he knew was too naive and trusting to spot a ‘wrong ’un’ when it saw one, but at the same time was not so naive that it wouldn’t have been suspicious of a gift from Dansey. Consequently, and with Déricourt’s connivance, he carefully disguised his own hand in the transaction.

Why was there so much deception between the British secret services? Why had F Section officers like Bodington and Simon not reported to their superiors in SOE what they knew about Déricourt? Did they feel responsible to some higher authority?

Vera Atkins was the only F Section officer who expressed any reservations about Déricourt and, just to add grist to her mill, Déricourt made the irregular request to be given a few diamonds to supplement his planned operations in France. Diamonds, he assured her, were currently at a premium in occupied Paris. Atkins realized this was the bare-faced try-on of a hardened black-marketeer. When she protested to Buckmaster and company her objections were overruled and Déricourt got his diamonds. F Section just couldn’t wait to get him in the field.

On 5 December he was driven down to RAF Tempsford to be introduced to some of the pilots who would be flying operations out to him in France. One of these was the young Hugh Verity. He had just been transferred from Fighter Command HQ to 161 Squadron and was himself learning about the Lysander. In time Verity would become Squadron Leader and, later, Group Captain, but during that very damp December he was still a 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant, Oxford graduate, fluent in Spanish and French, with a few weeks’ training in Lysanders. He and Déricourt immediately hit it off. For Déricourt, RAF Tempsford was like a home away from home. The society of pilots, dozens of strange new aircraft to explore, even the scent of aviation fuel made a welcome change from all the pressures in London. Déricourt began to relax and a little of his old congenial charm resurfaced. For Verity, Déricourt was a figure of some fascination. He was ten years older than himself and clearly an extremely experienced pilot. But as well as his obvious experience, there was also an air of intrigue about him.

Déricourt told Verity some pretty tall stories. For instance, that he used to earn £300 a week as a stunt pilot with an aerobatic team, whereas in fact in the days of the flying circus he barely ever had enough money to pay for fuel. He claimed to have a flat in Paris, which he did not; that he was the mayor of a small town in France; and that he had escaped from France by trekking across the Pyrenees. Well, the lads in 161 Squadron certainly took to him. He wasn’t one of your typical ‘joes’ (the term they used for agents), he was really one of them, someone who had a genuine appreciation of the dangers involved in their work. His taciturn humour belied a sense of careful responsibility and dependability. Tales of the flying circus, or of his ‘adventures’ in the Spanish Civil War, regularly earned him drinks in the officers’ mess – hallowed ground to an outsider.

Déricourt quickly learnt the routine for laying out flare paths for the Lysanders and Hudsons, the rudiments of parachuting at Ringway airbase, and basic security procedures at one of the SOE’s training centres. On the night of 22 December, barely three weeks after joining, he was kitted out in a suit of French clothes, given a set of false papers for a Maurice Fabre (the new persona he was expected to adopt in France), the codename GILBERT, and a parting gift of a pair of gold cufflinks from Buckmaster. He sat and waited to be driven out to the Hudson, but by midnight the weather had closed in and the operation was aborted. Depressingly, the weather settled into a pattern for the rest of the week and the mission was cancelled until the next moon period, in January. Déricourt did not get home for Christmas.

He had about a month to kill before the next moon and spent some of that time back in London. On 11 January, Verity took him up in an Oxford bomber and gave him dual instruction. The same afternoon he was allowed to take a Lysander up and do a couple of circuits of the field; and that was the sum total of the flying he ever did for the RAF. At 10.30 p.m. on 22 January 1943, Operation OCTO took Déricourt and another SOE agent named Jean Worms in a Halifax across the Channel into occupied France. Worms jumped first, to a reception prepared by Andrée Borrel and Francis Suttill in a field near Chartres. Worms was the leader of an all-Jewish ‘reseaux’ (network) called ROBIN that would establish itself in the Marne district and become another sub-circuit of the PROSPER network. Déricourt preferred to be dropped ‘blind’, coming down twenty minutes later in a large field north of the Orléans Canal, near Pithiviers.

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