In the spring of 1944, outside the farming hamlet of Sussac in south-central France, an old water mill, long disused, rumbled back to life.
The mill was housed in a rock hut built right over a gentle stream feeding the Combade River. Screened by brush and trees, the hut looked abandoned from the dirt road outside, its windows frameless. In addition to its wooden waterwheel, though, the hut contained minimal furnishings — a chair, a table, two bedsteads with dubious mattresses, a stone sink that drained outside into a hedge. This was now the temporary home of a man identified in his official papers and ration books as Claude Jean Guyot.
Guyot’s documents showed him to be a twenty-seven-year-old French office boy employed by an agronomist in Toulouse. He was of medium height and build, though unusually fit. As if to dial back the striking effect of his looks — fine nose, strong chin, brown eyes set wide apart — the photograph on his identity card showed him with his necktie and collar awkwardly askew. His clothing was tailored in the contemporary French manner, down to the buttons and stitching. His spoken French was accentless.
But he was, in fact, an American agent — the wireless operator for an elite team running a covert campaign of sabotage, subversion, and ambush against the German occupiers. His real name was Jean Claude Guiet; his real age was twenty. The slow turning of the old waterwheel was vastly improving his life expectancy — measurable, as he well knew, not in years, or even months, but weeks.
The Germans, by that late stage of World War II, had become very good at radio direction finding. The Nazi Funk-Horchdienst, or listening service, monitored the entire radio spectrum between 10 kilocycles and 30 megacycles from a facility near Paris. Any frequency in use anywhere in France showed up as a spot on one of three hundred softly humming cathode-ray displays there. If a new, unfamiliar spot appeared, its frequency would be called in to three direction-finding (DF) stations on the country’s periphery, which would fix on the signal instantly and pinpoint it within a triangular area about ten miles per side.
Then the hunt would begin. The first step was to momentarily shut down the electrical power grid, one substation at a time, in the zone identified. If the spot blipped off and on, it meant that the radio drew power from that substation. Then technical teams operating mobile DF stations, often carried in disguised laundry trucks but also sometimes in cars or small planes, would take over and narrow the field to within two hundred yards of the transmitter. Finally, if necessary, Gestapo men on foot, using sensors hidden under coats, antennae looped around their necks, eyes on meters disguised as wristwatches, would close in.
In 1944 the procedure, from the detection of a signal to the dispatching of DF vehicles, took as little as fourteen minutes.
Wireless operators were special prizes for the German military, as they were the vital link between Resistance fighters and the London spymasters who supplied arms, ammunition, and money by moonlight parachute drops. Captured agents were supposed to either swallow their L-pill (potassium cyanide, the L standing for lethal), or, if they could not, to remain silent for the first forty-eight hours of interrogation, giving their fellows time to get clear. The risk was never far from Jean Claude’s mind: His reason for being there was that the team’s previous radio operator had been captured months earlier near Rouen.
Jean Claude’s borrowed water mill was a superb spot for operating his wireless set — a medium-power suitcase transceiver — as it offered both concealment and an off-the-grid power supply. Helped by an electrician friendly to the Resistance, Jean Claude had disconnected the heavy millstone from the waterwheel’s shaft and propped it against the hut’s wall. Then the two men had rigged belts and wooden gears to the shaft, the last belt stretched tightly over a pulley driving a small generator. The system amplified the slow turning of the waterwheel to a rate sufficient to charge a pair of scrounged 12-volt car batteries, which powered the radio. A long copper wire, threaded through a cracked roof tile and strung up into the branches of a tree, served as an antenna.
Even so, Jean Claude knew he was in peril every time he switched on his set. DF trucks occasionally roamed the countryside. A small plane flew overhead with unsettling regularity (most likely a German courier, Jean Claude thought, but possibly not). Worse, one member of Jean Claude’s four-person team, Violette Szabo, had been captured and handed over to the Gestapo in Limoges. Who knew what information they might have extracted from her?
There was no question of curtailing radio transmissions, though; wireless traffic, like the tides, was determined by the phase of the moon. Only when the moon was more than half full was there enough light for the bombers from England to make nighttime parachute drops of war matériel. Then there might be four or five drops a night, each one requiring coded radio communication with London. For agents on the ground in France, as one later put it, “the moon was as much of a goddess as she ever was in a near eastern religion.”
Before he figured out how to wire up the mill, Jean Claude had sent a coded message to his handlers in London requesting some kind of independent power source for his transceiver. They responded by sending him, in a canister dropped by parachute, a miniature steam engine. It was essentially a weaponized toy, green with polished brass accents, built to military specifications by the Stuart Turner model engine company in Henley-on-Thames.
Jean Claude took it out into the yard, filled its eight-inch boiler with water, lit a fire of twigs in its minuscule firebox and spent the next few hours feeling a little foolish — listening to it chug, refilling the boiler, and tending the fire. He found that the engine, hooked up to a small generator, would indeed charge batteries, but so slowly that he would have to spend all his time tending to its tiny appetites for water and fire. A local French boy happily accepted it as a gift.
Deploying a toy steam engine to a war zone might seem like a quixotic military decision, but it was entirely in character for the British organization in which Jean Claude served, the Special Operations Executive. Sometimes called Churchill’s secret army, SOE was as inventive as it was enigmatic, willing to try anything that might serve to terrorize Nazis.
SOE was one of the best-kept secrets of World War II. It was a volunteer organization operating outside the bounds of international law. Officially it didn’t exist. On the rare occasions when it had to be mentioned in documents, it went by the name Inter-Services Research Bureau. It employed warriors, engineers, cryptographers, forgers, actors, murderers, burglars, and thieves. It was set up to give the British government deniability for its agents’ actions, which were sometimes heroic, occasionally disastrous, and often shocking. After the war, generals on both sides expressed the view that SOE’s activities had shortened the conflict in Europe by about six months, saving many thousands of lives.
SOE was an important progenitor of modern special forces. As the historian Mark Seaman writes, “While France and Germany made a huge investment in military leviathans such as the fortifications of the Maginot and Siegfried Lines, Britain, in contrast, was seeking to explore the radical potential of clandestine warfare.” More than one scholar has noted that as an imperial power, Great Britain had broader experience with guerrilla tactics — because it had to defend against them — than most nations.
Yet SOE was neither an intelligence service nor a military special operations group. It was unlike any organization that has existed before or since, an underground militia with global reach, dedicated to sabotage, assassination, and — especially — armed resistance in every region of the globe occupied by the Axis powers. Its field agents, carefully chosen and trained, were scholars of mayhem.
By the time Jean Claude enlisted in the buildup to D-Day, SOE had about five thousand agents in the field world-wide, and another eight thousand support staff at home in Great Britain. It had two large secret radio stations, weapons laboratories, commando schools, a hidden airfield, and fleets of trawlers and caïques from the Shetland Islands to Ceylon. Its workshops devised an arsenal of deadly inventions, from the exploding rat to the one-shot cigarette to the Welrod assassin’s pistol, so effective that it remains classified to this day. Some of these novel weapons were devised to attack conventional military targets, like the submersible, motorized canoe that agents used to attach limpet mines to ships. Others were plainly instruments of terror, intended to instill dread in the occupiers. Many German soldiers traveled by bicycle, so SOE devised an exploding bicycle pump. An agent coming across a German’s unattended bicycle would swap out the pump and deflate the tires. When the soldier returned to find his tires flat, he would attach the pump, press on the handle, and have his hands blown off.
The goals of SOE’s operations ran the gamut from relatively trivial — slipping itching powder into a shipment of shirts bound for a U-boat crew — to momentous: It was SOE agents in Norway who destroyed the German heavy-water plant at Vemork, thwarting Adolf Hitler’s drive to create atomic weapons. SOE agents also assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the SS general who was called — by Hitler — “the man with the iron heart,” and who convened the Wannsee Conference to plan the extermination of Europe’s Jews.
The mission assigned to Jean Claude, codenamed Operation Salesman, was improbable, if not suicidal: He and three other agents were sent to block an entire Panzer tank division — an especially murderous corps of the Waffen SS — from pushing north to Normandy and driving the D-Day invaders back into the English Channel. They were to do so by raising a guerrilla army deep inside occupied France, in the serene countryside around Limoges.
Prominent among the indignities inflicted on France by the Nazi occupation was the Service du Travail Obligatoire, or Compulsory Work Service. Under that program, signed into law on February 16, 1943, French workers were deported to Germany as forced laborers. Facing that prospect, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen simply went to ground, living in hiding in the countryside. They became known as maquisards — the word maquis translates roughly as “scrubland.” Commanders in London — especially Winston Churchill, an enthusiastic proponent of unconventional warfare — envisioned the maquisards as the shock troops of a general French Resistance uprising once the invasion had begun.
The Salesman agents parachuted into France the day after D-Day, and within three weeks they had recruited nearly ten thousand maquisard fighters. They set up encampments in the woods, divided the men into companies, appointed quartermasters and medics, and set up an independent telephone system. But they were desperately short of arms and ammunition. SOE sent several bombers each moonlit night to drop canisters of weapons to “reception committees” at predetermined drop zones, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
One night toward the end of June, Jean Claude sat by his wireless set with some of the other men, listening, as he did every night, to the Broadcast. Each evening the BBC, at the conclusion of its French-language newscast, sounded the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, played on timpani. The meaning was clear to those in the know: the rhythm of the musical phrase — dot dot dot dash — made the letter V, signifying victory, in Morse code. Then an announcer said “Et voici maintenant quelques messages personnels” (“And now here are some personal messages”). At that prompt, Resistance members all over France stopped what they were doing to listen to strings of odd, unconnected sentences, like “The dice are on the carpet,” or “There is a fire at the insurance agency.” They seemed to be random nonsense, but they were coded communications from London. The first one Jean Claude heard was “Josephine a des fesses d’ébène,” or “Josephine has ebony buttocks.” He never found out what it meant, and he never forgot it.
The Broadcast was the most public stratagem devised by SOE, and among the most brilliant. It eliminated the need for radio operators to switch on their sets to receive messages from the home station. It boosted French morale and infuriated the Germans, who knew that instructions to insurgents were being sent over some of the world’s most powerful transmitters and could do nothing about it. Agents used the Broadcast to establish their bona fides with recruits. If, say, a group of maquisards doubted a stranger’s claim that he had been sent by London to arm and lead them — suspecting, perhaps, that he was a collaborator sent to entrap them — the agent could ask them to volunteer a phrase, and then have it broadcast by the BBC.
Most often, the messages were coded notifications of where and when parachute drops were to be made. If more than one drop was planned, the phrase “we repeat” would indicate the number. Thus, “Remember the great raspberries in mother’s garden, we repeat two times, remember the great raspberries in mother’s garden,” signified two drops on a particular zone to occur the following night, each drop being a planeload.
On this particular evening, the men around the wireless were listening closely, as London had sent a coded message telling them to expect a large delivery soon. The message stressed that the drop would be made by daylight. This had never happened before.
There was static that night, making it difficult to hear clearly. The men became alert when the BBC announcer said the code word for a drop zone in the Operation Salesman territory, not far from where they sat. Then, through the crackle, they heard: “We repeat, seventy-two times. . . .”
The men stared at one another. Could it possibly be? Seventy-two planeloads of weapons? They were by no means certain that they had heard correctly. Some thought they had heard “soixante-douze” (seventy-two), but others were certain that they had heard “douze” (twelve). Still others were convinced that they had heard “soixante” (sixty). They talked it over excitedly and concluded that the higher numbers couldn’t possibly be correct. But they had no time to radio London for confirmation, so they set about rounding up what was for them a huge reception committee — enough men and vehicles to carry away a large number of planeloads, possibly greater than twelve, though almost certainly short of seventy-two — from the designated drop zone, a high plateau near a little village called Domps.
Word spread quickly. By 8:00 the next morning, in addition to the reception committee, hundreds of civilians filtered out of the forest onto the plateau to see the show. Within an hour, three very large signal fires burned in a straight line down the plateau’s center. Piles of grass, hay, and green cuttings were stacked next to the blazes, ready to be tossed onto the flames to indicate the wind direction. The civilians made an ebullient, noisy ring around the edge of the DZ.
Jean Claude expected the usual Liberators or Lancaster bombers to come in low, one at a time. Instead, shortly after 10:00, there came a distant roar. Reception committee men threw greenery onto the fires, converting them to smoke pots. Jean Claude looked up and saw planes flying so high they looked like toys, higher than he had ever seen planes before, at perhaps five thousand feet. There were seventy-two of them — American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers — flying in tight formation.
The crowd on the ground erupted in cheers as clouds of parachutes opened and drifted down. Onlookers surged onto the drop zone, then quickly retreated when they saw that some containers were dropping like bombs — their parachutes had failed, and they bounced and broke open as they hit the ground. One landed near the spot where Jean Claude stood and spilled its load of ammunition into a fire. Very soon, as people stared up in wonder at the hundreds of parachutes floating peacefully down, exploding ammunition amplified the general excitement.
Just as the last of the bombers passed overhead, two P-51 Mustang fighters flew down to buzz the steep edge of the plateau. As they flashed past, flying so low that the spectators were almost at eye level with the pilots, a group of maquis fighters stood at present arms. The pilots waggled their wings in response.
Then the reception committee got to work. The trucks the guerrillas had brought to cart away the containers were far too few for the job, so civilians fetched farm wagons drawn by horses and oxen and merrily helped out. (The parachutes themselves, made of precious silk, were rolled up and taken away for wives and girlfriends). It took days to locate all the containers and move them to central collection points. When they were counted, the Salesman agents found that they had received a staggering 860 containers.
Jean Claude and the others didn’t know it, but they had just taken part in a milestone in the war — Operation Zebra, the Allies’ first daytime supply drop in Europe. The delivery was made by a massive armada of 180 B-17 bombers from the 3rd Air Division, flying out of Suffolk, escorted by Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts. In Operation Zebra, weapons and supplies were dropped to Resistance groups in four locations in France. Nearly half went to Operation Salesman.
The agents and their ghostly army immediately set about making life hot for the occupiers. By the first week in July, Operation Salesman had won effective control of a big swath of terrain: all of the Haute-Vienne department outside Limoges; most of the Corrèze; and parts of the Creuze, Dordogne, and Charente departments. The harried Germans began referring to the area as “Little Russia.”
Early one morning in July, Jean Claude, in his rock hut, heard the sound of an engine. It was approaching fast, which in itself was alarming, as nearly all the French motor vehicles in the region had by that time been converted to run on charcoal, which reduced horsepower by about a third. Jean Claude peered through the hedge in front of the hut. Out on the dirt road he caught a terrifying glimpse of feldgrau, the German military’s shade of gray.
A truck carrying German soldiers pulled up in front of the hut. Jean Claude hurtled out an empty window frame at the back — and straight into a pitched firefight with the Nazis. It is remembered today as the Battle of Mont Gargan, and it turned out to be one of the major successes of the French Resistance in World War II.
The Panzer division never did make it to the Normandy beaches. Jean-Claude survived his harrowing mission and went on to a long career in U.S. intelligence.
SOE was disbanded at war’s end, and most of its records were destroyed. That’s one reason it is less well understood than other clandestine ventures that contributed to the Nazis’ defeat, like the development of radar, or the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park. Another reason is national pride: Countries that fell under Nazi occupation have naturally celebrated their homegrown resistance movements and played down the contributions of outside agents. In France especially, the Gaullist mythology of the Free French has all but excluded SOE from history books. Charles de Gaulle himself, less than a month after his triumphal return to Paris in 1944, was introduced to a British SOE agent and told him, “You have no business here. Go home.”
And yet there is no doubt: While resistance movements around the world had plenty of heart to stand up to the Axis powers, it was SOE that gave them teeth and claws. Thanks to SOE’s work, when the Allied invasion of Western Europe finally came, it was aided on the ground by a large, coordinated guerrilla campaign — a first for modern warfare. As the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, put it in a letter in 1945:
In no previous war, and in no other theatre during this war, have resistance forces been so closely harnessed to the main military effort. . . . I consider that the disruption of enemy rail communications, the harassing of German road moves and the continual and increasing strain placed on the German war economy and internal security services throughout occupied Europe by the organized forces of resistance, played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory.
From “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France” by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith.