- Contributed by
- Ron Goldstein
- People in story:
- Denise Bloch and Muriel Byck
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 May 2004
Daughters of Yael - Two Jewish Heroines of the SOE Part 1
By Martin Sugarman, Assistant Archivist Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) Jewish Military Museum
Jewish participation in the hazardous war of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War Two was - as in all theatres of the war - far out of proportion to the community's numbers in the general population.
Some of the Jewish SOE agents are quite well known; Captain Adam Rabinovich (codename 'Arnaud'), Cr. de Guerre, murdered by the Gestapo; Captain Isadore Newman ('Julien'/'Pepe'), MBE, murdered at Mauthausen Camp; Captain Maurice Pertschuck, MBE ('Martin Perkins' aka 'Eugene'), murdered at Buchenwald Camp. In addition, hundreds of other Jews fought with SOE agents in the Resistance groups of occupied countries, especially in France and Poland (1). Much less well known, however, are two of the Jewish women who fought the secret war in France - Denise Bloch ,Cr. de Guerre (who was French but served in the British Forces) and Muriel Byck, Mentioned in Despatches, who was British.
The SOE was a British secret war department formed in 1940 to 'Set Europe Ablaze' by organising and supplying the underground Resistance movements against the Nazis (and later the Japanese) in all occupied countries. It was one of several Secret Armies commanded from London by General Colin Gubbins, who was Vice-Chair of its Council; the Chairman was the Jewish banker Charles Hambro - until succeeded by Gubbins in September 1943(2). The French section of SOE ,however, was commanded by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, a Dunkirk veteran, working from secret offices at Marks and Spencer's HQ in Baker Street, London.
This section infiltrated thirty-nine women into France by plane, boat, submarine and parachute between May 1941 and July 1944. Whichever service they were recruited from - WAAF's, ATS, etc - the women were often enlisted into the F.A.N.Y.'s (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in order to go some way towards complying with the Geneva Convention that women in the Services should not bear arms - though this was not consistently practiced by SOE. Of these thirty-nine, fifteen were captured and only three of these survived. Of the twelve murdered by the Nazis one was the Jewish agent Denise Bloch (3) and a thirteenth girl , Jewish agent Muriel Byck, died of meningitis after six weeks of intense work in the field, on 23 May 1944 (4). (The Free French section sent in a further eleven girls from the Corps Auxiliere Feminin or French ATS, all of whom survived, making a total of fifty women in all who served in France).
Ensign F/27 Denise Madeleine Bloch - code name Ambroise - First Aid Nursing Yeomanry , SOE, received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct, Legion D 'Honneur, Cr. de Guerre avec Palme and Medaille de la Resistance avec Rosette. Denise was murdered by the Nazis at Ravensbruck death camp near Mecklenburg together with Violette Szabo, GC and Lilian Rolfe, Cr. de Gu., sometime between 25 January and 2 February 2nd. Denise (who had three brothers) was aged twenty-nine years, the daughter of the Parisian Jewish family of Jacques Henri and Suzanne Barrault nee Levi-Strauss (5). She is commemorated at Brookwood Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Surrey, panel twenty-six, column three and on a separate plaque with Szabo , Rolfe and agent Lefort; also on the F.A.N.Y. memorial on the wall of St Paul's Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge; on a plaque at Ravensbruck death camp itself (5i) and on the F Section memorial at Valencay in France, unveiled in May 1991 by The Queen Mother (6).
Denise has been described as being 'broad shouldered and blonde' (7) but her Service photograph (8) reveals a dark haired beauty! She in fact dyed her hair blonde in France (9) as the police had raided her flat in Lyons and stolen photographs of her with her black hair (10).
In F Section of SOE Denise enlisted under the assumed name of Danielle Williams, though some SOE documents (11) insist on spelling her real name as 'Block'. Vera Atkins - Squadron and Intelligence Officer in SOE F Section and Personal Assistant and number 2 to Buckmaster - remembers her (12) as tall and sturdy and also argumentative, but explains this trait as being due to the fact that she had already had a lot of experience in the Resistance in France before her exit to England (see below) and knew better than her trainers what Nazi Occupation really meant.
The archives of the Special Forces Club in London (13) and the SOE files (14) reveal that Denise and her family were living in Lyons where she worked as Secretary to Lieutenant Jean Maxime Aron (code name 'Joseph') an employee of Citroen and Jewish Resistance leader. She was engaged to an M. Mendelsohn (himself an agent) but this was allegedly an engagement of convenience to assist her work (15). She was recruited in July 1942 in Lyons by M. Rene Piercy (codename 'Adolphe/Etienne') (16) and in turn she recruited her 'fiancee'! Denise worked first in the 'Detective' circuit, commanded by Captain Henri Paul Sevenet (codename 'Rodolphe') (17) with the wireless operator (w/o) Captain Brian J. Stonehouse (codename 'Celestin' - who died 2.12.98). As well as being a courier, she was meant to look after and accompany Stonehouse, whose French was not too good.
In her London de-briefing on 11 June 1943 (18) Denise described how she saw Stonehouse in the street in Lyons with two men on 24 October 1942, followed them and saw that he was taken to a police station: she realised he had been arrested. Stonehouse was good at drawing and always had his sketch book (which Denise often carried) despite Denise's warnings to him not to carry such incriminating items with him. He also once addressed her loudly in the street in English and said 'After the war you must come to Scotland to see my house'. Denise alleged he was homesick and too young for his job. Curiously, Stonehouse's debrief document (19) does not mention Denise at all for some inexplicable reason, and yet he clearly worked closely with her for some time.
Being in danger, following Stonehouse's arrest, she left for Marseilles on 26 October. Whilst there she was sent to a rendezvous at her hotel to receive secret papers about landing grounds and other matters from agent 'L'Allemand' at 7pm on the evening of 31 Oct . The next day he was arrested but she could not explain to her de-briefers why this had happened (20).
From Marseilles she volunteered to return to Lyons with the papers she had been given, instead of Aron, but he and Sevenet insisted on accompanying her because she was a woman alone. However, unbeknown to them they had been betrayed to the Gestapo and Aron was arrested at the station near the small entrance by a Gestapo group that had his photograph from a raid on his flat (he later escaped and got back to Britain on 26 July 1944). Sevenet was right behind Aron but slipped through. Denise also evaded capture by accidentally leaving by the main exit and she and Sevenet were met by Amedee Contran; all three then went into hiding in St Laurent de Chamousset near Lyons on 3 November 1942, in the house of Mme. St Victor.
Denise admitted to having sent a cable to her mother (which had been intercepted by the police) in Lyons. The police had searched the mother's flat, finding nothing, but the cable may have been the reason why the police were waiting at the station in Lyons for her and her two comrades. However, the Gestapo were expecting Denise to arrive with Aron and so missed her - by sheer good fortune - when Aron left the station alone!
Denise then moved to Villafranche-sur-Mer on 10 November, remaining in hiding and out of action until January 1943. She made only one trip - to Nice to get her hair dyed. She then moved to Toulouse and Sevenet introduced her to Sergeant Maurice Dupont of circuit 'Diplomat' (21) who was to help her cross from Oloron into Spain and out of danger. However, deep snow and enemy patrols prevented this and they had to return to Toulouse.
In Toulouse they met Colonel George Reginald Starr (code named 'Hilaire/Gaston') of circuit 'Wheelwright' who took her to work in Agen with Phillipe de Vomecourt (later commanding officer of Muriel Byck - see below). After two other Jewish SOE agents, Lieutenant Maurice Pertschuk ('Eugene') and his w/o Lieutenant Marcus Bloom ('Urbain'), were arrested in April 1943, Starr decided to send Denise to London as his courier, with Dupont, as they now had no wireless transmission facility. Denise knew and had met Pertschuk several times whilst carrying messages between Toulouse and Agen and described him (22) at their meetings as often dishevelled and worried, seeing him last on 12 April for their usual lunch together. The following week Pertschuk never arrived for his lunch appointment. She and Starr waited in vain at an agreed safe address and made inquiries, but later they discovered that Pertschuk had been arrested the next day ( 13 April ). Yet again Denise had had a very close shave!
In her London de-brief, Denise gave much useful information describing, for example, how there were many young men who were constantly picked up on the street by Gendarmes and Gestapo for labour work in Germany, warning that agents sent to France in future should not look too young , therefore, or they will often be stopped automatically and arrested! She also emphasised to SOE that future agents must speak excellent French, for anyone suspected of having a foreign accent was deported at once to Germany. In addition she described how the Gestapo agents spoke such good French - many having lived there for twenty years or more - that you did not know if you were talking to a French national or a German!
Denise went on to graphically describe how on one occasion she was carrying her radio in the usual suitcase pack when about to travel on a bus. She saw a Gestapo inspection in progress at the bus stop. So she engaged one of the Gestapo in poor German, causing him some amusement, and asked him to hold her case whilst she bought a newspaper. She then showed her papers to a civilian inspector, returned for her case and got cooly on the bus with no trouble - something out of a wartime movie! (23).
She also related how she and Sevenet found by chance a sympathiser contact in the Deuxieme Bureau (French Internal Security) who would issue agents with forged Cartes D'identite.
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