Andrée Borrel (1919 - 1944)
It was only by chance that this particular twenty-two-year-old French woman became the first female agent of the Special Operations Executive to be parachuted into Occupied France during WWII. When she jumped from the RAF Special Duties aircraft at one o'clock in the morning on the night of 24/25 September 1942, she was closely followed by thirty-seven year old Lisé de Baissac. But this was not the first time that Andrée Borrel had been to war, she was actually returning to France to continue her fight against the Nazi occupation of a homeland she had been forced to flee earlier that year.
This picture was on Andrée Borrel's 1942 carte d'identitie, and is reproduced here courtesy of Stuart Christie from research for his book on the Spanish anarchist guide Francisco Ponzal Vidal
Andrée Raymonde Borrel was born 18 November 1919 on the outskirts of Paris and from the age of fourteen, worked in the city as a shop assistant. Her favourite past-times were cycling, hiking and climbing and she was described by her sister as un garçon manqué - a tomboy. When war broke out she left Paris for Toulon where Andrée volunteered to be a nurse and it was at Beaucaire hospital that she first met Maurice Dufour. In July 1941, when the hospital she was working in at Nimes closed, she joined Dufour working with the first truly organised escape route from France for downed airmen and allied soldiers stranded after the evacuation of Dunkirk and the surrender of the Highland 51st Division at St Valery-en-Caux. This "underground railway" is best known as the Pat O'Leary (or PAT) escape line, the name taken from the nom de guerre of Belgian army doctor Albert-Marie Guerrise who ran the Line from October 1941 until his arrest in March 1943. The Line ran from the Belgian border to the Spanish frontier and from August 1941, Dufour and Andrée Borrel sheltered allied escapers and evaders at the Villa Renee Therese in Canet Plage near Perpignan, one of the last safe houses before the hard and dangerous crossing of the Pyrenees. In December 1941, many of the Line's northern personnel were arrested - apparantly betrayed by the English courier Harold 'Paul' Cole after his arrest by the GFP in Lille. Suspecting that she was also betrayed, Andrée moved to the Hotel du Tennis, secret refuge of so many escapers immediately prior to their final run to the mountains or (for some of the luckier ones in late 1942) their evacuation by sea direct to Gibraltar on board the Polish crewed felucca Seawolf. By February 1942 it was time for Andrée to leave the country - she and her friend Dufour (who had helped get O'Leary out of the French prison at St Hippolyte the previous July whilst working there as a guard) crossed the Pyrenees in a party organised by Ponzan Vidal and made their way to the British Embassy in Lisbon.
Andrée Borrel arrived in England in April 1942 and on 15 May joined the F (French) section of the SOE - that secret organisation dedicated to organising and supporting armed resistance in the occupied countries. Normally F Section did not engage French citizens but since Andrée refused to divulge details of her work with the British run Pat Line to the Free French RF Gaulist Section, they refused to let her work with them. Lisé de Baissac, although with French parents and educated in Paris had no such problems as she been a resident of Mauritius and held British citizenship.
After an aborted mission the previous night, it was just before nine o'clock in the evening of 24 September 1942, when Whitley bomber Z9428 flown by Pilot Officer R P Wilkin (killed in September 1943 whilst flying a similar operation to Holland) from 138 Special Duties Squadron, based at Tempsford near Cambridge, set out on Operation ARTIST to drop Andrée Borrel and Lisé de Baissac. They landed in a field belonging to the maire and brother-in-law of one of the locally recruited receiving agents and conveniently close to the River Loire which was used by aircrew as an easily found landmark in the moonlight. Today the field, in the grounds of a large parc, almost a mile from the nearest house and surrounded on three sides by oak trees, looks just the same as it must have done in 1942.
Andrée (code-named Denise) was to be the courier for Francis Suttill's new PROSPER circuit in Paris after Suttill was dropped blind (without a reception committee) near Bourges along with his assistant Jean Amps (Tomas) the night of 2/3 October 1942, showing him around the city she knew so well, sometimes acting as his second in command and often posing as his sister. He was later to describe her as " .. the best of us all."
Lisé de Baissac (Odile) was destined for the Poitiers area where she worked successfully until being returned safely to England in August 1943 along with her brother Claude (David) in a 161 Squadron Special Duties Lysander - one of those famous little aircraft that landed clandestinely by moonlight to deliver and collect agents and materiel and flown on this occasion by S/Ldr Hugh Verity.
On 24 June 1943 Andrée Borrel and PROSPER radio operator Gilbert Norman (Archambault) were arrested in Paris and Francis Suttill (Prosper) arrested at Trie-Chateau near Gisor in Normandy - perhaps betrayed by Henri Dericourt (Gilbert) their French air movements officer and alleged double agent - none were to survive. Major Gilbert Norman was shot at Mauthausen 6 September 1944 and Major Francis Alfred Suttill was hanged at Sachsenhausen 21 March 1945.
On 12 May 1944 Andrée Borrel was taken from the notorious Fresnes prison near Paris to the civilian women's prison at Karlsruhr, Germany along with Odette Sansom (Lise) Vera Leigh (Simone) Diana Rowden (Juliette) Yolande Marie Beekman (Yvonne) ex-Pat Line courier Madeleine Zoe Damerment (Martine) and Eliane Browne-Bartroli Plewman (Gaby) - of these seven women only Odette Sansom, transferred to Ravensbruck, was to survive the war.
On 6 July 1944 Andrée Borrel was taken to Natzweiler-Struthof, the only extermination camp on French soil, and that night given a (supposedly) lethal injection of phenol and her body immediately cremated in the camp oven. Phenol aka carbolic acid is a poisonous derivative of coal tar which becomes a powerful antiseptic and disinfectant when added to water - there is conflicting evidence about the injection's effectiveness. Perhaps the only consolation for this tragic end was the fact that she did not die alone amongst her enemies. Three other female agents, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and the hauntingly beautiful 20 year old Sonia Olschanesky (Tania) were with her that night. Like so many other captured agents, the four women were classified under the infamous "Nacht und Nebel" (night and fog) directive whereby they were meant to disappear without trace, but their arrival at the otherwise all male Natzweiler was witnessed by Pat O'Leary and SOE agent Brian Stonehouse, an artist who in 1985 painted a simple but poignant watercolour of the four women from memory which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London. O'Leary (later transferred to Dachau, which he also survived) knew Andrée well from her earlier work with him and recognised her at once.
Today the Natzweiler-Struthof camp at Natzwiller in the Alsace near Strasbourg is a protected historical site and Memorial of the Deportation with a plaque dedicated to the memory of "des quatre femmes Britanniques et Francaises parachutees executees dans ce camp".
On 13 September 1944 another group of four women SOE agents died. Madeleine Damerment, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine) were shot in the back of the head whilst holding hands together at Dachau.
Written by Keith Janes and Stella Hellier in 2002 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Andrée Borrel's parachutage into occupied France, with much of the information coming from the 1995 book 'Flames in the Field' by Rita Kramer.