Anyone interested in World War II history who finds themselves in the area before October 2013 should travel to the Musée du Pays de la Zorn at Hochfelden in Alsace where they will discover memorabilia of one of M16’s most secret operations, the Sussex Plan. At the beginning of 2014, it will be relocated to the Association de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine Historique Militaire in La Wanteznau 12 miles from Strasbourg.
The Plan was conceived in 1943 when the Allies needed every bit of information about the enemy’s movements in Northern France as they planned the D-Day landings. Most intelligence gathering networks including SOE and French Intelligence had, by this time been infiltrated or overrun and although the Allies had cracked the German codes and by destroying the telephone system, had forced the enemy to communicate by wireless, there was always the fear that the Germans might change the ciphers just before the invasion.
Thus it was decided to create an entirely fresh network using agents new to clandestine work. It was a tripartite initiative; Kenneth Cohen of British SIS and Frances Pickens Miller of American OSS were joined by Officers of the French B.C.RA ( Bureau Central de Renseignement et d’Action) set up by the leader of the Free French, General de Gaulle, in London.
Gilbert Renault, known as Colonel Rémy was responsible for finding French-speaking recruits for the operation. These were mainly men who had escaped from occupied France to North Africa and Spain. They were brought to England where they all had to pass through the rigorous checks of the Victoria School Intelligence Centre otherwise known as the ‘Patriotic School’ in London before moving on to special training at St Alban’s.
The late Captain Guy Wingate had served as a liaison officer at St Alban’s. He had been selected for this job because he spoke perfect French, having been born in Paris where his father had an interior decoration business. He had trained as an architect before joining the British Army at the outbreak of war, where he served as part of the British Expeditionary Force which was evacuated from Dunkirk.
Some years ago while compiling a programme for BBC Radio 4, I visited St Albans to meet Guy Wingate. We went first to Glenalmond, now an old people’s home which had then been used as the operation’s administrative center during the war and Guy told me something of the training the recruits received.
“There were about 120 Frenchmen and women here under the command of my skipper, the late Colonel Malcolm Henderson,” he said, “ They lived at Praewood, another large house just up the road and most of their field training took place in the grounds.”
The training included codes, enemy recognition and identification, civilian disguises, unarmed combat, gun handling and grenade throwing.
“I remember going to pick up the grenades which hadn’t gone off,” Guy reminisced. “We couldn’t afford to waste them.”
Each recruit was issued with a bicycle and taught to drive both cars and motorbikes. Night map reading was also on the syllabus, which at first alarmed the local populace who through these young people roaring around on motorbikes were German spies. Generally, however, relations with the locals were good, a couple of them even married local girls. Some of these Frenchmen worked under the aegis of the Americans and some under the British which resulted in an amount of friendly rivalry, with the local pubs, the Fighting Cocks and the White Hart becoming unofficial HQs for each side.
The agents were to work in two-man teams, one mission chief, and one radio operator. Each team was given a specific mission to perform and expected to recruit sub-agents in the field. Each man was equipped with a cyanide pill to use in case of capture.
Initially, it had been decided to parachute the agents to their locations “blind”, that is without any sort of reception committee. Rémy, who had run his own resistance network considered this far too dangerous and proposed some of his own ex-agents who had escaped to England as “pathfinders” to go ahead and prepare the ground.
One of these was Jeanette Guyot who, with three companions was parachuted into France early in 1944. She made her way to Paris where she had a friend whose husband had just been taken prisoner by the Germans. This was the young Andrée Goubillon who owned a café in the fifth arrondissement. “I remember when she first came into the bar,” she told me when I visited her in her in Paris, “I knew she did this sort of work and I agreed at once although there was a Gestapo post just down the road.” So began Goubillon’s task of running a safe house to say nothing of feeding “her boys” as they passed through Paris.
One of the “boys” who remembered these days was William Bechtel, 93 years old when I visited him in Les Invalides. He told me of his adventures in Rouen where he and his brave radio operator Vallande transmitted information about General von Kluger’s 7th Army for the RAF bombing until he could signal “ Apart from me and my equipment there was not a military objective left in Rouen.”
The Sussex Plan did suffer several tragedies; one of the most poignant because it happened right at the end of the war involved five agents including the young Evelyne Clopet. Three Sussex teams procured a German lorry which was subsequently stopped by fleeing Germans who were surprised to see it driven by civilians. Even then the young people might have got away with it but as they were forced out of the lorry at gunpoint a case fell open revealing transmitters and arms. One agent escaped but four were tortured and then taken to a quarry and shot.
Most of the missions, however, were successful. The Sussex team at Evereux relayed Field Marshall Rommel’s movements from la Roche Guyon which resulted in an RAF raid within minutes. Information was also relayed about V1 rocket sites in Northern France.
After the war, the surviving agents used to meet for a monthly reunion dinner at Madame Goubillon’s café which they repainted and re-named it Café du Reseau Sussex. Sadly the café is no more as, after Madame Goubillon’s death, it was transformed into a piano bar although a plaque commemorating the role the café and its owner played during the war has been erected on what was its wall at rue Tournefort.
Guy Wingate, Andrée Goubillon and the majority of the agents involved have since died and it is in order to preserve the memories of these brave people, together with the some of their documents, uniforms, and equipment that Dominique Soulier, son of a fortunately surviving agent Georges Soulier, had the idea of creating a museum as a lasting memorial to all who had participated in this little-known but vital operation.