From Pacifist Sheep Farmer to One of Britain’s Greatest Secret Agents
Francis Cammaerts dodged danger and death
Occupied France, 1944. Francis Cammaerts stepped from a train onto the railway station platform in Avignon. Almost immediately, German security forces at a checkpoint became suspicious and asked for his papers.
The son of a Belgian poet and English actress, he was everything you would never expect in a secret agent. Cammaerts had been a pacifist and conscientious objector assigned to tend sheep in Lincolnshire when he refused to join the British Army. His job before World War II broke out? School teacher. And at six-feet, four-inches tall he hardly blended into a crowd.
But in France, Cammaerts was “Roger” — his code name in the British Special Operations Executive — and the organizer of a highly effective resistance group called Jockey. If captured, the Gestapo would have brutally tortured him in an effort to gain information about his network. If he broke under torture, it’d mean the lives of thousands more.
Travelling under the cover story that he was a French teacher recovering from severe illness, Cammaerts thought fast.
“They were spending a lot of time looking at my papers and I coughed and spluttered, bit my lip and spat blood on the platform,” he recounted in SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940-46. “The Germans were very frightened of T.B. My papers were returned very quickly and I was sent on my way.”
Luck, a penchant for survival and sheer guts …. that was Lt. Col. Francis Cammaerts. He died in 2006 at age 90, and is still remembered as one of the most effective British operatives of World War II.
“From the earliest days of his work it was apparent that he was one of the most outstanding organizers in the field,” his citation for the Distinguished Service Order stated. “This was borne out on D-Day when his organization numbered 20,000 men of which at least 15,000 were fully armed” — a boon to the regular Allied forces as the French resistance destroyed rail lines, sabotaged German communications and ambushed German troops.
Only a handful of men and women who worked with Cammaerts are alive today. But historians and family friends of Cammaerts remember him as a man who expressed fierce loyalty toward the French people, and a fervent determination to wipe out the Nazis because of the personal loss the war brought to his family.
Douglas C-47s tow Waco CG-4A gliders during the invasion of France in June 1944. U.S. Air Force photo. Below and at top — Lt. Col. Francis Cammaerts, 1944. Photos courtesy of David Harrison
Like many of his generation and social status in Britain, Cammaerts enjoyed a life marked by elite education and athletic prowess. He was a student at Cambridge University, where he earned degrees in history and English. Cammaerts also distinguished himself as a star hockey player. He spoke fluent French — a linguistic gift from his father the poet and art historian Emile Cammaerts.
At the time, his ambition was to become a school teacher. Eventually, he taught at Penge Grammar School, where he became a close friend of the French master Harry Rée, a Cambridge classmate.
Like many during the interwar period, Cammaerts was an avowed pacifist because of the effects of the Great War on an entire generation. “The whole story of World War I was so overwhelming that I think many of us said we must never be part of this again,” he said later.
After Britain entered World War II in 1939, Cammaerts’ younger brother Pieter joined the Royal Air Force. Rée joined the newly formed SOE, formed to organize resistance in Occupied Europe. Cammaerts registered as a conscientious objector — a “conchie” as the British called them — and lost his job as a school teacher.
Eventually, the British government ordered Cammaerts to work as a farm laborer to perform his national service. He went willingly, working hard on a sheep farm and meeting his wife Nan. In March 1941, Pieter died in an airplane crash.
“It should be pointed out that Francis began the war as a fervent conchie — not the expected beginning for a man who a few years later was to be decorated by three nations and lauded as a war hero and freedom fighter,” said David Harrison, a family friend of Cammaerts whose website documents SOE operations in France.
“However, the death of his brother in the RAF changed his views. He felt Nazism had to be defeated.”
Soon after, Cammaerts’ old friend Rée contacted him. Rée had long been convinced that the SOE was where Cammaerts belonged. He helped Cammaerts make contact with the organization, which he joined.
The view today of the SOE is often highly romanticized — easy to do when you remember that the organization help lay the groundwork for modern covert operations. But during World War II, the SOE was of vital importance in a very down-to-earth way, according to Steven Kippax, moderator of the SOE Discussion Group and a historian who has studied the organization for more than 20 years.
Among other things, the Allies counted on the SOE’s network of resistance fighters to assist the D-Day invasion, considered an inevitable step toward the destruction of Nazi Germany.
Kippax said that the SOE worked together with the American Office of Strategic Services — the rough equivalent of the British covert force — under the Allies’ Special Forces Headquarters. In turn, SFHQ worked with planners that reported to Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower while planning resistance operations before, during and after D-Day.
Under the codename Operation Counter-Scorch, French resistance fighters were not only expected to attack German troops on D-Day but prevent the Germans from destroying bridges, port facilities, communications and other infrastructure important to the Allies once they landed.
“Eisenhower reckoned the French Resistance was the equivalent value of 10 divisions in his order of battle,” Kippax said.
But the organization needed to carry out such complicated covert operations wouldn’t be developed overnight. It would take time and patience — and the work itself would be incredibly dangerous for both for French resistance members and SOE operatives.
This Nazi photograph from July 1944 appears to show French pro-Axis militia fighters with Resistance prisoners. Bundesarchiv photo
It’s difficult to comprehend today what French resistance fighters faced during World War II. France was an occupied nation. What’s more, the Vichy government of France had capitulated to the Germans — in other words, Vichy was on the same side as the Nazis.
Gestapo goons, Abwehr intelligence agents and German radio intercept spies, were everywhere. So were the police forces of the Vichy government. A Frenchman could — and many did — sell out an Allied agent to the Gestapo for a cash reward.
Although members of the SOE received rank in the British armed forces, chances were slim that they would be treated as POWs if they fell into German hands. If you were captured, you were tortured — Hitler ordered that no Allied agent be executed until he or she broke under torture and revealed valuable information.
For men, beatings and near-drownings were a popular form of torture used by the Gestapo. For women, it was the same — and they often suffered repeated sexual assault by their captors. Yet, men and women — the SOE was very egalitarian — joined the organization knowing fully what danger they faced beyond dying in combat.
Although Cammaerts’ instructors expressed reservations about his leadership abilities during training, in 1943 the SOE assigned him to Section F. Soon, he received a commission as a captain in the British Army and slipped into France by airplane. There he began working with the Carte network, a loosely organized resistance group spread out across southern France.
But something was wrong, and the instincts that kept Cammaerts alive during his time in France kicked in. The Abwehr and infiltrated the Carte. In fact, a man sent by the French leader of the Carte network to meet with Cammaerts turned out to be an Abwehr agent. “A sixth sense alerted Francis to a lack of security in the group and he left for the safety of Cannes on the Riviera just before the arrests took place,” Harrison said.
From that point onward, Cammaerts not only worked to organize a new network called Jockey. He practiced what became near-legendary caution when it came to personal security.
Cammaerts never slept twice in the same place. Resistance members did not contact Cammaerts — he initiated all contacts. They also left messages in so-called “dead letter boxes” for later collection. In addition, he had a superb SOE radio operator named Auguste Floiras who sent and received a record number of messages between Cammaerts while he was in the field and the SOE headquarters in London.
But what probably saved his life time and time again during his 15 months in enemy territory was the sincere affection and fierce loyalty that he felt toward the French men and women he helped organize. “The main reasons for Francis’ success were his humanitarian principles and his understanding of human nature,” Harrison said. “He was a charismatic figure, and through trust and respect for his resistance helpers he built a sense of mutual admiration and brotherhood.”
Harrison said he witnessed the affection that the French held for Cammaerts even decades after the war ended. In 1996, he accompanied Cammaerts to a ceremony in France honoring the death of resistance fighters massacred by the Germans.
“He was greeted by the locals like a film star,” Harrison said. “Francis told me that he could easily have been betrayed for money, but nobody ever did it. Having got to know him myself, I can understand that he was regarded as being far too precious.”
Cammaerts, left, and family friend David Harrison at the French Resistance memorial at Vassieux, France, 1996. Photo courtesy of David Harrison
Despite Cammaerts’ obvious heroism, he always gave credit to the French for not only protecting his life but generously caring for him, other SOE agents and the resistance fighters. He particularly admired the resilience of French farm women.
“He could arrive late at a farm house and would be guaranteed to be given a hearty meal, a clean bed and even soap, a real luxury at the time,” Harrison said. “The wife would knowingly be not only risking her own life, but that of her whole family while he was only risking his own.”
Cammaerts’ discretion, patience and loyalty paid off. The Jockey network would eventually stretch from the Mediterranean north to Lyon and across to the Swiss and Italian borders, comprised of thousands of resistance fighters.
But even Cammaerts’ luck eventually ran out. In August 1944, Axis-allied French police arrested him at a checkpoint along with two other SOE agents. They overheard their captors say they would shoot the agents within three days. Fortunately, Christine Granville, his SOE courier and a remarkable agent herself, bravely rescued the agents. She arranged for the RAF to parachute a huge ransom for the men — and the money and some fast talking convinced Cammaerts’ captors to release him and his colleagues.
Soon after, Allied forces landed on the Riviera coast in Operation Anvil, and his network helped American forces liberate many towns during the push north.
Promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Cammaerts helped deploy resistance fighters whose efforts resulted in the success of Operation Anvil taking place in weeks rather than months as originally anticipated by Allied planners. For his efforts in southern France, the Free French government awarded him the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre. He also received the American Medal of Freedom from the United States.
His post-war pursuits returned him to education. He worked as a teacher, college professor and head of professional organizations for educators — work that Cammaerts preferred to be remembered for rather than his wartime exploits.
In 1989, he retired to a small farm in southern France in the area where he worked as a secret agent during the war, determined to live a quiet life but still remembered as le grand diable Anglais — the tall English devil.