SOE Agent Andree Borrel Lived Several Lifetimes in Her 24 Years
By Kathy Warnes
On a September night in 1942, two female SOE agents parachuted into occupied France near the Loire River. Andree Borrel’s mission led her to Paris and finally to prison.
Andree Borrel turned twenty-one in November of a disastrous year in French history. On June 22, 1940, following the decisive German victory in the Battle of France, France signed an Armistice with Nazi Germany. The Armistice established a German occupation zone in northern France and left the southern part of the country to the government of Marshal Henri Petain and the Vichy regime.
Andree Borrel Faces Difficult Choices
A month after France signed the Armistice with Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, started the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agency with the goal of aiding partisans and resistance fighters in France and other occupied countries. Major Maurice Buckmaster led the F section of the SOE which operated in France, and the majority of women agents served in the French section.
These two events transformed the ordinary lives of Andree Raymonde Borrel and millions of other people into dramas of good and evil,life and death.
Born on November 18, 1919, on the outskirts of Paris, Andree left school at age fourteen to become a dressmaker. In 1933, Andree moved to Paris where she worked in several different shops. Although she worked in traditional female occupations, Andree’s sister described her as a tomboy because she enjoyed cycling, hiking, and climbing. When World War II broke out in 1939, Andree and her mother moved to Toulon on the Mediterranean Coast, where she trained with the Red Cross and worked in Beaucaire Hospital, treating wounded French Army soldiers.
Andree and Maurice Operate the PAT Underground
Andree met Maurice Dufour, a resistance fighter, and in July 1941, she helped him organize and operate the first escape network from France. This underground railroad network called the Pat O’Leary or PAT escape line, ran from the Belgian border to the Spanish frontier. From August 1941 to December 1941, Andree Borrel and Maurice Dufour, now lovers, hid allied escapees in a villa at one of the last safe houses before the difficult Pyrenees Mountains crossing. In December 1941, English courier Harold ‘Paul’ Cole apparently betrayed many of the conductors on the northern PAT lines after he was arrested in Lille.
Ponzan Vidal, a Spanish anarchist, led an escape party over the Pyrenees and Andree and Maurice Dufor made their way to England. Andree arrived in London in April 1942, and on May 15 she joined the British SOE and the French sector recruited Lise de Baissac. M15 whisked Maurice Dufor away to a safe house and he and Andree never saw each other again.
Parachuting Into France
Just before 9 o’clock on the night of September 24, 1942, Pilot Officer R. P. Wilkin flew Whitley bomber Z9428 based near Cambridge on a mission called Operation ARTIST. His mission was to drop Andree Borrel, 23, and Lise de Baissac, 37, near the River Loire in Nazi occupied France. Since Andree jumped out of the bomber ahead of Lise, she was the first female agent of the SEO to be parachuted into Occupied France during World War II.
Andree and Lise safely landed in a meadow surrounded on three sides by oak trees, near the village of Boisrenard, close to the town of Mer. Lise de Baissac, code name Odile, was assigned to the Poitiers area where she accomplished her mission and returned safely to England in August 1943.
Andree, code name Denise, was assigned to be a courier for Francis Suttill’s new PROSPER circuit in Paris.
Andree showed Francis Suttill around the city she knew and loved so well, and he soon realized that Andree was tough, self reliant, and absolutely reliable. He told his Special Operations Executive in London that she “has a perfect understanding of security and an imperturbable calmness. Thank you very much for having sent her to me. She is the best of all of us.”
Betrayal, Night and Fog, and Natzweiler-Struthof
Despite her youth, Andree became second in command of the network in 1943. On June 24, 1943, Andree Borrel and PROSPER radio operator Gilbert Norman were arrested in Paris and Francis Suttill in Normandy. Henri Dericourt, code name Gilbert, their French air movements officer, allegedly was a double agent and betrayed them.
In May 1944, the Nazis transferred Andree from the notorious Fresnes prison near Paris where she had spent a year to the civilian women’s prison at Karlsruhle, Germany.On July 6, 1944, the Nazis transported SOE agents Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky, Diana Rowden, and Andree Borrel to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof, the only extermination camp in France. Like so many other captured agents, the four women were classified under the “Nacht and Nable”, night and fog, directive which meant that they were to disappear without a trace.
Pat O’Leary and SOE agent Brian Stonehouse who were inmates of Natzweiler-Struthof witnessed the arrival of the four women who were paraded through the camp. That night Dr. Heinrich Plaza and Dr. Werner Rohde administered supposedly lethal injections of phenol to the four SOE agents and their bodies were cremated in the camp oven.
Fighting Bravely to the Last
Witnesses later testified that Andrée was still conscious as she was dragged to the ovens to be cremated. Fighting to the last, she scratched her executioner’s face. Andree Borrel was 24 years old.
The French government awarded Andree Borrel the Croix de Guerre to recognize her heroic sacrifice for her country. In 1975, a plaque was placed in the Natzweiler-Struthof crematorium to honor the memory of the four British SOE agents. In 1985, Brian Stonehouse painted a poignant picture of the four executed agents which hangs in the Special Forces Club in London, England.
France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944, Julian Jackson, Oxford University Press, 2001.
The French Resistance, 1940-1944, Raymond Aubrac, Hazan, November 1997.
We Landed by Moonlight: Secret RAF Landings in France, 1940-1944. Hugh Verity, Crecy Publishing, 1998.
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents, Sarah Helm, Abacus, 2006.
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