Remembrance Day Reflection: The Story of the World War 2 Special Operations Executive
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10 November, 2021 Remembrance Day Reflection: The Story of the World War 2 Special Operations Executive
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November 10, 2021

The Empire Club of Canada Presents

Remembrance Day Reflection: The Story of the World War II Special Operations Executive

Chairman: Kelly Jackson, President, The Empire Club of Canada; Associate Vice-President, Humber College

Moderator Nahlah Ayed, Canadian Journalist, Host of CBC Radio's Ideas

Panelists
Norm Christie, Author, Historian & Founding Director, King & Empire Foundation
Gilbert Reid, Writer & Founding Director, King & Empire Foundation

Distinguished Guest Speaker
Daniel Hendrickson, Chair, University of Toronto Soldiers’ Tower Committee

Introduction
It is a great honour for me to be here at the Empire Club of Canada today, which is arguably the most famous and historically relevant speaker’s podium to have ever existed in Canada. It has offered its podium to such international luminaries as Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Audrey Hepburn, the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi, and closer to home, from Pierre Trudeau to Justin Trudeau. Literally generations of our great nation's leaders, alongside with those of the world's top international diplomats, heads of state, and business and thought leaders.

It is a real honour and distinct privilege to be invited to speak to the Empire Club of Canada, which has been welcoming international diplomats, leaders in business, and in science, and in politics. When they stand at that podium, they speak not only to the entire country, but they can speak to the entire world.

Welcome Address by Kelly Jackson, President, The Empire Club of Canada
Good afternoon fellow directors, past presidents, members, and guests. Welcome to the 118th season of the Empire Club of Canada. My name is Kelly Jackson. I am the President of the Board of Directors of the Empire Club of Canada, and Associate Vice-President at Humber College. I'm your host for today's very special virtual event, in honour of Remembrance Day.

I'd like to begin this afternoon with an acknowledgement that I'm hosting this event within the Traditional and Treaty Lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, and the homelands of the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wyandot Peoples. In acknowledging Traditional Territories, I do so from a place of understanding the privilege my ancestors and I have had in this country, since they first arrived here in the 1830’s. This past Monday, the important contributions made by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis veterans in service for Canada, were recognized on Indigenous Veterans Day. Today, our Remembrance Day Reflection is focused on stories of Canadians in WWII. Over 3,000 First Nations members, as well as an unknown number of Métis, Inuit, and other Indigenous recruits, served in the Canadian Forces during WWII. These volunteers were often forced to overcome many challenges just to join the forces, learning new languages, adapting to cultural differences, and many having to travel from remote communities just to enlist. Today, I am wearing both a beaded Poppy, and a traditional Poppy, as a sign of respect for the services and sacrifices of all soldiers in their shared history. I want to thank Lorralene Whiteye, my colleague at Humber College, for sharing her talents, and gifting me this beaded Poppy. We encourage everybody tuning in today to learn more about the Traditional Territory on which you work and live.

And now I want to take a moment and recognize our sponsors, who generously support the Empire Club, and make these events possible, and complimentary, for our supporters to attend. Thank you to our lead event sponsor, the University of Toronto, which has several connections to the story of the Special Operations Executive, and a deep tradition of honouring the sacrifices of the University community, and its wartime heritage. There is a memorial plaque in the Remembrance Garden, next to the Soldiers’ Tower on the St. George Campus, commemorating two of the heroes we'll hear about today. Thank you to our supporting sponsors Our Glowing Hearts, who manufactured and supplied the LED Maple Leaf you see behind me, and who originated the Glowing Hearts LED window campaign, honouring all frontline workers during the height of the pandemic; the Empire Club Foundation, with support from the Jackman Foundation, that has distributed a special teachers kit to schools, to support learning from this event; and the King and Empire Foundation, for their in kind support, and loan of the film clips from the documentary Secret Liberators that will be showcased today. And a big thank you to our season sponsors, Bruce Power, Canadian Bankers Association, LiUNA, and Waste Connections of Canada. We would also like to say a special thank you to the following individuals for their help in putting together this special event: Elizabeth Wilson, Nick Fox, David Bateson, Lynn Hodgson.

I want to remind everyone participating today, that this is an interactive event. And those attending live are encouraged to engage with their speakers, by taking advantage of the question box, you can find it below your on-screen video player. We'll try to incorporate as many questions as we can. If you require technical assistance, please start a conversation with our team, using the chat button on the right-hand side of the screen. And we also invite you to share your thoughts on social media, using the hashtags that you will see displayed throughout the event. To those watching on demand at a later date, and to those tuning in on the podcast, welcome.

It's now my pleasure to call this virtual meeting to order. I am delighted to welcome to the Empire Club’s virtual stage, Nahlah Ayed, CBC’s award-winning journalist, and host of CBC Radio's Ideas; Gilbert Reid, writer and Founding Director of the King and Empire Foundation; and Norm Christie, author, historian and Founding Director of the King and Empire Foundation. If you'd like to learn more about our guest today, please scroll down below the viewer and you will find their full bios there. Tomorrow, on Remembrance Day, we will pause to remember those who have fallen in service for this country, and to honour those who continue to serve. Today's event will tell the special story of the Canadian underground agents that were part of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, and their role in WWII, defending freedom in Europe and beyond.

Before we hear from our guests today, and to help set the scene, we're going to watch a short clip from Secret Liberators, a documentary produced by Peter Williams, Founder of the King and Empire Foundation. Can we roll the clip please?

[Clip from Secret Liberators is Shown]

Nahlah Ayed, Canadian Journalist, Host of CBC Radio's Ideas
Good afternoon, everybody, thank you very much for joining us. My name is Nahlah Ayed, I'm the host of CBC’s Ideas. And I'd like to begin by looking at the origins of the Special Operations Executive, or the SOE. So, Gilbert, I'll start with you. The SOE was officially founded in the summer of 1940, year into the war. What compelled its formation?

Gilbert Reid, Writer & Founding Director, King and Empire Foundation
Nahlah, well, I think if we go back to 1940, the early summer, it was disaster everywhere. Hitler had conquered all of Europe, France, the great ally had fallen; the British were suddenly alone, and they'd never felt this since Napoleon on their little island. And their Air Force really couldn't do anything aggressive against Europe, and their Navy couldn't, and their Army had come back from Dunkirk without its arms. So, someone had the bright idea, or a series of people, let's do sabotage in Europe, let's link up with the Resistance movements in Europe, and let's create an underground Army, in effect, which will give the Germans a lot of trouble, and light a fire under their feet. The problem was, there was, at that time, very little resistance, probably in France to take that example, 98% of the people agreed with the surrender terms. They were unhappy, but they were under shock, their whole system of government had been decapitated, the Army, the government, the bureaucrats, the big companies were all in favour of the armistice. So, only a few people here and there were gathering together, to resist the Nazis, all alone in small groups; and it was with those people in enemy territory that SOE had to link up.

Nahlah Ayed
As you say the idea was to, there was a need to engage with resistance groups in occupied Europe. I was wondering if you could speak to why it was deemed necessary to engage with such local groups, especially at that point in the war?

Gilbert Reid
Well, I think it was faute de mieux, because they didn't have a choice, in a sense, and also, it was the only way they could see forward at that time. Because they were no, the Allies—well, it was just Britain really, and us—they were in no position to invade Europe. But of course, the decision to set up the SOE was really opposed. The top officials of the of the Army didn't like it, and they didn't like the fact that women would be possibly sent in behind enemy lines, as, in effect, terrorists for the Germans, not protected by the Geneva Convention; they could be tortured, raped, and executed. And also, the MI6, which was the intelligence service, they really didn't like SOE, because spies want to spy, they don't want things to blow up under them, or to make a fuss. And MI9, which smuggled downed pilots out of occupied Europe, they didn't like too much fuss, either. They had their safe houses, and they had their communications lines to get pilots back to England, and pilots were very important, because it took much longer to train a pilot than to build an aeroplane.

Nahlah Ayed
So, Norm, as Gilbert says, Britain already had organizations that had covert capability. How would this secret Army be different? What was their main task?

Norm Christie, Author, Historian & Founding Director, King & Empire Foundation
Well, the issue of Churchill, of course, is he would never take no for an answer, so when they told him no, he wants to keep going. And he was also into the beau geste, and one of the big beau geste was the spirit of resistance that he was going to bring to France. So, this early stage is in 1942, you have to remember, different stages of the war, there's more chaos, there's fewer organizations, the original operations were done by Polish Army who had escaped to the south of France. And the idea was to set Europe ablaze, so he was going to start parachuting in these people, who would then enjoin with local resistance, and come up with a cell or resolve to take action against the Germans. Now, the idea was not to kill the Germans, the idea was to destroy transport, rails, industrial problems, locomotives. So, they would parachute these, usually a Commonwealth guy, British guy, often what I would call a Franglais, maybe an English guy that was brought up in France, or a woman who was brought up in France, and they would parachute them in, they’d go locally, make contact with the Resistance, who by this time had started to hook up with London, and develop plans, they’d drop explosives to them, money, whatever they would require, to try to get the operation going. And of course, every night, they would have their broadcasts coming from England, giving them their code numbers. So, when your number came up, that means you're gonna get a drop that night, you had to go out and get it and bring it in. But it was very amateurish at this point, and the people they were getting end up being fascinating people—and I don't even know how they got so lucky in recruiting such capable individuals. But these people certainly had a determination to fight the Nazis.

Nahlah Ayed
Let's talk about those people. Now, not everybody, in fact, perhaps possibly most, were not those kinds of people had a military background, or any experience in this kind of work. So, Gilbert, also, not all were British, or were even European. Can you give us a sense of who the recruits were, and where some of them came from?

Gilbert Reid
Well, they were a varied lot, actually. There was Noor Inayat Khan, to take an exotic example, she was half-Indian, she was the daughter of a Sufi mystic, she was born, for some reason, in Moscow, in the Kremlin, and she was a writer of children's stories, which were broadcast on French radio. So, she was a dreamer and a mystic, and she decided she wanted to join, because she hated the Nazis, among other things, but she wanted to create a bridge between Indian and English people. And then you had professional soldiers from Canada, Guy D’Artois, who was an expert soldier, and he came into SOE. You had working class French girl, Andrée Borrel, who’d gone to work at 14, was a bit of a socialist, was a bit of a tomboy, and she got in involved in nursing, and then in helping pilots escape, and then she got involved in SOE. So, you had a whole range of people. You had English schoolgirl who was 15 when the world war started, Sonya Butt, who married Guy D’Artois—the Canadian, by the way—and she was eager to get into the war. She was in France when it broke out, she talked her way out of France and onto a ferry and back to England, and she was eager to do something which wasn’t office work. So, she asked her father, what sort of adventurous work could be done, and he suggested something, and she went for an interview, and he said, apparently, the next day, “anything interesting happened, dear?” And she said no. And he realized that she had been interviewed for the Secret Service, and from now on, she was going to be secretive. So, you had women and men of all sorts of backgrounds.

Nahlah Ayed
When you look at the vast range, and as you say, it was a vast range of backgrounds and disciplines that the recruiters had. What can we conclude about the kinds of qualities that the recruiters were looking for, Norm? In other words, what is it that they all had in common?

Norm Christie
Well, all the people who volunteered for the Second World War, we were all volunteers, a very small number of conscripts actually ever went. They all saw this is a real crusade against the Nazis, and they all wanted to do something. When you interview Allyre Sirois, I mean, Allyre, he’d been in England for a couple years training—because the Canadian Army wasn't being engaged.

Nahlah Ayed
He's the man we saw in the clip?

Norm Christie
Yeah. And he also, they were looking for French speakers. And at the early stages, they would use couriers, because the system wasn't developed, the couriers took a really long time. And then they needed radio operators, and that's really how some of these people got parachuted in, and maybe prematurely, such as Noor Inayat Khan or even Macalister. They needed these people to run these systems, and then they wanted to expand the sabotage, of course. All through France, you had these circuits operating; they're all run in small groups, they're all getting special messages for London, agents would go in and out—they actually had operations where they would take them out by Lysander, they’d take them out by boat. So, these guys would go back in all the time and start on a new circuit, and they would blow up whatever they could get their hands on, basically—they’d be supplied with the explosives—but they all they all wanted to get into the action. And of course, none of them ever thought they'd be caught.

Nahlah Ayed
Although, of course, as we’ll hear, many of them did. Gilbert back to you for a minute. You mentioned Sonya D’Artois. Despite the fact that women were not yet permitted to be deployed behind enemy lines, there was an impressive number of women who were involved in the SOE. Why were they especially well-suited to being SOE operatives? Women, I mean.

Gilbert Reid
Well, that's great, yes, it's good question. They were well-suited because they were very meticulous, as some of the operatives said, and they were very careful, most of them. But they were well-suited also, because in France, if you were a young man, or a middle-aged man, you were liable for forced labour in Germany, in effect. So, if you were walking around a railway station or down a street, and you were a fellow, you were much more likely to be stopped by the French authorities, or by the Germans, and your papers inspected. And they would say, “well, why are you out, and why aren't you in a factory in Germany?” And they might ship you off to one. So, the women were extremely useful. They were often, as Norm just said, they were couriers often, and then they became often radio operators, which was an extremely dangerous thing to do, because the radios were big and clunky, they weighed about 30 pounds, you had to lug them around in a suitcase, you couldn't stay in one place very long, because the Germans used radio direction technology to nail you down. Also, the tapping of the keys made a noise, so you had to make sure all your neighbours were safe. You had to put out a 60—I think it was a 60 foot, or 60 yard—antenna up on the roof somewhere. So, you needed co-operation. And doing this in a country where a huge proportion of the population was friendly or neutral towards the Germans, was really a dangerous thing to do. So, these women were taking huge risks with the men, of course.

Nahlah Ayed
Of course, it will be hard in such a short time to get a real sense of the epic kind of training that these people had to go through, especially because many of them had never worked in this area before. I'd like to give the audience a flavour of that. Norm, can you give us a sense of the kind of training—I understand it happened in Scotland, often in remote areas; what else can you tell us?

Norm Christie
Well, they had two different styles of training. They tried to do a psychological evaluation of these people, first of all, to try to teach them how to get through interrogations. They had to teach some how not to be to English, so you wouldn't get caught. And then they had a course on explosives. I think there was five levels of course, the last one, of course, would be the jump, which a lot of them did go in by parachute, which would mean you're dropped 500 feet, which is a very, very tough drop, you’d have a lot of momentum on the way down. I think the issue with them is that they desperately needed people, because they had to compete with the other organizations such as Gilbert mentioned, MI6. So, they did all the explosive training, and of course, they got better as it went along, as you went along in the war, they got more and more of this. At the early stages, they didn't have the time to do this.

Nahlah Ayed
Gilbert, maybe pick up where were Norm leaves off there, just the kinds of things that these people had to learn, everything from how to land safely, to possibly having to kill people.

Gilbert Reid
Yeah, they had to learn how to kill people silently, without a weapon, they had to learn how to shoot and use most weapons, pistols, the Sten gun and so on, German weapons as well as allied weapons. They had to learn how to slit the throat of a goat or lamb or whatnot, to get them used to blood. They had to know how to disguise themselves—there were makeup artists and tailors with SOE, so that you could assume another identity, there were actors to train them in the accent and the attitudes, the way you'd hold a cigarette, where you put your knife and fork, whether you ask for a particular kind of coffee or not. They had, in the case of the radio operators, they had to learn how to not only Morse code, and to do it well, but they also had to learn to code the code. In other words, they had to take the simple message, and they had to code it several times before they send it in the form of Morse, and then at the other end, it had to be decoded, hopefully well. And they were often doing this in really stressful circumstances, and some of them were, the radio operators were hugely overworked, because there were so few of them, as Norm pointed out. So, you had a few radio operators serving a lot of agents, which was a big weakness in the security chain, because on the other side of this battle, there were some very smart Germans, and two competing outfits, the Gestapo Sicherheitsdienst, and the Abwehr, which was the military intelligence side, and those two groups were in a rivalry to see who could catch the most agents. And they were very eager to do so, because as things went on, as NORM pointed out, SOE and its agents became much more professional, and much more dangerous for the logistics and supply lines of the Germans, and therefore, it was much more important to get rid of them. And so, the struggle became more and more intense.

Nahlah Ayed
I'd like to get to the part now where we talk about the Canadians’ contribution to the SOE, but I just wanted to remind the audience that this is a really good time if you have questions, or have started to think about questions, to put them into the Q&A function on your screen, and we'll get to as many of those as we can, once we're finished our initial conversation. So, perhaps first, Norm, I wanted to just get a sense of how Canadians themselves were recruited. You know, it is a country, of course, with many native French speakers, and a country of immigrants, which made it a natural recruiting ground. How to get a Canadians get recruited? What was the process?

Norm Christie
Well, the early-stage ones, when you're talking about Sirois and Biéler, they and basically applied; they were bored. Biéler, I believe was with the Maisonneuves originally, and they had been in Europe a long time, some of the Canadians had been there two or three years and they still had not been engaged in warfare, whereas the Air Force Canadians, they had been involved, and the Navy Canadians had been involved, but the Army Canadians still hadn’t done anything. So, these guys really volunteered for it—Biéler, his whole family was involved, including his family in Europe, he was of Swiss-French upbringing; of course, his family was in Montreal when he came over before the war. And so, they just basically, were looking for some adventure and for change.

Nahlah Ayed
So, let's talk about, let's highlight the story of the two Canadians mentioned earlier, Frank Pickersgill and John Macalister. Your documentary goes into their story in quite a lot of detail, and unfortunately, we can't do that here with so little time, but can we dip into it Norm? Can we start with what we know about how they got involved?

Norm Christie
Well, the I mean, their training? Pickersgill and Macalister took the training course in England, and they did the number of items as we described earlier, and then they were going to be dropped into France. The problem is, they were going to be dropped into France in mid-1943, and the Germans were anticipating the landing, the second front to be in 1943. You also had the collapse of Vichy France, when the Germans invaded Vichy France at the end of 1942. So, now the Germans are all over the place, right? And they are, these sabotage actions are picking up, and they're getting more and more of them, so now they're putting the squeeze on them everywhere—whether it was in Lyon, where they got Jean Moulin, or even further south, near Orléans, where they got Pickersgill and Macalister, they were much more aware of these guys. Plus, you had the really interesting part of what's called the radio game, which was played out of the Netherlands, and ultimately extended into France, where the Germans captured radios and then operated them as if they were SOE operatives. And they ran that program for about a year; they caught agents, and money, and in fact, in the end, that's how Wheeler gets caught. But Macalister and Pickersgill were just going to go for their first drop, and they just happened to be very unlucky. They got dropped out, they got picked up by the agents, two very experienced French resistance, and of course, they're going through town—and of course, all the memoirs always talked about the first time you go through a checkpoint with fraudulent papers, I remember one guy described it as he looked like the man in the moon when he was going through there, because you’re not used to this thing

Nahlah Ayed
That must be terrifying.

Norm Christie
Yeah. Fortunately, they were notified, or they were picked up, they didn't stand out properly, and of course, Macalister didn't speak French very well—that's the story that I was told—and in the end, they were taken in with a whole bunch of other local French guys into the small village, the Marie, and the other two agents decided that they’d better go for it. So, when they took off, Pickersgill and Macalister were stuck, they were grabbed, ultimately they captured the other two agents, and unfortunately, in the trunk, they found their radios with some of their codes. In fact, the Germans would pretend they were Pickersgill and Macalister, and operate the radio from out of their positions north of Paris.

Nahlah Ayed
Which was extremely damaging for the SOE.

Norm Christie
The SOE had a lot of issues. They had some incredibly talented people in the field, they were unbelievable agents, but the people running it seemed to be a bit out to lunch. And they were not even aware that, even if they've been warned—and actually this is where part of the story gets really interesting, because all these people start to link—so you get Madeleine or Noor Inayat Khan, she’s linking with Macalister and Pickersgill, then they’re linking with the radio game operatives who are coming into Paris, and then they're going to link again, which is with Gustave Biéler, who's further north, Commandant Guy. All these things start to connect. Madeline is telling them there's something wrong here, and they don't accept that. In fact, when a radio operator sensed something, he had a security check, so you'd make an intentional mistake—two, security checks—they’d make an intentional mistake in the Morse, and then they were supposed to know that he's under duress. The people there just thought he may have made a mistake, so they basically said “excuse me, but you've got your security code,” which meant he’d go in for another 24 hours of torture, which they would do the baginoire, the water in the bathtub, they would do all sorts of—they would pull up fingernails. I mean, the torture was absolutely horrible.

Nahlah Ayed
And tragically, ultimately, both Pickersgill and Macalister were killed at the Buchenwald concentration camp, just weeks before France was liberated. Of course, at the time, Canadians, because of the secrecy around all this, had no idea. At what point, Gilbert, do we begin to hear stories like these, about Canadians who were involved in the SOE?

Gilbert Reid
Well, Norm probably knows more about this than I do, but I think it was after the war, and it was in driblets. And it's all a little bit of a mystery at every level, because we know names, and we know a lot of details, but we also have a lot of conflicting stories, because SOE agents often didn't write stuff down—for very evident reasons, because anything written was a giveaway. And there were the conflicts with MI6, which got rid of a lot of SOE papers after the war, and there were conflicts with a bunch within SOE, where people were blaming each other for what happened. So, in the end to reconstitute actually who did what, when, is a very complicated detective story, though I think we have a pretty good picture in general now. There was one guy Henri Déricourt, who was a French pilot who was in charge of transportation in and out of England towards France, and he seemed to have been playing both sides. He was informing the Germans where the landings were taking place, and he was also turning over much of the correspondence between London and the agents to the Abwehr, to the Germans. So, at the same time, he seemed to have been playing some sort of double game with the Abwehr. So, although he was accused of being a traitor—he was taken back to England and examined, and after the war, the French accused him—he was gotten off by one of the chaps from London, whom Norm indicated, who was perhaps not the brightest bulb in the world, or perhaps compromised, or perhaps not, no one knows. So, it's a complicated story. And most of it was buried in darkness for a long time and someone like Sonya Butt, for instance, as I understand it, she didn't really talk about her experiences, which were extraordinary, until well after the war.

Norm Christie
Basically, what happened was, the SOE people just vanished. They went to try to find them in 1945, ‘46 under the Crowcast, which was searching for the Nazi war criminals, and what happened to them. They were, they just disappeared. And it wasn't until some women said, “I know what happened to one of my friends.” Noor Inayat Khan was another one, these two women writers, Overton Fuller, and Elizabeth Nicholas, wanted to find out what happened to their friends in the ‘50s, so they started to research this stuff, and of course, then they found out all about the SOE—because they didn't publish their official history until the ‘60s—so they actually started to piece it together. And then, when a couple of the books, like Odette, and Carver Her Name with Pride, were made into British movies in the ‘50s, they started to bring attention to this into the late ‘50s. There were four women agents that were executed at Natzweiler concentration camp—they still didn't know who they were until the ‘50s. They got the fourth one, who ends up being a locally recruited girl, and the whole story just kept on unraveling. What happened with Prosper, and they were sort of covering up the what I think was some incompetence in the Dutch section, and in the French section, who allowed the Germans to operate effectively with false radios.

Nahlah Ayed
And it also took a long time for documents that were available—many weren’t—but those were available to be declassified, to make these stories known. I should also just mention to the audience that we will have another clip from the documentary, which actually talks about the story of Frank Pickersgill and John Macalister, after we're done with the Q&A. But as we're kind of getting close to the end of our discussion, I wanted to get a sense of, you know, what it meant the contribution, exactly, on the ground. So, Gilbert, I thought, you know, they were working behind enemy lines in France long before D-Day, laying the groundwork for a possible, or eventual invasion, the date of which they were not privy to. And so, how did their role change once D-Day came about?

Gilbert Reid
Yeah, you're quite right. They were operating in the darkness, and it was a very lonely and sometimes often despairing job. They didn't know when D-Day would come about. As D-Day approached, SOE operatives all over France began to be more active, and a lot of SOE operators, operatives, agents, were parachuted in, or landed, just before or even after D-Day, and their big job then was to disrupt German communications and transport, because landing 120,000 guys on a stretch of maybe 90 kilometres of beach, and trying to keep them there in the face of Panzer divisions, would have been a very difficult proposition. So, SOE blew up bridges, railway lines, mucked about with transport, destroyed trains, engines, all sorts of canals, all sorts of things, forced the Germans to go on the air when they were communicating, instead of by telephone telegraph; that meant that the British and Allies could catch the broadcasts and decipher them. There's one small example—which may be apocryphal, but it's in the official history—Das Reich was one of the deadliest German panzer divisions. It was near Tolouse in the south, and it got an order to move north, and to oppose the landings. The tanks travelled on railway cars, the railway cars were attacked by some SOE agents, and the oil in the cars, which made the wheels go round, that was changed into abrasive liquid, which froze up all the wheels, destroyed the cars—they couldn't be used. And then Das Reich had to travel across country a long way before it could get to another railway link, and that took many days, and they were continually under attack by the Resistance during that trip. And at the same time, they took revenge, which was horrible, one village they killed more or less all the men, they herded the women and children in to a church and burn the church, burning all of the people alive. Well, the people, the agents of SOE, who carried out that initial daring strike against the railway cars, it was a small group led by two sisters, teenagers, one was 16, and one was 14, so it was vast activity all over France. And at the same time, something dangerous was going on, a lot of the Resistance people wanted to rise up and occupy the territory, and actually have a full battle with the Germans, and that was not what SOE wanted them to do, SOE wanted them to sabotage the Germans, but not go into an open battle.

Nahlah Ayed
So, to speak about the effectiveness of what they did—if I may interrupt—just how essential was the work of the SOE, and the Resistance fighters who you just mentioned, in making that Allied advance a success? Is it possible to actually quantify the contribution?

Gilbert Reid
I think it'd be difficult, but I think it was very important, because sometimes the airstrikes couldn't neutralize what was going on on the ground, because of cloud cover, and so the much more targeted attacks by the Resistance, SOE and so on, that was very, very important. How to quantify it? It's very difficult, partly because everybody disagrees, you know, the Anglos and the Americans tend to say, “well, the Resistance wasn't important,” and the French tend to say, “oh, it's fantastically important.” I think it was very important, actually, and I think it was important for another reason, because it gave the French hope, and it allowed for the rebirth of France as a great country, after the war.

Nahlah Ayed
Norm, did it ultimately do any good? Could the war had been won without the SOE?

Norm Christie
Well, it's a cumulative effect of everything. To beat the Germans, you had to spread them out as thin as possible, and then pound the crap out of them—that’s what the Russians learned as well—they were almost, they were very, very hard to defeat. But the spirit of resistance is very, very important. It's not a bean counting operation, you have to get the people going, and that spirit, and that soul, which is really what drives them, is very, very important. Now, the French had a lot of trouble with this after the war, and even when I was there—I lived there in the ‘90s—they were very reluctant to, and they want to play the Resistance as the same thing as D-Day. And what it is, is that they had so many collaborators, they embarrassed themselves—that's when you had the Klaus Barbie trial in the late ‘80s, you had it was Papen, and the other one who was the French police—because a lot of the really bad people were actually French, and they never got over it. I had a friend of mine whose father had gone to Buchenwald, and he talked about the issues—he was French—and about the issues about betrayal of their own people. This spirit of resistance is really what redeemed France, because remember, in 1940, they failed miserably. So, this brought them back, and gave them a measure of co-operation with the landings. Now, they did some damage as they actually did, and what Gilbert's talking about is the slaughter at Oradour-sur-Glane. The SS were not good about this stuff, I mean, the Germans were—everyone was quite ruthless; they shot people on a regular basis, for any reason. You could be shot as a hostage; a German soldier could be killed, and they’d say, kill 20 guys, kill 20 as the equivalent for him, shoot the 20 guys who happen to be in jail for drunk, hostages would be taken out and shot. So back is absolutely everything, and that's where Churchill was the best, because he always believed in the Beau Geste, and this kept him going. Yeah, it's even hard today when you're dealing in France, this issue. Holland is another place, all these different situations, but yeah, it made a big difference. Once the people start to rise, they’ll fight, and courage inspires everybody. You don't always fight to win, sometimes you fight because it's the right thing to do. And that's what these people did.

Nahlah Ayed
And let me let me ask you this, Norm. You've written quite a bit, extensively, about the role that Canadians in particular played, both in the First in the Second World War. When you consider the landscape of Canadian contributions to those wars—including of course, the landings at Normandy, and a number of other notable battles—where would you place the contribution of Canadian SOE agents?

Norm Christie
First World War, Canada punched way above its weight. They were the most efficient fighting force on the Western Front, they had the best pilots. Unbelievable. I don’t know how they got so good, actually. They were they were way above their weight. Second World War, they were restrained, the Army was restrained, for reasons that were political—they didn't want to bring conscription, and that's what it was about. And so, they tried to keep them in England for all these times. So, in the First World War, we were centre stage of world history six times, whether we wanted to or not; we were centre of, you know, tanks, poison gas, all this stuff. Second World War, we were more restrained, because we ended up having a lot more people involved, at 1.1 million, but D-Day is the only time we're really full centre on the world stage. Our contributions were everywhere, there's even an Ottawa airman buried in Istanbul from 1942. Canadians were everywhere. In fact, when the Americans used to do their films, whether it was the Purple Plain, or Bridge on the River Kwai, they always had a Canadian, they would always have a Canadian in the Far East, we fought everywhere. When we did the King & Country show, we started off with a grave on the west coast of Ireland, of a Canadian airman called Smithson, from Windsor, he was on a Demon Squadron, on attacks against U boats, and they were shot down and killed, and his body washed up on shore. Now, we used him as the symbol of the international sacrifice and contribution that Canada made to all these situations. They punched way above their weight in the First World War, and in the Second World War, they had exceptional people. You know, where they come from, or where they go, and if you could predict that, any military would pay you a million-dollar retainer for every week. These people are exceptional, and when you meet them—I just feel so lucky to have met some of them, you know—and you're sitting across from them, and, you know, the fighter pilots always have the one eyes, you know, the eyes that go right through you, and out the back of your head. They're killers, they're killers, and they're leaders, and they have a natural quality to them. And it's really important what they did, and they didn’t back down. Korea, we did the same thing, we sent a lot of people over there—outstanding performance.

Nahlah Ayed
So, on that note—if I may just interrupt, because we just have a few minutes before questions from the audience—to go back to Gilbert. When you look back now in 2021, it's 75 years since the SOE was disbanded. What would you say is the legacy of the organization, and the people who served in it?

Gilbert Reid
Well, there's a popular culture legacy everywhere, because James Bond and Q and all that sort of thing, and many of the scenes you see in films come from what SOE did and its agents did—escaping from prisons, and doing all sorts of nonsense, and embedding, really strange stuff. I think the legacy though, that stands when you get to know, and you sort of get to know, reading about them, the legacy is of extraordinary heroism by people who were leading ordinary, so-called ordinary lives, up to the instant when they said, “enough is enough, and I'm going into action.” One of the big leaders was a postal inspector in Montreal, and he became, with Guy D’Artois in the east of France, a major leader in the Resistance, and he also served in Burma, where he died trying to prepare explosives to blow up a bridge. And he was with some Chinese Canadian compatriots who were working with him, and who worked a lot in the east for SOE. Another one was a tram, or streetcar guy, and he became also a big leader of a group of armed people, men and women who were fighting the Germans in the hills. And we talked about Noor Inayat Khan, she was a writer and a poet. We talked about schoolgirls, and mechanics, and bush pilots, and all sorts of people—you could go through the repertoire of what seems ordinary or exceptional, and you end up with people who are in SOE. And Pickersgill and Macalister were two exceptional individuals, even if there hadn't been a war.

Nahlah Ayed
Thank you, Gilbert and Norm. With Remembrance Day upon us again, how should we remember these men and women?

Norm Christie
It's fun when we talk to school kids—because sometimes it's hard to get your message across—but 1.7 million Canadians fought in the First and Second World War; 110,000 of them were killed. And the question is, did they die in vain? And that's really up to us, whether they died in vain. And when you do that, every kid gets it. Everybody listens. Did they die in vain? It’s up to us.

QUESTION & ANSWER

Nahlah Ayed
Thank you, Norm. Thank you both for your thoughts. There are quite a few audience questions that we should get to, around several of the topics we talked about. One we did not get to, which is the role of Camp X. It was a secret training facility on the shores of Lake Ontario, which was used partly for training of some agents who went over to be part of the SOE. So, Gilbert, maybe I'll just ask you, this is a question coming from one of the audience members, please comment on the role of Canadian William Stephenson.

Gilbert Reid
Okay, William Stephenson wasn't exactly an SOE guy, but he had a lot to do with it indirectly. He was the head, he was a Canadian businessman, he was a millionaire, he was an inventor. He was the head of an office in Rockefeller Centre in New York, which was the centre of British propaganda and espionage in the western hemisphere. And his big job was to try and make the United States edge itself into the war as Britain's Ally. And one of the things he did set up was—at British request, I believe—was Camp X, just outside Toronto. And there, there were SOE, and other agents were trained, and it was also a centre for a thing called Hydra, which was the big radio telecommunications link by shortwave, between Britain and the US, for security reasons. So, a lot of people were trained there, and they did the sort of thing that they did in the Scottish Highlands, training for SOE. It was a useful centre in the sense that it was close to Toronto, where you had a lot of people who were of Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Italian, and so on background. So, if SOE needed people of a certain linguistic bent, they could ask Stephenson, who would ask Camp X, and a Camp X recruiter would examine the local community to see if there were candidates, and there almost always were. So, it played a spooky role—there's nothing there except grassland now, by Lake Ontario. And one of the purposes was to train Americans, because the US was not in the war at that point, but they did want to train people secretly. So, it was on the shore, so they could sneak across the lake. But the day it was opened was the 6th of December 1941, and the 7th of December 1941—a day that will live in infamy, according to FDR—was the day the US was attacked by Japan, and therefore entered the war.

Nahlah Ayed
Thank you. Here's a question for either of you who wants to tackle this. What role if any, did SOE playing the Dieppe Raid. Are you able to speak to that?

Norm Christie
I’ve never found any connection of the SOE to the Dieppe Raid. John Keegan, the British historian, is quite interesting with Dieppe, because you get completely different views on it. Keegan thought it was the most harebrained operation in the Second World War, and of course, Mountbatten thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. It's a situation where, you know, there was always agents operating in the area, but don't forget you're in the occupied territories at that point, you know, which is always interesting, that they had a lot more security. There's no evidence that they were forewarned, although they ran a high risk, they were ready to go. But when you actually go to the beach, and you look at how big that beach is, you’ve got 1500 infantry and a handful of tanks, you're not gonna get across the esplanade. To me, it was a—courage can only get you so far, and boy, they just got clogged, they just got clogged. I don't think SOE, anybody in the French Resistance-oriented SOE—because there are separate, right, the French Resistance is different than the SOE, there’s a lot of different players here—they would have got some information to them. But there's even a small number of Germans at Dieppe who weren't even well reinforced, they didn't have heavy guns, they didn't have guns that could even pierce the tanks. So, it's, I don't know of anything.

Nahlah Ayed
Okay, wnderful. Thank you. Here's a third question from the audience I heard, that’s kind of a fun one. I heard that there's a connection between the SOE and Ian Fleming, James Bond. Could you speak to that?

Norm Christie
I’ll let Gilbert do that one.

Gilbert Reid
Okay. Well, Ian Fleming was an intelligence guy. He wasn't an SOE guy, but he did visit Camp X once, I believe, with Edgar Hoover of the FBI, and with Donovan, who created the American equivalent of SOE, which became later the CIA. He and Fleming also knew William Stephenson at one point, he said Stephenson was one of the models for James Bond. And I think, I suspect strongly, that all the gadgets—we've hardly mentioned them, but SOE had a bunch of little laboratories where there were boffins beavering away, creating extraordinary weapons and toys to destroy people, and blow-up stuff—and a lot of the gadgets you see in the James Bond story, the character of Q is modeled, so I had been told, on an SOE scientist who was a mad inventor in one of those places in England where they were cooking this stuff up.

Nahlah Ayed
There was another question about—we started to only touch on this, I guess, again, because of the brevity of time—the fact that Canadians served beyond France and other places. So, somebody's asked me specifically about the Balkans. Any Canadians involved in the SOE in the Balkans?

Nahlah Ayed
Yeah, there was a guy called MacDonald, who'd won a DCM and Bar with the Black Watch in the First World War and lost his eye. They wouldn't let him serve with the Canadian Army, so he went to the British Army, and he parachuted in, and he wrote a book called Twelve Months with Tito's Partisans. He was one of the very first guys to drop in—of course, they had a huge complex in Yugoslavia, very, very complicated situation. But yeah, he went in, Canadians went in right away. And there were some other ones as well. There's a terrific book by MacLaren, on Canadians Behind the Lines, which is a very good book for all the different backgrounds in that, which people should really look for; it’s very well done. And I'm trying to think of the other ones that they were in, they had some operating in the Far East—and people don't even know there was 10,000 Canadians in the Burma Theatre of War, for example. Does anybody know that?

Nahlah Ayed
Gilbert, did you want to add, in terms of SOE, specifically?

Gilbert Reid
Oh, yeah, I think there were, as Norm said, there were quite a few in Yugoslavia, there were some in Hungary, there were a couple of crazy guys who got into trouble in various places, and very talented people; Malaya, Borneo, and Burma—Myanmar now—and usually out far West, there were a few Anglos, there were a lot of French Canadian demolition experts, and sabotage experts, and they were working with Chinese Canadians also in that area, and many of them arrived as Japan was surrendering because of the atomic bombs, but they still had hard work to do, because they had to convince the Japanese to surrender, and then they had to convince the natives not to massacre the Japanese. So, there was a lot of difficult work. And prior to the Japanese surrender, there was a lot of really sweaty work in the deep jungles, and that's where Jean Paul Archambault was killed preparing to blow up a bridge.

Nahlah Ayed
Here's a question from Randolph, asking how many trained agents would the SOE have had in France at the height of their operations? And the follow up is, how many sabotage events could the organization be credited with? Maybe norm?

Norm Christie
There's more than 400 of their agents, but don't forget they would recruit French locals. So, there'd be, literally, I mean, 20 people in the circuit, not only just the guy who dropped in or his courier. Offhand I can't tell you how many they did were more successful than others. You gotta remember, once the Germans started to put the squeeze on in 1943, mid-‘43, they started to round up a lot of these different units. They were very important to French resistance, as they say the heart and soul matter, it was huge, into making sure the local populations don't give up hope.

Nahlah Ayed
One more question about Camp X, which always piques the interest of listeners and viewers, was Camp X on the shores of Lake Ontario, a real training operation of importance, Gilbert.

Gilbert Reid
I think there were many more important ones in Britain, and there was a very important one out West, which the Chinese Canadians attended, I think in most cases. And it, Camp X probably trained about 500 people, the one out west, I think about 1000. But Camp X was important, because some key guys came out of it, and it was also important as an intelligence and radio centre as well. And it was located on the lake, partly so the Americans could sneak across the lake, and partly for very good broadcasting quality doing shortwave towards Britain.

Nahlah Ayed
Last, we only have about a minute left, and we've only highlighted just a few names of Canadians that are worth remembering and talking about—there are so many others, and we just don't have the time to get to them—but can you each just name one other Canadian SOE agent, and tell us very briefly what it is about them that keeps their memory alive for you. First Norm, and then Gilbert. One minute.

Norm Christie
I'm trying to think, because some of them just disappeared. I can't think of one, to be quite honest at this point. I commemorated a everybody who I can.

Gilbert Reid
Well, I'll name one of the Norm’s favourites, that is—and then I'll name another one—one is Guy D’Artois, who was an extraordinary professional soldier, and married another agent. But the other most exceptional guy, who was sometimes named the most, the bravest, was Gustave Biéler. He was in the north of France, he survived a long time, and then he was betrayed, with his radio operator, Yolande Beekman, and he survived torture. And he was so impressive, because he didn't give any information away, that instead of hanging him with chicken wire from hook, as they did with most male agents, they gave him a military execution firing squad.

Nahlah Ayed
Thank you. It's another important thing to remember. Thank you so much, both of you, for your insights, and thanks to the audience for all your wonderful questions—we can't get to the rest of them, unfortunately. But I'll hand it back now to Kelly Jackson.

Kelly Jackson
Thank you, Nahlah, and thank you to Gilbert and Norm. What a fascinating set of stories, with a number of meaningful Canadian connections. And I, you know, again, we probably could go on for another hour, easily, to hear all about it, and maybe, who knows, we’ll have to look to work together on a part two, to keep the conversation going, because there really are just so many untold stories of Canadian contributions. I'd like to now introduce Daniel Hendrickson, who is the Chair of the University of Toronto Soldiers’ Tower Committee to deliver today's appreciation remarks. Daniel, welcome.

Note of Appreciation by Daniel Hendrickson, Chair, University of Toronto Soldiers’ Tower Committee
Thank you. Hello, everyone, it has been a great pleasure for the University of Toronto to sponsor this event. On behalf of the university, I would like to thank Nahlah for being such an excellent moderator, and panelists Norm and Gilbert for their insight into this crucial aspect of the Allied war effort. This event is especially meaningful for the University of Toronto, since two of its graduates, John Macalister and Frank Pickersgill, served together in the SOE. As the chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee, which honours the University of Toronto students, staff, and alumni, who fought and died in the world wars, I'm thrilled to see the Special Operations Executive, and especially the Canadian role within it, getting the attention it deserves. For such a small group of men and women, they truly had a disproportionately large impact on operations in occupied Europe. These stories, both local and overseas, are important in terms of public remembrance during this time of the year, and in our evolving understanding of Canada's unique contribution to the Allied war effort. I would like to thank the Empire Club for hosting today's event, as well as everyone who was able to tune in. I hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as I did. Back to you, Kelly.

Concluding Remarks Kelly Jackson
Thanks, Daniel. And thanks again to Nahlah, Gilbert, and Norm, and everyone joining us today, or participating at a later date. Our next event is on November 16th, at noon Eastern Time. Please join us as we unpack the business case for strong workplace retirement plans. More details, and complimentary registration are available at empireclubofcanada.com. As I adjourn this meeting, I invite you to stay with us, for another short clip from Secret Liberators. You can see the full documentary for free on the King and Empire Foundation website, at kingandempire.ca. Thank you as always for your engagement, and have a great day.

[Clip from Secret Liberators is Shown]

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Remembrance Day Reflection: The Story of the World War 2 Special Operations Executive


10 November, 2021 Remembrance Day Reflection: The Story of the World War 2 Special Operations Executive