As a historian who specialises in the history of secret warfare during the Second World War, this year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) of Be the light in the darkness resonates with my research on the Special Operations Executive – a wartime secret service that was established in 1940 and was famously ordered by Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’.
Agents, who were all volunteers, were trained in the UK and then infiltrated behind enemy lines by boat, parachute, aircraft, or submarine. Their mission was to sabotage and subvert the enemy, working with resistance groups to boost morale. In the case of occupied France, because so many French men had been deported to labour camps in Germany, SOE were forced to recruit women as agents, with the added benefit that their gender actually provided the perfect camouflage.
At the time, women were above suspicion, as nobody, including the German occupation forces, thought of them as combatants. For the first time in history, women now bore arms and fought like men. There were a total of 470 SOE agents in France, of whom 39 were women. Many worked alone, enduring the stress of 24-hour working days and seven-day weeks, evading the Nazis’ infamous state secret police, the Gestapo. Those unfortunate enough to be captured were usually subjected to torture and likely death in Nazi concentration camps.
The stories of these women’s service in France are inspiring. They volunteered fully aware of the risks involved and were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for protecting freedom against Nazi tyranny. Suicide pills were therefore concealed in agents’ coat buttons to be used in case they could not escape from captivity. Stories of these women’s courageous actions fascinate BGU students taking my third-year undergraduate module on ‘The Secret War: British Intelligence during the Second World War’. Most are initially unaware that Jewish SOE agents took up arms during the war, including Jewish heroines who fought in France such as Denise Bloch.
On 21 January 1916, Denise Bloch was born to a Jewish family in Paris. After France fell in June 1940, her father and two brothers, who served in the French army, were taken prisoner by the Germans. Denise, along with her mother and brother, was forced into hiding, using false papers to avoid Nazi persecution. In July 1942, they successfully made their way to the unoccupied zone, and Denise began working with the Resistance and assisting SOE agents. In Lyon, she worked as a radio operator with a British SOE officer, Brian Stonehouse, who struggled with his French. After his arrest in October 1941, Denise had no option but to go into hiding. She changed her appearance by dying her hair blonde and, after a year, resumed her work with SOE, but in a different location — the South of France.
Despite being a seasoned French Resistance agent all too familiar with life under German occupation, Denise was instructed to further her training in Britain and formerly enrol in the SOE. The journey to Britain was challenging and consisted of a seventeen-hour trek across the Pyrenees, followed by a twenty-one-day trip to London — a pretty impressive feat, as most agents took months to get out of France and make their way to Britain. Arriving on 21 May 1943, her soon-to-be SOE superiors were not too happy at the prospect of having an agent known to the Germans working for them. It would take several months before Denise managed to persuade the head of F Section, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (a veteran of Dunkirk), of her continued use as an agent and that she should be permitted to commence her SOE training.
Within her SOE personal file, held by the National Archives (Kew, Surrey) the following comments were made on Denise’s training progress and character:
‘An experienced woman with knowledge of the world. She has courage and determination and a thorough understanding and hatred of the Boche. Has complete self-assurance and is capable of handling most situations ... .’
Denise took an extraordinary risk returning to France on 2 March 1944: she was not only an official SOE agent but also Jewish. For several months, she worked as a courier and wireless operator for the CLERGYMAN circuit. In the run-up to D-Day, Denise worked tirelessly, disrupting German communications by cutting railway and telephone lines. However, on 19 June 1944, she was arrested and subjected to interrogation at the Gestapo’s notorious Paris headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch.
There on the fifth floor, she joined two other female SOE agents, Violet Szabo and Lilian Rolfe. On 8 August 1944, all three women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. After three weeks, they were sent to work as manual labourers on the construction of a new airfield at Königsberg. In bitter temperatures and without warm winter clothing, barely existing on a diet of potato-peel soup and one loaf of bread shared among fourteen prisoners, Denise cleared trees and attempted to dig the frozen ground, but her health deteriorated. Suffering from exposure and malnutrition, her SOE file notes that she had also contracted gangrene.
Sometime on 19 or 20 January 1945, Denise, Violet, and Lilian were given a change of clothes and told to be ready to return to Ravensbrück. Upon arrival at the main camp, they were placed in solitary confinement, and all three women were later shot.
Denise Bloch has no known grave but is commemorated on several memorials including the SOE plaque at Ravensbrück and the F Section memorial at Valençay. She received several posthumous awards including the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct and the Légion d’honneur.
At 29 years of age, Denise had lived a short life, but one that was courageous and committed to confronting a genocidal regime. Her story holds an important lesson for us all.
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