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A Jewish Employee of the World War II French Secret Agents of 'Section Buckmaster',


The following is a fascinating account by R.B. of her experiences of working as part of 'Section Buckmaster', which controlled French secret agents during the Second World War. R.B. worked in a clerical role and helped organise and administer agents between their missions, if they came back. It turned out she was chosen for her youth and inexperience and only gradually realised the true nature of her bi-lingual secretarial work and much later the secret prison cells under where she worked...

I was evacuated with my London school to a Sussex Village in September 1939. On returning home in 1943, I subsequently attended the Regent St. Polytechnic in London where our commercial French lecturer was an excitable Frenchman. Towards the end of the course, I was rather troubled as to what my future career should be as I had absolutely no idea. Until returning to London I had led a very cloistered existence in the school hostel in Sussex. I was much younger than my actual years and very naïve.

Just before the end of the last term, a girl I had spoken to in the cloakroom at lunchtime, mentioned that our French lecturer had been asked by the Free French Government to provide six bi-lingual shorthand typists and she was one of the chosen, with an interview the following afternoon at No. 1, Carlton Gardens, together with the other girls. This was all I needed to know. That same afternoon I hopefully asked our lecturer to include me in this group. He emphatically replied that my French was not good enough. He was so right!

Early next morning I found my way to 1 Carlton Gardens (now the Foreign Secretary's residence) and taking my courage in both hands, I entered, I told the first person to appear that I wanted to speak to someone about the vacancies. I was flabbergasted to be given an immediate interview by someone who spoke perfect English. He then sent me on to another address where I was again interviewed, but this time by an army major. He spoke only French so I understood barely half of what he said. My schoolgirl French was so poor that when he asked for the month 1 was born, I could not even get August right. He left the room to consult with someone else and soon returned to offer me a job at the then princely starting sum of £5 per week.

That afternoon I returned to the Polytechnic and informed our lecturer that the French had actually given me a job and at £5 a week. He was furious, very uncomplimentary, and never spoke to me again until the term ended.

The following week I started work in a large private house, sharing a room with a lieutenant and an old fashioned iron stove. The only instruction he ever gave me was never to leave the room unlocked if I was alone, always to burn used carbon paper, and also the contents of the rubbish bin. That took some time because my French typing was so bad the bin filled up quite quickly in a very short time. Any other papers, mostly permits, were to be locked away in my drawer. I was so naive that it never occurred to me to ask why all this, was necessary. I had no idea who I was working for and nobody asked me to sign any confidential document.

By then 1 belonged to a social club in London and told all and sundry about the peculiar firm I was working for. It was several weeks before the lieutenant took the time to warn me that I must never mention where I worked, who I worked with or give any information to anyone. Only at this point did he tell me that I was part of 'Section Buckmaster' which was in overall control of the Free French wartime agents in England, known then as the PFI. He got there too late - half of London must have known where and what I was doing by then. Our whereabouts were so secret that every few months we were transferred to other premises.

I was now the only English person in the building. All the rest were permanent and temporary army officers, with a sprinkling of non-commissioned men. An army sergeant would sign me in and out of the building. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by admiring men and absolutely blossomed. I also had a new boss soon after, a very sympathetic captain. He had been a very well known tennis player before the war and showed me his name in a Davis Cup programme. He offered to teach me to play and being so naive still, I would let him take my arm from behind and we used a ruler instead of a racquet... I really was an innocent. Somehow I never did transfer his instructions to a tennis court. I had a little French sailor as an office boy and whenever we were alone he would help me practice my French. What I never knew was that he taught me the French of a guttersnipe. This landed me at a later date in great disgrace when I was by then working in the embassy just after the war - but that's another story.

Life was much more interesting now. Volunteers were secretly brought over from France to train in England as secret agents by the British and Americans, all coordinated by our department. They were sent for training within a few days of their arrival and then returned into the care of our office before being dropped on a mission back in France. If they were caught by the Germans they were treated badly as civilians. After their missions they would be picked up and returned to us. Often I would note that someone was missing and realising what had happened to the poor souls I would sit there and cry, but after a while I became hardened to the news. It was so frequent. Two of their best agents were young girls who worked together sabotaging troop trains very successfully. I believe they carried out quite a few missions. Many returned safely.

The agents would sometimes ask me if they could bring me a present from France. I still recall too many camembert cheeses which my mother refused to have in the house because they smelled. I could probably have made a fortune at that time selling them to London hotels and restaurants. As I could not take them home, I would always leave them under my bus seat on my way home. London Transport must have been puzzled around that time, but I am unaware whether they ever solved the mystery of the smelly camemberts.

Another of my requests was for photos. I was still very ignorant and never gave a thought as to how he could take any in wartime France and under cover. This particular agent returned and proudly presented me with a brown stained packet of photos he must have removed from a dead German. They showed German soldiers, at the coast of France presumably, standing proudly alongside big guns. Instead of passing these on where they might have helped, I just threw the lot into a waste bin as soon as he left.

From the foregoing, you can understand that I was very innocent and still naive. On reflection in later years I believe this was precisely why I was chosen to work for them. Another of my jobs was to keep control of their agents' names, as these would be changed for every mission. Also they needed someone as ignorant as me to pick up their documents, sometimes as often as once a week. I would be driven by a plain-clothed army man in an unmarked car to MI5's office in Baker Street. He would wait in the car whilst a British officer signed me in and took me up to his room where I would wait until I was handed a large manila envelope. He would then escort me downstairs and sign me out whilst the French driver rushed across the pavement to meet me and get me back to the car. They must have thought I was dopey enough not to know what this was about, but even I could guess that it was documents supplied for the next agents' mission. It took me a little while to work that one out. I also had to find accommodation for the agents, all of whom were created temporary officers. The lesser ones were difficult to place, but for the higher ranking it was easy, I rang the top hotels and asked for rooms for French generals. However, full they were at the start, somehow they always had a spare room for, a 'general'.

It really was a great way to start my working life. Everyone spoilt Mlle Rita and made a great fuss of me. They shared me at lunchtimes - one week I would be invited to go in the 'camionette' a sort of mini bus to lunch with the non commissioned men in their canteen and we would all return to work slightly tipsy. The following week it would be the officers' turn - we still returned to work slightly tipsy. I must say that the food in the men's canteen was equally as good as the food in my smarter surroundings in St. James's where the officers' restaurant was. These visits happened at least once each week and were greatly enjoyed by the young Mlle.

What I never knew, until many years later, when a report appeared in The Daily Telegraph, following a court action against the colonel in France, was that whilst I worked on the first floor, cellars beneath me had been converted into cells in which the French secretly kept traitors they themselves had traced and, presumably unbeknown to the British police, had been ill-treating these prisoners in order to elicit information. I worked happily on the first floor and never guessed.

Thinking about all this has brought back many memories. When, the war ended and Paris was liberated, my boss went there and traced the German files on our organisation. He actually found information: even on me, giving my background, etc. Luckily for me they lost the war.

I was transferred to the French Embassy when the offices finally closed down. Soon after the French Ambassador and his wife, welcomed staff and many others to a reception on the 14 July. Being rather more confident and with fluent French by then, I approached my French lecturer who was talking to two men who he introduced as British MPs, I believe. He immediately told them how proud he was of me and that he remembered that had always been his star pupil.

(Edited: M. Roberts)

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