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Taking the fight to the Germans

Major John Farmer was parachuted into France as an agent of the Special Operations Executive in 1944

Major John Farmer was parachuted into France as an agent of the Special Operations Executive in 1944 to help train the Resistance in the Auvergne to target the German invaders. He tells Simon Watkinson of his experiences

IT IS difficult for anyone now to imagine the horrors of life in Occupied France in the 1940s. Food shortages, betrayal and unspeakable atrocities were everyday occurrences 70 years ago.

This was the France that members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), or Churchill’s Secret Army, parachuted into to join up with and help organise the French Resistance (Maquis).

The first SOE agent landed in May 1941, less than a year after General de Gaulle broadcast his call on the BBC for the French to resist the German forces.

Georges Bégué was the first of more than 1,400 agents to take the war directly to the Germans.

Three years later, SOE agent Major John Farmer parachuted into the Auvergne, landing near Cosne d’Allier with his courier, Nancy Wake, who would later become the Gestapo’s most wanted person and the most decorated servicewoman in the Second World War.

Now living in Ain, near Geneva and the Swiss border with his wife, Frances, Major Farmer received the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre avec Palmes for his exploits.

Born in Kensington, London, in January, 1917, most of his childhood was spent overseas. “My widowed mother had found that the then strong pound went further in continental Europe than in England, so I was educated in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium before attending Beaumont Jesuit College in Windsor, Berkshire, at the age of 14,” he said.

His fluency in French and German would prove invaluable during his stint with SOE.

Where did you serve before joining SOE?

I was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit with the British Expeditionary Force on the Maginot Line, near Metz, in 1939. Then, from 1940 to 1943, I was stationed in Yorkshire with the Royal Artillery, again on an anti-aircraft battery.

But this was quite boring with long periods of nothing to do. I yearned for some excitement and was more than relieved when I saw an advert for those with languages who wanted to apply to do something different.

Major Farmer was sent to join the newly organised Jedburghs in Peterborough, who were a secret army being put through punishing training to be sent in to France to work training up the Resistance.
While in training he was poached to join the SOE by its chief, Maurice Buckmaster, with the aim of going to France on sabotage and spying
Now codenamed Hubert, he was parachuted into the Auvergne with Nancy Wake (codename Hélène), on the night of April 29, 1944.

How did the mission start?

Well, everything went wrong initially. As our radio operator had been so badly tortured on a previous mission, he couldn’t parachute in and was flown in by Lysander 15 days later – without him, we were useless as nobody really knew who we were or what we were meant to be doing.

The day after landing we met up with fellow SOE agent Maurice Southgate, who was in touch with the Resistance chief in the area and had asked London for help.

We were to go into Montluçon to get the feel of life in occupied territory, but Maurice told us he was too busy that day and would see us the next day. Unfortunately, the Gestapo captured him and he was sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

Thankfully, we were warned of his arrest and we left our safe house at 02.00 the next day.

On arriving in a quieter area around Chaudes-Aigues, we contacted the local Resistance chief, who also didn’t know what to do with us and so sent us to a small village called Lieutades. We stayed here until our radio operator – Denis Rake (codename Roland) – arrived.

My role was to organise what was called the Freelance Resistance circuit, liaise with the Massif Central Maquis leader, Emile Coulaudon (codename Gaspard), and get weapons and ammunition to Maquis in the Chaudes-Aigues district.

This involved identifying fields that were suitable for parachute drops of weaponry and ammunition from England; training Resistance fighters to use these arms; and giving them much needed cash.

Once I’d found suitable sites for the drops, the radio operator would send the corresponding Michelin map coordinates to London by wireless telegraph. We would then wait to hear a personalised coded message on the BBC evening news.

This would give the go-ahead for the drop and included additional information such as “Daphne is well and so is her daughter Charlotte”.

If intercepted, it meant nothing, but it kept us informed of family affairs.

With the constant fear of betrayal, what was life like working with the Resistance?

Convincing Resistance fighters of the best time to retreat from a battle was perhaps the hardest thing to do, because they were all determined to inflict the optimum damage on the occupying forces.
Otherwise, it was all a bit of an adventure.

But life was never easy; evading the Germans and the Milice (Vichy Militia) was especially difficult.

There was never really any let-up, but however many setbacks we had, we just had to get on with the job in hand.

Major Farmer then smiled, as if thanking Providence, before relating the most memorable experience of his war:

When cycling with a Resistance colleague to meet a member of the Pétain government, whom we thought was going to change sides, I was relieved to have passed through Vichy.

Then, when we came to a fork in this road, a German guard stepped out from nowhere and ordered us to stop. He asked us where we were going, so I replied in German.

This man, who was probably in his forties, then asked me where I’d learnt my German.

I still don’t know why, but I said that I’d learnt it in a PoW camp.

Then something strange happened, which I’ll never forget. He warned us not to continue on that road, but to turn off to the right and take the back roads.

I feel sure he saved our lives and that there were Germans on the road ahead whom we would have run straight into had we continued on our planned route.

As a result of Hubert’s coordination of landing grounds for supply drops, from June to August 1944 the Freelance circuit received some 100 tonnes of weapons and ammunition in 282 containers and 218 packages from 16 drops.
As well as providing vital weapons for the well organised Maquis groups of more than 5,000 men in the area, the arms supply proved invaluable on June 18 when the Resistance stronghold at Mont Mouchet was attacked by the Germans and there was fierce fighting in Chaudes-Aigues.

A force of some 10,000 enemy, using armoured cars, tanks, artillery, four Junkers 88 and two Focke Wulfe 190 aircraft, launched a first-class attack.

The battle raged from 7.00 until well into nightfall, when our position became untenable and we received the order to withdraw.

After the withdrawal, a French captain asked Hubert and Hélène to deliver a message to some Maquis in a village 12km away.

On our return, we noticed a Henschel 126 spotter plane following us up the road and had to jump out of the car and into a ditch.

Fearing being captured in the Mont Mouchet battle, Roland had destroyed their radio and codes for security reasons and, with the car now also destroyed, Hubert had to walk 260km to find another Resistance network.

He needed another wireless operator to send a message to London, requesting that they supply a new radio and codes. This was just two weeks after the Allies landed on

That day and in the weeks that followed it is estimated that the Germans were deprived of 50 divisions that were tied up fighting battles with the Resistance and, as a result of sabotage, trying to cross bridges that no longer existed.

In July and August 1944, Hubert helped the Resistance in the Tronçais Forest in the Allier and fought in the liberation of Montluçon.

He also coordinated the cutting of telephone lines and the blowing up of bridges and rail lines.

Hubert, Hélène and Roland were part of Churchill’s network of agents who were “to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.”

Their efforts, and those of other SOE agents, saw Britain send over 650 tons of explosives; 723,000 hand grenades; and roughly 500,000 small arms, including 198,000 rifles, 20,000 Bren guns and
58,000 pistols, into France to arm the various Resistance groups around the country.

Major Farmer always refused to carry a suicide pill, for use in case of capture, on missions.
Major Farmer, who worked with the Foreign Office after the war, was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in April, 1996. He said: “I have always felt very much at home here in France.”

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