Brookwood Military Ceremonyis the location of the most officially-recorded SOE casualties. It’s not easy to spot them all, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) estimates circa 100.
Sunday 2nd September saw three elements to an entire afternoon of events at Brookwood, two being purely the remit of this Charity and the final one being a partnership arrangement with two Brookwood-based organisations - The Trench Experience and the Brookwood Last Post Association.
The afternoon began with Secret WW2 Trustee Paul McCue giving a guided walk around the various cemetery plots with several 'Secret WW2' elements. In the American WW1 Cemetery attendees visited the site of the original secret WW2 burial of the US servicemen killed in the engagement at Slapton Sands, Devon on 27th April 1944.
30,000 US troops were taking part in a dress rehearsal for the D-Day landings when the lightly-escorted force was attacked by German E-boats. The official death toll was 749 men, far more than were killed in the storming of Utah beach on the real D-Day and the worst loss of life to befall American troops since Pearl Harbor.
The US plot in Brookwood Military Cemetery during WW2
In the Free French plot, the graves of Jacques Tayar and Lt-Colonel Albert Berthaud (real name Kohan), agents of General de Gaulle's BCRA secret service, were visited. Both were killed, along with their pilot F/Lt Stephen Hankey, when their Lysander of 161 (SD) Squadron RAF crashed in bad weather near RAF Ford on the Sussex coast on the night of 16/17 December 1943 after returning from occupied France.
Jacques Tayar Lt-Colonel Albert Berthaud (real name Kohan)
In the same Free French plot are the graves of Second Lieutenants Popoff and Garnier, trainee French Section SOE agents who were in a holding house in central London, but killed in the London blitz in May,1941.
They were buried at Brookwood (a third trainee’s body was repatriated to France at the end of the war) in the Free French plot – despite the fact that they had both served in the British Army before joining SOE - Popoff in the Royal Berkshire Regiment and Garnier in The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment).
The walk ended at Brookwood Military Cemetery's Memorial to the Missing 1939-45.
NB: The memorial panels featuring the names mentioned beow are highlighted [in square brackets]
Paul began his next talk here with the startling information that no fewer than 17 members of the Commonwealth forces are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing as 'Remembered with Honour', despite their having been judicially tried and executed in Britain for murder (mostly) or treason and having been buried in unmarked, but recorded graves, at the British prisons where their executions took place.
The presentation then covered three disasters at sea that were shrouded in secrecy both during WW2 and for many years afterwards.
The first concerned the huge and tragic loss of life aboard the SS Erinpura, while being used as a troop transport in the Mediterranean. In 1943 it was the commodore's ship, under the command of Captain P.V. Cotter, in a Malta-bound convoy from Alexandria with three other British India ships, Karoa, Egra and HMT Rohna.
The convoy also included twenty other merchantmen escorted by eleven warships, and was attacked thirty miles north of Beghazi on 1 May 1943 by German bombers, with Erinpura being hit by a bomb in one of her holds. She sank within four minutes of being hit.
Two junior engineers, 54 Indian seamen, three gunners, 140 Palestinian Jewish soldiers serving in 462 Transport Company of the British Army, and 633 Basotho troops of the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps were lost with her.
The Jewish losses are listed at Brookwood and, with the exception of one man who was buried in Benghazi, all the Basotho soldiers are commemorated at the Lesotho Memorial, which is located in Makoayane Square, in the center of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho and was erected in 1963.
HMT Rohna, which had escaped the Erinpura sinking described above, survived fewer than six months more; and the focus from this disaster was on the ship's Senior Medical Officer, Major Richmond Edwards RAMC. [Panel 18 Col 1]
Major Edwards spent a great deal of his wartime service on troop ships in and around the Mediterranean, during the North Africa campaign and the landings in Italy.
On 25th November 1943, HMT Rohna was carrying around 2000 US troops and had joined a convoy at Oran bound for the Far East.
The convoy was attacked by German aircraft off Tunis and HMT Rohna was sunk after being struck by a new type of guided bomb, the Henschel 293.
The resulting loss of 1015 GI's was the greatest loss of life at sea ever suffered by the US forces and in addition, 134 British and Indian officers and men perished.
Major Wade was one of four officers who remained on board with a few US troops who could not swim until the ship broke in two and sank suddenly. Because of the nature of the weapon involved and the high level of casualties, full details of the incident were only made public 50 years later.
Major Edwards's son, Jonathan, and his grand-daughter Fenella, were present.
The Sea Lion and OPERATION BOATSWAIN
The final maritime element reprised the joint SOE / Palmach tragedy of OPERATION BOATSWAIN, launched from Mandatory Palestine (now Israel) against an oil refinery on the coast of Vichy Lebanon.
All 23 Jewish volunteers, and British SOE officer Major Sir Anthony Palmer, disappeared without trace at sea in the Palestine Police launch Sea Lion on 18 May 1941 in the Mediterranean and are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing.
A previous Secret WW2 ceremony covering BOATSWAIN took place in 2017, read about it HERE.
Major Palmer is listed on panel 2, column 1. The Jewish volunteers are named on panel 27, column 1.
Ambassador Gershon Gan, the second cousin of Amiram Shohet (left) one of the Palmach volunteers for SOE, attended from Israel.
Paul McCue's talk then emphasised the different nationalities and far-flung postings of SOE personnel who are commemorated on the Memorial.
FRENCH / ANGLO-FRENCH
Ensign Madeleine Damerment, FANY, French Section SOE
A postal worker from northern France, Madeleine and her family worked in the Resistance for an escape line and had helped many Allied evaders before she became known to the Germans and had to flee to Britain via Spain and Gibraltar.
She volunteered for French Section, was appointed to the FANY, passed her course of instruction and was allocated as courier to SOE's BRICKLAYER team being parachuted into France.
She was dropped with her circuit organiser and a W/T operator on the night of 28/29 February 1944, near Chartres, but the reception committee consisted of the enemy, since the Germans were operating the radio that had organised the drop.
After being held in a number of prisons, she was transferred to Dachau Concentration camp and was executed there on 13 September 1944. [panel 26, col 3]
Present at Brookwood on the day, and acting as Standard Bearer of a three-person colour party from the present-day FANY (PRVC), was Zoe Brooke, great-niece of Madeleine.
Ensign Violette Szabó GC, FANY, French Section
Violette Szabó GC of the book and film Carve Her Name With Pride, is commemorated on panel 26, col 3 of the Memorial and is perhaps one of the most publicly well-known SOE agents.
Violette was captured during her second mission into occupied France, in June 1944. She was executed at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in January 1945, alongside fellow French section agents Denise Bloch (see below) and Lilian Rolfe.
Ensign Denise Bloch, FANY, French Section
A French Jewish secretary from Lyon, and member of the French Resistance, Denise became wanted by the enemy and managed to escape France for Britain. Joining French Section, she was trained as a courier and parachuted back into France in March 1944.
She too was captured in June 1944 and executed at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in January 1945, alongside Violette Szabó. [panel 26, col 3]
Volunteer Fortunato Picchi of SOE’s Operation Colossus in February 1941, was only added in the last few years to the Memorial to the Missing.
He acted as interpretor for OPERATION COLOSSUS, Britain's first airborne offensive operation of WW2. Picchi was caught by the Italian fascist police and executed somehere outside Rome on 6 April 1941. [panel 26 col 3]
Captain Enzo Sereni was an Italian Jew who worked in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Sereni joined the British Army on the outbreak of war and was involved in disseminating anti-fascist propaganda in Egypt on behalf of SOE.
At one point, Sereni was imprisoned by the British, accused of spreading communist propaganda via SOE’s newspaper for Italian POWs, but was released after 11 days. He was also briefly imprisoned for helping Egyptian Jews to enter Palestine.
After further service in Iraq he was parachuted into northern Italy in May 1944, but was captured at once. He was executed by shooting at Dachau concentration camp in November 1944. [panel 26, col 3]
Captain Francois Deniset. French Section SOE
Deniset was serving with the Royal Canadian Artillery in southern England before he volunteered for French Section, SOE. He married an Englishwoman in Farnham, Surrey, parachuted into occupied France, but was captured on arrival in February 1944.
He is believed to have been executed at Gross-Rosen concentration in the summer of 1944. [panel 23, col 2]
CANADIAN / HUNGARIAN
Lt Alexander Vass, aka Alexander Vincent, had emigrated to Canada at the age of 12, but was born in Hungary in 1912. He volunteered for SOE while serving with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in Italy in 1943.
He was trained in Britain and parachuted into Hungary from Italy in early July 1944. He was soon arrested, but although first imprisoned by the Hungarian secret police, he was sent to a POW camp for ‘ordinary’ prisoners in Germany.
Ironically, he was killed there in an Allied air raid in December, 1944. [panel 26. col 3]
Lt Ernst Hoffmann (Austrian parents, Sudeten German) a former glove maker and Lt Otto Pichl (Sudeten German), previously a forestry worker had both been involved in socialist politics, and fled to Sweden when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Flown to Britain in January 1944, they were trained by SOE's German Section and parachuted back into their home area on 9 May 1944. Hoffmann was reported arrested and shot. [panel 22 col 1]
Pichl (48 years old and with excellent reports during training) took his lethal pill when the Germans located him in August 1944. [panel 22, col 1]
Lt Hans Johansen of SOE's Scandanavian Section
Johansen volunteered for SOE in early 1942, and served as a sabotage instructor in Denmark. He took his lethal pill when surrounded by the enemy in Copenhagen in July 1944.
Although on the Memorial to the Missing, he is buried in the Danish Resistance memorial cemetery outside Copenhagen. Johansen
Captain Adolphe Rabinovitch - French Section, SOE - undertook two missions as a radio operator in France. Captured on landing on his second mission in March 1944, the victim of false radio messages sent by the Germans on a captured radio set.
He is believed to have been executed at Gross-Rosen concentration camp in the summer of 1944. [panel 21, col 3]
OUR MAN IN ANGOLA
Lt Frederic Mills of SOE worked undercover as a businessman in Luanda, the capital of Angola. He died of natural causes and, despite being on the Memorial to the Missing, is known to have been buried in a civilian grave in Luanda. [panel 22, col 1]
The three casualties of Major Edwards, SOE Volunteer Amiram and Ensign Madeleine Damerment were the subject of individual remembrance, all were represented by family members.
In respect of the Palmach volunteers of OPERATION BOATSWAIN and the other Jewish personnel remembered, Ambassador Mark Regev (below, 2nd from left) from the Israeli Embassy in London, the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women, and the Monash branch of the Royal British Legion attended.
Refreshments were kindly provided afterwards by our great supporters Edd and Dagmar of The Trench Experience.
WHAT THE ATTENDEES SAID:
As always, we found the day interesting and enlightening; we continue to find out more and more information about SOE every time we attend these events, so thank you for that! - BC
My warmest congratulations, compliments and thanks for organising and conducting a splendid day of events. Even arranging the weather. Well done. - AL