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Ex-SOE and SAS agents are being honoured by France but some still shun the limelight

By Jamie Doward

Observer Online – 23 August 2015

They were, as parliament recently acknowledged, the bravest of the brave. Sent into France before and after the D-Day landings, members of the Special Operations Executive and the Special Air Service were charged with unleashing mayhem across the German lines. For those captured by the Nazis there would be only one outcome. In October 1942, Hitler had passed the notorious Commando Order that decreed any non-uniformed soldier taken prisoner would be treated as a spy: tortured, then executed.

In one infamous incident in 1944, 33 men from the SAS brigade, on a mission to disrupt the railway lines linking south-west France to Paris in a bid to delay the advance of Germany’s Panzer divisions, were captured and murdered by the SS. A similar fate was a possibility for the scores of the SOE’s “Jedburgh teams”, units comprising two officers and a wireless operator, who were parachuted into enemy territory to make contact with the local resistance groups. Although they wore uniforms – and therefore should have been treated as prisoners of war if captured – they knew the Germans would treat them as spies.

“Someone who served in the SOE must have been a pretty amazing individual,”

said Amanda Mason, a historian with the Imperial War Museum.

“They would be trained in sabotage and wireless operations and have a range of skills that would make them able to think on their feet in the most hostile environments.”

For years after the war, many of those involved in the clandestine operations chose not to talk about their exploits, even among close friends and family. Even 70 years on, some still remain tight-lipped.

“There’s something about that generation,”

Mason said.

“The people who have done the most incredible things are the most reluctant to come forward.”

Now, as France awards the Légion d’Honneur to the UK’s Normandy veterans, MPs have appealed for members of the SAS and SOE to come forward so that their heroism can be finally recognised. Time, however, is running out. Some 3,000 UK veterans, most in their 90s, have applied to receive the award – many more than the French authorities expected. MoD staff have been drafted in to help process the applications.

Tory MP Bob Stewart, a former UN commander in Bosnia, told parliament that there was a particular problem identifying veterans from the Special Forces, however.

“The Jedburgh teams of the Special Operations Executive and 1 SAS are quite under the cover and remain under the cover,”

he explained.

“I have been encouraging them to come forward and get their names in, but people are still coming out of the woodwork. The Jedburgh teams, the SOE, 1 SAS and other Special Forces must be encouraged as well.”

He recalled how he recently gave the eulogy at the funeral of one former SOE operative.

“One of the old boys came up to me and said, ‘I have applied but I’ve not heard anything’,”

Stewart said.

“I told the MoD to get a move on.”

Dr Julian Lewis, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said:

“These people, who went behind the lines in advance of everyone else, are the bravest of the brave. They also take their obligations of confidentiality most seriously. They should put this aside now. We can say to them, ‘It’s OK, fellas, come forward and get the public acclamation that you deserve.’ Of course, I am sure that privately they know how much their brilliant, courageous activities are appreciated.”

But, still, persuading them to come forward is problematic. The records of those who were in the SAS were dissolved following the war.

“SOE and SAS were the unknown heroes,”

Stewart said.

“They had the guts to go behind the German lines in civilian clothes after the Commando Order was given by Hitler. They evaporated when the publicity started. No one knows who they are. The records aren’t there. Some of these people remain unknown to this day and possibly forever.”

While there is an active SAS Veterans Association that can help identify those who could qualify for the award, Stewart said some would shun the limelight if approached.

“There are one or two people undoubtedly who are unaware they are eligible for the Légion d’Honneur. A lot of the guys aren’t interested in publicity, aggrandisement, that sort of thing. They are people of incredible modesty.”