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Major Joseph Antoine France Antelme OBE (12 March 1900 – 1944) was one of 14 Franco-Mauritians who served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a World War II British secret service that sent spies, saboteurs and guerrilla fighters into enemy-occupied territory.
After spying in Vichy-held Madagascar ahead of the allied landings there in May 1942, Antelme joined the SOE F (France) section in England. He undertook two missions in occupied France. On this third mission, on 29 February 1944, he parachuted into a Gestapo reception committee and was captured. He was murdered, with 18 other captured SOE officers, at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Lower Silesia in July or August 1944.
Antelme was recruited by the SOE in November 1941 in Durban, South Africa where he was serving with the South African artillery.
He formed part of the Todd mission, led by Lt. Col. J.E.S. Todd, whose task it was to gather intelligence on Madagascar and to try to win political leaders to the allied cause ahead of the British landing at Diego Suarez, Operation Ironclad, on 5 May 1942.
Antelme was landed by boat near Majunga (Mahajanga), Madagascar on February 8, 1942 and brought back political and military intelligence from the island, where he had many contacts.
After serving at the Todd mission's operational headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Antelme was sent to England where he joined the SOE F section on 1 July 1942. He underwent training at Beaulieu and at Arisaig, Scotland.
Missions to France
On his first mission to France, from November 1942 to March 1943, Antelme established contacts with political circles and leading French civil servants with a view to supplying the allied expeditionary forces with food and currency.
He was back in France in May that year, carrying messages from the British prime minister, Winston Churchill to former French prime ministers Édouard Herriot and Paul Reynaud, inviting them to come to England. The mission started well with the demolition of the locomotive turntables at Le Mans. But when his fellow SOE officer and associate, Francis Suttill, was arrested on 23 June and his PROSPER circuit destroyed, Antelme was on the run.
He managed to evade the Gestapo for a month, getting out by Lysander aircraft on 20 July. He had failed to meet Herriot and Reynaud, but he learned that they were willing, though unable, to act. They were too well guarded for their extraction to be feasible. He nevertheless took back with him a valuable recruit — the well connected international lawyer, Maître W. J. Savy. (Savy later returned to France and provided the intelligence that led to the destruction by the Allies of 2,000 V1 rockets.)
While Antelme was in France, Noor Inayat Khan landed on 17 June 1943 as wireless operator to the PHONO circuit that he had set up. Antelme put Henri Garry in charge as sub-organiser for Francis Suttill's PROSPER circuit. Shortly after she arrived, PROSPER was betrayed and the Germans seized Suttill and his friends. Inayat Khan evaded capture, sending more than 20 messages on the run until she was betrayed by Garry's sister four months later and arrested in her apartment. Garry was captured shortly afterwards.
Betrayal, capture and death
The seizure of Inayat Khan's wireless set and code-books enabled the Germans to play back false messages to London. Despite the growing certainty that the PHONO circuit was in German hands, Major Antelme volunteered to be dropped to a PHONO reception committee. He, his radio-operator, Captain Lionel Lee, and courier Madeleine Damerment — three of the SOE's best agents — took off from RAF Tempsford airfield in Bedfordshire late on 28 February 1944. Early the following morning, they parachuted into a field near the village of Saintville, some 50 km east of Chartres. The Gestapo was waiting for them. Reportedly in a towering rage, Antelme was taken to Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris and reportedly would not talk even under torture.
Antelme was one of 18 SOE agents who were parachuted directly into enemy hands. Eleven of them, including Antelme, were dropped in February and March 1944 — despite strong evidence that the Germans had gained control of the SOE circuits with whom the drops were arranged. Three weeks earlier another SOE team, consisting of Capt. J.P.H. Ledoux, Capt. F.A. Deniset, Lt. R.E.J. Alexandre, a Canadian arms instructor for Garry's circuit, and the Canadian radio operator, Lt. R. B. Byerly, had also been dropped to a German controlled PHONO reception. Shortly afterwards transmissions were received from Bylery's set, but they failed to contain the special messages that confirmed their authenticity.
The men of both teams died at Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Madeleine Damerment was shot at the Dachau concentration camp on 13 September 1944 with fellow SOE agents Inayat Khan, Yolande Beekman and Eliane Plewman.
France Antelme was born on 12 March 1900 in Curepipe, Mauritius, to an influential family of planters and politicians. After attending the Royal College, Curepipe, he embarked on a career as broker and trader, travelling extensively between Mauritius, Réunion, Madagascar and South Africa. In 1932, he settled in Durban as Madagascar's trade representative in South Africa. The following year he married Doris O'Toole. He is survived by his two sons, Michel and Gaston who currently reside in South Africa.
Memorials and decorations
France Antelme is commemorated on the roll of honour of the Valençay SOE Memorial in France, on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey, England, on the Cenotaph in Durban, South Africa and on a memorial at Gross-Rosen to the SOE officers who died there.
- France Antelme's SOE personal files
- SOE in France, M.R.D. Foot
- Agents secrets mauriciens en France, J. Maurice Paturau
- Between Silk and Cyanide: A codemaker's war, 1941-1945, Leo Marks
- British Subversion in French East Africa, 1941-1942: SOE's Todd Mission, E.D.R Harrison