18 December 1909|
|Died||25 December 1997
|Allegiance||United Kingdom, France|
|Service/branch||Special Operations Executive, French Resistance|
|Years of service||1943-1945|
|Rank||Field agent and guerrilla commander|
|Awards||MBE, Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance|
Yvonne Cormeau, born Beatrice Yvonne Biesterfeld (18 December 1909, Shanghai, China – 25 December 1997) was a heroine of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War who was the second female radio operator to be sent to France and who talked her way out of arrest by pretending her wireless was an X-ray machine.
Beatrice Yvonne Biesterfeld was born the daughter of a Belgian consular official and Scottish mother. She was educated in both Belgium and Scotland.
She was living in London when in 1937 she married Charles Edouard Emile Cormeau, a chartered accountant who was a second generation French immigrant born in England. Her husband enlisted in the The Rifles and in November 1940 he was wounded in France and was sent back to the UK. Shortly afterwards he was killed when their London home was bombed. Amazingly Yvonne's life was saved by a bath which fell over her head and protected her.
War service and Special Operations executive
Newly widowed, Yvonne decided to "take her husband's place in the Armed Forces" and she joined the WAAF as an administrator in November 1941 (Service No 2027172). Whilst serving at RAF Swinderby she answered an appeal on the noticeboard for linguists, and was recruited by SOE and trained as an F Section wireless operator on 15 February 1943. She was promoted to the rank of Flight Officer. Her daughter, Yvette, was only two years old at the time and was placed in a convent of Ursine nuns in Oxfordshire where she remained until she was five. She volunteered to "do something and save France from the Nazis".
She did her SOE training with Yolande Beekman, Cecily Lefort and Noor Inayat Khan. On the night of 22 August 1943 she left Tempsford airbase and was parachuted into St Antoine du Queyret, north-east of Bordeaux. She was given a powder compact by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster before leaving for France.
Her role was to work as courier and wireless operator on the Wheelwright Circuit in Gascony. Cormeau worked on the circuit with George Starr, "Hiliare", who she had known before the War when living in Brussels. Whilst carrying out her secret operations in Occupied France she used the code names "Annette", "Fairy" and "Sarafari".
Cormeau sent over 400 transmissions back to London, which was a record for the F Section. She made arrangements for arms and supplies to be dropped for the local Maquis. She also assisted in the cutting of the power and telephone lines, resulting in the isolation of the Wehrmacht Group G garrison near Toulouse.
She was almost arrested by the Germans after being betrayed by an agent codenamed Rodolph. However, she continued to operate, despite being confronted by "wanted" posters in her neighbourhood which gave an accurate sketch of her appearance. Her success was possibly owed to the fact that she used car batteries rather than mains power, making it more difficult for the German D/F vans to find her.
Famously, Cormeau was stopped at a German road block whilst with Starr and the pair were questioned while a gun was held in their backs. Eventually the Germans accepted her story and ID that she was a district nurse, and she succeeded in passing her wireless equipment off as an X-ray machine.
She worked for 13 months and evaded arrest despite some narrow escapes. Whilst operating in France Yvonne was shot in the leg by a German patrol, but managed to escape. The dress she wore on this occasion and the bloodstained briefcase she carried are on permanent display in the Imperial War Museum in London
A year after the end of the war, she was demobilised with the WAAF rank of Flight Officer. She then worked as a translator and in the SOE section at the Foreign Office. She became a linchpin of F Section veterans and arranged their annual Bastille Day dinner.
Honours & Decorations
Her dress, complete with bullet hole, and a bloodstained briefcase, are exhibited along with her WAAF officer's uniform at the Imperial War Museum in London. More information can be found in the book Moondrop to Gascony (1946) by Anne-Marie Walters, who worked as the circuit's courier.
After the war, Cormeau and her daughter, Yvette Pitt, were reunited and lived in London. Cormeau was one of the earliest members of the Special Forces Club in London and she also was a committee member. She became a British citizen and promoted Anglo-French relations.
Yvonne spent her later years at Tall Pines nursing home, formerly in Gally Hill Road, Fleet, Hampshire. Her funeral was attended by representatives from both UK and French governments.
- Liane Jones, A Quiet Courage: Women Agents in the French Resistance, London, Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1990. ISBN 0-593-01663-7
- Marucs Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002. ISBN 0-340-81840-9
- "Yvonne Cormeau". The Times. 8 January 1998. Retrieved 10 October 2009.