Francis Charles Albert Cammaerts, DSO (16 June 1916 – 3 July 2006) was an outstanding Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent who organised French Resistance groups to sabotage German communications in occupied France.
Cammaerts was born in London and raised in Radlett in Hertfordshire, the son of Professor Emile Cammaerts, a Belgian poet. He was educated at Mill Hill School, where he was a contemporary of Francis Crick and Patrick Troughton. He became a pacifist in the 1930s while at Cambridge, where he read English and history at St Catharine's and also won a hockey Blue. After university he briefly began a teaching career. He taught in Belfast before moving on to Beckenham and Penge County School for Boys, near London, where he taught with his close friend from university, Harry Rée, who was also to join SOE.
In 1940 Cammaerts was refused registration as a conscientious objector by his Local Tribunal, but it was granted by the Appellate Tribunal, conditional upon taking up agricultural work. He joined a farm training project at Holton Beckering, Lincolnshire. However, after the death of his brother Pieter while serving in the Royal Air Force, he felt he could no longer stand aside, and, as a fluent French speaker, he succumbed to the urging of Harry Rée to join SOE.
Cammaerts began extensive training with SOE in October 1942. He was given the rank of captain and the code name Roger, and flown into occupied northern France in March 1943. More than a dozen SOE circuits were active in France at that time; Cammaerts was assigned to the Donkeyman circuit, then operating in the upper Rhône Valley, but his SOE reception party drove him first to Paris, with a dangerous disregard for security that alerted him to the risks of such behaviour. Being over six feet tall, he felt very conspicuous, so he left Paris by the evening train for Annecy to join Donkeyman. In Cannes he established a cover as a teacher recovering from jaundice. This was the only time that he spent more than four nights in the same place, as security rather than urgency was paramount at that stage of the war. After discovering that Donkeyman had been penetrated by Hugo Bleicher of Abwehr, he moved to St Jorioz in the mountains of Savoy, and set up his own circuit (Jockey). This comprised seven or eight reliable individuals, one of whom was Cecily Lefort. After being thoroughly briefed about the importance of security, these SOE agents set about recruiting potential saboteurs for when the time was ripe. Cammaerts' key to individual security was to insist that his agents always had a credible reason for being where they were, if stopped by a German patrol.
In the later part of 1943 he established several small semi-autonomous groups, all part of his Jockey circuit. They extended down the left bank of the Rhône between Vienne and Arles and eastwards through the hinterland to the Isère Valley. He travelled around on a motorbike visiting each group, no one, of course knowing his real name, nationality or place of abode. By the end of 1943 Cammaerts had made sure his Jockey circuit was ready to play its part in any sabotage that might be required. In November 1943 he was recalled to London for briefing, and, while there, he raised the problem of the enmity between the different agents working in France, some under the command of General Charles de Gaulle’s headquarters and others, many of them French citizens, under the command of SOE’s French section. The Gaullists believed that it was unconstitutional for French citizens to be recruited by a foreign power. As Britain and the Free French were fighting for the same cause, this might seem a very minor quibble. It was never entirely resolved, however, and de Gaulle insisted that all SOE operations in France ceased soon after the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
On his return to France in February 1944, Cammaerts’ aircraft crashed on landing, though he was unhurt. He went on to check that his Jockey circuit was OK and later visited the 3,000+ group of Maquisards (young Frenchmen who had fled to the Vercors plateau to avoid being sent for forced labour in Germany). In April 1944 he informed SOE’s London headquarters that the Vercors had a finely organised army, but they needed long-distance and anti-tank weapons. Cammaerts' Jockey circuit played its part following the Normandy Landings: they and the other SOE circuits cut railway lines and helped to severely hinder German troop and machinery movements. Cammaerts was appointed head of Allied missions in southeastern France. By this time he had built up an organisation of more than 10,000 people. The Vercors plateau did not fare so well, having been refused the heavy weapons by London, where it was felt, according to Yugoslav experience, that guerillas should not stand and fight. Vercors was attacked by two German divisions complete with air support. It was, of course, a rout and the Maquisards fled to whatever hiding place they could find.
In August 1944 the Allies invaded southern France (Operation Dragoon), and the Jockey circuit and other SOE teams played their parts. They kept open the route from Cannes to Grenoble, allowing the Allied armies to get clear of the lower Rhône valley. It was at this point that, despite his meticulous care for security, Cammaerts, Xan Fielding and another colleague were arrested by the Gestapo in Digne. The Gestapo probably did not realise Cammaerts’ significance. Krystyna Skarbek, a young Polish SOE operative who had avoided arrest, managed to get Cammaerts and the others released. She confronted two collaborators, Albert Schenck, a French liaison officer to the Gestapo and a Belgian interpreter, telling them that US troops would arrive within hours and that if they did not co-operate she would ensure the pair were handed over to an avenging mob of French citizenry. The terrified collaborators succeeded in getting Cammaerts, Fielding and their colleague released.
Cammaerts' time in occupied France, 15 months in total, ended. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Legion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and the American Medal of Freedom for his exploits in southern France. As in the case of others who operated in enemy-held territory for prolonged periods, he gave a great deal of credit to the ordinary French citizens who had provided him and his colleagues with safety and comfort. In the BBC TV series Secret Agent, broadcast in 2000, he said, "The most important element was the French housewife who fed us, clothed us and kept us cheerful".
After demobilisation he worked for the International Agency for Reparations in Brussels. In 1952 he returned to teaching, and later became the headmaster of Alleyne's Grammar School in Stevenage for nine years.
He was principal of the City of Leicester College of Education 1961-66, and Professor of Education in Nairobi 1966-72. He later returned to England, to become head of Rolle College, a teacher training college at Exmouth, which later became part of University of Plymouth. In 1981, aged 65, he came out of retirement to start a teacher training college in Botswana. He finally retired in 1987, returning to live in the south of France until his death in 2006.
- Cammaerts' obituary in The Guardian
- Interview, Leicester Mercury
- Francis Cammaerts's appearance on This Is Your Life