Francis Suttill

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Francis Alfred Suttill DSO (born, France, 17 March 1910 – died, 23 March 1945), code name Prosper, was an agent of the United Kingdom's clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) organization in World War II. Suttill was the creator and organiser (leader) of the Physician or Prosper network (or circuit) in and around Paris, France from October 1942 until June 1943. The purpose of SOE was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany. SOE agents allied themselves with French Resistance groups and supplied them with weapons and equipment parachuted in from England.

Under Suttill's leadership, the Prosper network was SOE's most important network in France, notable for its rapid growth, wide circle of contacts and collaborators, and the geographical reach of its operations "from the Ardennes to the Atlantic." The fall was even faster than its rise. The network was too large, diverse, and the security too lax and the Germans penetrated and used Prosper for their own purposes. Maurice Buckmaster, the leader of the French section at the SOE's London headquarters, failed to recognize clear signs that the Germans had infiltrated Prosper.[1][2]

Suttill was captured by the Germans on 24 June 1943 and later executed. By the end of August 1943, many of the nearly 30 SOE agents associated with him and hundreds of local collaborators had also been arrested.[3]

SOE networks (or circuits) in France, June 1943.

Early years[edit]

Suttill was born in Mons-en-Barœul near Lille, France, to an English father, William Francis Suttill, and a French mother, Blanche Marie-Louise Degrave. His father managed a textile manufacturing plant in Lille. Suttill studied at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, England. For the school year 1927/8, he attended the College de Marcq in Mons-en-Barœul, gaining his Baccalauréat. He then read law at the University of Lille and was accepted as an external student at University College London. In 1931, he moved to London to continue his studies and eventually became a barrister at Lincoln's Inn. He married in 1935 and had 2 sons.[4][5]

World War II[edit]

Prosper[edit]

In May 1940, Suttill was commissioned into the East Surrey Regiment of the British Army. He was recruited and trained by SOE during the summer of 1942. Charismatic and a natural leader, Suttill was considered by SOE to be "highly resourceful and smarter than most" and thus chosen for its "most challenging job: to establish a circuit in Paris, covering a vast chunk of central France." His network was named Physician, although more commonly was called by his code name of Prosper.[6]

Earlier SOE networks, Carte and Autogiro led by Frenchmen André Girard and Pierre de Vomécourt respectively, had been destroyed by the Germans. Suttill was to build a network under British control on their remnants. With the allied invasion of North Africa approaching, and tentative (but unrealized) plans for an invasion of France in 1943, SOE Section F (France) leader Maurice Buckmaster in London envisioned a strong resistance network based in Paris to harass the German occupiers of France.[7]

On 24 September 1942, Suttill's courier, Andrée Borrel, code names Denise and Monique, was parachuted into France to prepare for his arrival. He himself parachuted into France on 1 October 1942 near La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Suttill was fluent in spoken French, but had an accent and he relied on Borrel, already experienced in the resistance, for much of his communication. After meeting in Paris, Suttill and Borrel took a month long trip around central France, exploring the potential for setting up resistance networks. They posed as an agricultural salesman and his assistant. Their early successes and high level of activity led SOE to send them two wireless operators, Gilbert Norman (Archambaud) in November, and Jack Agazarian (Marcel) in December. Most SOE networks had only one wireless operator.[8][9]

During late 1942 and the first half of 1943, the Prosper network grew rapidly, covering a large part of northern France, and involving hundreds of locally recruited agents and some 60 networks and sub-networks. SOE headquarters in London was both surprised and elated at the rapid progress of Prosper, although concerned about it its connections with the communists, especially powerful in the northern suburbs of Paris. SOE, Suttill, and the French Resistance groups had the expectation that an allied invasion of France would occur in fall 1943. The efforts of Prosper and its sub-networks were directed toward becoming a potent resistance force to aid that invasion. Suttill stockpiled arms and ammunition parachuted in from England toward that end.[10][11]

SOE doctrine was that agents in different networks should have no contact with each other and even agents in the same network should rarely meet, but rather communicate through intermediaries or letter-drops. Suttill, however, was running a large organization in which contacts among SOE agents were extensive. Security broke down. Norman, Borrel, and Agazarian and his wife, Francine Agazarian, met frequently to play poker at a Paris cafe. The remnants of the Carte organization which were folded into Prosper included at least one German agent. The German Gestapo and Abwehr were becoming more expert at rooting out SOE agents and its French collaborators.[12][13]

Dericourt and air operations[edit]

The Westland Lysander ferried agents back and forth to England. A canister beneath the fuselage carried supplies.

On the night of 22/23 January 1943, a much-traveled French pilot named Henri Dericourt, code named Gilbert, was parachuted into France, landing about 80 kilometres (50 mi) south of Paris. As the air movements officer for Prosper, Dericourt was charged with finding farm fields suitable for landing small aircraft from England and arranging for the embarkation or disembarkation of SOE agents. He collected mail and reports, often written in plain text rather than coded, from the agents and delivered messages to them. He was unusually successful and efficient. He accomplished the dangerous tasks of arranging aircraft landings and the reception and departure of agents without problems.[14][15]

Parachute drops of weapons and supplies also began in March 1943.[16] Parachute reception teams and drop areas were in the Ardennes in Belgium, near Falaise in Normandy, three areas around Le Mans and two around Troyes, soon to be taken over by the Tinker network. Also, both the Privet network around Nantes and the Musician network around Saint-Quentin, Aisne were originally part of the Physician network. There were two main clusters: one in the Vernon/Beauvais/Meru triangle to the northwest of Paris and the other between Tours, Orléans and Vierzon, an area known as the Sologne between the Loire and Cher rivers.[17]

Arrests[edit]

On 22 April 1943, the Tambour sisters, Germaine and Madeleine, long-time members of the French Resistance were arrested in Paris. Suttill, through an intermediary, attempted to buy their release with a one million franc bribe, but the Germans deceived him by releasing two prostitutes rather than the Tambour sisters. The danger of the arrest to Prosper was that ten of its agents had used the house as a letter-box and meeting place, far more than prudence dictated. [18][19]

On 15 May 1943, Suttill returned to London for unknown reasons. His confidence seemed shattered. He feared that network had been penetrated by the Germans, and he was highly critical of the ignorance of SOE personnel in London about the conditions he faced in the field. He was parachuted back in France over Romorantin, now Romorantin-Lanthenay, on 21 May 1943, with another SOE agent, France Antelme. Arrests of people in Suttill's network began to multiply and concerns of betrayal heightened. On 19 June, Suttill sent a bitter message to London blaming SOE for the near-arrest of his newest wireless operator, Noor Inayat Khan, by directing her to a compromised letter-box. He cancelled all passwords and letter-boxes.[20]

On the night of June 15/16, two SOE agents, Canadians John Kenneth Macalister and Frank Pickersgill, were dropped to one of sub-network leader Pierre Culioli's reception sites. On the morning of 21 June, Culioli and his courier, Yvonne Rudellat, set off with the two Canadians to catch a train to Paris unaware that the Germans had set up extensive roadblocks. They were caught and the Germans found packages of letters and instructions and radio crystals in the car, two of which were clearly labelled "For Archambaud". This led the Germans to Archambaud (Gilbert Norman, Suttill's second-in-command), because, as Culioli admitted after the war, he had the address of Archambaud in his briefcase when he was caught.[17] Shortly after midnight 23 June, a German officer pretending to be one of the recently parachuted Canadian agents came to the apartment where Norman was staying and he and Andre Borrel were arrested. The apartment was full of identification cards and other documents. The Germans learned, presumably from the documents or from one of those arrested, where Suttill was and he was arrested mid-morning 24 June where he was staying in a cheap hotel.

Buckmaster's blunder[edit]

On 25 June, an agent in Paris radioed SOE headquarters in London that Suttill, Norman, and Borrel "had disappeared, believed arrested." Thereafter, there was radio silence from Paris about the fate of Suttill until 7 July when a message from Gilbert Norman's radio arrived in London. The message confirmed that Suttill had been captured, but apparently Norman was still at large and transmitting. However, the message was strange. It was distorted, but that could have been caused by atmospheric conditions. The style of transmitting, the "fist," was different than the usual for Norman, and, most importantly, both the "bluff" and "true" checks were missing from the message. These checks were spelling mistakes or phrases deliberately inserted into a message by a wireless operator to prove that it was indeed he or she who was transmitting. The absence of the checks in a message meant the operator or the radio, or both, were under the control of the Germans and transmitting under duress. Norman had a high reputation for efficiency and character and SOE's French section leader, Maurice Buckmaster, refused to believe that he had been captured. He sent back a message to Norman's radio saying, "You have forgotten your double security check. Be more careful next time." Buckmaster had inadvertently told the Germans how to transmit messages to SOE which would be accepted as genuine.[21]

Over the next three months, hundreds of local agents were arrested, of whom eighty died or were murdered, mostly in concentration camps.[17] The communists with whom Suttill worked would mostly survive the debacle because of their rigid security practices and their dependence on SOE only for arms and money, and not guidance and communications.[22]

Suttill's pact[edit]

Some sources report that Suttill and Norman after their arrest made a pact with Josef Kieffer, a Gestapo officer in Paris. The terms were that, if Suttill and Norman told the Germans where all their caches of arms were located, captured SOE agents would be treated as prisoners of war and not executed as spies.[23] Whether such a pact existed has been debated by historians. SOE's Vera Atkins interviewed Kieffer after the war while he was on trial for war crimes. Atkins' report did not confirm that such a pact existed. She was uncustomarily vague about this all-important question. She reported only that Kieffer said that Suttill "did not want to make a statement" and not whether or not he did. She also reported that Kieffer said that Norman "had not the character of" Suttill, which gives the impression that Norman was the more malleable of the two. At the time of this interview in 1947, accusations were being made by the French that Suttill had sold out his French followers. Atkins and SOE neither confirmed nor denied this accusation. Suttill's family was bitter at the lack of support they received from SOE.[24]

If a pact existed, the Germans violated it as many SOE agents and French collaborators were executed.[25]

Dericourt's deception[edit]

The role of Henri Dericourt, Suttill's air movements officer, in the destruction of the Physician/Prosper network is much debated. Dericourt, as mentioned above, arranged for the arrival and departure of SOE agents by air and collected their mail, including their uncoded reports, for transmittal to London. He was highly successful in these duties, but doubts about him began to be expressed in June 1943, at about the same time that the Prosper network was being destroyed by the Germans. Several SOE agents communicated that "Gilbert is a traitor," but it is unclear whether they were talking about Dericourt, code named Gilbert, or Gilbert Norman who had been captured by the Germans. In October 1943, Henri Frager, a veteran resistance leader, flew to London specifically to denounce Dericourt as a traitor. Dericourt, however, enjoyed the support of SOE French section leader Buckmaster and his deputy, Nicolas Bodington.[26]

What Dericourt appears to have done was to copy the letters and reports which agents gave him for transmittal by airplane to England and give them to the Germans. The Germans learned much about the Prosper network and individual agents, which facilitated the arrests of agents and the destruction of the network. Moreover, interrogators such as Kieffer were able to weaken the resolve of captured SOE agents by revealing how much the Germans knew about them personally. After World War II in 1948, Dericourt was put on trial in Paris. Nobody who had worked for SOE showed up to testify against Dericourt, but Bodington testified on his behalf. He said Dericourt's contacts with the Germans were known to the SOE and that Dericourt was loyal to the allies. Dericourt was acquitted. This was not the first time that Bodington had defended Dericourt, which ignited doubts of Bodington's loyalties.[27]

Execution and honors[edit]

Suttill was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin where he was held in solitary confinement in the prison block until he was hanged on 21 March 1945.[28] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order posthumously. Francis Suttill is honoured on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial at Groesbeek in the Netherlands and also on the Roll of Honour on the Valençay SOE Memorial in Valençay, in the Indre département of France. A biography of Suttill titled Shadows in the Fog by his son, Francis J. Suttill, was published in 2014.[29]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Foot, M.R.D. (1966), SOE in France London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office pp. 143, 147, 309
  2. ^ Helm Sarah (2005), A Life in Secrets, New York: Doubleday, pp 30, 35-41
  3. ^ Foot, p. 143, 147
  4. ^ Suttill, Frnacis J. and Foot, Michael R.D. (2012), "The Enigma of the 'prosper network: the catastrophe of 1943" in World Wars and Contemporary Conflicts 2012, No. 246, [1], accessed 17 Jan 2020
  5. ^ Perrin, Nigel, "Francis Suttill," [2], accessed 17 Jan 2020
  6. ^ Helm, Sarah (2005), A Life in Secrets, New York: Doubleday, pp. 12, 28-29
  7. ^ Cookridge, E. H. (1967), Set Europe Ablaze, New York: Thomas H. Crowell, p. 127
  8. ^ Helm, 12, 28-29
  9. ^ Suttill and Foot,[3]
  10. ^ Marshall, Robert (2012), All The King's Men, London: Bloomsbury Reader, Kindle Edition, originally published in 1988, locations 1119-1136.
  11. ^ Helm, Sarah (2005), A Life in Secrets, New York: Doubleday, p. 29
  12. ^ Suttill and Foot, [4]
  13. ^ Foot, p. 104
  14. ^ Marshall, location 1373-1390
  15. ^ Foot, p. 289-290, 298.
  16. ^ Perrin, Nigel, "Francis Suttill," [5], accessed 23 Jan 2020
  17. ^ a b c F J Suttill, Le réseau Prosper-Physician et ses activités dans la région Centre, Bulletin d'Association ERIL, 2010. ISBN 978-2-9536350-0-3.
  18. ^ Foot, pp. 309,315>
  19. ^ Cookridge, pp.131-132
  20. ^ Helm, pp. 33-34
  21. ^ Helm, p. 34-37
  22. ^ Foot, p. 319
  23. ^ Cookridge, pp. 142
  24. ^ Helm, pp. 359-360
  25. ^ Cookridge, pp. 150-153
  26. ^ Foot, pp. 298-300
  27. ^ Helm, 116-117, 304-306
  28. ^ Cookridge, p. 244
  29. ^ Perrin, [6]

Further reading[edit]

  • Henri Noguères – Histoire de la Résistance en France de 1940 à 1945, Robert Laffont, 1976.
  • Hugh VerityWe Landed by Moonlight, (revised edition). Manchester: Crecy Publishing, 2000.
  • Anthony Cave Brown – Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day , 1975.
  • M. R. D. Foot – S.O.E. in France, Frank Cass Publishers, 2004 (first published London, HMSO 1966). Official history.
  • Stella King – Jacqueline, Arms and Armour, 1989.
  • Sarah Helm – A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and S.O.E's Lost Agents, Little, Brown, 2005.
  • Marcel Ruby – La guerre secrete : les reseaux buckmaster, France Empire, 1991.
  • Paul Guillaume – La Sologne au temps de l'heroisme et de la trahaison,, Imprimerie Nouvelle, Orléans, 1950.
  • Francis J Suttill – Shadows in the Fog : The True Story of Major Suttill and the Prosper French Resistance Network, The History Press, 2014. ISBN 978 0 7509 5591 1.

External links[edit]