Vera Leigh

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Vera Leigh
In FANY uniform (circa 1943).
Nickname(s) Simone, Almoner (SOE codenames), Suzanne Chavanne (alias while working as an SOE agent in France)
Born (1903-03-17)17 March 1903
Leeds, England, UK
Died 6 July 1944(1944-07-06) (aged 41)
Natzweiler-Struthof, France
Allegiance Britain, France
Service/branch French Resistance
Special Operations Executive
Years of service 1940-1943 (French Resistance), 1943-1944 (SOE)
Rank Ensign (FANY)
Unit Donkeyman, Inventor (SOE)
Battles/wars Second World War
Awards King's Commendation for Brave Conduct

Vera Leigh (17 March 1903 – 6 July 1944) was a British heroine of World War II who served in the Special Operations Executive.[1][2]

Leigh was a member of the SOE's Donkeyman circuit and Inventor sub-circuit in occupied France during World War II until arrested by the Gestapo.[3] She was subsequently executed at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.[3]

Early life[edit]

Vera Leigh was born Vera Glass on 17 March 1903 in Leeds, England.[4] She had been abandoned as a baby and adopted while still an infant by H. Eugene Leigh, a well-known American racehorse trainer with an English wife, who renamed his adopted daughter Vera Eugenie Leigh.[4] After Mr Leigh’s death his wife married Alfred Clarke, whose son V.A.D. Clarke, became Leigh’s brother-in-law and friend.[4] When it came necessary to name a next-of-kin Leigh chose Clarke.[4]

Vera grew up around the stables of Maisons Laffitte, the fashionable racetrack hear Paris.[4] Clarke later remembered that as a child she wanted to be a jockey when she grew up.[4] In fact, she moved from the world of racing to the equally fashionable one of haute couture.[4] After gaining experience as a vendeuse at the house of Caroline Reboux, she went into partnership with two friends to found the grande maison Rose Valois in the Place Vendôme in 1927, when she was only 24.[4] In the pre-war decade she moved into the sophisticated social scene of le tout Paris.[4]

French Resistance[edit]

German troops in Paris (1940).

When Paris fell in 1940 she left for Lyon to join her fiancé of seven years, a M. Charles Sussaix, the managing director of a Portuguese-owned film company.[4] She had intended to find a way, with his help, to get to England, but she became involved with the underground escape lines guiding fugitive Allied servicemen out of the country and it was not until 1942 that she herself took the route over the Pyrenees into Spain.[4] As with many who made this journey, Spanish authorities put her in the internment camp at Miranda de Ibro, about 65 kilometres south of Bilbao.[5] She was released through the efforts of a British embassy official, she was helped to make her way to England via Gibraltar.[6]

Special Operations Executive[edit]

Leigh arrived in England at the end on 1942 with the intentions of offering her services for the war effort and was soon identified by SOE. She struck her recruiter as "a smart businesswoman".[6] The interviewer noted further, "It is clear that commerce is her first allegiance", but the authorities saw no reason to doubt her motives, while her pre-war life in Paris and her perfect French seemed to make her a natural for the job.[6] She agreed to break off contact with Sussaix and began training.[6]

Her preliminary training report described Leigh as supple, active and keen, confident and capable, "a very satisfactory person to teach” and one with "a very pleasant personality".[6] Her commandant’s report said she was "full of guts", had kept up with the men and was "about the best shot in the party".[6] He found her "dead keen" and noted that she was greatly respected, had an "equable nature", and according to him was a "plumb woman for this work".[6] One of her instructors later remembered that she had a hard time dealing with maps and diagrams, but was "extremely good with her fingers; she could do fiddling jobs with charges and wires and all that remarkably quickly and neatly".[6] He though she might have been connect withy the fashion business. "She was very interested in clothes, and hated her hideous khaki uniform".[6]

Leigh was 40 years old when she returned to France as Ensign Vera Leigh of the FANY,[6] as it was common for such women to be nominally employed by the FANY while actually SOE agents (as was Andrée Borrel and many other female SOE agents).[7]

Westland Lysander Mk III (SD), the type used for special missions into occupied France during World War II.

Leigh returned to France on 13/14 May 1943, arriving in a Lysander at a field near Tours, and was one of four new arrivals that night who were received by F Section's air movements officer, Henri Dericourt.[8] She arrived with Juliane Aisner (an old friend of Dericourt who would be a courier in his pick-up operation codenamed Farrier), Sidney Jones (an organizer and arms instructor) and Marcel Clech (a W/T operator).[8] Leigh was to be a courier and three of them (Leigh, Jones and Clech) were to form a sub-circuit known as Inventor), to work with the Paris-based Prosper circuit,[7] and would later serve as the liaison officer of the Donkeyman circuit.[3] Circuits were also known as networks.

Leigh’s codename among fellow agents was Simone (she chose it herself), and Almoner for radio communications with London; while her assumed identity in France was Suzanne Chavanne, a milliner's assistant.[9] With papers in her assumed name she moved around Paris and as far away as the Ardennes in the east, carrying messages from Jones to his various wireless operators and to Henri Frager (who headed a sub-circuit of the Prosper circuit).[9] The reports she sent to her superiors in London were described as "extremely cheerful". She moved into an apartment in the elegant Sixteenth Arrondissement, made rendezvous routinely at cafés frequented by other agents, and took up life as a Parisienne again.[9] Paris was remarkably tranquil under the German occupation with life continuing much as it had before despite rationing and the psychological stress many suffered in private, with few acts of resistance due to the savage reprisals the German invaders would inflict in response and the large number of Parisians willing to enrich themselves by becoming informants for the Gestapo, which caused Leigh to be less careful than she should have been, as evidenced by her decision to frequent the same hairdresser she had used before the war.[10]

She came across her sister’s husband and at first pretended not to know him, then threw her arms around him.[11] This chance encounter led to the discovery that he too was involved in clandestine activity for the Allies by hiding fugitive Allied airmen and passing them on to an escape line that would try to get them over the Pyrenees across the frontier into Spain.[11] In her spare time she began escorting some of these downed fliers, who spoke no French, through the streets form the safe house to their next point of contact on the escape line.[12]

Arrest and execution[edit]


She spent time with Julienne Besnard, in an imposing building in a courtyard off the Place des Ternes from which she ran her husband’s business, an effective cover for her activity as Déricourt’s courier. Leigh frequently met other agents at a café on the other side of the Place des Ternes, a short walk from the Place de l’Etoile in the Seventeenth. It was there in the Chez Mas, on 30 October 1943, in the company of Jones’ bodyguard, that she was arrested. Taken to the bleak Fresnes Prison several kilometres outside Paris, she was registered as Suzanne Chavonne and placed in Cell 410 of the Troisième Section Femmes. She had been taught in training to hold out for 48 hours after capture in order to give fellow agents a chance to vacate any premises and destroy any records she might be forced to reveal, but is almost certain she had no need to do so. There was nothing her captor didn’t already know about her activities.[13]

Moved to Germany[edit]

On 13 May 1944, Leigh together with three other captured female SOE agents, Andrée Borrel, Sonia Olschanezky and Diana Rowden, were moved from Fresnes to the Gestapo's Paris headquarters in the Avenue Foch along with four other women whose names were Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Eliane Plewman and Odette Sansom, all of whom were F Section agents. Later that day they were taken to the railway station, and each handcuffed to a guard upon alighting the train.[14] Sansom, in an interview after the war, said:

We were starting on this journey together in fear, but all of us hoping for something above all that we would remain together. We had all had a taste already of what things could be like, none of us did expect for anything very much, we all knew that they could put us to death. I was the only one officially condemned to death. The others were not. But there is always a fugitive ray of hope that some miracle will take place.[15]

When the women arrived in Germany they were put into separate cells in the prison in Karlsruhe (Justizvollzugsanstalt Karlsruhe) – Sansom with a woman who had been in prison for three years because her own daughter (a member of the Hitlerjugend) had denounced her for listening to the BBC, and Jehovah's Witnesses.[16] The agents were treated no differently from other prisoners – markedly better than those in concentration camps – and were given manual work to do, peeling potatoes, sewing, etc., which helped pass the time.[16] Occasionally, through the high bars, they could hear Allied bombers headed for targets within Germany, so on the whole things look good for them even if there was the possibility of dying in an air raid. The war was unmistakably coming closer to an end and they could reasonably expect to be liberated by the Allies before too long.[16]

Moved to Natzweiler-Struthof[edit]

Natzweiler-Struthof camp entrance.
Monument to the Departed in background.

Some time between five and six in the morning on 6 July 1944, not quite two months after their arrival in Karlsruhe, Borrel, Leigh, Olschanezky and Rowden were taken to the reception room, given their personal possessions, and handed over to two Gestapo men who then transported them some 100 kilometres south-west by closed truck to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in France, where they arrived around three in the afternoon. They were led down to the cell-block at the bottom of the camp by SS men and held there until later that night. They were initially together but later put into individual cells.[17]

Through the windows, which faced those of the infirmary, they managed to communicate with several prisoners, including a Belgian prisoner, Dr Georges Boogaerts, who had passed one of the women (whom he later identified as Borrel from a photograph)[18] some cigarettes through the window. Borrel threw him a little tobacco pouch containing some money.[19]

Albert Guérisse (a Belgian army physician who had helped set up an escape organization in Marseille),[20] whose PAT escape line Borrel had been part of and known her,[21] recognized Borrel but had only managed to exchange a few words with another one of the women before she disappeared, who had said she was English (Leigh or Rowden). At the post-war trial of the men charged with the murder of the four women, Dr Guérisse had stated that he was in the infirmary and had seen the women, one by one, being taken from the building housing the cells (Zellenbau) to the crematorium a few yards away.[22] He told the court:

I saw the four women going to the crematorium, one after the other. One went, and two or three minutes later another went. The next morning the German prisoner in charge of the crematorium explained to me that each time the door of the oven was opened the fames came out of the chimney and that meant a body have been put in the oven. I saw the flames four times.[22]

The prisoner Dr Guérisse referred to was Franz Berg, who assisted in the crematorium and had stoked the fire that night before being sent back to the room he shared with two other prisoners before the executions.[23] The door was locked from the outside during the executions, but it was possible to see the corridor from a small window above the door, so the prisoner in the highest bunk was able to keep up a running commentary on what he saw.[24] Berg said:

We heard low voices in the next room and then the noise of a body being dragged along the floor, and he whispered to me that he could see people dragging something along the floor which was below his angle of vision through the fanlight.

At the same time that this body was being brought past we heard the noise of heavy breathing and low groaning combined.

…and again we heard the same noises and regular groans as the [next two] insensible women were dragged away.

The fourth, however, resisted in the corridor. I heard her say "Pourquoi?" and I heard a voice as I recognized as the doctor who was in civilian clothes say "Pour typhus". We then heard the noise of a struggle and the muffled cries of the woman. I assumed that someone held a hand over her mouth. I heard the woman being dragged away too. She was groaning louder than the others.

From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven.

When [the officials] had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman’s stocking garter on the floor near the oven.[25]

The women were told to undress for a medical check and have an injection for medical reasons by a doctor, which was in fact what was considered a lethal 10cc dose of phenol. More than one witness talked of a struggle when the fourth woman was shoved into the furnace.[26] According to a Polish prisoner named Walter Schultz, the SS medical orderly (Emil Brüttel) told him the following: "When the last woman was halfway in the oven (she had been put in feet first), she had come to her senses and struggled. As there were sufficient men there, they were able to push her into the oven, but not before she had resisted and scratched [Peter] Straub's face." The next day Schultz noticed that the face of the camp executioner (Straub) had been severely scratched.[27]

Only the camp doctor (Werner Rohnde) was executed after the war. The camp commandant (Fritz Hartjenstein) received a life sentence, while Straub was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Franz Berg was sentenced to five years in prison.[28]

Honours and awards[edit]

SOE Agents Memorial

Leigh posthumously received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.[2][29] The concentration camp where she died is a now a French government historical site, where a plaque to Leigh and the three women who died with her is part of the Deportation Memorial on the site. As one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of her country, Ensign Leigh is listed on the "Roll of Honor" on the Valençay SOE Memorial in the town of Valençay, in the Indre department of France. She is also commemorated on the Tempsford Memorial in the village of Tempsford in the county of Bedfordshire in the East of England.[30][31] A later memorial, the SOE Agents Memorial in Lambeth Palace Road (Westminster, London), is dedicated to all SOE agents.

In 1985, SOE agent and painter Brian Stonehouse, who saw Leigh and the three other female SOE agents at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp just before their deaths, painted a poignant watercolour of the four women which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London.

Related cultural works[edit]

Movie based on the book by R.J. Minney about Violette Szabo, starring Paul Scofield and Virginia McKenna.
  • Churchill's Spy School (2010)[32]
Documentary about the SOE "finishing school" on the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire.
French film about five SOE female agents and their contribution towards the D-Day invasions.
  • Nancy Wake Codename: The White Mouse (1987)
Docudrama about Nancy Wake's work for SOE, partly narrated by Wake (Wake was disappointed that the film was changed from an 8-hour resistance story to a 4-hour love story).
Filming began in 1944 and starred real-life SOE agents Captain Harry Rée and Jacqueline Nearne codenamed "Felix" and "Cat", respectively. The film tells the story of the training of agents for SOE and their operations in France. The training sequences were filmed using the SOE equipment at the training schools at Traigh and Garramor (South Morar) and at Ringway.
Movie based on the book by Jerrard Tickell about Odette Sansom, starring Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard. The film includes an interview with Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE's F-Section.
  • Robert and the Shadows (2004)
French documentary on France Télévisions. Did General De Gaulle tell the whole truth about the French resistance? This is the purpose of this documentary. Jean Marie Barrere, the French director, uses the story of his own grandfather (Robert) to tell the French what SOE did at that time. Robert was a French teacher based in the southwest of France, who worked with SOE agent George Reginald Starr (codenamed "Hilaire", in charge of the "Wheelwright" circuit).
Television series that was broadcast between 1987 and 1990 featuring the exploits of the women and, less frequently, the men of SOE, which was renamed the 'Outfit'.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 59-72.
  2. ^ a b Escott 1992.
  3. ^ a b c Kramer 1995, pp. 181-206.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kramer 1995, p. 60.
  5. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 60-61.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kramer 1995, p. 61.
  7. ^ a b Kramer 1995, pp. 63-66.
  8. ^ a b Kramer 1995, p. 66.
  9. ^ a b c Kramer 1995, p. 67.
  10. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 70-71.
  11. ^ a b Kramer 1995, p. 71.
  12. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 71-72.
  13. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 72.
  14. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 105-107.
  15. ^ Kramer 1995, p. 107.
  16. ^ a b c Kramer 1995, p. 108.
  17. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 108-09.
  18. ^ Kramer 1995, p. 118.
  19. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 109-10.
  20. ^ Kramer 1995, p. 56.
  21. ^ Kramer 1995, p. 109.
  22. ^ a b Kramer 1995, p. 115.
  23. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 115-116.
  24. ^ Kramer 1995, p. 116.
  25. ^ Kramer 1995, pp. 116-17.
  26. ^ Helm 2005, pp. 271-72.
  27. ^ Helm 2005, pp. 272-73.
  28. ^ Helm 2005, p. 283.
  29. ^ Kramer 1995.
  30. ^ Ben Farmer (3 December 2013). "Memorial to female WW2 secret agents". Retrieved 2017-08-29. 
  31. ^ "Tempsford Memorial Trust". Retrieved 2017-08-29. 
  32. ^ "Churchill's Spy School". Internet Movie Database. 2010. Retrieved 2017-09-08. 


  • Escott, Beryl (1992). A Quiet Courage: The story of SOE's women agents in France. Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stevens Ltd (Haynes). ISBN 978-1-8526-0289-5.  Information about female SOE agents in France including Borrel.
  • Helm, Sarah (2005). A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. New York, US: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-3140-5.  Documents Atkins' post-war search for missing SOE agents including Borrel.
  • Kramer, Rita (1995). Flames in the Field. London, UK: Michael Joseph. ISBN 978-1-4538-3427-5.  Focus on the four female SOE agents (Borrel, Leigh, Olschanezky and Rowden) executed in the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.

Further reading[edit]

  • Aubrac, Raymond; Aubrac, Lucie (2014). The French Resistance. France: Hazan Editeur. ISBN 978-2850255670.  Overview of the French Resistance.
  • Binney, Marucs (1995). The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-81840-9.  Focus on the four female SOE agents (Borrel, Leigh, Olschanezky and Rowden) executed in the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.
  • Bourne-Patterson, Robert (2016). SOE In France 1941-1945: An Official Account of the Special Operations Executive's French Circuits. Barnsley, UK: Frontline Books. ISBN 978-1-4738-8203-4.  A once classified report compiled in 1946 by a former member of SOE's F Section, Major Robert Bourne-Patterson, who was a planning officer.
  • Buckmaster, Maurice (2014). They Fought Alone: The True Story of SOE's Agents in Wartime France. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 978-1849-5469-28.  Buckmaster was the head of SOE's F Section, who infamously ignored security checks by captured SOE wireless operators that indicated their capture, resulting in agents being captured and executed.
  • Crowdy, Terry (2007). French Resistance Fighter: France's Secret Army. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-076-5.  Comprehensive coverage of the French Resistance.
  • Foot, M.R.D. (1999). The Special Operations Executive 1940–1946. London, UK: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6585-4.  Overview of SOE (Foot won the Croix de Guerre as a SAS operative in Brittany, later becoming Professor of Modern History at Manchester University and an official historian of the SOE).
  • Grehan, John; Mace, Martin (2012). Unearthing Churchill's Secret Army: The Official List of SOE Casualties and Their Stories. Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1848847941.  Detailed look at SOE casualties and selected stories that are representative of the experience of SOE personnel.
  • McDonald-Rothwell, Gabrielle (2017). Her Finest Hour. Stroud, UK: John Murray. ISBN 978-1445661643.  The second and most recent biography of Rowden.
  • Milton, Giles (2016). Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. London, UK: Amberley Publishing. ISBN 978-1-444-79898-2.  A thorough overview of SOE.
  • Nicholas, Elizabeth (1958). Death Be Not Proud. London, UK: Cresset Press. ASIN B0006D98MW.  The first biography of Rowden.
  • O'Conner, Bernard (2014). Churchill's Angels. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4456-3431-9.  Overview of the scores of female SOE agents sent into occupied Europe during WW2 including Borrel.
  • O'Conner, Bernard (2016). Agents Françaises: French women infiltrated into France during the Second World War. UK: Bernard O'Conner. ISBN 978-1326-70328-8.  A source of information about the dozens of female agents sent into France during WW2 including Borrel.
  • Ousby, Ian (2000) [1999]. Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940–1944. New York, US: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 978-0815410430.  Comprehensive coverage of the German occupation of France.
  • Sebba, Anne (2016). Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation. New York, US: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1250048592.  Look at the lives of women in Paris during WW2.
  • Stevenson, William (2006). Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. New York, US: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-5597-0763-3.  Overview of Atkins' activity at SOE (served as Buckmaster's intelligence officer in the F Section).
  • Suttill, Francs J. (2014). Shadows in the Fog: The True Story of Major Suttill and the Prosper French Resistance Network. Stroud, UK: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-5591-1.  Written by the son of Major Francis Suttill, the Prosper network chief executed by the Nazis in 1945.
  • Stroud, Rick (2017). Lonely Courage: The true story of the SOE heroines who fought to free Nazi-0ccupied France. New York, US: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-14711-5565-9.  Documents the activities of female SOE agents in France including Borrel.
  • Thomas, Gordon; Lewis, Greg (2016). Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing. ISBN 978-1445-6614-45.  Documents the activities of female OSS and SOE agents in France including Borrel.
  • Verity, Hugh (2000). We Landed By Moonlight: The Secret RAF landings in France 1940-1944. Manchester, UK: Crécy. ISBN 0947554-75-0.  Documents RAF small aircraft landings in France during WW2 (author was one of the pilots).
  • West, Nigel (1992). Secret War: The Story of SOE, Britain’s Wartime Sabotage Organization. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-34-051870-7.  Overview of SOE activities.
  • Yarnold, Patrick (2009). Wanborough Manor: School for secret agents. Hopfield Publications. ISBN 978-0956348906. 

External links[edit]