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Real heroes remembered - much too late

Prince Charles and the British Establishment have taken more than 70 years to mark some incredible heroism in the fight to defeat the nazis, says PETER FROST

On Tuesday this week in Bedfordshire, Prince Charles finally unveiled a memorial to honour and remember the brave women who flew out of RAF Tempsford to aid resistance movements in occupied Europe during the second world war.

The unveiling marks the end of an almost year-long campaign to set up the Tempsford memorial. This means that at last there is a fitting tribute to some of the wonderful women agents who flew on those secret missions from this Bedfordshire field.

Some 80-odd women agents left the small airfield. They worked as radio operators, couriers, and in many other roles. All of them were also trained in military skills and in spycraft.

They worked with the Free French forces as well as the many French communists who played such an important part in the French Resistance.

Between them they won nearly 100 high commendations including Four George Crosses - the highest British civilian honour - one George medal, one CBE, 16 MBEs and four OBEs.

There were French awards too, including 27 Croix de Guerre and 10 Legion d'Honneur.

The first to go were two young women, Andree Borrel, codename Denise, and Lise De Baissac, codename Odile, who flew out on the night of September 24 1942.

Yolande Beekman, codename Marriette, had married just a month before she was flown out from RAF Tempsford on September 18 1943.

She worked as a wireless operator for Gustave Bieler, the head of the Musician Network in the St Quentin district of Belgium.

After many close escapes she and Bieler were finally captured by the Germans on January 12 1944.

Bieler was shot soon after capture by the SS at Flossenberg. Beekman, however, was brutally tortured during Gestapo interrogation.

Like so many of her comrades she said nothing. Beekman was executed at Dachau concentration camp on September 12 1944 aged 32.

Australian Nancy Wake married a French businessman in 1939 and fled France when the Germans invaded in 1940.

Back in England she joined the SOE. There was no moon on April 28 1944 so her flight into occupied France from Tempsford had to be postponed until the next night.

The next night she parachuted into the Auvergne district of France to help the French rise up on D-Day.

Another airfield with a similar story is just off the A14 at junction three in Northamptonshire. It stands behind a scruffy lay-by in front of a huge field.

In the lay-by is a memorial to the "801/492 USAAF squadron."

This memorial also carries a more romantic message. "Harrington airfield," it tells you, "was home to the Carpetbaggers."

So who were these strangely named bands of heroes? Fortunately a tiny but packed museum just down the lane tells the full and fascinating story.

The Carpetbaggers were the US flyers that secretly supplied the French Resistance with all they needed for their heroic war work of spying and sabotage.

Every moonlit night a couple of dozen black painted and unmarked B24 bombers would take off for France.

The bays would be full of parachute canisters, boxes and baskets of weapons and ammunition, civilian clothes, counterfeit nazi uniforms, radio sets, even bicycles - the one-hundred-and-one things the French Resistance needed to carry on their essential but dangerous work behind nazi lines.

The BBC would broadcast to France coded messages identifying the drop zones. The Carpetbaggers would fly low over occupied France avoiding anti-aircraft fire to drop their parachutes.

 

And as if this wasn't heroic enough some nights the cargo was even more precious, even more secret.

It was from Harrington too that the brave men and women agents were flown into France under the noses of the enemy. Their average life expectancy was just three months.

Perhaps the best known was Violette Szabo. So secret were the exploits of the agents that we still don't know which routes she used to enter France.

Szabo started the war on the perfume counter of the Bon Marche store in Brixton. Her mother was French, her father a London cabbie. She joined the undercover SOE and carried out three dangerous operations to occupied France.

After training by the SOE she was dropped into occupied France three times. The best evidence suggests she flew out of both Tempsford and later from Harrington.

Just four days after her last landing in France on June 10 1944 she was ambushed near Limoges by the nazis.

Cornered, wounded and alone, she fought off the crack Geman SS troops with her machine gun until her ammunition was exhausted.

Despite brutal torture and interrogation she gave nothing away.

Sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was eventually shot on January 25 1945. She was just 23 years old.

You may have seen the film Carve Her Name With Pride. It tells the story of one of these brave female French agents like Szabo far better than I could.

Many of these heroes were sadly, like her, never to return.

But we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude for the contribution they made to the defeat of fascism. And now, after 70 years, it seems our government is belatedly paying tribute too.

Now at last Szabo and her comrades have the memorial they have long deserved.

 

Visit www.harringtonmuseum.org.uk and www.tempsford.20m.com for more details

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