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The Last Spy: An Interview With Churchill's French Secret Agent

VICE News spoke to the last living French member of the Special Operations Executive, a British spy unit set up during World War II to gather intelligence and support the French Resistance.
May 7, 2015, 9:35am
Photo by Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

Each year on May 6, Marcel Jaurant-Singer travels from his home in the northern French region of the Yvelines to the central town of Valençay, to attend a commemorative ceremony for the fallen French agents of Special Operations Executive (SOE) — the secret organization set up by Winston Churchill in 1940 to support the resistance efforts in France during WWII.

About to turn 94, Marcel is the last living former agent of what was also dubbed "Churchill's Secret Army," "The Baker Street Irregulars" — after the group's offices on Baker Street, in London — and the "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."

In March 1944, aged only 23, Marcel was parachuted into France with nothing more than a portable radio and the mission to establish a resistance network in the eastern French region of Chalon-sur-Saône, as part of Churchill's plan to "set Europe ablaze."

During his time as an SOE French division agent, Marcel carried out numerous attacks and acts of sabotage, including firing tiny bombs onto Nazi convoys with a blowgun, blowing up bridges, and injecting sulphuric acid into telegraph cables. VICE News interviewed him at his home last week.

VICE News: How did you end up working for Churchill's Secret Army?
Marcel Jaurant-Singer: I was born in [the Paris suburb of] Neuilly-sur-Seine and I spent my entire youth in Auteuil, in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris. My father was a stockbroker. For him, not getting into Polytechnique [France's most prestigious educational establishment] meant you'd failed in life.

I turned 18 in 1939 and the patriotism I'd been brought up with naturally led me to join the Resistance. Something had to be done to get rid of Hitler. I started off by being a messenger for resistants in Lyon, and those people said I would be more useful if I trained in Britain. In 1943, we decided I would leave [for London].

Marcel was born in May 1921 : "I used to live in the middle of Paris but my window looked out onto a field of cows." Image via Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

How did you get to London?
I had to cross the Pyrenees on foot, then travel across Spain to take a plane from Gibraltar to London. But the first trip failed, because the police arrested my guide in Perpignan [south of France]. Me and the other resistants fled through the streets of the city. The second time, it worked out, but we had to wear espadrilles [a slipper with a straw sole] to make less noise.

What happened when you arrived in London?
I arrived at the Patriotic School [the building where MI5 interrogators interviewed new immigrants during WWII] and was interrogated for 48 hours. They then took me to the office of the SOE's French section. There were Frenchmen, Britons, Canadians and Americans. They all spoke French. Colonel Buckmaster welcomed us and then sent us off on a training mission. We spent two to three months in Scotland, doing physical training, learning how to fire weapons and how to use explosives. I wasn't very athletic, it was sort of unimaginable [that I would be there]. Once, they asked me to jump down from a tree onto a rope and I said, "I didn't come here to break my bones." It was fairly easygoing: after crawling in the mud, I was allowed to take a bath. We went to Manchester to practice parachute jumps and after five airdrops they sent me to radio school, near London, for three months. That's where I spent Christmas in 1943.

How did you come back to France?
We were parachuted into Roanne, near Lyon, with a bunch of equipment, on the night of March 2, 1944. It was 1am and the ground was covered in snow. It was freezing cold. I'd always been scared of parachute jumps, but on that day I wasn't. Me and my partner Jean-Marie Régnier were met by the chief of the "Acolyte" network. All the networks and the network chiefs had codenames — at first, the names were inspired by botany, then by various professions. The network we set up was called "Mason." It was also the codename of our chief, my partner Jean-Marie Régnier. His agent name was "Porthos." I was agent "Flavian" and my codename was "shareholder" — probably after my father's job…

Marcel has kept the telegraph key he used to send morse code messages to England. Image via Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

The day after we arrived, we went to Lyon. Porthos went to Chalon-sur-Saône and I met him there a few days later. There, I was introduced to a vintner who passed me off as a wine trader to his vintner friends, even though I had no experience at all. It wasn't easy. Later, I went up to the attic to send out my first message, but the neighbor heard my radio buzzing, so in the end, I had to work from the wine cellar.

What kind of things were you asked to do?
I was to receive instructions from London and send back intelligence on what we were doing and what we needed — us and the other resistance groups. We organized airdrops, they needed geographical coordinates. I set up radio stations around the region. Those who hid them risked having their house burned down or being executed. They were trustworthy.

One of them was an engineer, an amazing guy who made these flat bombs that were a quarter of an inch thick and that you could hide under cow pies, for example. And other bomb — the size of a finger — that you could fire using a blowgun. He was a little strange, I guess. He'd dug a 160-yard tunnel from his workshop to the yard.

Marcel looks at the list of SOE networks in France. Each network was given the code-name of its chief. Image via Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

Did you carry out any other sabotage?
This engineer and I managed to destroy 100 feet of communication cables by injecting sulphuric acid into the cable ducts with a pump. We blew up a bridge, too. It was very easy: You lay down the explosives and it goes "bang." I was helping the engineer and sending information to London. You know, it's much easier than it seems. I don't feel like I did anything exceptional, or even that unique. Everything happened progressively and I did what needed to be done.

Did you fight against the German army?
At that time, the German army in Chalon-sur-Saône was a bunch of old Austrians. They're weren't all that bothersome. When they began retreating, after the Allies landed and before the region was liberated, mid-September 1944, we were using these small bombs to blow up German trucks on the highway. We must have destroyed at least a dozen of them.

Marcel's fake identity card. Image via Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

Did any of the people who helped you get into trouble?
Once these two sisters were arrested. I had a radio station housed in each of their homes. They were deported but they both came back. One of them was ratted on because of a fight over an inheritance. That day they found one of my jackets but they never found the radio [equipment]. I was able to flee to the south of the region. But they were looking for me — they knew there was a "radio" on the loose.

Do you think you were lucky?
I don't think so — I know I was. Over there, no one knew my real name, or even my codename, "Flavian Shareholder." Everyone knew me as "Armand." People in the region didn't make things difficult for me.

In fact, something rather strange happened to me. On June 6, 1944 — on the day the Allies landed — I was in the main town and the locals had this crazy idea. At 5am, one of them came to find me and said, "Armand, the men are waiting for you on the square." Someone had apparently decreed a general mobilization and all the men had gathered on the square and were awaiting my orders. On June 6, I found myself on June 6 at the head of a unit of 350 men and…You're on your own! I took them into the woods and asked London what I should do, and they replied: "You're on your own, now."

I sent out a team of scouts to meet up with one of the resistance groups. But one of the scouts fired his gun by accident after tripping on a rock, and wounded himself and another guy. The Germans arrived, captured everyone, threw in a couple of civilians that had nothing to do with anything, and executed everyone. Twelve people in total. So I sent everyone else home.

Marcel is the president of the group Libre Résistance and of the association of former SOE-F agents. He has received many civil awards and military decorations, including the Legion of Honor, and he is a member of the Order of the British Empire. Image via Matthieu Jublin/VICE News

What is it like to take part in a war when you're not a soldier?

I've always found myself in situations where I can make my own decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. That was the nature of my commitment: to master my own war. I didn't want to be a cog in a giant machine. I waged a comfortable war.

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin