Claude de Baissac

Recruited: February 1942

Role: Circuit Organiser (F Section)

Circuit: SCIENTIST

Codenames: Denis, David, Clement

Fate: Survived

image of SOE agent Claude de Baissac

Claude Marc Boucherville de Baissac was born in Curepipe, Mauritius on 28 February 1907. His parents were British aristocratic landowners, who sent him to be educated at the Lycée Henri‐IV in Paris. He worked for a mica mining company in Madagascar but later returned to France, where he went into advertising. After the German invasion in May 1940 he fled Paris for the south, crossed the Pyrenees in Spain, and spent seven months in prison before he eventually reached the UK.

In March 1942 he was interviewed by SOE's French Section and accepted for training, joining the same group of students as Harry Peulevé, Francis Suttill and Roger Landes. Like all recruits, he was also given a false name ("Clement Bastable") to maintain his anonymity. De Baissac was soon recognised as one of F Section's most difficult characters, and the instructors quickly noticed his volatile nature and particularly his stubborn single‐mindedness, but he did well in the preliminary parts of the course and was recommended for the role of circuit organiser. He'd thought the security training at the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire had been "rather childish" but he was about to realise how dangerous living behind enemy lines could be. In July 1942 he and Peulevé parachuted near Nîmes to begin SOE's new SCIENTIST circuit in the Bordeaux area, but they were dropped too low and both suffered injuries. Peuleve was unable to walk, and de Baissac has sprained an ankle. With no‐one to help them, all de Baissac could do was to limp away and carry on alone.

He found shelter with a resistance group in Cannes and recovered from his injury before journeying to Bordeaux in September, where he began creating small resistance groups. His sister, Lise de Baissac (codenamed Odile), who had also been recruited by F Section, had arrived in France at the same time to establish herself at Poitiers, acting as a liaison officer between SCIENTIST and other circuits in Paris. He complained of a lack of arms and supplies for sabotage work, but de Baissac was able to send extensive intelligence back to SOE in Baker Street, and gave a detailed report when he flew back to London in March 1943.

Just before leaving France, de Baissac had been introduced to André Grandclément, a senior member of the right‐wing OCM (Organsiation civil et militaire) resistance movement in south‐western France. With thousands of former French military officers at his disposal, Grandclément offered de Baissac and SOE the opportunity of building a secret army, capable of pinning down large numbers of German troops. Told that an Allied invasion of France might be launched in the autumn, de Baissac was ordered to step up his intelligence operations and begin a comprehensive programme of sabotage against rail, electricity, radio and industrial targets, particularly those supporting the U‐Boats based at La Pallice, in the port of La Rochelle.

After taking SOE's crash course in demolitions at Brickendonbury Manor in Hertfordshire, de Baissac parachuted back into France on 14 April 1943. He decided to ignore the calls for sabotage, and instead devoted most of his time to organising, training and arming Grandclément's men in guerrilla warfare: during that summer the RAF supplied him with huge quantities of weapons and explosives, and the numbers of resisters under SCIENTIST's command rose eventually to around 20,000 men (some figures put it as high as 40,000). His responsibilities were by this time enormous, as were the risks to his own safety. In June he came perilously close to disaster when trying to meet his old training partner Francis Suttill in Paris. Suttill's courier, AndrĂ©e Borrel, was out when de Baissac called at her apartment to arrange a rendezvous with her boss. He left a message, telling her that he would see Suttill at 10.30 the next morning. When Suttill failed to appear for the meeting, he returned to Borrel's flat where the distraught concierge told him that Borrel had been arrested the previous night. The reason for Suttill's disappearance soon also became apparent - he too had been caught, at another address on rue Mazagran, earlier that morning. If the Germans had left agents lying in wait at Borrel's flat or had found de Baissac's message, he could easily have shared their fate (neither Borrel nor Suttill survived).

In August, de Baissac was recalled to London again (accompanied by sister Lise) for more talks, leaving his wireless operator, Roger Landes (Stanislas), in charge. He also left behind his lover and fellow agent Mary Herbert (Claudine), a courier for SCIENTIST who was now secretly carrying his child. Despite having only achieved minor successes in sabotage, de Baissac's intelligence work in Bordeaux received special praise, the Admiralty later stating that it "virtually put an end to blockade‐running between Europe and the Far East" for the year.

De Baissac busily continued making preparations for D‐Day, which he now expected in early September 1943. In fact he was wasting his time – this invasion of France was merely part of an Allied deception plan, codenamed Operation Starkey, which failed completely to fool the Germans. And before de Baissac could return to France, another unexpected turn of events further shook up his plans: Grandclément was arrested during a trip to Paris, and quickly began to collaborate with the Germans. With his help the Gestapo soon began arresting SCIENTIST's regional heads and discovering tons of hidden arms caches. By the end of the year, months of work had been undone and SCIENTIST had completely collapsed.

There was no question of de Baissac returning to the area, so a new incarnation of SCIENTIST was planned for Normandy. Arriving in February 1944, he soon established himself in typically energetic fashion: despite problems finding suitable landing grounds and signs of organised resistance – even after D‐Day, he reported that "the Secret Army is so secret, I can't find it!" – within three months he had already built up bases of support across the Mayenne, Calvados, Orne and Eure‐et‐Loire departments, and would later extend into La Manche and Eure. As he spent most of his time on the move to avoid detection by the Gestapo he could not manage SCIENTIST single‐handed, and placed the northern half in the hands of his long‐serving lieutenant, Jean Renaud‐Dandicolle (codenamed Verger), supported by wireless operators Maurice Larcher (Vladimir) and Phyllis or "Pippa" Latour (Geneviève). Lise de Baissac also turned up to assist in May.

When D‐Day was finally launched in June 1944 SCIENTIST put its plans into effect and successfully cut German lines of communication: de Baissac later reported that more than 500 enemy vehicles were put out of action, and his extensive intelligence networks were able to relay valuable information to support the Normandy bridgehead. Major Blackman, the commanding officer of an SAS party received by SCIENTIST in July, recorded how de Baissac led from the front when an enemy patrol attempted to intercept a parachute drop of supplies; though outnumbered and poorly armed, he and his small band fought off the attackers successfully and saved badly needed stores. De Baissac was equally unflustered when the Germans unexpectedly commandeered the ground floor of one of his HQs, never discovering that the floor above them was crammed with wireless sets and arms for the resistance.

There also were disappointments and setbacks. Carefully prepared parachute grounds which could have received paratroops were never used, and in early July Renaud‐Dandicolle and Larcher were both killed during a shootout. Also, de Baissac had been irritated by the lack of arms and support he received from London, and he did not take kindly to de Gaulle's Free French forces encroaching on SCIENTIST's territory. His strident views were a cause of some concern to SOE, and when US forces arrived in mid‐August he was quickly pulled out and flown back to London. However he did return the following month as part of the JUDEX mission, a tour of France to evaluate the work of F Section's circuits: de Baissac was reunited with his many helpers, attended numerous colossal dinners in his honour and tied up loose ends. In November he married Mary Herbert, who had given birth to their daughter, Claudine, nearly a year before: despite arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo in Poitiers, she had managed to maintain her cover story and gone into hiding with Claudine after her release.

For his actions, de Baissac was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Croix de Guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. After leaving SOE he worked in Germany with the Allied Control Commission in Wuppertal, then became a director for a mining company in West Africa. In 1964 he remarried to a Cameroonian, Colette Avril, and later moved to Aix‐en‐Provence, where he directed security for Banque Société Marseillaise de Crédit. He died in 1974.

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