SOE Agent Profiles

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Philippe Liewer

Recruited: September 1942

Roles: Circuit Organiser (F Section)

Circuit: SALESMAN I, II

Codenames: Hamlet, Clement

Fate: Survived

image of SOE agent Philippe Liewer

Philippe Liewer was born in Paris on 10 March 1911. He attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly and École Libre des Sciences Politiques, and pursued a career in journalism from 1936, working as a foreign correspondent with the Havas news agency. When war was declared he served briefly with the French army, and in 1940 joined the British Expeditionary Force as a liaison officer, but moved to the Riviera after the fall of France, living with his wife at Antibes.

In September 1941 he met F Section agent George Langelaan in Nice, who had arrived on a propaganda mission. Langelaan had also been a journalist, and recognised the potential importance of Liewer's numerous political connections across Vichy France. Liewer agreed to act as an informer and assistant, but just a month later Langelaan was arrested and gave away Liewer's location. He was arrested at home in Antibes, and after a month's custody at Nice he was taken to join Langelaan and nine other F Section agents languishing in Beleyme prison at Périgueux in the Dordogne. Conditions were grim here, but in March they were moved to Mauzac concentration camp nearby, from where he, Langelaan and nine other SOE agents all escaped in July 1942. Crossing into Spain, Liewer was able to reach Barcelona and Lisbon, from where he boarded a ship bound for England. He arrived in mid-September, and under the new name of 'Geoffrey Mark Staunton' began SOE's preliminary training course at Wanborough Manor.

The physical effects of his incarceration showed up in his poor performance on the assault courses, but Liewer's shrewd and confident nature left no doubt that he would make an excellent organiser. He was tasked with starting a new circuit, SALESMAN, in Rouen, and arrived by Lysander in April 1943. In Paris he was put in touch with Jean Sueur, the manager of a Rouen dress shop, who found him a safe house and soon became an invaluable means of recruiting new members; in July a secondary circuit was also begun in Le Havre, under the command of Roger Mayer, a physics professor who had been responsible for producing a local underground newspaper. Thanks to the efforts of Sueur, Mayer and Liewer, SALESMAN built up a total of 350 resisters, who managed to carry out extensive and varied sabotage through the latter half of the year: in addition to crippling an important aluminium factory in Rouen, they sank a minesweeper on the Seine, blew up the transformer station supplying power to V1 installations in the area, and killed and injured hundreds of German soldiers by derailing the train taking them home on leave.

In February 1944 Liewer flew back to London to deliver intelligence reports and give an update on the situation, leaving his lieutenant Claude Malraux (half-brother of novelist André Malraux) in charge of the Rouen circuit; Liewer was accompanied by his wounded arms instructor, Bob Maloubier, who had just been shot three times after being chased by a German patrol. The success of SALESMAN had largely been due to Liewer's attention to security, but just before he planned to return news came through that Malraux had been captured in a Gestapo trap. Worse still, he had been carrying details of SALESMAN's operations, which compromised the whole circuit. Wireless operator Isidore Newman was immediately arrested, along with dozens of others; Roger Mayer was almost beaten to death by the Gestapo, but refused to say a word. Liewer undertook a reconnaissance mission in April, staying in Paris while his newly appointed courier, Violette Szabo, travelled to Rouen to assess the damage to SALESMAN. Three weeks later she reported that the circuit had been shattered: nearly a hundred arrests had been made, and any attempt to restore their old networks would be suicidal.

Following a brief spell in London, Liewer parachuted with his team of Maloubier, Szabo and wireless operator Jean-Claude Guiet to start work on SALESMAN II, which would operate in the Haute-Vienne around Limoges, but just three days after their arrival Szabo was captured on her way to meet Jacques Poirier in the Corrèze. Liewer planned a rescue attempt, but she was transferred to Paris before it could be carried out.

Unimpressed by the lack of organisation shown by the local maquis, he nevertheless made contact with the communist leader Georges Guingouin at the end of June, who agreed to work with SALESMAN provided no political strings were attached. Aided by Liewer's welcome supply drops, Guingouin's forces undertook a great deal of the fighting in July and August, severely hampering German lines of communications across the department and inflicting significant casualties at the battle of Mont Gargan; Liewer also personally led numerous ambushes on road and rail targets. On 21 August Liewer and his team headed the delegation that accepted the surrender of the garrison at Limoges, before being recalled to London the following month.

For his services Philippe Liewer was awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre. He died of a heart attack in Casablanca, Morocco in 1948.

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