SOE Agent Profiles
Recruited: February 1943
Role: Wireless Operator (F Section)
Codenames: Mariette, Kilt (wireless codename)
Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, executed
Yolande Elsa Maria Unternährer was born in Paris on 28 October 1911. Although her family background was Swiss she grew up in France, and moved to London in her teens. Her upbringing was a happy but sheltered one, working with her mother as a modiste in Highgate and Camden Town. After the outbreak of war she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and remained at a lowly rank, but her language skills – she spoke French, German and some Italian – were enough to attract the attention of SOE's French (or F) Section, which interviewed her in November 1942.
Three months later she joined a mixed training group, ten recruits in all. Four would survive the war, and of the three other women – Cecily Lefort, Noor Inayat Khan and Yvonne Cormeau – only one would return. Yolande's initial reports during the preliminary course at Wanborough Manor noted how she darned the men's socks and quickly typed her "an excellent wife for an unimaginative man". But her unassuming appearance hid other traits. Her self‐assurance and determination soon shone through, as did her cheerfulness and idealism, being motivated by "the 'good of the cause' and devotion to duty". Though her progress through SOE's agent "finishing school" at Beaulieu was at a deliberate trot rather than a gallop, she proved herself practical and dependable, a student "full of common sense and resource".
In August Yolande began training as a wireless operator at Thame Park in Oxfordshire. She found coding and transmitting hard work but she became a great favourite with everyone, not least with a recruit for SOE's Dutch section, Jaap Beekman, who fell in love with her. Their schedules only allowed for a brief engagement, and they married in London later that month. Even as they celebrated plans were underway for Yolande's first mission, and early in September she said goodbye to her husband at King's Cross station, for what would prove to be the last time. Beekman took part in a mission to the Netherlands in August 1944, and returned to England before the end of the war.
On 17 September Yolande reported to Baker Street, and, accompanied F Section agents Harry Peulevé and Harry Despaigne, gaullist agent Henri Derringer and conducting officers for both parties, she was driven down to RAF Tangmere to take her place on a double Lysander flight. Both aircraft touched down safely on French soil just before 1am, at a field just outside Angers, in north‐western France.
SOE reception organiser Henri Déricourt gave them each a bicycle, which Yolande apparently had trouble riding, and when the morning curfew had lifted he shepherded them into the city. On the way she fell off at her first sight of a German patrol, but they were able to reach the station safely and split up before boarding the first train to Paris. This party was lucky: unknown to them, Déricourt had been helping the Gestapo for some time, and other agents arriving at his landing grounds were followed to their destinations.
The next day they met up briefly with Déricourt, at the Café Monte‐Carlo near the Arc de Triomphe, before going their separate ways. Peulevé and Despaigne would go south, Derringer to the Vosges in the East, and Yolande – now using the cover name "Yvonne de Chauvigny" – headed north, to become a wireless operator for the MUSICIAN circuit in St Quentin, in Picardy. From the start MUSICIAN had been forced to rely on other circuits for its communications, mainly through links with Francis Suttill's PROSPER, which had collapsed that summer. With new orders to prepare for D‐Day, it was in desperate need of a stable link to London.
MUSICIAN's organiser was Gustave ("Guy") Bieler. Another agent with Swiss roots, he had been a manager for Sun Life in Montreal before joining the Canadian army. Stocky in build and in his late thirties, he was highly self‐aware, a good judge of character and avoided taking unnecessary risks, qualities that had kept him alive for nearly a year in one of the most dangerous areas of France. Neither a serious spinal injury caused by a bad parachute landing, nor the lack of a wireless operator stopped him from building a network of local resisters and senior contacts in the SNCF (French railways), who arranged regular train derailments between St Quentin and Lille.
St Quentin was an important industrial centre, known for its production of textiles and machinery. It also provided key communication links via the railways and its canal, which enabled the flow of goods and German vessels across northern France. This meant it was well guarded, and unlike those operating in rural areas, finding accommodation was difficult. Yolande's first lodgings were with a long‐serving résistant and schoolmistress, Mlle Lefevre, but this could only be a temporary stay. At the beginning of October she moved to the house of Camille Boury, who worked at the Pharmacie Corteel, and lived on the corner of Rue Baudelaire. Odette Gobeaux, who worked with Boury at the pharmacy, offered Yolande the draughty attic of her house to transmit from.
She began quietly visiting Gobeaux's house in Rue de la Fère, letting herself in with her own key during the day, placing her set on a small table and passing the long aerial out through the window above. Interviewed after the war, Gobeaux remembered Yolande often waiting for the next transmission,lying on a divan with her head in a book, apparently unruffled by the possibility of arrest. Although many operators took the precaution of travelling with one or more bodyguards, she worked alone, which was undoubtedly a sign of her courage; Eugène Cordelette, one of MUSICIAN's lieutenants, later described Bieler and Yolande as being "both of the finest stuff imaginable", but her training should have left her more mindful of security.
Following her instructions from London, Yolande transmitted using a pre‐arranged schedule (or “sked”), sending messages at specific times and frequencies three times a week. This was standard practice for SOE wireless operators in France, though most would try and set up several sets at different safe houses, switching between them to avoid detection (some safety improvements such as more flexible transmission skeds were introduced only after Yolande was sent to France). Operating from a single static radio post greatly increased the chances of being hunted down by German direction‐finding (D/F) teams, which were known to prowl the streets of major towns and cities across the country, and it's not clear why Yolande apparently didn't use additional hideouts – perhaps it was too difficult to find suitable locations in such a densely populated area, or she might have had technical problems with the wireless sets available.
While MUSICIAN concentrated on building itself up, the neighbouring FARMER circuit, led by Michael Trotobas (who had dropped with Bieler the previous year) took every opportunity to sabotage or kill the enemy. On 28 November Trotobas was killed himself in a shootout in Lille, and Yolande passed the news to London on 2 December. This put Bieler under even more pressure, since he would now have to keep London informed about both circuits. Despite his failing health, he continued to receive parachute drops and successfully sabotaged ten locomotives during November, and another eleven at Tourcoing before Christmas; inevitably, this only made the Gestapo more determined than ever to stop him. By the end of the year their combined efforts had brought MUSICIAN to the brink of D‐Day readiness: groups were in place to attack the local rail networks at 25 points, and others would ambush German communications across the region and cut telephone wires to Paris. But would they survive long enough to put their plans into action?
Yolande's steadfast and fearless approach had proved invaluable to the network, but her work was was becoming riskier every day. German interception of radio signals had become very efficient by this time, and the regular times of her transmissions was helping her pursuers to gradually narrow down the area of the source. Yolande and Bieler spent Christmas Eve at the Bourys' house; they listened to the BBC and did their best to be festive. On Christmas Day she made contact with London as usual, but the following week a direction‐finding van was seen passing the house, an ominous sign that the net was closing in. She moved her set to the Boury house, where she was still living, but on 12 January Camille Boury noticed a man walking along the street, with his collar turned up and apparently listening to earphones. Yolande's radio signal had been traced to their block.
She immediately packed up her set and moved again, this time to the Café Moulin Brulé, a lonely safe house on the north‐eastern edge of the city, on the northern bank of the canal. Shaken by her narrow escape, she could rely on the café owners sheltering her for the night. The next day Bieler arrived at the café to discuss where she should go next, but the Gestapo were now ready to make their haul. Two men walked in and drew revolvers, arresting all those inside.
More than fifty arrests followed before the end of the week, and the network was soon unravelled completely. One of those taken was Paul Tessier (codenamed Théodore), who had just been parachuted in to act as Bieler's assistant. (Despite suffering a broken hand during his interrogation he later escaped, only to be killed in a firefight in August, just a day after the liberation of Paris.)
Lieutenant Staveley, a fugitive RAF pilot who had been sheltered by Bieler's network in St Quentin, later reported that Yolande and Bieler had finally been located by a radio direction‐finding team, while she had been transmitting at the café. This claim was backed up by Tessier, who reported that Bieler had told him "They D.F.['d] us". According to a conversation recounted in Elizabeth Nicholas's Death Be Not Proud, published in 1958, Gobeaux was convinced that the arrests were the result of denunciation, but no culprits were named; in a separate report from 1945, Gobeaux had cited several possible sources, including a police officer and former girlfriend of Boury's. Even if collaboration was their downfall, it's difficult to see how MUSICIAN could have continued to evade the Gestapo and carry on operations around St Quentin indefinitely. Tessier's report stated that even before their capture, Bieler had admitted to him that the network had grown too big and that he was too unwell to carry on much longer.
A few days after the arrests Yolande was escorted back to Corteel's pharmacy. Her face was swollen and she had clearly been badly beaten. During his time in custody, Tessier saw her and concluded that “the poor girl had been frightened out of her wits” by her interrogators. Corteel was asked about the whereabouts of money belonging to Yolande, but he faked ignorance and the Germans left empty‐handed. Gobeaux was refused permission to take food to her in prison, and her plans for her rescue were soon foiled, as Yolande and Tessier were taken away from St Quentin before it could be carried out.
On 18 January, Yolande, Bieler and Tessier arrived at Avenue Foch, the headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (German counter‐intelligence services) for further interrogation. According to Tessier's report, Bieler was told that unless he cooperated and gave up the locations of his arms dumps, he and everyone involved would be shot; Yolande had said she'd been ordered to give up her codes and plans or face deportation to Germany. If Bieler did agree a deal of any kind, it proved worthless. He received the worst treatment from his inquisitors, a sign of how much trouble he had caused them; a week later Tessier heard that Bieler had asked to be shot. He was deported to Flossenberg concentration camp and executed in September 1944. There is evidence that the SD successfully sent bogus wireless messages to London using Beekman's set as late as April 1944; as a result three agents were parachuted directly into enemy hands in March.
When their interrogations were over, Tessier and Bieler were sent to the Gestapo prison at Place des Etats‐Unis, while Yolande was transferred to Fresnes prison. On 12 May, she and seven other SOE agents – Odette Sansom, Vera Leigh, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Madeleine Damerment, Sonia Olschanezky and Andrée Borrel – were deported by train to Karlsruhe prison, just inside the German border; they were placed in separate cells, Yolande sharing with three other prisoners. According to later testimony, the thought of possible execution or death from Allied bombing began to fray her nerves, but she managed to distract herself with embroidery and drawing: with no writing materials available, she took to sketching their cell on toilet paper, using her own blood as ink.
In the early hours of 12 September, Yolande, Plewman and Damerment were given back their belongings and put on the early morning train for Munich; they were joined by another prisoner, Noor Inayat Khan, a wireless operator who had trained with Yolande at Thame Park. Travelling in an ordinary carriage, they were happy to be reunited and it was evening before they reached their destination, where they changed and boarded a local train to Dachau. They arrived at the camp late that night. Within the next few hours they were all shot, though the events leading to their executions remain unclear. One report, now discredited, described how they knelt down in pairs before being shot by two SS guards. A more likely account was later obtained by Lieutenant Colonel H J Wickey, a former Canadian intelligence officer, who interviewed one of the camp staff. Wickey was told that all four prisoners were "handled very roughly" before execution, and that Inayat Khan was badly beaten and shot separately.
Yolande Beekman was mentioned in despatches in 1946. She also received a posthumous Croix de Guerre from the French government. A plaque commemorates her death at Dachau, and her name is included on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, and SOE's F Section memorial at Valençay in central France.Back to SOE Agent Profiles