SOE Agent Profiles

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Alfred & Henry Newton

Recruited: February 1942

Roles: Weapons Instructors (F Section)


Codenames: Artus (Alfred), Auguste (Henry)

Fates: Captured, deported to Germany, survived

image of SOE agent Alfred Newton image of SOE agent Henry Newton

Although referred to as 'The Twins' within SOE, there was a substantial age difference between the Newton brothers: Henry George Rodolfo was born on 10 October 1903 in Jerez, while Alfred William Oscar was born eleven years later in Valencia, on 19 February 1914. Their British parents were variety artists and both Alfred and Henry followed in their footsteps, becoming known as the Boorn Brothers (Boorn being their mother's maiden name). Basing themselves in Paris in 1924, they performed in music halls across Europe and South America. Henry married a French girl, Marcelle Dusseret, in 1929, and Alfred a German dancer, Theodosia Schmidt, in 1932, by whom he had three sons.

At the outbreak of war the brothers became despatch riders for a French organisation, and fled south when the Germans invaded France. They were taken in by farm owners in the Dordogne, but continued trouble with the authorities put Alfred and Henry in prison in June 1941. Through the American consul their families obtained visas to leave France for Lisbon, while the brothers managed to escape and cross the Pyrenees into Spain. Immediately arrested as illegal immigrants, they were held in prisons at Figueras, Barcelona and Zaragoza, then sent to the concentration camp at Miranda, but were finally passed to the British in December. They were relieved to be on their way to Gibraltar, but the embassy had tragic news waiting for them: the SS Avoceta, which their parents and families had boarded at Lisbon, had been torpedoed on its way to Liverpool. All of the passengers had been killed.

After landing in England Henry and Alfred were interviewed by MI5, which quickly passed them on to SOE for consideration. Accepted for training by F Section, the Twins threw themselves into their training, impatient to return to France at the earliest opportunity. At the end of June they were granted their wish and flew out on the same flight as wireless operator Brian Stonehouse, parachuting near Tours. Their contact, a brusque aristocrat named Philippe de Vomécourt, was happy to see Stonehouse – wireless operators were essential for calling in supplies from London – but he showed no interest in the Newtons. Instead he sent them down to Lyon, from where they began to establish their own GREENHEART circuit in the Puy de Dôme area.

Despite uneasy relations with de Vomécourt's own agents they recruited about 200 men, though a lack of money and arms finally convinced them to abandon their work and join an escape line into Spain. Unfortunately an informer heard about their plans, and on 4 April 1943 fifteen Gestapo agents burst into their safe house in Lyon, just as they were planning to leave. According to Alfred's later report, the room they were in was too small to allow them to fire at their attackers, but they managed to fight them off with their fists for five minutes before being overpowered.

The twins claimed that they were brutally tortured by the infamous Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie but did not give any important information away; another agent, André Courvoisier, later questioned their account of Barbie's mistreatment. Alfred also made an unsuccessful escape attempt, throwing himself from a third floor window. Both were transferred to Fresnes prison the following month, and were questioned at Avenue Foch. In January 1944 they were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp along with F Section agents Christopher Burney and Maurice Pertschuk.

Put to work lifting stones in the quarry, then digging trenches through the bitter winter months, the Newton brothers were soon physically worn down, and Henry was sent to the hospital with double pneumonia. After his recovery he was able to find a job in one of the blocks, while Alfred worked from June 1944 in the Effektenkammer, the storehouse for prisoners' belongings. In March 1945 Pertschuk was executed by the SS, which prompted the brothers to hide in the “Little Camp” – an horrifically overcrowded and disease‐ridden compound on the lower slope of Buchenwald – with Christopher Burney and Maurice Southgate, who had arrived in August. By repeatedly changing their prison numbers they were able to avoid detection, and on 11 April they were liberated by American forces. Meeting them in London a week later, their commanding officer likened their appearance to "walking scarecrows".

For their services, Henry and Alfred were both appointed MBEs, and a popular account of their experiences, No Banners by Jack Thomas, was published in 1955 by W H Allen. Although they took up employment after the war (they ran the Red Tape nightclub in Hanley in partnership with fellow ex‐SOE agent John Starr) the effects of their time in captivity crippled them; Henry had been granted a full disability pension at the end of the war and Alfred also suffered numerous medical problems in later life. After spending time in New Zealand, France and Spain, Alfred returned to England, where he died in July 1979. Henry died in Alicante, Spain in January 1980.

Further reading

No Banners by Jack Thomas (WH Allen, 1955).

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