SOE Agent Profiles

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Hugh Dormer

Recruited: December 1942

Role: Coup de main leader (F Section)


Codename: Paul

Fate: Survived (killed in action after leaving SOE)

image of SOE agent Hugh Dormer

Hugh Everard Joseph Dormer was born in London on 11 March 1919, the second son of Kenelm Dormer and Josephine Toohey, the daughter of an Australian MP. He spent his first years in Kenya before being educated at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire. The Dormers were a noble, staunchly Catholic family with a long history of public service, and from an early age Hugh’s own deeply‐rooted religious and moral convictions left a lasting impression on everyone he met. He read Modern Languages at Christ Church, Oxford, and had ideas of pursuing a career in the Diplomatic Service, but when war broke out he left university and followed his father into the Irish Guards, being commissioned in November 1939.

He spent three happy but uneventful years with the 2nd Armoured Battalion before signing up for an inter‐service scheme, which gave him his first exposure to special operations. It was a short but transformative experience: after taking part in a successful naval raid on a German convoy in the English Channel he wrote in his diary, "For the first time since the war started I know what it means to live". Someone must have noticed his enthusiasm, because a month later Lieutenant Dormer was invited for interview by SOE’s Independent French (or F) Section.

Although he was excited by the prospect of adventure and romantic notions of self‐sacrifice (in his diary he later compared the heroic deaths of French resisters to the martyrdom of Catholics during the English Reformation), Dormer’s character wasn't an obvious match for F Section’s kind of work. First and foremost he was a proud and loyal Guardsman, a dyed‐in‐the‐wool regular army officer who loved the cameraderie and traditions of his regiment, not the sort likely to adapt well to the loneliness of clandestine life. He also lacked the guile, not to mention the language skills (he spoke mediocre French, with a noticeable British accent) that SOE’s best secret agents possessed.

But in 1942 F Section had begun to step up recruitment for its coup de main (surprise attack) raids, which demanded men with slightly different qualities. Working in small teams, these agents were trained to parachute into France to destroy carefully selected industrial targets and then escape over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. For this more commando‐like role he seemed much better suited, and his instructors were quick to highlight his potential. Though modest, quiet and thoughtful, Dormer’s quick mind and natural authority during preliminary training outshone all his fellow students. "For coup de main work", the school’s commandant summed up, "[Dormer] has outstanding possibilities; a natural leader who will go down with his men".

After parachute training he was earmarked to lead the HANGMAN mission, sabotaging electricity pylons. But plans changed and he was given a new objective: to cripple the works at Les Télots, a shale oil refinery near Autun in Burgundy, supplying vital synthetic fuel for German tanks in Russia and North Africa. Once Dormer had carried out the attack, he and the other saboteurs would journey to Paris, where one of SOE’s escape lines would arrange for their passage to Spain. Following F Section's convention for naming missions after professions, this operation was codenamed SCULLION.

Dormer’s team was picked for its toughness rather than flair. The final selection included a Belgian‐born Royal Artillery officer, Eugène Levene; a temperamental Mauritian agricultural student, Georges Larcher; 21‐year‐old Lieutenant George Demand, the youngest member of the group; one of F Section’s few veteran agents, Jack Hayes; and William Barry Knight, a flamboyant Hollywood bit‐part actor with a worryingly dubious background. On the night of 18/19 April they boarded a Halifax bomber and flew out from the secret RAF base at Tempsford in Hertfordshire. Dormer took his copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V along for inspiration, but it did not bring him any luck.

They parachuted into a valley just west of the village of Barnay, ten kilometres north of the refinery. Almost immediately things began to go wrong. Larcher and Levene sustained injuries on landing, and Dormer had no choice but to send them prematurely to Paris to join the escape line, while the rest of them set up camp in the woods nearby. Several long, miserable days followed as Dormer scouted the installation and planned the attack: they had no shelter from the incessant rain, and their meagre rations amounted to a few cans of bully beef. On the evening of 22 April they prepared the explosives and made their approach. The Germans hadn’t posted guards around the refinery, but Dormer was dismayed to find that the police had suddenly turned out in force and secured the entire area. Somehow SCULLION’s presence had been detected, and an attack on Les Télots was now impossible. Reluctantly he called off the mission and began thinking of the long trip home.

Arriving in Paris on Easter Sunday, they were passed down through France in pairs by the very capable VIC escape line, a largely Jewish‐run network run by SOE agent Victor Gerson. Dormer’s trek across the Pyrenees was arduous, and he later wrote, "if there is a Hell on earth it is the crossing of the Pyrenees by night". It was common for SOE agents arriving in Spain to be picked up by the civil police and imprisoned, but Dormer and his team were fortunate to reach the safety of the British consulate at Barcelona. From there he was passed on to Madrid and Lisbon, and eventually back to England. Demand, Larcher and Levene also returned; Hayes was careless and landed himself in a Seville prison, but was later released. Having ignored warnings from Gerson to stay out of restaurants and cafés, the swaggering Knight had been arrested by the Gestapo in Lyon but later returned to England in July, claiming to have escaped his captors by jumping from a train bound for Paris. MI5 was immediately suspicious and launched an investigation into his conduct: it concluded that he had given away the address of one of VIC's safe houses in Paris, but nothing more could be proved against him (he was subsequently dismissed from SOE).

Despite failing the mission F Section promoted Dormer to captain and offered to send him back as leader of operation HOUSEKEEPER, a raid on the lock gates at Lesdain near St Quentin. He accepted the role, but also asked about the possibility of rejoining his unit when he returned, as he felt that he looked and sounded too English to carry on with the job. It was a request that was never answered – HOUSEKEEPER was scrubbed at the last minute, and he was given a few days’ leave instead.

In August 1943 another attempt at Les Télots was scheduled. Having regained his confidence Dormer was determined not to fail again and went through the mission plan in meticulous detail, even visiting the factory making their rucksacks to personally inspect every strap and fastening. On 16/17 August he parachuted back to Barnay with a new team: under him were two dependable NCOs, Charles Birch and Harry Graham; a former commando, Philip Amphlett; a hard‐bitten legionnaire, David Sibree; and a young American, Victor Soskice, the adoptive son of French artist Jean Lurçat. George Demand, the only other member from the first mission, had been sent in ahead and was waiting to receive them at the drop zone.

This time things went more smoothly, and on the night of 22/23 August they cut through the perimeter fence and broke into the refinery. Dormer held up a few French workers at gunpoint, but rather than try to raise the alarm they simply encouraged the masked saboteurs to carry on and plant their explosives. Six charges with ten‐minute fuses were hurriedly strapped to the oil furnaces before Dormer ordered the whole installation to be evacuated. As the team retreated into thick night mist the first charge went off, sending a ball of flame rising above the slag heaps.

They had achieved their objective, but the next day packs of bloodhounds could be heard moving through the woods towards their hideout, a sound which left Dormer 'sick with fear' (he had marked out their route to the refinery with radium‐coated luminous discs, which had probably given away their scent). They decided to split up: Dormer paired with Birch and headed west towards Chateau‐Chinon; Soskice and Graham went north, to Avallon; Amphlett and Sibree would go east, to Dijon.

Dormer and Birch were pursued all night across the wooded hills and valleys of the Morvan massif before arriving in a dishevelled state at Nevers, from where they caught a train for Paris. Their luck held out much longer than the rest of their team. Walking through the capital in eye‐catching army gym shoes, Dormer risked returning to same hotel in Levallois he'd visited in April, then caught up with Demand, whose nerves had been completely shattered by the ordeal of the past few days. He would be arrested just a few days later, though exactly how the Gestapo tracked him down is not clear. The most likely explanation is that Barry Knight – the agent captured in Lyon on the previous mission – had given a description of Demand and the address of the hotel they'd both stayed at in April, which Demand had unwisely chosen to revisit. (Knight did admit during an MI5 interview that he'd given some details about Demand to the Gestapo, but the investigation ultimately failed to prove his responsibility for Demand's arrest.)

A later report suggests that Sibree, Soskice and Graham, probably in an equally desperate state, had taken the same gamble in visiting an address known to be unsafe and walked straight into a Gestapo trap. Demand was later seen at the Gestapo prison at Place des Etats‐Unis; Sibree was seen by another agent at Fresnes prison in November. Demand, Sibree, Graham and Soskice were later deported to Flossenberg concentration camp where they were joined by Levene, who had been caught on his second mission. They were all executed on 29 March, 1945.

The VIC line moved Dormer and Birch efficiently down through France, but Birch had one near‐fatal encounter on the train to Narbonne when a Gestapo officer questioned him about his forged papers. Birch, who had been recruited by F Section despite not knowing a word of French, played dumb, shrugged and stared at the floor. Horrified, Dormer thought of intervening but the officer, assuming Birch to be an idiot, simply gave him a contemptuous glance and continued down the carriage. The trek across the Spanish border proved less dramatic but just as punishing as on Dormer’s first mission, though they reached Madrid with few problems. They flew back from Gibraltar on separate flights; by 23 September both were back in the UK.

For his leadership of the SCULLION II mission Dormer was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, a decoration he accepted with some reservation. He knew how fortunate he had been to make it back, and in his report wrote, "To succeed in these operations is very difficult. It is only possible if (a) you hold every possible card in your hand before, and (b) you have a lot of luck. On SCULLION I we had neither, and on SCULLION II we had both". Later analysis showed that the sabotage at Les Télots had not been as successful as first thought, but there was no question about the effort that had gone into it, or the impressions the mission had left on the two survivors. Assessing Birch’s mental state, one commandant reported that, ‘There is no doubt that his operational experience has had a very sobering effect on him, and [Birch] shows little desire for further operations’ (he was soon transferred to training duties with SOE in Italy). The same could also have been said of Dormer, who was now intent on rejoining his regiment. SOE reluctantly released him in January 1944.

On 31 July 1944 Dormer's tank squadron moved out to support an infantry attack west of Caen, in Bocage country near Saint‐Martin‐des‐Besaces. During the fighting his Sherman went missing, and the next morning the squadron found its smouldering remains. After a direct hit killed two of his crew, Dormer had tried to evade capture but was cut down by machine gun fire.

Hugh Dormer was buried at the St Charles de Percy war cemetery. He is commemorated in the Royal Military Chapel, Sandhurst; the Memorial Chapel, Ampleforth; and on a memorial at Le Tourneur in Normandy. Hugh Dormer’s Diaries was published by Jonathan Cape in 1947, and reprinted under the title War Diary by Fisher Press in 1994.

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