Maurice Buckmaster

Maurice Buckmaster

Maurice Buckmaster was born in 1910. He was educated at Eton until his father was declared bankrupt. After leaving school he moved to France where he worked as a reporter for Le Martin. Later he was a banker before becoming a senior manager with the Ford Motor Company.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Buckmaster returned to England and joined the British Army. He served with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 until forced to retreat to Dunkirk during Germany's Western Offensive and arrived back in England in June, 1940.

Buckmaster was transferred to the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in March 1941. Placed in charge of the SOE in September he was given the task of building an organization that would carry out acts of sabotage, gather information on the enemy and providing money and equipment to the French Resistance. His deputy was Major Nicholas Bodington.

After the war Buckmaster wrote about his wartime experiences in two book, Special Employed: The Story of British Aid to French Patriots of the Resistance (1952) and They Fought Alone: The Story of British Aid to British Agents in France (1958).

Primary Sources

(1) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

It was not until March 1941 that my ambition to become associated with the cause of French resistance could be realized. I was on the point of leaving for the Middle East with my divisional headquarters when a posting was received for me to join a secret organization in the War Office. I reported on 17 March, 1941, to the headquarters of this branch and found, to my delight, that I was appointed to the newly formed French Section, whose duty it was to be to 'stir the torpid Frenchman' and 'to set Europe ablaze', to quote Mr. Churchill's own definitions.

(2) Patrick Howarth worked for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and afterwards wrote about Maurice Buckmaster in his book, Undercover (1980)

A tall man, with a gentle, slightly self-deprecatory manner and eyes which, later in his life, suggested he had seen nearly everything, Buckmaster was thought by some to lack the ruthlessness which a perfectionist might have demanded. No serious person ever doubted his dedication or his awareness of what was owing to his agents in the field.

He worked on average some eighteen hours a day. He sometimes had an evening break, when he would cycle home to Chelsea for an early dinner, returning to Baker Street about 8 p.m. and usually remaining

there until about 4 a.m. When considering, after the war, a complaint that the records kept by F Section were somewhat incomplete, he commented that those who finished work at any time between three

and five in the morning felt 'little desire to tabulate the events of the day in order to earn the gratitude of some hypothetical historian of the future'.

Buckmaster was deeply aware of the importance of mutual trust between himself and agents who were being sent on missions in which they would feel lonely, would be thrown on their own resources, and

would almost certainly begin to doubt whether those in offices at home understood or even greatly cared about their problems. He made a point of presenting agents, as they were about to depart for the field, with a personal gift - gold cuff-links or a gold cigarette-case - which had of course no British markings and which would serve as a reminder that the agent was not forgotten.

(3) Maurice Buckmaster, They Fought Alone (1959)

Often I would go down together with others from headquarters and would cross-question recruits, taking on the roles of Gestapo men, in order to try and break their cover-stories. By this means the story itself would become ingrained in their minds and they themselves would gain some small idea of the rigours of interrogation. If they survived without cracking, their confidence would be greatly increased and they could face the thought of genuine German interrogation in the knowledge that they had already withstood a similar grilling successfully. These rehearsals were grim affairs and we spared the recruits nothing. They were stripped and made to stand for hours in the light of bright lamps and though, of course, we never used any physical violence on them, they certainly knew what it was to go through it by the time we had finished.

If they cracked badly under the strain, it was tolerably sure that we would not send them, for it was clear that a man who caved in when questioned by H.Q. staff, in however realistic conditions, would be only too likely to wilt in the face of the Boches. A minor slip would not be held against a man, but too general a collapse most certainly would; we derived no pleasure, I need hardly say, from those occasions when our cruel jibes, our reiterated and shouted questions and our implacable persistence broke a man's spirit, but we could console ourselves with the fact that his cracking at a rehearsal might well have saved his life - and others - by preventing the possibility of his doing the same thing with the enemy. We were not playing a game.

(4) Maurice Buckmaster, They Fought Alone (1959)

As the number of our agents increased from a meagre seven in 1941 to fifty by the middle of 1942 and one hundred and twenty by June, 1943, so we in Baker Street were able to plan more and more ambitious and destructive raids against the German supply machine. By February of 1944, at the stage of some of our most important work, we had two hundred agents in the field - many of them veterans of more than one tour of duty - all either in liaison with large sections of Marquisards or acting as wireless operators. On D-day itself, there were two hundred and twenty agents putting into effect the plans which we relayed to them from Headquarters in Baker Street. In all, four hundred and eighty active agents were employed by the French section of S.O.E. From uncertainty even as to its purpose, the section grew to be a confident and deadly fighting force.

By the beginning of 1943 we had managed to organize ourselves in a manner which was to set the pattern for the duration of the war. We had our headquarters in Baker Street where all operations were planned and where intelligence was collated and filed and where new reports from agents in the field were received. We held our briefing sessions at a flat in Orchard Court, not far away. Here men who were about to be dropped into France were given the latest details about conditions, both generally and as they affected their own particular districts. It might be that a certain operator was suspected of working with the Germans. We would warn the outgoing agent and tell him in what circumstances he should take appropriate action to silence the man.

(5) In his book Specially Employed, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of Special Operations Executive, explained why he needed to British agents to occupied France.

We quickly learned that the courage, endurance and pugnacity of the patriots living in occupied territory were in direct proportion to the brutality of the occupying force's repressive measures. No occupying power can break the spirit and blunt the retaliatory power of a patriotic and proud people. Conversely, no occupied country can take really effective action against an occupying power without aid from outside. Coordination of effort was essential, for uncoordinated sabotage contributes but little to the destruction of the occupying power's potential. It merely invites reprisals, which in turn provoke further retaliation by the patriots. But if the occupied people feels that it is being neglected or left in the lurch by its allies, if it begins to listen and, by the force of repetition, to accept as truth the enemy's propaganda, the reaction becomes more and more feeble, until it finally peters out.

(6) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

It has been customary, since the war, to blame the Maquis for every misfortune and hardship that France has now to undergo. It is almost an unpopular thing in France in 1952 to have fought for France's liberation in 1940-45. And if one fought and perhaps died in company with British officers, it is now considered almost unpardonable. None of the 'best people' did it. Of course, they were not collaborationists - nor supporters of Petain - just the best type that waited to see what would happen. I wonder what, in fact, would have happened if all these brave men and women who continually risked life and property to save our liaison officers had waited on the fence?

A rather similar and equally unfounded prejudice also exists in France today. It is that the members of the French resistance groups were nearly all Communists or, at any rate, that the Communist groups - the FTP (Franc-tireurs et Partisans) and the Front National - were the only groups to do any effective work. This theory is strongly advanced by Communist propaganda, but I can say with authority that, so far as the groups were concerned who worked with British liaison officers, we were only interested in their patriotism and their ability to carry out such tasks, and not at all in their political opinions.

(7) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

In all, during the period March 1941 to July 1944, we recruited over 460 male and 40 female officers for work in the field. It has always seemed to me surprising that there were so many British or Dominion subjects, whose French was faultless, willing and anxious to undertake such supremely dangerous work. They were in no way conspicuous; the last thing we wanted in them was eccentricity. We denied them glamour, in their own interests; we made them look as homely and unremarkable as we could. In the words of one of them, they were 'just ordinary people, not particularly brave'.

(8) Special Operations Executive training pamphlet produced during the Second World War about the Gestapo.

If you are arrested by the Gestapo, do not assume that all is lost; the Gestapo's reputation has been built up on ruthlessness and terrorism, not intelligence. They will always pretend to know more tan they do and may even make a good guess, but remember that it is a guess; otherwise they would not be interrogating you.

(9) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

As the war progressed and supplies improved, we were able to send out by parachute to our operators a fair quantity of radio transmitters, cunningly camouflaged, and they were bidden to jettison or abandon sets whose use might seem to them particularly dangerous. The care with which our agents treated their sets was demonstrated to me in no uncertain manner after the war, when, in my travels round the areas where our people had been working, I was handed the jealously guarded suitcases containing transmitters - 'still in perfect working order', I was assured.

It was evidently essential to relieve, as much as we could, the burden of traffic over the 'clandestine air'. We quickly realized the possibility of using the BBC French Service for sending out previously arranged conventional messages. This system eliminated the need for the intricate coding and decoding which was necessary in sending our Morse messages. For there were many occasions on which a prearranged signal, totally meaningless to the enemy, gave an agent the clue for which he was waiting.

The simplest example was the use of a harmless-sounding phrase on the French programme of the BBC, to confirm, as arranged with the agent, that a parachute operation was scheduled for that night. It was possible to send over the air from Bush House studios at 7.30 p.m. a message. 'Nanette porte un pyjama vert', or some other such nonsense, which meant to the initiated reception committee approximately this: 'The aircraft which you asked for, parachuting stores as arranged on such and such a ground, is scheduled for tonight. If there is no setback in the weather, if the pilot finds the field you should see the containers floating down to you in x hours from now.' A further message on the 9.15 programme confirmed the operation again (or, by the absence of such message, intimated to the listeners that for some reason or other the operation had been 'scrubbed'). In winter, when aircraft frequently left their bases before 9 p.m., the message at 9.15 literally meant that the load was on its way, and constituted an imperative order to the reception committee to get out to the chosen field with all haste.

When it came to choosing conventional messages for subsequent use on the BBC, the boys and girls were surprisingly enterprising. Quotations from the classics alternated with jests, sometimes in dubious taste - so dubious that we feared to propose them to the austere authorities of Bush House.