Norman Gilbert was born in St Cloud, France, in 1914. The son of an English father and a French mother, he was educated in both countries.
Gilbert joined the British Army in 1940 and was commissioned into the Durham Light Infantry. He was later recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and in November 1942 sent him to occupied France to join the Prosper Network led by Francis Suttill. Other members of the group included Andrée Borrel, Jack Agazarian and Henri Déricourt.
Francis Suttill and Jack Agazarian became increasing concerned about the loyalty of Henri Déricourt. In May 1943, Suttill returned to London and he passed on these fears to Nicholas Bodington and Maurice Buckmaster. However, they were unconvinced and refused to recall Déricourt to Britain.
On 23rd June, 1943, Norman, Francis Suttill and Andrée Borrel were arrested. When Noor Inayat Khan, who had just arrived as a wireless operator for Prosper, discovered that Suttill had been arrested, she reported back the disaster to the Special Operations Executive in London.
Suttill was taken to the Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Suttill was tortured for several days and according to Ernest Vogt he eventually did a deal with the Germans. This included Suttill giving the Germans details of ammunition dumps in exchange for the promise that the people guarding them would not be killed. However, according to another German agent, Joseph Kieffer, it was Norman who gave the Gestapo this information.
Some historians have questioned the truth of these allegations believing that Vogt and Kieffer were protecting the identity of the double agent, possiblyHenri Déricourt, who gave them the information.
Messages from Norman's wireless were still being sent to the Special Operations Executive in London. Instructions were passed on to Bodington by the SOE to arrange a meeting with Norman at the address he had sent them. Bodington later claimed that he and Agazarian tossed to decide who should visit the address. Agazarian, who was convinced it was a trap, lost, and when he arrived at the address he was immediately arrested.
Just before the end of the Second World War, Norman, Francis Suttill, Andrée Borrel, Jack Agazarian and Noor Inayat Khan, were executed. After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Henri Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several SOE agents including Norman Gilbert.
In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt's work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.
During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.
Suttill did not want to make any statement, but Gilbert Norman, who had not the integrity of Suttill, made a very full statement. Through Norman and through the documentary material available we received our first insight into the French section.
About 9.30 in the evening of July 19th 1943, while Arend was out meeting his wife at the station, Archambaud (Gilbert Norman) turned up at 12 Rue Champchevrier with three Germans in civilian clothes in an open car. Archambaud asked Arend's parents to give him the W/T set. This had never been properly hidden, because they had not found a suitable place to hide it, but Arend's father could only find four of the five parts, the fifth being put away somewhere. Arend therefore went to fetch his son, and told him he thought the Germans had been won over, probably by bribery, and were working for the Allies. Arend returned with his father, to find Archambaud and two of the Gestapo in the house, the third Gestapo man remaining in the car. Archambaud and the Germans wanted to leave immediately but Arend pere offered them drinks and cigarettes. He then became more communicative and told them that his son was a refractaire. The Germans thereupon asked for Arend's papers, and took him away to verify them. Archambaud left with them.
Ernest Vogt, through whom Kieffer (unable to speak either English or French) had conducted the interrogation of Prosper, had told me he was brought in shortly after midnight 24 June 1943; Kieffer had said what was important to him was to get in the dumps of arms and munitions before they were used to kill German soldiers; If Prosper would disclose the locations of all the dumps, neither he nor any of the agents guarding them would be executed; they would be held in prisons until the end of the war. Prosper asked what authority Kieffer had to promise that; Kieffer sent to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Berlin, and the authority arrived by breakfast time. Archambaud was then brought in and acquainted with the pact that had been made. Prosper wrote a note to Darling telling him to hand over the arms "to bearer", but when he had done so he was arrested.
Prosper now disappeared from the scene (Vogt did not know where he was taken to) and Archambaud left to explain the pact to further prisoners as they were brought in and to advise them to fall in with its terms, and some supposed him to be the author of it. So long as the Germans remained in Paris, the prisoners were kept in Fresnes or other prisons round about, but after the Allied landings, the Germans, in their retreat, did not leave them to the liberated by the Allies - they would have given away the radio game still being played by the Germans in their retreat. Probably because, as in their retreat they were constantly moving from one town to another which would have made in inconvenient to take a large number of prisoners, Kieffer must have been looking for some place where he could deposit them, and thereby lost the control of them, and (this he learned only from his Allied captors after the war) they got deposited in concentration camps, Buchenwald and others, where the guarantee that had been given of their being kept alive and well treated was ignored, or perhaps even not known about, and in the last stages of the war they were all murdered.
In Holland great successes had been scored by false hints to the captives that there was a traitor highly placed in Baker Street; the same trick was used in France, with satisfactory results from the enemy's point of view, and this legendary tale is now, to England's harm, ensconced in the minds of many survivors. Probably indeed the influence of this double depressant - the thought that someone who had sent him on his journey had in fact been engaged on the opposite side, and the impression that in any case the Germans knew all the answers - sapped Norman's resolution. He may even have thought it best to inform the Germans of many details of a circuit they had penetrated, so that London would replace it with one they had not.
His mistake would have made it no more easy for Suttill to hold out, and if Suttill agreed to the general call to the sub-agents to surrender this trick may well have been the decisive factor that encouraged him to do so. Both were kept apart from the untameable Andree Borrel. Suttill undoubtedly was the responsible commander of Prosper, and without his consent Norman should not have busied himself as he did in carrying through to the hilt the bargain about surrendering the arms; but it was certainly Norman and not Suttill who conducted most of the negotiations with the subagents, as Suttill was shortly taken away to Berlin for unproductive further grillings at Himmler's headquarters.
To sum up, Suttill and Norman were no longer, at the time of their arrest, in a mood in which they could trust themselves to make calm and considered judgements; prolonged clandestinely had taken its toll, and dexterous handling by the enemy overwhelmed them, or overwhelmed Norman at least. Physical knocking about left them resolute, as it left the Canadians; what they found unendurable was the psychological counter-mining to which Goetz subjected them. Someone therefore gave away infinitely more than was prudent; but no one should condemn him for doing so who does not know he could have done better, under a similar strain, himself.