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Interview: Yvonne Baseden - The lady spy who helped save Britain; Yvonne Baseden talks about her work as a secret agent and why she is lucky to have survived.

There is nothing about the smartly-dressed elderly woman, her greying hair swept back from a face etched with lines, that marks her out as extraordinary. Yet Yvonne Baseden was once at the forefront of the fight to save Britain from the threat of a Nazi invasion. She was also part of the secret agent team that inspired Ian Fleming's greatest fictional hero, James Bond.

Now a 78-year-old widow living in London, Yvonne can still recall the dangers of her work 50 years ago as part of our Special Operations Executive - set up in 1940 to frustrate German efforts in occupied Europe during the Second World War. She was recruited to the SOE in her twenties and was among only 39 female agents working in France with the Resistance. Her work paved the way for the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944. But she was later tortured and incarcerated in a concentration camp where her colleagues were killed.

Luckily, Yvonne was one of the few women survivors of the "secret army" which Winston Churchill declared would "set Europe ablaze". And hers is one of the incredible stories of heroism, sacrifice and daring told in a BBC series, Secret Agent.

"My mother was French and I was born in Paris. My brother and I travelled throughout Europe with my father who was an electrical engineer," she says. "When we came back to England, war was declared."

Yvonne joined the WRAF and worked in the Air Ministry. From there she was recruited by the SOE and trained as a radio operator. In early 1944, she was flown into France with only false papers and the name of her contact. She was terrified of discovery.

"I was worried that it was noticeable that I had come from England," she recalls. "There was always the possibility that one would give oneself away. There were identity checks on the train, but I had my papers in order. It was difficult to relax or even fall asleep. It seemed to be a very long journey."

Her destination was the town of Dole, near Dijon in Eastern France, where she was taken to a safe house - a cheese depot. There she met Lucien, the agent in charge of the mission. "He was anxious to get in touch with London so that was my first job as soon as I arrived," she says.

The pair were to organise night-time drops of arms and explosives. Following D-Day, the team's work increased as the Resistance grew bolder. In Operation Cadillac they organised the first ever daylight drop by American Flying Fortress bombers, during which Yvonne was in radio contact with 36 Allied planes.

"It was extraordinary," she says. "When the planes came over we could hear the roar of the engines. It was the middle of the morning in beautiful sunlight. We had a lot of lorries and 800 people on the ground to help to move the material as quickly as possible. When we got back to headquarters we sat down to lunch. Within half an hour the chap at the window said, 'The Bosch! The Germans'. We dispersed as quickly as we could to various hiding places."

The Germans had extracted information from a tortured Resistance fighter. As their troops swept into the depot, Yvonne hid behind stacks of large cheeses. "We heard all these cars pulling up. I had a chap hiding with me, but neither of us could talk or communicate with each other," she says.

Although the German search found nothing, the departing troops left one man to guard the depot. "We were all anxious but with the approach of darkness we felt that we might be able to escape," continues Yvonne. "Suddenly there was a sound in the depot and the man on duty called the Germans back. He started to shoot randomly, and only when blood came through the ceiling did they realise someone was hiding there. They found Lucien and one other man."

She watched terrified as Lucien's body was brought down, handcuffed to another man. She knew it was only a matter of time before the rest were discovered.

"We were all found, one by one," she says. "I was one of the first. We were thrown on the ground, then taken by lorry to Dijon and put into individual cells. I was interrogated, beaten up, then dragged up the stairs past an office full of people in uniforms typing reports. I had a sense of being someone else. The only thing that kept us going was the thought that the job we'd done the day before had been a success.

"I was on the top floor, cell number 111. We knew D-Day had happened but we visualised the armies advancing more rapidly than they were. But it did give us some hope. And there were cheers when we heard that there had been a plot to kill Hitler!"

Fortunately for Yvonne, the Germans could not prove she was one of the SOE. She was taken to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in Germany.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," she says. "Ravensbruck was the first time we had seen what a concentration camp really was. It was a shock. To my amazement and horror, when I was directed through one of the huts I found friends from SOE," she says, the tears welling up in her eyes.

Violet Szabo, Denise Block and Lilian Rolfe had all been identified as SOE agents, and were shot in February 1945. Yvonne shared a hut with Odette Churchill and other famous agents who were later sent to the gas chamber. "My camp number was 62,947. When you think that there were so many of us," she murmurs, her sentence tailing off sadly.

The Red Cross struck a deal whereby three coaches were allowed into Ravensbruck to take away some inmates. Yvonne was among them. She arrived in London eight days before Germany surrendered. After the war she spent 20 years working for the Colonial Service in Africa. But neither time nor distance lessened the memories of her days as one of Churchill's unsung heroes, fighting a dark and deadly secret war.

Secret Agent, Thursday, BBC2, 9pm.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Hill, Patrick
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 9, 2000
Words:1033
Previous Article:Secret weapons of the SOE.
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