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Secret Flotillas: Clandestine Sea Lines to France and French North Africa, 1040-1944.

This brilliantly researched history of what hitherto has only been partially covered will surely take a leading place in the bibliography of the Second World War. It completes a trilogy on intelligence and aid to the Resistance in France - the first volume SOE in France by M. R. D. Foot was published in 1966. It was followed in 1976 (updated and revised in 1995) by Hugh Verity's We Landed by Moonlight which covered the aerial activities of the Special Duties Squadrons who made it possible for the infiltration and exfiltration of agents. Now the story about France is completed by this account of the naval side of the equation. What a debt we owe to these three authors.

Secret Flotillas runs to 650 pages - approximately ten pence per page - and is worth every penny, for it is a tale of incredible bravery and expert navigational skills, often in appalling weather conditions against treacherous tides and rock strewn approaches. Hugh Verity operated by moonlight, but the opposite was the case for the small boats who functioned on moonless nights.

The imperative in 1940 was to establish intelligence links with France as, owing to a gentleman's agreement with the French Service de Renseignements, SIS had no intelligence organisation in place after the fall of France. It was then vital to find out about German intentions to invade the UK. But only sea operations were at that time possible. Into this administrative cauldron, SOE also wanted to set up its own clandestine sea operations under Gerard Holdsworth.

Hampered by inadequate resources and navigation aids, they managed to get going with motor fishing boats until faster vessels gradually became available. The detailed descriptions of the numerous successful and unsuccessful crossings from Cornwall to the North and West coasts of Brittany are full of excitement, in particular those in which Sir Brooks took part. Then too the skill of the late David Birkin who became their ace navigator beggars belief, devastated as he was by continual seasickness in the cramped conditions of his tiny and usually soaked chart room. On one operation he also spent one and a half hours in the sea hanging on to the surf boat until returning agents were on board. Indeed, the crews of these magnificent small boats seldom had a dry crossing, to say nothing of the numerous occasions when they had to swim ashore with dinghies or land lines. So much bravery and ingenuity was displayed that it would be invidious to pick out individuals, either French or British. By August 1944, the clandestine sea lines to the North and West coasts of France had served their purpose when the tally of operations from 1940 had reached 120.

The second part of the book commences with the extraordinary performance to two recklessly brave Poles - Lt. Marian Kadulski and Lt. Jan Buchowski. These two ran feluccas, largely open decked and with very dodgy engines, for mass evacuation of stranded Poles in Morocco and Southern France. They also landed and collected agents from Pat O'Leary's 'Pat' line as well as SOE agents among whom were Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill. Their operational reports make telling reading. They performed from Gibraltar and their journeys to Southern France usually took 12-14 days and covered some 2000 nautical miles. Parallel with the felucca operations, Sir Brooks and Gerry Holdsworth were much involved with the Naval Section of two SOE missions to Algeria.

The last chapters of this splendid narrative are devoted to Commander Patrick Whinney for SIS and Col. Andrew Croft's SOE work in Corsica whence, in eleven months, the latter delivered to Italy 75 agents and brought out 24. On one occasion he landed an agent on the landward side of the quay in Genoa harbour. He kept an eye on the German sentries who were contentedly smoking on the opposite side. After this effort, Col. Croft then parachuted into Southern France. Quite extraordinary.

The whole book is well presented with excellent maps and complete lists of all operations. Sir Brooks had the advantage of being allowed to study much hitherto secret information which has recently become available.

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Author:Lee, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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