In A Quiet Corner... by bobsblips

In A Quiet Corner...

If you've a minute or so to spare to read the below you'll be rewarded with an amazing story of an exceptional human being:

Among the hundreds of graves in a Welsh cemetery is one of World War Two's unsung spies whose first mission began on 6 August, 75 years ago.

Major Jacques de Guélis was an agent of the highly secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE). The unit was set up on the order of the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill to create a sabotage organisation which would "set Europe ablaze". De Guélis went behind the lines in Nazi Europe a nerve-shredding three times. He also organised contacts for Virginia Hall, a one-legged spy who would defy the odds to become the Gestapo's most wanted agent in the whole of France.

His bravery earned him a chestful of medals - including three Croix de Guerre from the French government - but his story has been largely forgotten.

Jacques Theodore Paul Marie Vaillant de Guélis was born on 6 April, 1907, in Cardiff to a French-born coal exporter, Raoul, and his wife, Marie.

When World War Two began, he was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as he spoke fluent French. Evacuated from Dunkirk at the beginning of June 1940, he was asked to return to France a few days later to liaise with units which were still fighting or trying to escape.

On 22 June, the French signed an Armistice with Hitler and de Guélis fled south to live in hiding in Marseilles. Determined to get back to Britain, he climbed across the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain.

On 15 April, 1941, he was interviewed in London for a role in SOE by Lewis Gielgud, the brother of actor John Gielgud, who was impressed by de Guélis's faultless French and his knowledge of life in occupied France.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British secret service formed in 1940 to encourage underground resistance and sabotage in Nazi-occupied Europe and later South East Asia.
Its agents were trained in the arts of silent killing and laying explosives to destroy trains and communications lines.
It also dropped wireless operators into occupied territory to radio information and appeals for arms and supplies back to London.
SOE employed both men and women as agents and many, such as Violette Szabo, were caught and executed by the enemy.
Opposed by some in the establishment for its "ungentlemanly" behaviour, SOE was disbanded in 1946.

SOE's F Section was working to send wireless operators and saboteurs into France and its head, Maurice Buckmaster, tasked de Guélis with briefing them before their missions.

As de Guélis was a central figure in SOE there was reluctance, for security reasons, to use him as an agent. However, he was to be a special case. A secret SOE memorandum noted felt that de Guélis's special qualifications and the unusual circumstances of the present case made it a suitable instance for exception.

The unusual circumstances were that SOE needed an exceptional man for a complex mission.
Its aims were threefold. Firstly, de Guélis had to search the area around the Rhône in south-eastern France to find suitable landing fields for RAF aircraft delivering agents and supplies to the French Resistance.
Secondly, he had to recruit potential agents and couriers. This was especially difficult, as approaching people would leave him open to betrayal. Finally, he was to prepare the way for an American-born agent, Virginia Hall. Jacques de Guélis parachuted into France on 6 August, 1941, and immediately began work to recruit agents, couriers and contacts.

Miss Hall then arrived in France on 23 August. SOE could not drop her by parachute as she had lost the lower part of her left leg in a pre-war shooting accident, so she sailed from Spain to the south coast of France on a fishing boat. Despite the fact she wore an aluminium false leg - which she nicknamed "Cuthbert" - Miss Hall was to become a dynamic agent. The German secret police, the Gestapo, made the capture of what it called the "Limping Lady" a priority but it never caught up with her.
On 4 September, 1941, with his first mission complete, de Guélis was due to leave France for England, having arranged a pick-up on a remote field by a small Lysander aircraft. But he was delayed by a check of identity papers by the local gendarmerie and was running very late.

SOE historian MRD Foot wrote: "He could already hear the aircraft when he got near the ground. Jumping off his bicycle and through the nearest gate, he laid the [reception] lights out quickly - on the wrong field. [The pilot] put his aircraft down without trouble, but fouled an electric cable on taking off, and returned to Tangmere with several feet of copper wire round his undercarriage."

The success of Jacques de Guélis's first mission was brought to the attention of Britain's Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, who oversaw the SOE. Mr Dalton saw to it that he was awarded an MBE (military division), recording in a note to the War Office that de Guélis's work in France "has been of great value to my organisation". On 17 September, 1943, de Guélis landed in Corsica where an uprising was under way. He organised resistance groups and, in early October, the Germans withdrew from the island.

A month after D-Day, de Guélis parachuted into France to work with the underground forces of the Corrèze. He led local resistance groups in ambushes of German forces. They were then joined by a team of French SAS who helped in the area's liberation.
As Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945, de Guélis arrived in Germany on an urgent mission to find captured agents and make sure they were not subjected to any last minute vengeance.
His investigations centred on a number of concentration camps, including Flossenburg in Bavaria. SOE agent Jack Agazarian and leading members of the German resistance to the Nazis - including Wilhelm Canaris, the head of German military intelligence - had been executed there only weeks earlier.

On 16 May, de Guélis's car was struck by a vehicle being driven by a German soldier who had worked at Flossenburg. De Guélis was badly hurt. He was transported home to Britain but died in hospital at Lichfield on 7 August, 1945, four years and a day after his first heroic mission to France.

Was the crash a deliberate attempt to silence an investigation which would have fed information into the prosecution file for the Nuremburg trials? It is possible. Any evidence appears to have been lost in the chaos of post-war Germany.
The head of SOE, Brigadier Colin Gubbins, said de Guélis was an agent whose "ardour and efficiency" were "equalled by [his] personal courage".
De Guélis's wife, Beryl, had his body returned to his hometown of Cardiff for burial. It lies in the shade of a tree in a quiet corner of Cathays Cemetery. A peaceful, unassuming resting place seems a fitting spot for a man whose most heroic deeds were carried out in the shadows of the secret war against Hitler.
Thank you for the fascinating story. Our wold is full of unsung heros as well as the ones that have had at least some recognition. This story immediately reminded me of the novel Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulkes which I read some time ago. She was parachuted into France in a similar setting.
August 10th, 2016  
@helenhall You're very welcome - so pleased you enjoyed it. :)
August 11th, 2016  
Incredible history. Thanks for taking the time to include it.
August 11th, 2016  
Thank you for sharing his story. I'd never heard it before so it was really interesting. Its a shame that so many heroes, of all kinds of things, seem to just fade away out of public memory.
August 11th, 2016  
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