The glowing foreword by M R D Foot, the doyen of Special Operations Executive (SOE) history, alerts the reader early on that he is about to read a most unusual book, indeed a book that provides the lively anecdotal support of so much that has been written on SOE by eminent historians like Professor Foot. Essentially written by Ewen Southby-Tayliour, editor of Jane’s Amphibious and Special Forces, it’s his first foray into Second World War military history. The book is based on extensive contemporary notes made by André Hue on his return to England in August 1944.
The hero of the story, André Hue, born of a French sailor father and a Welsh mother, spent his childhood in Le Havre, where to all intents and purposes he was educated and grew up as a Frenchman with British nationality. When SOE was unceremoniously wound up at the end of the war, its implacable rival MI6 had the pick of the staff and André Hue transferred to that organization where he served principally in French speaking Indo-China, retiring as the British Military Attaché in Phnom Pen
with the rank of Lt Col.
The bulk of the book relates to the sixty or so days in the life of the author, from being parachuted into the Breton maquis on 5 June 1944, as part of the D-Day preparations, until 10 August. During that time he turned the maquis into an effective fighting force, despite heavy losses to the local German garrisons. The narrative has all the tautness of a thriller with a measure of romance added when André falls in love with Geneviève, the daughter of a local farmer whose buildings provided an HQ and whose fields provided the landing grounds and dropping zones for the increasing arms supplies to the maquis. Genevieve and her sister became the couriers of the organization, no doubt in strict contravention to SOs about emotional entanglements.
Although to all outward appearance a Frenchman, André Hue was a British officer, a captain in the SAS, and this led naturally to tensions within the wholly French maquis whose objectives did not necessarily coincide with those of the British government or indeed De Gaulle’s government in exile. These tensions surfaced principally when the fighting maquis suffered severe reverses and their senior officers retired to lick their wounds in hiding.
Hue’s personality and character cannot be fully understood without knowledge of his early days as a steward, having signed on under-age, when his ship, the SS Champlain, a 28,000 ton liner, was mined off La Rochelle. He transhipped to the SS Savoie which carried him to Casablanca, returning eventually to the little Breton town of Guer, where his mother had been evacuated after the bombing of Le Havre. A few months as a lumberjack gave him the opportunity of reconnoitring the wooded terrain, which was to become his theatre of operations, before he was employed as a clerk at Guer station, which was also the marshalling yard for St Cyr-Coëtquidan, known to all French army officers, by then a German garrison. The 19-year old no doubt fulfilled every boyhood dream by learning to drive the shunting engine in the yard, in between copying the manifests of trainloads leaving St Cyr for Germany and the Eastern front, once officially for the Germans and once unofficially for the Resistance. The interception of the convoys by the RAF with monotonous regularity, not unnaturally led to suspicion and eventually Hue was forced to flee the Gestapo on his bicycle. In February 1944 he was spirited off a secluded beach in Northern Brittany in the company of downed RAF aircrew, and whisked across the Channel in a motor torpedo boat to be formally recruited into SOE as Andrew Hunter Hue. This first bit of good luck endured following his return to Brittany, no doubt aided in good measure by the SOE training syllabus, reproduced by the Public Record Office in Secret History Files (2001).
Alas, the romance that blossomed in the hedge-rows of Brittany did not flower into a lasting union and Hue married Maureen, whom he met at the British Embassy in Cambodia. Notwithstanding that this is a factual book, it is a rattling good yarn and deserves to rank with the best books about SOE.
George C Kieffer
Penguin 0670914789 www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0670914789/rusi-21