Maurice Roe was about to become a missionary in Africa when the outbreak of the Second World War redirected his zeal to energising the secret exploits of Britain's Special Forces. He raided the occupied French coast, organised French resistance and animated jungle-fighters in Burma, achievements for which he was awarded the Military Medal.
He was a member of the elite Small-Scale Raiding Force, the Jedburgh Teams, and the Special Operations Executive's (SOE's) legendary Far Eastern Force 136. In another life he would have become a White Father of the Roman Catholic order founded in 1868 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, and by 1939 had already completed his philosophy studies under its tuition in Belgium and Algeria.
Instead, having joined the Territorial Army in 1938 as a private with the Queen's Westminsters, he volunteered in August 1940 for the fledgling units beloved of Winston Churchill that would become known as "commandos". "I was always game, if you like," he explained. He also had, from his missionary studies, excellent, though Cockney-accented, French.
With the SSRF, Roe trained at Anderson Manor, at Bere Regis in Dorset, and in summer 1942 joined Captain Colin Ogden-Smith (who would be killed in 1944) in a raid on the Channel island of Herm. March-Phillips's death on Operation Aquatint, another raid in Normandy in September 1942, put paid to the force.
It was with the Jedburghs, men made ready to help the French resistance rise against their Nazi occupiers, that Roe, by now a sergeant and wireless operator, came into his own in July 1944, with Operation Pedlar, led by Major Nick Bodington. This was a project of SOE's French section, SOE-F, directed from HQ at 64 Baker Street in London, by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Its purpose was to re-establish after D-Day a resistance circuit in the Marne, where the Allies would soon need help.
Roe, though only 5ft tall, was an expert in commando techniques, having trained on the Jedburghs' course at Milton Hall, near Peterborough. He learned to use of weapons including a Colt .45 pistol and a fighting knife, as well as unarmed combat and sabotage techniques and adding extra deftness to the wireless and Morse skills he had acquired at SOE's Fawley Court near Henley-on-Thames.
Roe was dropped into France, in the Jedburghs' tradition as part of a threesome – with Robert Cormier and Alfred Sowden – and landed on 8 July just over a mile north-east of Brevonnes, near Pel-et-Der, Aube. On his first day, in ill-fitting civilian clothes, he had to persuade a photographer to take pictures in the style of the previous year's identity cards, for fake documents, using his London-accented French in a shop under the eye of German soldiers. On another occasion he escaped discovery only because a widow, in whose cottage at Sezanne he had been operating his wireless, told an over-curious neighbour that he was her lover ("A man-friend I have got in").
At Wassy he shared a billet with a German colonel and had his shoes polished by the officer's batman. His hosts, a prominent local family, pretended he was a friend who had been bombed out farther south. He even drove with the son of the family, with official German permission, the 65 miles to Bouzy, near Rheims, where a celebrated red wine is produced, to obtain supplies. At Troyes he attended, as godfather, the baptism of the newborn child of a resistance leader. At Montier-en-Der he and his comrades took over the school and sent out patrols day and night, hunting Germans.
A citation of April 1945, apparently recommending him for the British Empire Medal, though in fact he received the Military Medal, says: "In addition to his important W/T work, Roe assisted in grouping and instructing resistance elements, and in addition, took part in several actions... Roe volunteered to transfer to an area further to the south to help a maquis force of 1,000 men, which was short of officers.
"Here Sgt Roe took over all administrative duties comparable with those of a battalion adjutant, and carried them out with energy and devotion. He had to deal daily with officers of field rank of the old French army ... his success in this alien field was entirely due to his tact and his personality." Roe later spent many happy family holidays at Longsols and Montier-en-Der, where he was recognised and fêted long after the war.
By the end of 1944 SOE agents were needed in the Far East, and Roe volunteered. "A horde of us Jeds," he said, sailed via Bombay, Madras and Ceylon. He reported to Calcutta and was dropped by parachute into Burma near Taungoo to organise resistance among the Karen people, for which he was mentioned in Despatches. He used bamboo, split to make the white inside show up, for marking landing strips to receive air drops. Supplies included bags of newly minted silver rupees bearing false dates of 1938 or before, to help local commerce and fool the Japanese.
Roe's job was to keep Calcutta informed of Japanese positions as they retreated. The rubber seals of the steam generators for powering the wireless kept failing, and Calcutta could not be contacted at night because of atmospheric conditions. Roe's war went on after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, about which Japanese officers, brought in to spread the word, would say only: "The Emperor has made peace". In September Roe's group found two Japanese soldiers in a hut who refused to surrender. The hut was eventually blown up.
Roe was not to be demobbed until 16 January 1946. An heroic war had so far overwhelmed the call of missionary life that instead he took the sort of path his education as a grammar school scholarship boy, son of a shopkeeper, at Ealing County School had prepared him for, of family life and steady career. He joined Customs and Excise and in 1953 married Winifred "Wyn" Heyes, a girl he had met when they were members of the Catholic Civil Service Guild.
He rose via postings in London, Burton on Trent and Scotland to be Senior Assistant Collector in London, working on red boxes and implementing changes in VAT. He retired to Poole, and later moved to be near his daughter, Felicity, in Batley.
Herbert Maurice Roe, Special Forces agent: born Ealing 4 June 1917; Military Medal 1944; married 1953 Winifred Florence Heyes (died 2004; two daughters, three sons); died Batley 6 May 2014.Reuse content