Roger Landes: SOE agent in occupied France
Tuesday 12 August 2008
Roger Landes parachuted twice into occupied France as an agent of Britain's Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Dropped originally to work as a wireless operator, he went on to arm and organise several thousand resistance fighters in efforts to harass German forces after D-Day.
The second of three sons, Landes was born in Paris in 1916. His mother, Anna, was Russian. His father, Barnet, was a jeweller whose grandfather had left Poland for England in the 1840s to escape conscription into the Tsar's army. Barnet had long lived in France but had British nationality, which Roger, when 21, chose to share.
When the family business folded during the Depression, Landes' parents moved to London. In 1938, alarmed at the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany and reluctant to serve in the French Army, he joined them, abandoning his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he had been studying to become a surveyor, and finding work at County Hall as an architect's assistant. He was still in that job when war broke out.
In March 1941, after a period assessing Blitz-damaged buildings as a surveyor with the Islington Rescue Service, Landes was called up into the Royal Corps of Signals. He qualified as a wireless operator in early 1942. Almost immediately, he found himself summoned to the War Office for an interview. "I heard later that they had been following me since 1940," he would recall. "The reason why was that I could speak French and they needed wireless operators."
Landes' SOE interviewer was Lewis Gielgud, brother of John, "and he attacked me straight away in French. He told me what they wanted to do with me, to send me to France as a wireless operator, and that I could be very useful to them. I had to give an answer straight away."
Landes volunteered. Specialist training followed. And on the night of 31 October 1942, freshly commissioned and with the code-name "Aristide", he parachuted from a Halifax bomber into a muddy field at Mers, in the Loire Valley. His orders were to make for Bordeaux and join Claude de Baissac's "Scientist" circuit, an SOE network that covered most of south-west France. De Baissac, with whom Landes had trained, had requested a replacement for his previous wireless operator who had broken a leg on landing.
SOE wireless operators were responsible for calling in airdrops and sending and receiving reports. Landes carried out these tasks coolly and well. Indeed, for months he worked his set in a hilltop village occupied by a German Army headquarters. "I thought it was a very good idea because the Germans would never have thought that anybody would work so near them."
Five-foot-four, dark and slightly built, Landes would also credit his looks as having helped him escape enemy attention. Once, when the Gestapo arrived to search a house in which he had been transmitting, Landes was casually pushing his bicycle away when the suitcase concealing his wireless set fell off. A Gestapo agent bent down and picked it up. Landes, with his hand on the revolver in his pocket, prepared to shoot, but the German simply helped him put the suitcase back on the bike: "He had been told to look for a British officer and I don't look like a British officer at all." During the 19 months he was in occupied France, Landes was never once stopped and asked for his identity papers and never had to use a cover story.
In August 1943, when de Baissac was recalled to England, Landes' skills and strengths saw him given command of "Scientist". At exactly that time, however, French traitors and German agents were penetrating SOE circuits across the country. The "Scientist" network was one of them. When his wife was caught in one round-up of local resistance suspects, André Grandclément, a prominent resistance leader with whom de Baissac had been in close contact, agreed to work for the Gestapo; and, as the number of arrests grew, "Scientist" began to crumble and Landes was forced to flee. He severed contact with the circuit, hiked through the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and made his way, via Gibraltar, back to London.
Promoted major, Landes returned to Bordeaux in March 1944 with orders to rebuild the SOE set-up and prepare the resistance there for D-Day. By the eve of the invasion he had about 4,000 men, fully armed and fully trained, in 60 groups across south-west France; and when news came through of the Normandy landings, action began. All activity was aimed at hindering German reinforcements moving towards the beaches: road traffic was attacked; railway lines and bridges were blown; electric cables and phone lines were cut and pylons, transformers and fuel depots destroyed.
To ensure the circuit's safety, Landes also ordered the execution of André Grandclément and his wife after he heard the pair had fallen into the hands of the resistance. Since he was in command and none of his men wished to do it, it was Landes that shot Madame Grandclément. It remains a controversial step. After the war he would hear that she had in fact objected to her husband's actions, but Landes remained convinced that killing her had been the correct thing to do. Security, he felt, had been all-important. "I was responsible for the lives of my men, I'd got to protect my men and unfortunately in a war sometimes you've got to kill innocent people."
In September, after the Germans finally pulled out of Bordeaux, Landes was on hand to see Charles de Gaulle enter the city. When presented to the general, however, Landes was bluntly told, "You are British. Your place is not here." One of de Gaulle's ministers then gave him a day to leave, whereupon one of Landes' bodyguards stepped forward and threatened to shoot him. This resulted in a report being sent to the Foreign Office that a British officer had threatened to kill a French minister and Landes was called upon to explain himself. He did so, and they said, "Well, you were not the only one to have trouble with de Gaulle at the end of the war. Forget about it."
After finally leaving France in the autumn of 1944, Landes volunteered to join Force 136, SOE's Far Eastern arm, and in June 1945 parachuted into the jungles of northern Malaya as head of a four-man team ordered to organise Chinese Communist guerrillas against the occupying Japanese. Landes' party found and trained 200 Chinese and received drops of arms and supplies, but no fighting took place before the Japanese surrendered in August.
For his service in France, Landes was awarded two Military Crosses and, in time, received French recognition in the form of appointment to the Légion D'honneur and the Croix de Guerre with Palm. Wider publicity of his exploits came with the publication, in 1965, of E.H. Cookridge's They Came From The Sky and with David Nicolson's more recent biography, Aristide, in 1994.
In 1991 Landes was made an Officer of the Légion d'honneur, the insignia being presented to him a year later, in Bordeaux, almost 50 years to the day after he had parachuted into France.
Roger Landes, wartime SOE agent: born Paris 16 December 1916; married 1947 Ginette Corbin (died 1983; one son), 1990 Margaret Laing; died 16 July 2008.
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