Obituary: Harry Despaigne

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The Independent Online
Henri Marcel Despaigne, intelligence officer, born London 3 March 1917, died London 5 July 1992.

HARRY DESPAIGNE was a Special Operations Executive secret agent in southern France in 1942-44, advising, arming and organising guerrilla forces in the region around Carcassonne.

He was London-born, but his father was French and his mother a refugee from Belgium. French was his nursery language and his excellent English always had a slight French intonation. He was brought up in France but came back to London at the age of 20 to work in CH Rugg, the shipbrokers. He grew up to be a handsome burly man, over 6ft tall, broad-shouldered with a toothbrush moustache and a gentle voice. When the Second World War began, he volunteered for the army and was commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry early in 1941.

A trawl through the fighting services for able linguists drew Despaigne to Special Operations Executive's attention and he entered that secret service later the same year. He was one of the first agents to join Maurice Buckmaster's independent French F section after Buckmaster took it over in October 1941. He was trained, first as a secret agent and then as a wireless operator, and went to southern France - then still unoccupied by the Germans - in a Polish-crewed felucca from Gibraltar in July 1942. His codename was Ulysses.

His orders were to work for Peter Churchill in or near Marseilles. Churchill preferred life on the Riviera. There was a clash of personalities - Despaigne seemed too earnest to Churchill, Churchill seemed too frivolous to Despaigne; and Despaigne found his own way over the Pyrenees into Spain, returning to London through Gibraltar.

He volunteered for a further secret mission, and went back into southern France - which by this time was under German occupation - landing from a small Lysander aircraft on 18 September 1943. This time he was to be wireless operator to Pierre Sevenet, who had been recruited into F section by the tireless Baron Philippe de Vomecourt, one of the three brothers who did so much to set the section up in its most difficult early stages.

Sevenet and Despaigne worked with the Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire, a militant maquis in the hills near Carcassone which had grown to a strength of 600 armed men and women by Normandy D-Day in June 1944. Despaigne handled all the messages that related to the parachuting of arms for them, and was constantly on the run from German direction-finders. The Gestapo put a price on his head, but never caught him; his friends were secure. The Corps Franc harried the Germans so effectively that in July a German army brigade of 1,500 men, with armour and air support, attacked them. Sevenet was killed in action by one of the aircraft.

Despaigne took over, and brought off the difficult feat of dispersing his guerrillas into hiding - they only lost four killed - and then re-mobilising them, to inflict much more damage on the enemy, to coincide with the mid- August D-Day for the Allied landing in Provence. He was awarded a Military Cross. The Corps Franc went to fight in the rebuilt French Army in the Vosges; Despaigne went to south-east Asia. He was trained as a parachutist near Calcutta, took part in an operation called 'Panda' into Burma, and went quietly back to build a peacetime career in the City and to get married. His wife and a son survive him.