Obituary: General Georges Berge

M. R. D. Foot
Sunday 21 September 1997 23:02
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Georges Roger Pierre Berge, soldier: born Belmont (Gers), France 3 January 1909; married; died Mimizan (Landes), France 15 September 1997.

Georges Berge, Gascon by birth and a French regular army officer by training, was the first agent to be parachuted into France by the British secret service that dealt with sabotage, the Special Operations Executive.

He and four soldiers from SOE's French independent parachute company dropped in plain clothes, at midnight on 15/16 March 1941, from an RAF Whitley bomber based at Stradishall in Suffolk, into a small wood near Vannes in Brittany. Their task was to ambush a bus that carried the navigators of the Luftwaffe's pathfinder force - then busily engaged in spearheading the "Blitz" on British cities - as they travelled from Vannes to their airfield nearby at Meucon.

Mounting this operation at all had raised a small hornet's nest of difficulties with General de Gaulle, whose loyal servants the party were; and had also provided the occasion for a now well-known protest from Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, to Gladwyn Jebb, SOE's executive head. "I think you will agree," Portal had written a month earlier, "that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time- honoured operation of the dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins."

Portal was reminded that the Air Ministry had requested the operation, and climbed down; but "Savanna B", as it was code-named, failed: the bus no longer ran. Berge's party scattered over France - he visited Paris, Nevers and Bordeaux himself - and met up at the end of March at Sables d'Olonne on the west coast. Geoffrey Appleyard, who among his other skills was a canoeing expert, came from the submarine HMS Tigris to carry Berge and one other to eventual harbour in Scotland.

Berge brought back a mass of minor but essential information about daily life and public morale in France, from which much of SOE's early work there derived. The British awarded him a Military Cross, and de Gaulle a Croix de Guerre. He rejoined his independent company, and took it out to Egypt, where he and it joined David Stirling's nascent Special Air Service.

For another operation, he went into Crete by submarine - a Greek one this time, the Triton - with Earl Jellicoe of the Special Boat Section and a few trusted friends, in mid-June 1942. They succeeded in blowing up 16 Luftwaffe aircraft on Heraklion airfield. Unhappily, Berge was captured soon afterwards by the Germans who found him so troublesome a prisoner that they put him away in Colditz castle, the Saxon fortress where they tried to hold the hardest cases. There he again met, the following year, David Stirling, and they saw the war out together.

Berge, a captain on "Savanna", was still a major at the war's end. He resumed his career in the French army, and made a further name for himself in the 1950s in the early stages of developing the combat helicopter. He reached the rank of general de brigade before he retired in 1962 to Mimizan on the south Biscay coast of France, where his father had been postmaster, and was long a stalwart figure at French and Franco-British SAS and SBS reunions. His English wife, Mary, whom he married soon after he returned from "Savanna", survives him.

- M. R. D. Foot

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