As Nazi Germany consolidated its grip on occupied Europe following its invasion of Poland in September 1939, and the later invasion of France and the Low Countries, Nazi subjugation gave rise to a variety of resistance movements. The British wartime government recognized that these underground activities would be of valuable strategic benefit to undermine the Nazi regime; accordingly, it decided to encourage resistance movements by training agents and supplying equipment.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created to encourage espionage and facilitate sabotage behind enemy lines. SOE recruits trained at installations in Canada (Camp-X), England and Singapore. Agents were either parachuted from Whitley or Wellington bombers on night missions, or airlifted by the light of the moon to improvised landing zones in Westland Lysanders. This aircraft was also used on retrieval missions to extract agents and downed air force flyers.
Two Manitobans known to have been recruited into SOE operations were François Adolphe Deniset and Frank Pickersgill.
Deniset grew up in Saint Boniface and graduated with a degree in history and economics in preparation for a career in the foreign service. Instead, he joined the Royal Canadian Artillery where he was later recruited into the SOE as an arms instructor.
On the night of February 7, 1944, Deniset and three other agents parachuted into occupied France near the town of Potiers. Deniset’s assignment was to replace a female radio operator agent, Noor Inayat Khan, operating from a resistance cell at Potiers. Unbeknownst to the SOE, Khan had been captured months earlier by the Gestapo, which set a trap to capture more SOE agents. (The Gestapo later impersonated Noor in transmissions to London.)
Deniset and the three companions who landed with him were immediately captured and interrogated. They were brought to Gross Rosen, Germany. Capt Deniset was executed there, along with others, in August or September of that year. Three more agents were dropped in the area of Deniset’s mission and were also captured.
Pickersgill grew up in Winnipeg and graduated with a degree in English from the University of Manitoba and later with a master’s degree in classics from the University of Toronto. As a freelance journalist, he moved to Europe in 1938. In 1942, Pickersgill joined the newly created Canadian Intelligence Corps. Fluent in German, Latin, Greek, and especially French, he was loaned to the SOE.
On the night of June 20, 1943, Pickersgill, along with a fellow Canadian agent John Kenneth MacAlister, parachuted into the Loire Valley in occupied France to join the French resistance. The two men were picked up as planned by another SOE agent, but their vehicle was stopped by the Gestapo on a tipoff from an informer. They tried to escape, shots were fired, injuring their driver and causing the vehicle to crash. Pickersgill, suffering minor injuries was captured and sent to prison in Paris where his interrogation included torture. He was transported to Buchenwald concentration camp in late August 1944, and executed September 14, 1944, along with MacAlister and another SOE agent.
Excerpt from Altitude, the quarterly magazine of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, Spring 2012.