The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a secret British quasi-military organisation established early in World War II to conduct reconnaissance, espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. Britain and other allied nations provided training, support and supplies to local resistance groups; an extremely dangerous operation in enemy territory. Over the course of the war, many agents were lost but the SOE did have some notable successes. This is the true story of my mother, Jackie Porter of the SOE.
Pamela Isobel (Jackie) Nash was born in 1920 and went to school in Windsor where she was a good pupil until she set fire to the school wood and was expelled. Her parents sent her to a finishing school in Bayeux France, where she was a vivacious student, also known for her ability to roll a cigarette with one hand while riding side-saddle. Her knowledge of France and fluency in French enabled her to become an SOE officer, training and communicating with secret agents in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Jackie’s SOE assignment
In early 1941 Jackie joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), a women’s branch of the army, and was attached to a Southern Command unit in Dorset. After recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, she worked at the FANY head office in Sherborne before being summoned to London in September 1942. She was taken to the Inter Services Research Bureau (ISRB) office in Baker Street and briefed on an ‘interesting job’ in North Africa. This exciting-sounding job came with a commission as a lieutenant in the FANY, although she did not know at the time of her transfer to the SOE.
The training in Norfolk included learning Morse code and operating clandestine radios, in which she became highly proficient. She had to sign the Official Secrets Act, which stated that the penalties for unauthorised disclosure included two years in prison ‘with or without hard labour’ and told that the Official Secrets Act remained in force until 2020.
Communication with SOE agents in occupied Corsica
Arriving in Algiers on a full troopship in late 1942, Jackie was based at nearby Cape Matifou and began work immediately, building resistance movements in Italian-occupied French Corsica. The group was code-named ‘Massingham’ which grew rapidly as the resistance in Corsica increased.
Working in the French Section under Lt. Commander Brooks Richards, Jackie’s main role was to communicate with SOE agents in Corsica, working with French resistance groups until Corsica was liberated in September 1943. Putting her radio skills to good use, she communicated with agents in the field; detecting if an agent had been ‘turned’ and was sending messages under duress from the enemy.
‘Operation Sea Urchin’
In early January 1943, SOE Algiers dispatched three agents by submarine who were to be landed at night on a beach in West Corsica, a mission code-named ‘Operation Sea Urchin’. From Algiers, Jackie was to establish communications and ensure that they worked effectively with the French section of the SOE. The agents were a Corsican Gaullist, Captain Scamaroni, and two SOE agents, Lieutenant Ticknell and radio operator Major Hellier. Carrying several radio sets and a large amount of money, their mission was to coordinate resistance efforts in Corsica.
The submarine, HMS Tribune, captained by Lieutenant Stewart ‘Sam’ Porter, left Algiers with Scamaroni, Hellier and Ticknell. Landing agents on occupied territory was highly dangerous as unfriendly ‘welcoming parties’ were often waiting. At the first beach, powerful searchlights illuminated the sea and Stewart had to dive quickly, but at the second beach, he landed the three agents.
They were later betrayed by a double agent, and it did not take long for the Corsican police to find Hellier in a bar (he was known to be rather fond of a drink). He told the Gestapo everything before being executed. Scamaroni was also captured; he committed suicide in prison after being tortured, but he had told the Gestapo nothing. Ticknell was alerted in time and was rescued by submarine. As a result of the betrayal of the three agents, Jackie and Stewart were placed on the Gestapo’s ‘most wanted’ blacklist in Marseilles.
Subsequently, SOE Algiers dispatched Commandant Collona D’Istria, who successfully coordinated Corsican resistance for the remainder of the campaign. Corsica was a classic example of SOE work in which clandestine operations, training and networks were set up in a foreign country from scratch, and despite setbacks they made important contributions to the liberation.
A romantic submarine encounter
In January 1943, a group of SOE officers including Jackie visited HMS Tribune, recently arrived back in Algiers Harbour from Operation Sea Urchin. It was an opportunity for SOE officers, involved in clandestine operations, to meet and collaborate with Stewart Porter and his crew for the first time. In the spur of the moment, Stewart decided to show them around his submarine himself rather than leave it to his junior officers; the SOE officers looking slightly classier than the usual Wren cipher officers. Jackie asked Stewart about the horsepower of the engines, which he did not know. In return for the hospitality, Stewart was invited to supper with her at the officer’s mess at Cape Matifou. Forming a rapid friendship, they became engaged to be married within five days and celebrated by having a picnic on the sand dunes watching SOE agents being trained to blow up railway lines – a very noisy engagement party.
When Corsica was liberated in September 1943, Jackie was ordered to London carrying reports and plans of clandestine operations to Colonel Buckmaster, head of the French section of the SOE. Leaving Algiers by plane, she arrived at the American airbase at Casablanca instead of at the planned stopover in Rabat. An American Colonel managed to arrange passage for her as the only passenger in a four-engine bomber. On arrival, she was greeted by the British Consul who had been briefed about her arrival, though he had never seen a woman in army uniform. After several days delay due to bad weather, she arrived in London via Gibraltar.
The SOE and the Navy had secretly planned for Stewart to be in London at the same time as Jackie so that they could be married in ‘Operation Union’, the wedding taking place on October 30th 1943.
‘Shady Lady’ to Algiers
In early 1944, Jackie flew to Gibraltar from Algiers carrying a diplomatic bag with various secret dispatches. The mission, organised by the SOE and the Admiralty in London was called ‘Operation Sampan.’ Jackie was delighted to discover that her husband had arrived in Gibraltar with HMS Tudor on the same day. Operation Sampan was the cover for Jackie and Stewart to meet in Gibraltar and spend a few days together; longer than was planned as a German aircraft had dropped mines in the harbour entrance, delaying the departure of Stewart’s submarine.
Once again proving difficult to get a flight back to Algiers, the US Air Force offered her a lift in a fighter-bomber called ‘Shady Lady’, travelling to Algiers via Oran. The cheerful pilot, dressed only in bathing trunks, smoked a large cigar. The rear of the aircraft was so heavily laden with crates of whisky that Jackie had to sit in the nose of the aircraft in front of the pilot.
Parachute teams prior to D-Day
Jackie was closely involved in establishing communications in preparation for the Jedburgh parachute teams to be sent into the occupied Vichy area in the South of France around the time of the D-Day landings in the North. In coordination with the landings, Jedburgh comprised three-man teams, including a specially trained radio operator, that carried out diversionary sabotage and attacks behind enemy lines in collaboration with the local French resistance.
Their main objective was to tie down enemy forces, so they were not available to move north and counter the D-Day landings. Jedburgh required many months of coordination between various allied countries. Jackie was involved in the shipment of weapons and supplies, as well as maintaining radio contacts in Southern France. It is likely that she also took part in the training of the Jedburgh radio operators, as she was highly skilled by this stage and specialists in this form of clandestine work were in short supply.
Gratitude from General Charles de Gaulle
In mid-August 1944, ‘Operation Dragoon’, the much-anticipated allied landings on the south coast of France had begun, and Jackie could see that her role in SOE Algiers would soon end. With a colleague Barley Alison, Jackie flew to Toulouse in mainland France to carry out the debriefing of SOE agents, assist in their repatriation and settle business with the French resistance groups.
After the war, Jackie returned to Paris in January 1946 to receive ‘La Medaille de la Reconnaissance Française’ (French Medal of Gratitude), awarded by the Provisional Government of the French Republic and presented to her by General Charles de Gaulle, later to become the President of the Fifth Republic. This medal was awarded to ‘persons who, in the presence of the enemy, have performed acts of exceptional dedication.’ Her British medals include the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star, The France & Germany Star and the Defence Medal.
Having seen much suffering, like many former SOE agents, Jackie was understandably reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences. Her husband Stewart Porter had survived the entire war in submarines; recalling that four out of five of his fellow submariners did not come home. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for bravery and skill.