Francis Suttill and wife Margaret
There are very few tales as dark and tragic as Major Francis Suttill’s death in the history of British wartime spying. He was codenamed Prosper and led Britain’s largest Special Operations Executive in France (SOE), until his captivity and execution by Nazis in 1945.
However, it was rumoured that Suttill had not been the victim of German intrusion into his network, but instead the subject of an intelligence-service plot to fool the German High Command over D-Day’s time and location.
According to some claims, the British establishment deliberately gave one of its agents to the SS torturers for execution.
This theory, whatever the truth may be, inspired me to write The Winter Agent, a novel about a Paris SOE Circuit. Marc Reece, my fictional agent leads a Resistance circuit that risks their lives in order to undermine the German war effort.
Reece has another mission that is secret to his colleagues. He needs to obtain a document that identifies a German spy who was at the core of British intelligence.
His fate is the destiny of the Allied forces at D-Day. The truth can be as bizarre as fiction in many aspects, however, as you will see.
Major Francis Suttill, born in France to Anglo-French parents in 1910, moved to Britain as a barrister and became an intelligence officer.
He was recruited to the SOE in 1942. This hush-hush organization included civilian and military personnel. In October of that year, he parachuted into France to establish his intelligence-gathering “circuit”, codenamed Physician. He had success initially building relationships and providing support to local Resistance groups.
After security lapses, an infiltration by a German double-agent, and some luck that led to the Gestapo following him, he was finally captured and executed at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 21 months later.
The Germans were able to capture him along with the 150 Resistance agents and Physician members.
Their story was one of loss and heroism for many years. In the 1960s, and 1970s, theories started to surface that Prosper was deliberately killed.
READ THE TRUE STORY… Son Francis
To make the Germans think that the D-Day invasions of June 1944 would be in Calais, Norway or Norway, the Allies used a variety of clever and impressively successful deception strategies.
Suttill was allegedly deliberately deceived about the time and place of the Allied invasion, possibly even by Winston Churchill. It was later claimed that Calais would have been the location. This information was then lied to by MI6.
Further, it was claimed that Nazi interrogators would obtain the information. This would give the appearance of truth since Suttill believed it. Then, they would station their defensive forces at the wrong location. It would be the ultimate sacrifice of one loyal agent, saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
Two men were at the heart of this alleged plot: Claude Dansey (vice-chief MI6), who is well-known for his hatred of SOE, and Captain Henri Dericourt (an ex-pilot of France’s air force who was connected to Prosper’s circuit).
Dericourt was seen with German intelligence officers, and it had been suspected that he might be a double agent. The suspicion proved to be correct. Suttill was wrong, but London ignored him.
Francis was Suttill’s second child. He was also known as Francis. His father was gone and Suttill didn’t recall him. He also recalled that his mother would be mildly hypersensitive if asked about his father.
He wanted to learn more about his dad as he grew older.
He says, “It was very important for me on an emotional level to discover the truth.”
Francis made a visit to the Sachsenhausen camp as part of his journey. He wrote: “My father lived in Cell 10, and it was only marked with an outline of its foundations. It was hard to believe that my father had been living in that tiny cell for over a year. I found it very difficult to believe. My wife was there with me, and the emotions of that moment were overwhelming.
Francis examined also claims that his father had been betrayed and lied to by the British establishment.
TOP SECRET… There were many plots to mislead the Nazis over the timing of the D-Day landings
Maurice Buckmaster (chief of SOE’s French Section) was one of the first to claim betrayal. He wrote, “In the middle 1943, we had a top-secret message telling us D-Day may be closer than thought. We acted without hesitation on the message.”
Suttill was recalled to London in May that year for an explanation about the timing and details of the invasion. This he would then send to the French.
Buckmaster claimed that the briefing was with Churchill, and he asked him: “Are your prepared to risk you life under these circumstances?” You should cause as much chaos as you can. You should ignore security regulations.
Suttill’s son, however, investigated the matter and found that the prime minister had been at a Washington conference during his father’s last visit to London.
With Dericourt being confirmed as a traitor in 1958, the SOE’s early history claimed London knew Suttill’s Physician had been infiltrated , but allowed it to continue operating to distract other operations.
One year later, Suttill was allegedly convinced in 1943 by London that the second front would launch within weeks. The theory suggested that Dericourt could have been a triple agent, part of a scheme to betray and deceive Suttill in order to make his information more convincing to the Germans.
So far, so murky. However, Michael Foot wrote the 1966 wartime history for the SOE. He argued that this plan relied too heavily on luck and was completely out of character for Allied intelligence.
He admitted, however, that Suttill had returned to France in 1943 after his briefing, “in the belief of an imminent invasion”.
Arguments against such devious plots are also made. The cost of deception is another reason to question: Why sacrifice hundreds of Resistance agents or Resistance members that were rounded up and retorted by the Germans, when these would have been crucial for the invasion itself?
What was the conspiracy behind Major Suttill’s death?
Because of its size, the Physician circuit presented a major danger. The Germans had many places where they could enter it. The Gestapo may have been alerted by a simple accident when some canisters containing munitions were dropped by the RAF.
They were then able to reach one of Suttill’s lieutenants and finally to Suttill. His son Prosper believes that such an unlikely sequence of events cannot have been planned or organized by MI6.
He could have been exposed by other disasters, such as a briefcase that contained a list of SOE agents and was stolen and given to the Germans. Resistance members were also captured and interrogated. Dericourt’s treachery.
The Germans used these security holes to their advantage.
Francis says, “Many Gestapo officers had worked as policemen for over 20 years.” They were against amateurs who had been ill-trained.
The brave, often brilliant, amateurs could not hold on for so long.
Fog of war refers to a multitude of sins, terrible confusions, and muddy dealings. It is responsible for many more deaths of agents than efficiency of even the most brutal enemy.
The Winter Agent by Gareth Rubin (out now)
Francis Suttill’s death was not due to deceit, as I believe, but to poor planning and ill fortune, along with the sickening, brutality of Gestapo.
Despite the accusations and claims that will continue to swirl about, Frances Suttill’s heroics cannot be denied.
- The History Press publishes Prosper by Francis J. Suttill. Gareth Rubin’s The Winter Agent (Penguin Books – PS8.99) has just been published. Call Express Bookshop at 020 3176 3732. All orders above PS20 qualify for free shipping
Publiated at Mon, 16 August 2021 13:27.46 +0000