8.10 Lise de Baissac: A Spy in France

Lise de Baissac: A Spy in France

Lise de Baissac fled France when the Nazis marched in. But in Britain she went to genuine spy school, and then she parachuted back into France, where she helped arm and train the French Resistance.

If you are a Marvel fan, you’ll love it. Her story (and others like her) are definitely the inspiration for Captain Carter.

This episode is part of the series Women in Espionage.

Full Transcript

The story of Lise de Baissac starts far away and long ago on the island of Mauritius. Mauritius had long been known to the various navigators of the Indian Ocean, but it was one of the few locations that was actually uninhabited when the Europeans “discovered” it. The first European colony was established in 1638 by the Dutch. The Dutch eventually gave up, to be replaced by the French, who were replaced in turn by the British, during the Napoleonic wars.

And that is why when Lise de Baissac was born there in 1905, she was a British citizen, even though she had a French name, a French family, and French heritage.

When she was a teenager, her family moved to Europe, but they chose Paris, not London. At age 17, Lise met and loved Gustave Villameur, but her mother nixed the idea on the grounds that Lise was too young, especially since the young man was hopelessly unsuitable, a penniless artist, of all things. No, no, and definitely not.

So Lise got a job instead, and she was 35, unmarried, and living in Paris in 1940, when the Germans came and invited themselves in.

German troops in Paris (1940) (Source)
I was mildly surprised by the idea of cavalry, but yes, horses were still widely used.

Lise was one of the lucky ones. Her British passport allowed her to get out. And after a roundabout journey that took months, she found herself in England.

In England, the war effort was going badly. Hitler owned the Continent, and he had taken it so fast he made it look easy. Britain was next on the list. The opinion in British command was that a straightforward war would fail. They needed a clandestine war.

On July 22, 1940, Winston Churchill signed the Special Operations Executive, bringing the SOE into existence. He called it his Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. It would be secretive and duplicitous. It would not challenge the Germans openly but sneak its way in to blow things up behind their backs. Literally blow things up, I mean. Churchill’s word-for-word instructions were to “set Europe ablaze” (Vigurs).

The captain in charge of hiring the people to do the blazing was Selwyn Jepson and he had a problem: Britain had run out of men. Actually the whole world had that problem. One in every three humans on the planet was serving in the most global conflict in history (Rose, 26).

Women were the obvious solution, but it was one thing to employ them in an office or a factory. Sending them behind enemy lines as saboteurs was entirely different, unthinkable, ungentlemanly in the extreme. For goodness sake, the whole point of the war was to protect our women and children, wasn’t it?

Captain Jepson shrugged. He admitted all of that, but he had a few counterarguments to make. Women, he said, were not just capable as agents, they were actually better at it than men. Better at working alone, better at deception, and definitely better at moving freely in occupied territory where every able-bodied man had already been conscripted for the Germans’ benefit.

Besides, there weren’t enough British men left to hire. Churchill reluctantly agreed.

Jepson was looking for a very specific type of woman: brave, patriotic, and physically strong. She also had to look and sound French, so she could blend in undercover. But she couldn’t actually be French because Charles de Gaulle, the man who wished he was President of France, was raising up a ruckus about French citizens serving under British commanders. The very idea! Terrible!

Lise was technically British, but thoroughly French in every other way. She was perfect.

The SOE signed her up and put her in spy school, which makes her the first spy I am covering who got anything other than on-the-job training. Everyone else was just in the right place at the right time. Or you might say the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your point of view.

The SOE training regimen, for man or woman, took 6 to 9 months. The curriculum included:

  • how to write invisibly (multiple methods)
  • how to pick locks
  • how to catch, snare, and skin a rabbit should you need to survive in the wild
  • how to duplicate a key
  • how to shake a follower
  • how to not get shaken when you are the follower
  • how to commit arson
  • how to blackmail
  • how to assemble, disassemble, clean, and fire a variety of firearms and explosives
  • Plus at least 100 ways of killing a man without firing a shot

(Rose, 41, Vigurs)

Also, parachute jumping since that was how Lise would get to France.

And an entirely new life story: a fictional name, a fictional family, a list of fictional past addresses and schools, a fictional love story, plus the very sad wartime death of her fictional husband.

Also, mock interrogations to make sure she could keep her story straight under pressure.

Lise excelled at all of it. Her commanding officer wrote this in her file:

Intelligent, extremely conscientious, reliable and sound in every way. Is quite imperturbable and would remain cool and collected in any situation. In both practical exercises and theoretical problems she has shown a capacity to sum up a situation, make a decision and stick to it without becoming flustered. A considerable experience of the world has built up for her a very high degree of self-confidence. A pleasant and quiet personality. She was very much ahead of her fellow students, and had she been with others as mentally mature as herself, she would have shown herself even more capable. We would certainly recommend her for employment in the field.

Rose, 45; Vigurs

 A glowing report. So it was time to go.

The SOE gave Lise the code name Artist. They gave her French clothes and forged French documents: ID, ration cards, etc. They gave her an enormous wad of French cash.

They also gave her four medicines:

  • one was a sleeping pill (should she need to drug a guard, for instance)
  • one was an amphetamine stimulant (in case she needed to go days without sleeping)
  • one would induce cramping and diarrhea (useful if she needed a cover story)
  • and the last was lethal cyanide (possibly useful for an enemy, but mostly intended for her). (Rose, 53)

The world didn’t yet know the full extent of the horrors in the concentration camps, but they knew enough to know that a quick self-inflicted death might be better. And in any case, you couldn’t betray your fellow spies if you were dead.

On the night of September 23, 1942, a small plane flying by moonlight took Lise and her fellow agent Andrée Borrel over the Channel to France. A safe house was waiting for them, but the lights were supposed to be on and arranged in a certain way, and they were not.

A Westland Lysander Mk III (Source)
This type of plane carried the agents and supplies of the SOE to and from France.

So back they went to England.

The following night the lights were right. They had drawn lots to see who would jump first and Lise had lost. Sometime after 1:00 am, Andrée jumped and Lise was right behind her. She had to be quick or they’d have landed miles apart. She was quick, and they landed 50 yards apart. Along with suitcases, 12 guns with ammunition, 10 kilos of plastic, and hundreds of detonators and similar devices. (Rose, 61).

Their reception was arranged by Yvonne Rudellat, another SOE spy who had arrived by boat some time earlier. She had everything all ready: food, a place to stay for the night. But there was a job to do, and Lise was to do it alone. Andrée went north to Paris. Lise bought a ticket south to the town of Poitiers.

Lise introduced herself as Madame Irène Brisée, widow from Paris, looking for rooms to rent. Why Poitiers? Well, it was a city special to Eleanor of Aquitaine, with buildings still standing that she had commissioned, and she was buried not far away. Madame Brisée was very interested in Eleanor and the local history. And it was natural enough for a 30-something war widow to want to leave the dangers of war-occupied Paris.

Not that anywhere in France was entirely free from the effects of occupation. Madame Brisée took an apartment one door down from Gestapo headquarters. Her real assignment was to arrange for incoming agents and supplies, and set up safehouses for them, and also arranging for guides as needed south into Vichy, France, which was nominally still free.

In theory, this sounded exciting. In practice Lise was bored. There were very long waits between the action, and she didn’t know anyone in Poitiers. She signed up for Spanish lessons and typing classes. “I had to take some interest in something. Time is very long, you know,” she said afterwards (Rose, 102).

Also she held dinner parties, on the theory that if she had lots of guests, it would be normal for the neighbors to see people coming and going.

She began exploring the countryside by bicycle. When she found a likely looking field, hidden by trees, off the beaten path, she sent the coordinates to London for a drop (Rose, 103).

Like everyone else in France, Lise got most of her news in via the BBC radio, which by now had a daily French section. Some of it was above board programming and news. Some was a mixture of genuine nonsense sprinkled with phrases that sounded like nonsense but were actually coded messages. For example, the code they sent telling Yvonne that Andrée and Lise were on the way was Les singes ne posent pas de questions or “Monkeys don’t ask questions” (Rose, 56). If she wanted to send a message back, Lise had absolutely no way to do it herself. Her options were to go to Paris, where Andrée Borrel had a radio operator. Or to Bordeaux, where Lise’s brother Claude was section leader, and he had a radio operator. She had no address for him. She could only wait in a particular café until he appeared (Rose, 103).

Claude de Baissac (Source)

She also recruited a network. This was highly dangerous. The locals didn’t like the Nazis. But historically, they didn’t like Brits either. More to the point, they were hungry. And the Nazis paid good money for informers. Still, Lise gathered a few who were willing to help her.

Until the worst happened. Not to Lise. But to Andrée Borrel. Her Paris network was discovered and arrested and several of them knew plenty that was incriminating about Madame Irène Brisée in Poitiers. It was only a matter of time until they broke.

Andrée Borrel (Source)

Lise, who knew nothing of this, received urgent orders to get out and get out quickly. She left a fully paid apartment. It would have been dangerous to carry all the money she had, so she stuffed it in a bookcase before she left. She met up with her brother and took lots of walks far from Poitiers until the SOE sent a plane to bring them back (Rose, 210).

But the story doesn’t end there. Back in England, Lise now taught at spy school, but she ached to be back in the thick of the action, and the only thing preventing her was the fact that she broke her leg on a practice parachute jump.

Of course she wouldn’t go back as Irène Brisée. That identity was compromised, though they didn’t yet know how thoroughly. Not until after the war did she learn that the Gestapo did visit her Poitiers apartment, looking for her.

The woman they found living there was not Madame Brisée. Her name, her real name, was Mary Herbert. She was another SOE agent, who until quite recently had served as Claude de Baissac’s courier in Bordeaux. She was also cuddling Claude de Baissac’s newborn daughter, and let me tell you there was more than one person who had harsh words for a man who had fled with his sister but not his pregnant lover. I would have harsh words too, except that Mary seems to have had her own opinions on things. The baby was her idea. (Lise had said she was crazy, trying to have a baby as an undercover agent in a war zone, but that did not stop Mary.) In England Mary would have been out of a job immediately. A government department which had only reluctantly hired women at all certainly wasn’t going to keep paying a pregnant one.

Whereas in France, she could have Lise’s fully paid apartment and a very large stash of money in the bookcase. And France approved of mothers. The Germans did too. Or at least they approved of Aryan mothers, and Mary was okay in that department.

Claude gave her a certificate of paternity. It was totally against security regulations to put any such thing in writing, but he did it because if he died, it was his daughter’s hope of a war pension. If he lived, he promised to marriage to make his daughter legitimate.

Lise gave her the right passwords to convince her maid in Poitiers to let her in and stay in the apartment, so it was all settled.

I realize this whole thing is a bit of an aside from Lise’s story, but if I could just do an aside from the aside, who is this maid person? And why haven’t we heard about her before? She must have known a great many secrets (including passwords apparently), but how many secrets did she know and how did Lise know she could be trusted? And how many risks did she run? And why do none of my sources have anything to say about her except that she existed? This is one of I-don’t-know-how-many instances where the lower class people just don’t count. Not worth mentioning except for the brief moments where they’re essential to the story of the better-connected people. Okay, end of the aside within the aside and back to the main aside.

Mary was astonishingly good under pressure. She told the Gestapo that Madame Brisée was in Paris, that she was just a friend of a friend, had never actually ever met Madame Brisée, but she needed a place to stay and Madame was very kind. Would there be many more questions? She was happy to answer them, of course, but if so, could the maid step out to get some things for the baby, please? Milk and soap and other basics? Babies were so hard to care for.

This sounded reasonable, so the maid went out to warn Lise’s network. But they were all being rounded up and arrested. Mary, too, as it happened. The Gestapo took her to jail, leaving the baby with the maid.

Even in prison, Mary was a cool liar. The large sum of money was from the baby’s father. He had abandoned her in Paris for another woman but had given her the money to provide for the baby. She didn’t expect to see him again. No, she didn’t know Madame Brisée was a spy. She didn’t recognize any of the pictures of captured agents. Her baby was named Claudine because it was such a pretty name. No, she didn’t know of an British agent named Claudine stationed in Bordeaux. (The Claudine they were looking for was her; it was her code name.)

The woman they had arrested looked just like a tired mother who missed her baby. After two months, the Gestapo let her go. In the end, her crazy plan to have an illegitimate baby in the middle of a war saved her life. They simply couldn’t picture this frail young mother as a spy. Mary reclaimed her daughter and disappeared into the countryside.

Meanwhile, Lise’s leg had healed and she was back in France, this time in Normandy, still a Parisian widow fleeing the capital. Claude was there too. She was his second-in-command, and the work was ramping up. Everyone knew D-day was coming, but not where or when. The resistance had to be armed and ready to support the invasion when it came.

This would require thousands of locals: ready, armed and trained, many of them very young, many of them women, since many of the men were already gone. Lise was in Paris recruiting, when the message came. It was June 5, 1944, and the BBC said, amid the nonsense

Blessent mon coeur
D’une longueur
Monotone.

It was lines from a famous French poem. But it meant: We are coming within 48 hours. Be ready.

By daybreak, the team Lise had helped arm and train had broken every telephone line, railroad track, and many of the roads into Normandy (Rose 248). Lise herself bicycled north from Paris for three days on back roads to get there, pausing only to sleep in ditches.

The fight for Normandy took months, and Lise was on her bicycle for most of it. Hitler sent reinforcements straight through her territory. The network felled trees across roads or blew impassable holes in them. Some nights she and her team collected up to 60 containers of explosives and other supplies. Sometimes they were shot at. Some of her fighters died. As she traveled, Lise passed through many German checkpoints and many a German soldier frisked her up and down for contraband. She had multiple close shaves.

One schoolhouse was loaned to her as a headquarters, only to have the Germans come in and requisition the same building for their headquarters. For a while they had Nazis coming and going from the front while the Resistance snuck in and out the back, and the headmaster’s wife was cooking meals for both sides (Rose, 262; Legasee interviews).

The German army also claimed Lise’s apartment for sleeping quarters. If they’d known who she was, they’d have arrested or shot her. But they thought she was just a middle aged widow they were kicking out of her home, so they just watched while she bundled up her few belongings, never realizing that the bedding she took with her, was actually a parachute (Rose, 263; Legasee interviews).

On August 15, 1944, Nazi command evacuated the Normandy front. Hitler called it the worst day of his life (Rose, 265). I imagine it was one of the best days in Lise’s life. Her mission to France was over, an unqualified success.

But many of her fellow agents were not so lucky. Andrée Borrel died in a concentration camp. Yvonne Rudellat survived concentration camp to see it liberated by the British army. A few days later she died of typhus (Rose, 282).

For those who lived, the purpose that had filled their lives was not so easy to replace. Lise said, “I was going back to nothing. I had no home, I didn’t know what… I was going to do in the future.”

What she actually did was become a radio journalist for the BBC. And here’s the fairy tale part I promised last week: in her forties, she married Gustave Villameur, the very same artist her mother had forbidden her to marry decades earlier, so in the end I guess you can say that true love won out. They chose to live in the south of France.

Along the way, Lise was granted the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor and her paratrooper wings. “My life has been worth something,” she said. “That gives me pleasure.” She died on March 29, 2004, age 98.

Selected Sources

Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War II : 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Review, 2019.

Legasee: The Veteran’s Video Archive. “Lise de Baissac.” Over 650 Video Interviews with Military Veterans | Legasee, http://www.legasee.org.uk/veteran/lise-de-baissac/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Magida, Arthur J. Code Name Madeleine : A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris. New York, Ny, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2020.

Rose, Sarah. D-Day Girls : The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the NAZIS, and Helped Win World War II. New York Crown, 2019.

Vigurs, Kate. Girls from the Sky – 80th Anniversary of Lise de Baissac & Andrée Borrel. Zoom Meeting on September 25, 2022. Zoom Meeting.

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