Henri Dericourt

Henri Dericourt

Henri Déricourt was born in France in September 1909. Trained as a civilian pilot before joined the French Air Force as a test pilot in 1939.

When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Déricourt went back to civil aviation but in August 1942 he escaped to Britain. After being checked out at the Royal Patriotic School's vetting process, he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Déricourt was parachuted into France on 22nd January 1943. His main task was to find suitable landing grounds and organize receptions for agents brought by air. He worked mainly for the Prosper Network and over the next few months he arranged the transport by plane of over 67 agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Jack Agazarian, Francis Suttill, Pearl Witherington and Lise de Baissac.

In the summer of 1943 the Gestapo arrested several British agents working in France. It became clear that a double-agent had infiltrated the Special Operations Executive. Several agents, including Francis Cammaerts, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill became convinced that Déricourt was the man responsible. These suspicions increased when it became known that Déricourt was living in Paris in a flat next to one rented by Hugo Bleicher of Abwehr.

Another agent, Henri Frager, told Nicholas Bodington when he visited occupied France in July 1943 that Déricourt was a German spy. Bodington dismissed this theory arguing that as Déricourt arranged his journey to France and he had not been arrested. When Bodington refused to take action some agents began to think that he was also a double agent.

Soon afterwards Georges Pichard, informed Maurice Buckmaster that he had heard from a good source that a "Frenchman in charge of air operations in the Paris and Angers districts" was working for Abwehr. Buckmaster like Bodington before him, dismissed the charges and Déricourt was allowed to continue his work in France until February 1944.

After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Gilbert Norman, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill.

In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt's work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.

During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.

When Jean Overton Fuller interviewed Déricourt for her book, Double Agent, he told her that leaders of the Special Operations Executive knew the organization had been penetrated by the Gestapo and that men and women were deliberately sacrificed in order to distract their attention from the planned landings in Sicily and Normandy.

Henri Déricourt was reported to have been killed in an air crash while flying over Laos on 20th November, 1962. His body was never found and some writers have claimed that his death was faked in order to allow him to begin a new life under another name.

Primary Sources

(1) M. R. D. Foot, SOE in France (1966)

When Bodington was in Paris in July and in frequent touch with Déricourt, Frager had imparted his doubts to him; but Bodington had brushed them aside, feeling intelligibly enough that as he was not arrested himself, the people he saw must all be sound. Frager remarked that he "is convinced that the Colonel (Hugo Bleicher) was not lying and believes he spoke the truth when he said that the Germans had decided not to arrest Major Bodington, as they did not want to ruin one of their best channels of information.

(2) Maurice Buckmaster, testimonial for Henri Déricourt (5th December, 1945)

It is indelicate to say what I think about this officer, as long as his case is sub-judice. But when - if ever - the clouds are blown away, I am prepared to bet a large sum that we shall find him entirely innocent of any voluntary dealing with the enemy. His efficiency in Hudson and Lysander work was staggering and it was his very success that raised the ugly idea that he was controlled. People who did not know him and judged him on the results of his work said "It's too good to be true - he must be a bad hat". That kind of reasoning would of course be scoffed at by any country section officer who has to judge his man far more closely than an outsider. Suffice it to say that he never once let any of our boys down and that he has by far the finest record of operations completed of any member of SOE.

(3) Nicholas Bodington, evidence given at the trial of Henri Déricourt (June 1948)

I knew that Henri Déricourt was in contact with the Germans. He told me about it a few hours after I arrived at the landing ground at Cande on 15 July. I told him not to break off his contacts with the Germans.

(4) Francis Cammaerts was interviewed by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field.

At the end of the war we all came back with bitter recriminations, boiling with fury about what had happened that shouldn't have and what hadn't happened that should have. But we came to realize that it was a consequence of London being out of touch with actual conditions in the field, while we were out of touch with what was going on there, with the degree of confusion at Bletchley, where conditions could only be described as chaotic.

(5) Rita Kramer, Flames in the Field (1995)

Francis Cammaerts dismisses as 'a fantasy' the theory put forward by those like his one-time deputy Pierre Raynaud and the BBC's Robert Marshall that Dericourt was run by MI6. He thinks men like Bodington and Dericourt became double agents because 'they had a freak sense of adventure and thought it was a clever way to play it.'

One of the F Section agents recruited in the field, Jacques Bureau - Prosper's radio technician - also is convinced that the Prosper agents were used to deceive the Germans about the time and place of the invasion, but he sees it as an indispensable, a justifiable strategy for defeating the Nazis and saving countless lives. His attitude is one more of sorrow than of anger, an acknowledgment of the tragic ironies of the situation rather than an indictment of the British.

He believes that Suttill and Norman behaved honourably, following orders that were designed, although neither they nor the French Section staff were aware of the fact, to set up the radio games that, along with

Dericourt's passing of the mail, would keep the German forces in the north-west of France in a constant state of expectation of invasion there between the spring and the autumn of 1943, when they might have been used against the Allies on other fronts. Although they were unaware of it, as he sees it the weapons he and the other Prosper agents wielded were the lies that successfully protected the real invasion plans.

(6) Jean Overton Fuller, open letter to the makes of Churchill's Secret Army, broadcast in January/February 2000.

What got left out in the transmission of Churchill's Secret Army was my exposition of the deal he got with the Germans, which, though unauthorized, seemed to me (and in retrospect to the Germans with whom I talked) to have worked to the British interest.

He was to give them the expected time and place of arrival of British aircraft, but they were not to arrest British agents landing on or departing from these aircraft or harm the aircraft; these concessions they made in the hope that when the time came he would give them the expected time and place of the Invasion. I remember saying on film, what his direct contact, Dr Goetz had said to me, that they had not the shred of a guarantee of his intention or indeed ability to do this, but Boemelburg (Oberststurmbannfuhrer, head of Geheimstaatspolizei, Paris) was quite carried away by it.

Naturally I am not saying Déricourt did not do anything wrong. Face to face with him, I told him he did do wrong. It was not fair to the agents landing to let them be trailed by the Gestapo from the railway station up as far as the Gare de Montparnasse, Paris, unwarned, if unharmed. What he was exposing them to, I put it to him, was the danger something might go wrong - as indeed it did go wrong in the case of the three who landed in November 1943 and were arrested in the Gare Montparnasse. Didn't he feel anything for them? He said "I am sorry for them. What else can I say?" It was not meant to happen. But what was it in a war? How many had Haig killed, in the Somme? And how many did I accuse him of killing? "Well, call it half a dozen in case there are one or two more you haven't discovered yet or even I don't know of." Against that, not a single agent leaving France for England had been stopped, and of those arriving in France, by far the greater number had proceeded unhindered. We had not the figures then but I now take them from Verity.

If Déricourt had felt his role totally shameful, surely he could not have sat for hours arguing the morality of it with me. Yes, he had made some money out of his contact with the Germans but it was for passing them contraband goods. "I was not selling heads! That would make me vile. I do not admit to be vile".

What, I asked him, did he really tell Bodington when the latter visited France in July-August 1943? Did he really tell him he was in contact with German Intelligence? He said, "I told him in such a way that he would know it for himself, yet could say that he had been told or not been told as suited him best. I said to myself "If I say 'I am working with the Germans' then he has to tell Buckmaster. But perhaps he doesn't want to tell Buckmaster." His great hope was that Bodington would take over from Buckmaster as head of F section. He was more intelligent than Buckmaster. With Nick as his chief, he would be open, explain his renewal of contact with Boemelburg and they would decide together how to use this to the British interest. But for now, it was better he should know it in such a way he could keep it for himself. What he actually said to Nick was, "I've been meeting old friends again." That could mean nothing, but he had not a doubt in the world Nick understood it as meaning he had made contact with Boemelburg. It was a matter of "Je sais que tu sais, et tu sais que je sais que tu" -"I know that you know; and you know that I know that you know"

The Germans expected Bodington to walk into a trap arranged over the German controlled radio-Archambaud. This he must not do. Yet if nobody walked into it, they would know he had warned Nick and they would both have been arrested. So Nick set Agazarian. It was an unhappy thing to have had to do. (Vogt had told me that Agazarian, when he was brought in as a prisoner, he expressed himself furious with Bodington who, he said, had sent him to the dangerous rendezvous being too fearful to go himself.) Spooner, however, when I had told him this, had said that if one or the other had to be caught it was "militarily" much better that it should be Agazarian who had little knowledge he could betray, than Bodington who knew the composition of every network in France. The could have mopped the lot up and this would have been the end of F Section.

DR Goetz, who had been detailed to act for Boemelburg (Kieffer's chief) to act as 'Gilbert's' direct contact, when in 1985 he accepted an invitation from me to come to England and spend a week-end at my house, told me that after the wrong man walked into the ambush, considerable pressure was put on Déricourt to tell them of some other place at which they could arrest Bodington and he kept telling them of places "where he was not." It became obvious he did not want them to have Bodington. It was he to whom "Gilbert" gave the time and place of British aircraft expected arrival. On receiving the details he, Goetz would then ring up the German anti-aircraft batteries and say, "British aircraft, such and such type, approaching from such and such making for such and such location: do NOT fire at it." So the aircraft had a protected flight.

Though it did look to me at a very early stage of my researches that both might be guilty, it now seems to me that the discrepancy between what Bodington wrote in his report on his return to London and what he later said at Déricourt's trial in Paris can be sufficiently explained by his understandable reluctance to say he had sent Agazarian to his death and why - which would have involved explaining all that lay behind it - without looking for anything more sinister. If Bodington had been a German agent the Germans would not have been trying to arrest him.

The evidence Bodington gave at Déricourt's trial was not so very false. He merely represented as having been explicit expressed in words what had been tacit but implicit. It should be remembered that the charge against Déricourt was expressly that he had betrayed Agazarian to the Germans. Déricourt would have had to reply 'not me Bodington' had not Bodington come and given evidence that would get them both off.

I owe no special consideration for Bodington as he never gave me an interview. But Déricourt gave me every cooperation, long hours of his time, during which he never took amiss the hard things I said to his face about what he had done and now that he is dead and unable to present his defence, I feel it a kind of loyalty to do that for him, as best I can - to hold the fort for him.