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Benjamin Cowburn, or Benoit as he was codenamed, parachuted into France in early 1941. Before the war he had lived in Paris as an engineer, and his fluent French and local knowledge made him an ideal recruit to Special Operation Executive (SOE). In his book, No Cloak, No Dagger he records in matter-of-fact tones activating contacts; setting up letter-drops, safe-houses and parachute landing sites; failures and successes, and the truly appalling casulty rate amongst the first agents. His account is at once professional, and deeply personal-the thrilling adventures of an agent who ‘had always laughed at the “spy-thriller” type of story’. (Giles Foden)
Cowburn was sent to France four times by SOE to carry out its tasks with great efficiency without ever being arrested. This is a longevity record (1941-1944) for the agency. Cowburn was awarded the Military Cross from England, and was given the Knight of the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre from France.
PoemThe Ride of the Special Agent
Bicycle, little queen, my bike,Who carried me, me and my burdens infernalOn trips to the countless milesExhausted, panting and sweating with all my being, Through woods and forests, towns and villagesFeldpolizei bypassing the dams,From manure, rolling on the dung of horses,Matters to me less smelly than the Gestapo, However, I could console myself by thinking,As being under the orders of any commander,That any staff not seeking esteem,I was actually my own chief. Why not draw inspiration from Napoleon?Whereupon he said, walking his battalions?Their legs? Their feet? No! With their knapsacks,My army marches on its stomach. Bonaparte had become a small,Guess which partMany of my anatomy soreI had to rely to defeat the enemy. translation: Museum of Blois
The memoir of SOE agent Benjamin Cowburn is rightly regarded as a classic of wartime literature. In simple, gripping detail Cowburn explains the methods of special agents who were dropped into France during the war and the ways that agents would set about establishing secure networks with the French Resistance. He also shows how agents were able to travel across France, how they set up transmitters and contacted their British headquarters for orders, and how they arranged airplane pick-ups and deliveries of supplies.
His account sheds light on the views of both the Resistance fighters facing torture at the hands of the Gestapo and their besieged French countrymen. He notes the tensions within the different command centres, in particular between the French leader-in-exile Charles de Gaulle and his British counterparts, who were all eager to control the efforts of the Resistance.
Cowburn gives fascinating general lessons in the art of spying from establishing a worthy target to executing an operation but also tells the full story of his own sabotage operations, including the effective destruction of cylinders for thirteen locomotives in the dead of night. As in so many operations, mistakes were made which could have led to numerous arrests. In this case, the details of the operation had accidentally been left on a blackboard in the school where they had planned the raid, but were luckily scrubbed out by the headmaster’s wife. On another occasion, Cowburn snuck itching powder into the laundry of Luftwaffe agents to cause a disruption.
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