Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hunting the Nazis

One element of Free Agent that I've received a lot of comments on is the flashback chapter to Germany in 1945, in which Paul Dark joins his father on an unofficial operation to hunt down and execute Nazis suspected of committing atrocities against Allied special forces (or so he thinks). As I point out in the author's note of the novel, this did not happen in real life: the SAS did have groups looking for such people, but they brought them to trial rather than killing them. But even though I was writing something a little different, I did quite a lot of research into how the real operations had been done. One excellent book on the subject is The Secret Hunters by Anthony Kemp, but there are snippets about such operations scattered through memoirs of the war.

For most of the time I was writing Free Agent, I was a journalist on the staff of The Bulletin, an English-speaking magazine in Belgium. Like many small magazines, we had a limited remit: ours was essentially Belgium, and so the hunt was on to find interesting and original stories to tell about the country. Luckily for me, although perhaps unluckily for its inhabitants, Belgium has long been a centre for spies and other shady figures, and I dug into a lot of interesting espionage history. In June 2005, I discovered an excellent website about a special forces unit from the war I knew very little about. After contacting the site's owners, I was put in touch with several SAS veterans, and spent time interviewing a few of them. A lot of it went into the article below - and some of it I kept for my first novel. If you find the article interesting, do visit the site; if you'd like to explore the subject further in print and can read French, I recommend Les Parachutistes Belges by Jean Temmerman, and Six Amis Viendront Ce Soir by Gabriel Sadi-Kirschen. Both were in the Belgian SAS: the former is more of a reference work for their missions, while the latter is an elegant and highly readable memoir. In English, The SAS by Philip Warner is the official history of the regiment, and contains some information about Belgian SAS operations.

Here's the article.

Whisper who dares

One elite unit of men played a crucial part in winning World War Two – and in finding war criminals following it. Jeremy Duns looks at the little-known story of the Belgian SAS

'Yes, I wanted vengeance in 1945. But if I had killed the Nazis I tracked down, that would have made me as bad as them, wouldn't it?'

Jacques Goffinet is speaking to me on the phone from Reguisheim in France. Sixty years ago yesterday, aged just 22, he arrested Germany's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in Hamburg. Tracking down Nazi war criminals was his final job after four years as a member of one of the Allies' most successful units: the Belgian SAS.

Britain's Special Air Service – motto 'Who dares wins' – is regarded as one of the world's greatest fighting forces, and there have been hundreds of books, articles and films about its exploits. But very little attention has been given to its Belgian squadron.

It started life in 1942 as the Belgian Independent Parachute Company, in Malvern Wells in western England (about 30 kilometres from Hereford, where the SAS is now based). The BIPC was mainly made up of soldiers who had escaped from occupied Belgium and Belgian volunteers from the US and Canada. It included men who had been farmers, lawyers and dentists – as well as three barons.

The company was led by Eddy Blondeel (above), a former engineer from Ghent nicknamed 'Captain Blunt'. Despite the difficulties of leading a multi-lingual group, Blondeel commanded the absolute respect of his 130 or so men. They learned parachute jumping, hand-to-hand combat and sabotage techniques at various locations, including Inverlochy Castle in Scotland, where they trained alongside members of the SAS.

The SAS had been set up in 1941 by British officer David Stirling (left) with the intention of wreaking havoc on the Nazis in northern Africa: it consisted of small commando units, who were usually parachuted behind enemy lines.

In February 1944, the BIPC moved to a training camp in Galston, near Ayr, where it was merged into the SAS. Although a relatively small brigade, 5 SAS, as it was now known, was not some obscure wing of the regiment: it completed several crucial missions. Some of its operations involved just a handful of men being dropped into France, after which they would sabotage the Germans' communications or blow up bridges. Some involved the entire company – Operation TRUEFORM in August 1944, for example, when, along with British SAS, they landed in Normandy and inflicted substantial damage on the retreating German armoured columns, who were trying to cross the Seine. Others still were long-term missions: Operation FABIAN was carried out by five Belgian SAS members from September 1944 to March 1945, near Arnhem in the Netherlands.

FABIAN was led by one of the first members of the Belgian SAS, Gilbert Sadi-Kirschen, who spent much of the war using the alias of `Fabian King'. The son of the barrister who had defended Edith Cavell in a German military court in World War One, Sadi-Kirschen qualified as a lawyer himself, but when war broke out, joined the Sixth Artillery Regiment. When Belgium surrendered, he, like many others, was arrested, and was put in a truck to be taken to a POW camp. He escaped from the truck, and travelled through France, Algeria, Tangier, Portugal and Gibraltar, being imprisoned for two months on the way, before finally making it to England, where he joined the Belgian parachutists. The aim of FABIAN was to find the locations of the Germans' V2 rocket launch sites: it was meant to last eight days, but ended up taking six months.

Sadi-Kirschen also led Operation BENSON, in which a six-man team jumped near Beauvais in north-eastern France in August 1944. A couple of the men suffered minor injuries on landing, and were taken to a doctor trusted by the local Resistance. The doctor told them that the previous day he had been sitting in a cafĂ© with a German major, and had sketched down the map the man had left on his table when he went to the bathroom. The sketch was very simple – but showed every German division on the Somme, and even the position of Army Headquarters.

The SAS men immediately retreated to a barn to transmit the information, but were interrupted by Germans using a self-propelled gun. Quickly hiding their sets, they escaped from the barn, and took cover under some corn-stacks in a nearby field. The Germans searched frantically for them, but gave up once it got dark. The SAS team returned to the barn, rescued their sets, and made their transmission. It was one of the major coups of the latter stages of the war.

Members of the Belgian SAS were the first Allied troops to set foot in Belgium, and the first SAS unit to enter Germany. When one considers all the information they received and all the damage they caused the Germans, it's by no means far-fetched to say that the they made a substantial contribution to the Allied victory. Their success rate was phenomenal, and by the war's end, only 15 men of the unit had been killed. One of these was Corporal-Signaller Raymond Holvoet, who was captured, tortured and finally executed by the Germans in April 1945, in Zwolle, in the Netherlands. Three years earlier, Hitler had issued his infamous Kommandobefehl, or Commando Order, in which he stated that Allied special forces would not be afforded the terms of the Geneva Convention – any member of an enemy 'sabotage unit' captured alive would be shot.

For many in the SAS, this was a step too far. In the closing stages of the war and in the months following it, British and American counter-intelligence groups began tracking down and arresting Nazis suspected of war crimes. After the liberation of Brussels, some members of the Belgian SAS were attached to these groups. They travelled across Europe, and arrested many leading Nazis, including Admiral Karl Doenitz, the commander of the German navy and, for 20 days following Hitler's suicide, Germany's president; Alfred Rosenberg, the minister for the eastern occupied territories; and Joachim von Ribbentrop (above), the Nazis' foreign minister.

'It was a tough job,' says Jacques Goffinet with typical understatement. Post-war Germany was an anarchic place: liberated POWs and refugees lined the roads, food and drinking water were scarce and electricity and gas often unavailable. In some of the cities, sewer lines ran into bomb craters and bodies rotted under the debris of destroyed buildings. Neither did peace mean an end to violence: Russian agents were combing DP camps hunting down and executing `traitors' to the Soviet Union, and some soldiers and civilians were conducting their own searches for enemies to avenge. Members of the British Army's Jewish Brigade assassinated several Nazis around this time.

As a sergeant in the Belgian SAS, Goffinet had taken part in operations CHAUCER and NOAH. Now he was assigned to a British counter-intelligence operation in Hamburg. On the morning of June 15 1945, he arrived at headquarters as usual. Two German civilians were waiting outside the building – they told him that they knew von Ribbentrop was hiding out in an apartment in Hamburg, using the name Von Riese. They gave him the address.

Goffinet wasn't hopeful – most such leads were dead-ends – but together with a British lieutenant called Adams and a couple of colleagues, he set out for the apartment. The door was locked, but as Goffinet began to try to prise it open, it was opened by a woman in a nightdress. Coming into the bedroom, Goffinet and his colleagues surprised a sleeping von Ribbentrop, who was wearing silk pyjamas. He knew at once that the game was up, and didn't try to flee. Goffinet checked that he didn't have a cyanide capsule under his lip and removed a razor from him as he packed. Hidden in the apartment was 200,000 marks and a rambling letter to 'Vincent Churchill' blaming the British for 'anti-German bias'.

Von Ribbentrop was found guilty at Nuremberg the following year and hanged. Considering the execution of Raymond Holvoet, I ask Goffinet if he was at all tempted to hand von Ribbentrop his fate himself. 'No,' he says. 'He was just another Nazi to me.'

The Belgian SAS eventually 'returned' to Belgium, where they were based in Tervuren. Blondeel faced many difficulties in keeping such a specialised force operating in a small country in peacetime, and the squadron was merged with the paras. In 1952, the paratroopers and the commandos merged into one regiment, which remains the case today. Belgian SAS veterans, of which there are now around 60, are still very active, though. As well as their own newsletter, they meet up at their club in Brussels once a month, and hold an annual 'Blunt Lunch' in honour of their commanding officer, who died in 2000, aged 93.

Jacques Goffinet is about to go into a nursing home. He tells me he rarely thinks about his days in the Belgian SAS, but seals it off in a compartment in his mind. I ask him why he thinks his old squadron is not as well known as some of the others, despite its extraordinary achievements. He laughs, and I try to imagine the face of the intense-looking 22-year-old in the photographs I've seen at 82 as he answers. 'Perhaps we're just modest,' he says.

With thanks to Des Thomas, Marc Backx, Paul Marquet and Jacques Goffinet.

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