Muriel Tamara Byck, “Violette” and “Michele” SOE, Mentioned in Despatches
Hon. Assist. Section Officer 2071428 WAAF/SOE agent 9111 seconded to the F.A.N.Y., Muriel Tamara Byck, MiD, code name “Violette” and “Michele” was born on 4 June 1918 in Ealing, daughter of French Jews Luba Besia (née Golinska) and Jacques Byck, who had both taken British nationality. Her parents were divorced and Jacques (born in Kiev, Russia) was in 1943 living in New York; Luba was born in Lvov, Russia and was living, re-married, in Torquay in 1943, as Mrs G. E. Leslie at 2, Bayfort Mansions, Warren Rd. Muriel joined the WAAFs in December 1942and became a full member of the SOE in July 1943.
From 1936-38 she was a secretary in London; and from 1937-39 an Assistant Stage Manager at the Gate Theatre. Muriel had a strong sense of duty and from 1939-41 was a voluntary worker in the Red Cross, WVS and as an ARP Warden in Torquay. From 1941-2 she worked as a National Registration Clerk in Torquay and then joined the WAAFs as a clerk in December 1942, pending a Commission.
She was recruited into the SOE in July 1943 because of her excellent French and began initial training in September 1943 at Winterfold, Cranleigh, in Surrey. From here she proceeded to para-military training at Meoble Lodge, Morar, Invernesshire until October and w/t training at Thame Park, Oxfordshire in November/December 1943.
While in training she was graded average as a General Agent, but with a high intelligence rating (eight out of nine), with a high grade for Morse and mechanical aptitude. She was described as “a quiet, bright, attractive girl, keen, enthusiastic and intelligent. Alert but not very practical and as yet lacks foresight and thoroughness. She is, however, self-possessed, independent and persistent, and warm in her feelings for others...a girl of considerable promise who will require much training to help her to overcome her lack of experience, her complete ignorance of what the work really involves and her general guilelessness. Her temperament would appear to be suitable for work as a courier, or possibly propaganda.” Vera Atkins remembers her as being very self-assured and being comitted completely to wanting to go into this very hazardous work, to defeat Nazism and all it stood for.
At Meoble she showed little aptitude for para-military training (close combat, fieldcraft, weapon training, explosives and demolition), except for signalling.She was not physically strong, though successfully completed parachute training. She was commissioned (WAAF Hon. Assistant Section Officer) on 1 April 1944.
Muriel - petit, dark and aged 25 - was engaged to be married to a French agent in the offices of the OSS (American Secret Service), a Lieutenant Morange (an alias) whom she had met while training, and he had given her a leather covered powder compact. When her circuit leader Major Phillipe Albert de Crevoisier de Vomecourt, DSO (code-name “Antoine”) met Muriel in London and was security-checking her possessions before her jump, he told her she could not take the gift with her as it was too new and nothing like it could be bought in France. If she were caught with it, it would give her away as a foreign agent. Muriel insisted on taking it but he agreed only if he could make it look old, which he achieved by rubbing it with ammonia!
Muriel was given three sets of identity papers with photographs that differed only by her arranging her long black hair in different styles. Her operation was code named “Benefactress” and her forged papers named her as Michele Bernier.
She was told that if for any reason she had to change identities, she should inform London of the details immediately. In fact, SOE were so concerned about her youthful looks, they gave her special training with a make-up artist in London on how to look older by using a pencil under her eyes.
Her flight took off from Tempsford aerodrome near Bedford after 4 nail-biting delays due to bad weather, and she parachuted into France on the night of 8/9 April 1944 with agent Captain Stanislaw Makowski, code name “Dmitri/Maurice” and two other agents. Captain C. S. Hudson (“Marc/Albin”) - who was her CO until de Vomecourt arrived by plane - and Captain G. D. Jones (“Lime/lsidore/Gaston”). Muriel was to work as w/t with Resistance leader de Vomecourt of Réseaux “Ventriloquist” in the Orleans-Blois area and train any w/t operators whom it was possible to recruit locally. She was then to supply London with the details about these new recruits so they could be given code names and status. She was also to establish postboxes for contact should w/t break down. Although under command of “Antoine,” she was ordered to be as self-reliant as possible on all w/t matters. She was to take one hundred thousand francs and for security reasons keep expenses as moderate as possible.
(Interestingly, part two of Muriel’s orders’ mentions an emergency address - handwritten in contrast to the typed order sheets - for her to contact should she become separated from her dropping party and the reception committee on landing; it was Bureaux Agricoles, 10, Place de L’Hotel de Ville, Chalcauoux. She was - in true cloak and dagger style - to ask for M. Chabena or M. Monesher using the password, “Je viens de la part de Philippe voir si vouz pouviez m‘aider” to which the reply was to be “Veuillez attendre un instant.” Curiously, written next to this instruction is the word “Blown,” suggesting this address had been compromised).
After landing at Issoudun she was taken to Salbris to the home of Antoine Vincent, a member of the circuit. Here she again met de Vomecourt and the two men took her to a meal at a small restaurant by the level crossing just outside town. It was used almost exclusively by Germans and when they arrived, Muriel was terrified. “We can’t stay here” she whispered, “let’s get out while we can!” But Vincent explained that she had been brought here deliberately to get used to the sight of Germans and that once she was, she need not worry too much about them. She did not enjoy her meal that day. Her circuit had four transmitters in different locations covering a wide area within a ten mile radius of Vincent’s house, and - in accordance with her orders - were constantly moved about to avoid detection by the Germans, with transmissions being as brief as possible. Her first transmission was on 7 May 1944 and she subsequently sent twenty-seven messages and received sixteen. She never used the same set consecutively or at the same hour on any day. She was thus continually cycling from one to the other, and although many a man’s health and nerves degenerated under the stress, Muriel remained cheerful and buoyant despite her frail and youthful looks.
Rushing from location to location, she would encode, send, receive and decode messages, always on schedule, and on her own initiative often did this for other circuits as well, so messages would not ever be delayed. She also acted as a courier, alerting sabotage teams over a wide area.
Her base was in Vincent’s junk yard, twenty-five yards from his garage which was used as a repair shop by the Germans. Her station consisted of a rickety hut with a rusted corrugated iron roof, with light filtering through cracks in the wall. She was surrounded by old tires and car parts and the reek of oil and petrol. Shehad a box and table to work at. While transmitting, a guard was posted at the yard gate to give her warning if need be.
One day in late April, (this date of de Vomecourt’s conflicts with the SOE file date given above) while transmitting to London, she noticed an eye looking through a hole in the shed wall. Her stomach lurched but she quickly switched to plain language to tell London she was being watched. Continuing to send, she picked up the set and approached the hole, in time to see a German soldier leaving the yard. Full of fear, and not understanding where her lookout was, she packed her equipment, threw dust over her box and table to disguise the fact that anyone had been in the hut, and slipped into Vincent’s house and told him what had happened.
He decided at once to get her away in a car after consulting de Vomecourt, who came to collect her. When the Germans arrived - forty of them - they were already sceptical that their soldier had actually seen a pretty woman with a transmitter in a junk yard shed! They searched and found nothing and the soldier was given ten days detention for wasting his officer’s time.
Securely relocated in a new safe house (with the help of the Resistance doctor, Andrieux) Muriel returned to work; her story was that she was recovering from an illness and had come from Paris to recuperate. She had to take medicine during the night and her hosts should not be worried by her alarm going off at strange hours (this was, of course, to cover her wireless operations) or visits from her “uncle,” de Vomecourt.
The Last Days:
In early May it was decided by London and the circuit to bomb the nearby German ammunition dump at Michenon. At 2pm on 7 May, Muriel received a message from London saying that the dump would be hit the following night.
The raid was a great success but Muriel had been shaken by the terrific explosions which she had been quite near to. She became very tired and listless and was moved to the house of circuit member Dede and his wife and three daughters at Nouan-le-Fuzelier; later still she was moved to the house of blacksmith Jourdain at Vernou, thirty miles to
the west. De Vomecourt had been away but returned when he was told Muriel was ill and told her there was a plane leaving soon for England and she could write to her parents. (These two letterswere later delivered by de Vomecourt when he wrote - describing Muriel’s death - to her father on 6 December 1944).
But Muriel deteriorated seriously and collapsed at Jourdain’s home. A physician was called (in his letter to her father, de Vomecourt says three doctors attended her) and diagnosed meningitis, saying she must be taken immediately to a hospital. This was a great risk but de Vomecourt decided it must be; she was heavily involved in her work and much admired by all her comrades.
He went alone with her in the ambulance, to the hospital at Romorantin saying he was Muriel’s uncle, Monsieur de Courcelles, and that they were evacuees from Paris. Whether the nuns believed him or not they admitted the patient and did all they could to save her. An operation was performed at 10am but she died in Phillipe’s arms at 7pm on 23 May 1944. De Vomecourt described how he “assisted personally at all the duties generally assumed by the family” after Muriel had passed away and that she was buried secretly in a temporary vault, under a false name in a zinc coffin so that “you will be able to transport her later if you wish.”
De Vomecourt attended her funeral, having great difficulty in persuading her many friends to keep away for fear of arousing Gestapo suspicions. He followed the hearse alone through the town to the cemetery - just escaping the Gestapo - who had come for him there - by jumping the cemetery wall where a car awaited to whisk him away. After the war Gleeson allegesher family had her body brought back for burial in England. However, Escott rightly says she was re-buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Pornic, twenty kilometres south east of St Nazaire. She lies in Plot 2, Row AB. Grave 18. When the author visited the site he discovered that the poignant inscription reads “Here rests in peace Muriel Tamara Byck, our only child and beloved daughter.” In her will she left her savings of £42 to her beloved fiance.
It emerged subsequently that Muriel had meningitis as a child but she told nobody for fear of being refused enlistment in the SOE - as there is a risk of recurrence. Such was her courage, and determination to take part in the struggle against the Nazis.
In his letter to Muriel’s father, de Vomecourt added that he would be happy to introduce him to all Muriel’s many friends in France as soon as it was possible for him to come, and that a lady who had lost her only son in the Maquis, and at whose house Muriel had once stayed, was writing to him and Muriel’s mother to express her appreciation of Muriel’s great work and sacrifice for the liberation of France. (This very moving letter, in French and written in March 1945, is a long tribute to Muriel, full of praise for her wonderful personality and beauty, her sense of duty and hard work, her laughter and gaiety, and describes her as a unique person, who died as a soldier, giving her life, like the lady’s son, for right and justice).
Muriel never abandoned her Jewish faith and spoke often of her devout family in England, but she nevertheless wore, as a good luck charm, a little gold cross given her by a Resistance man who had met her at the parachute drop at Chateaurenault. To this day Resistance members and their children as well as other local people, of the Sologne area, visit her memorial at Romorantin, Loir et Cher to lay flowers at Remembrance ceremonies.
Muriel is also commemorated - like Denise Bloch - on the Knightsbridge and Valençay memorials as well the war memorial at the Lycee Francais in Kensington. These courageous women followed in a long and great tradition of Jews fighting back, helping dispel the anti-Semitic myths that all went like sheep to the slaughter - or worse, avoided fighting at all!