Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Yolande Beekman

Her mother described her as a gentle, quiet, self-effacing child with a core of steel. This was the young Yolande, daughter of Jacob Unternährer, a business man of Swiss extraction. After some years in Paris, where Yolande was born and spent a happy uneventful childhood, the family moved to London where Yolande had her schooling in Hampstead Heath, and then went to a finishing college in Switzerland.
She therefore became fluent in English, German and French, which she spoke with a slight Swiss accent; for instance it was noticed that she could not pronounce 'huit' as a Frenchwoman would. This cosmopolitan background produced a young girl who was good-humoured, kind and rarely ruffled, but with a surprisingly homely English appearance. In training she endeared herself to the men by darning their socks. She was perhaps not such an unexpected choice for SOE - a very nice unexceptional person, already past her 21st birthday when Hitler came to power in Germany.
In 1940 she joined the WAAF where her dexterity fitted her for the long training as a wireless operator. Afterwards, she was posted to several Fighter Command stations before she heard about the work of SOE and volunteered for it, starting her training as an agent in February 1943. Even wireless operators, although fully trained, had to undergo further training in the more secret aspects of their work. It was at this time that she met Noor Inayat Khan and Yvonne Cormeau, who went into the field as wireless operators before her. Then just before her training finished she married a serviceman called Beekman, but marriage did not shake her determination to go into the field. However, she did not want to jump by parachute, and she got her way.
Yolande's arrival signalled an upsurge in requests for and deliveries of explosives and arms and the havoc raised by the use of them. Railways, telephones and petrol-storage tanks were damaged, and at one point in the autumn Yolande was able to report that with the abrasive grease which would be siphoned into the lubrication points of engines, ten locomotives had been put out of action at once. The main railway line between St Quentin to Lille was also cut at least once a fortnight.
Yolande was not only involved in negotiating the demands for supplies, she was also present in the reception parties of over 20 parachute drops. Included in the consignments were Sten guns, bazookas, ammunition and magnetic limpet charges for the barges and lock gates.

When these were finally and most damagingly used, free passage on the canal was stopped for several weeks. In addition she saw to the distribution of the materials, since there were several well-trained and, ultimately, well-armed Maquis groups in the Musician circuit.
At one point the circuit at Lille appealed to Musician for help when their area became too dangerous for a wireless operator. On her own initiative Yolande offered to help them, and then in even more substantial form, told them that they could use the services of a young Frenchman whom she had trained for herself, and who could use the radio whenever they needed him, since she could give him the necessary codes and had cleared him with London. The result was that the Lille circuit received the arms it so much required, dropped by the RAF to a pre-arranged ground near Paris and then brought on to Lille by lorry as part of the loads of drivers recruited for this task by the resistance.
The changes to her 'skeds' not yet having reached her, Yolande still observed the set schedules of transmissions that SOE expected in early 1943, messages being sent three times a week, at certain times and wavelengths. In the country, by constant movement, these would have been more difficult for the Germans to trace, but in the smaller area of a town it was tempting providence. To help secure her set, Yolande left certain parts of it with various friends.
At the house at Rue de Ia Fére she would joke with the family, telling them that she would come back after the war, wearing her WAAF uniform. As she was always in ordinary clothes this would be a great treat for the family, and she would describe it from the peaked, soft-topped blue cap with its RAF winged badge, to the blue jacket and skirt, brown leather gloves and black shoes, and perhaps she would tell them some of the stories of her life as an airwoman before she joined SOE and became an honorary officer. They would laugh and she would promise that they would all celebrate the liberation together.
She was always laughing in those days, seemingly without fear and absolutely sure that France would soon be free. She was solid, reliable and seemed to have no nerves, ready to cheer the family if things were difficult for them or if, as occasionally happened, a member of the resistance was picked up by the police and there was the possibility that others might be endangered if torture made him talk. And of course there was the constant fear of German reprisals, not just for the death of one of their number but for acts of sabotage, which were increasing and so infuriating the Germans that they redoubled their efforts to find the lone pianist. Fear was always lurking in the background of the minds of most members.
In the cold little attic where she worked there was a wide divan, covered in brown velvet. There she would lie, her head cradled in her mittened hands, looking down and quietly reading a book, while she waited for the hour of her transmission.

Then at the appointed time she would lay out her set, throwing the end of the aerial out of the little window, and begin tapping out her messages, her dark head bent in concentration. As the lady of the house worked in a local chemist's shop, whose members were also resistance sympathisers, the house was often empty. At such times, Yolande would let herself in with a key she had been given and go up alone.
This happened even on Christmas Day, usually celebrated in France, as in England, with great festivities. But this was a bleak and solitary day, made more menacing by the news that German direction-finding vans had been seen moving slowly along the streets in the neighbourhood. Worse was to follow. In the week before New Year's Day, while she was again transmitting, her hostess saw one of these closed-in vans actually pass her house. She ran to warn Yolande, who immediately broke off her transmission with her warning sign and packed up her equipment.
The two women hurried with the suitcases to the house of another friend of the resistance who was willing to take the risk of harbouring the set. As a further precaution however, Yolande set-up another radio post in a farm at Fansommes. She also bleached her hair blonde and took on a new alias. In St Quentin, however, she still continued her thrice-weekly transmissions. Now the German listening and interception service was hot on her heels. They knew she was nearby and it looked as if it was only a matter of time before they caught her if she remained static for long. On 12th January 1944, men in heavy overcoats, their earphones hidden by their high turned-up collars were seen in the street outside the very house where she was transmitting. Warned by the resistance who also had eyes everywhere, she again prepared to move.
That evening before curfew, Yolande pedalled her bicycle through the open country, to an ugly, grey-brick building standing neara canal bridge. This was the Moulin Brulé, the Burned Mill, a small, wayside café where she was now lodging. Inside coffee and drinks were served at marble-topped tables. The next day Yolande came downstairs and joined Gustave Bieler, a local mechanic and the husband and wife who owned the café. Doubtless Yolande needed to discuss moving her radio, but there were many other things and the Germans were becoming more vigilant. As they talked, two cars drew up outside. Wiping her hands on her apron, the lady of the house rose to greet her new customers, only to be confronted by the levelled pistols of the Gestapo, who immediately handcuffed all five and dragged them into the waiting cars.
It was by a strange quirk of fate that Yolande had been captured not through her work as a wireless operator, but by the information of a traitor, or maybe not even that - perhaps a man driven past endurance by torture. He belonged, probably, not even to the St Quentin circuit but to that of Prosper in Paris, which was now almost totally destroyed and had brought down so many other circuits with it. Patiently piecing the clues together, the Germans had arrived at the café on this cold January day and at one swoop caught not only the organiser of the Musician circuit but also its wireless operator, leaving it headless.

Gustave and Yolande were hurried to the Gestapo headquarters at St Quentin, where they were tortured. The Germans knew who they were and concentrated on these two. They also knew a great deal about their work and asked searching questions without getting any answers. Gustave so enraged them that he was executed within a few weeks. When Yolande was questioned she also refused to give any information and was subjected to much brutal treatment.
She was also badly knocked about the face, as was observed by the chemist for whom her first hostess worked, when she was brought into his shop a few days later to ask if he knew where certain large sums of money belonging to the circuit had been hidden. Fortunately for him, he was able to convince the Germans that he was totally ignorant of the matter, and Yolande was roughly dragged away.
Her arrest was followed by those of many others in the area, a dozen or more being taken on suspicion. The day after her arrest the chemist's assistant, her first hostess, admiring her courage and taking a great risk herself, tried to get some food to Yolande but was told that she was held in an underground cell. Then a plan was drawn up by the resistance to help her escape but this was foiled at the last minute when the Germans decided to send her to Paris to the dreaded Avenue Foch, as they could get nothing out of her by their methods at St Quentin.
Still refusing to co-operate she was taken to Fresnes Prison to be put into solitary confinement, and on 13th May 1944 she was sent in the convoy of eight SOE girls, including Diana Rowden, handcuffed in pairs, to the civil women's prison at Karlsruhe. Here crowded into a cell for two but occupied by four women, with a spy hole in the door, Yolande had to face a different life. At least she was free from the cruel questioning that she had undergone and need no longer fear that by a chance word she might betray something or someone in the resistance.
Here she was treated as a common criminal, which must have grated on her sensibilities, but she knew that if she could attract no attention and survive the deadly monotonous routine of the days - rising with the bell at 0630 and going to bed without lights at 2000, with only a little work, exercise or food, mainly acorn coffee, bread and soup - she might have a chance of seeing the end of the war after all. It must have given her hope, as well as the time to recover from her ill-treatment. The roots of her hair, untreated, now began to show dark beneath the blonde, and without dye she could not cover it up in her once a fortnight shower. There was also the possibility, on the daily exercise hour when they circled the courtyard, that she might steal a word with one of her other SOE compatriots, and this might have brightened the occasional day.

It was only to be a brief respite, as an interfering chief wardress one day discovered that her SOE women were political prisoners, and were thus being held in the wrong type of prison. As the prison was overcrowded and she was outraged at this flouting of the rules and regulations, she immediately raised the matter with the governor, who passed it on to the authorities in Berlin. Consequently orders came down for the transfer of the women. Diana Rowden had already left with one group of four in July for Natzweiler, and now two months later Yolande was in the second party to be sent away.
Thus on the evening of 10th September 1944, the chief wardress called at the cells of each of them. When she reached Yolande she returned all the personal possessions which had been confiscated when Yolande arrived at Karlsruhe. Yolande also was informed that she would be called next morning to be transferred to another prison. At 0130 an elderly male warder on night duty called her out of the cell and took her down to the reception room, where she saw two other SOE FANY agents and Noor Inayat Khan, who had just arrived from Pforzheim prison.
Their papers were signed and the four handcuffed girls were handed over to three Gestapo officials - one of them a woman - who escorted them by car to the nearest railway station. They were put into reserved compartments of the early morning train to Munich, given window seats, food and allowed to speak freely, their German guards having changed to ordinary soldiers who saw nothing wrong in this. Consequently, the girls laughed and talked, enjoying the relaxation of these precious few hours. Late in the afternoon Yolande and the others arrived at Munich and changed trains. Held up by an Allied air raid, the train eventually covered the 12 or so miles to its destination by midnight.
Everything was quiet and dark as Yolande picked up her suitcase and trudged with the others up the shadowy hill to the walls of her new camp. The only movement was the searchlights sweeping over row upon row of huts, silent as the grave. She must have been wondering what type of agricultural work she had been allocated, as that was what she had been told she was to do, and she must have been nearly dropping with fatigue after such a long, eventful day. The handing over of the prisoners, arriving at such an untimely hour, was fortunately brief and she was given a small windowless single cell like the others. She must have thought it a great relief after the overcrowded life at Karlsruhe. But there was little time for thought as sleep soon claimed her.
At dawn next day, she was awakened brusquely. In short order she again joined her companions as they were marched out to a small sand-strewn courtyard, a smoke-blackened building with a large chimney along one side. When she saw the waiting German officers, smart in their uniforms, she must have immediately realised the reason for all this ceremony. One stepped forward and read out the formal notice of their execution.

There was no doubt or delay. Taking her nearest companion's hand in her firm clasp and showing no sign of fear she walked forward and then knelt as she was instructed. The shadow of her executioner fell on the sand before her and she shut her eyes. This was the end. Then all was silence.
Even the officers present at the executions were impressed by the cool courage of the girls as they met their fate. They died, holding hands in pairs, from a single shot through the back of the neck. Then their bodies were removed to the crematorium behind them and reduced to ashes.
The day was 11th September 1944, the camp was Dachau, and Yolande was 32 years of age.

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