New for 2024: Lady Montagu tells the personal stories of two agents in the Special Operations Executive

New SEO display in Beaulieu's Secret Army Exhibition
Posted  10.01.2024
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Lady Montagu has taken a unique approach to researching and telling the story of two Beaulieu-trained agents in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), to show the private lives of the people behind their hazardous exploits and the ultimate sacrifices they made.

Francis Suttill (codenamed Prosper) was the leader of the biggest SOE circuit in France, yet his story has rarely been told. Yvonne Rudellat (codenamed Jacqueline) was one of his couriers and the first female SOE agent to be sent behind enemy lines in German-occupied France. She was also part of the same regiment as Lady Montagu, who is a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY).

Both agents were very different people, though trained at Beaulieu’s SOE ‘finishing school’ during the same month, worked in the same circuit and were captured only a few days apart. They were ordinary people living in the safety of England at the outbreak of WWII and yet put themselves forward for some of the most dangerous missions in France, their country of birth.

Lady Montagu said: “The personalities of those who volunteered for such hazardous work has always fascinated me. I believe that being part of two countries gave a shared allegiance, but also created a tension which made them feel they didn’t wholly belong to either. This set them apart from their compatriots.”

She added: “Whether or not you concur with this view, I am sure you will agree when you have read their stories that the war turned two ordinary individuals into quite exceptional people.”

Following the 80th anniversary of the fall of the Prosper network, Lady Montagu has opened an exhibition to share their stories for the first time. It can be seen as part of a visit to Beaulieu in the Secret Army Exhibition.

New SEO display in Beaulieu's Secret Army Exhibition curated by Lady Montagu

Painting a family picture

Surviving family members of both agents have met with Lady Montagu to build a picture of their lives before they joined SOE and what led to that decision. Francis left two baby sons who he never saw again after joining SOE and taking up his role in France, where he organised hundreds of agents and supporters for the network.

Yvonne left a daughter behind when she trained to become an agent at the relatively late age of 45, then kept explosives under her bed in France and used them to sabotage train links, factories and a power station.

Their families have loaned personal photographs and the agents’ medals, as well as one of Prosper’s original canisters which would have contained guns and ammunition when it was dropped by parachute for the Resistance. Yvonne’s suitcase, complete with her lace-bordered handkerchief, has also been loaned to Lady Montagu to help illustrate her story.

New SEO display in Beaulieu's Secret Army Exhibition

Personal letters home put their stories into context. One from the War Office to Mrs Suttill says “I am very pleased to be able to inform you that your husband has arrived safely at his destination and is in good health”, while another encloses a letter from her husband. In it, he says: “I was, as you know, to be going today but it has now been postponed till the 27th (September 1942) so as to give me time to get everything ready. Ever since Friday midday till late last night, I have been talked and talked at – I am sorry if I was not too clear last night but I had completely ceased to think at all clearly.”

Francis was dropped ‘blind’ with no reception committee 12km from his intended point and dislocated his knee, breaking the cartilage where the muscles were already atrophied from his childhood polio. The package dropped with him was not his suitcase of clothes but a wireless set he knew nothing about. As there were doubts about his accent, he met up with his courier Andree Borrel several days later and together, they set off on a tour of northern France to begin creating and organising groups to resist the German occupation.

Before being recruited by SOE, Yvonne had worked as a saleswoman in a London department store and settled in Pimlico, then married an Italian waiter. She developed a wide range of interests, including interior design, Buddhism, yoga, Eastern philosophy and vegetarianism. Her friends remembered her as a romantic soul, often creating fantasies about herself and dreaming of adventure.

In his report about Yvonne, Francis later said: “She cycles about at night with her plastics and is extremely handy at blowing up things. Her explosives are stored under her bed. She looks 15 years younger and has definitely found her niche.”

Neither of the agent’s stories ended well. After the fall of the Prosper circuit, both were captured. Francis was executed, while Yvonne was in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated on 15 April 1945, but died from typhus and dysentery a few days later and was buried in a mass grave.

Lady Montagu can be heard telling their stories in a recording at the new exhibition, which can be seen as part of a visit to Beaulieu.

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