Saturday 17 November 2018

The mystery of Ireland's lethally seductive spy

The film 'Charlotte Gray' reveals the daring exploits of female agents in occupied France during the Second World War. One of the bravest was from Dublin, report MICHAEL MULQUEEN and JOHN MEAGHER.

Fifty-eight years ago tomorrow, in the dark of the March night, a young Irishwoman parachuted into a field near Le Bourg, in France, and passed out. Her landing would have been harder were it not for the two million francs that were strapped to her leg.

Seconds later two wireless-transmitter sets crashed onto the grass nearby, followed by packs of supplies that had also been tossed out of the low-flying aircraft after her.

When she came to, Maureen "Paddy" O'Sullivan, a Dubliner whom her contacts would know as Micheline Marcelle Simonet or, simply, as Josette, stumbled across the field and somehow, fortuitously, headed in the direction of the local resistance, who had been waiting for her about half a mile away.

Recruited into the secretive Special Operations Executive as a second lieutenant less than a week earlier, on St Patrick's Day 1944, O'Sullivan was a real-life Charlotte Gray, one of the 50 Allied spies dropped into occupied France who used seduction as a weapon of war.

To a lonely, lustful German officer - and frequently to an ally in the French resistance, as well - a woman was rarely an aggressor. Instead, she was a thing to be charmed and, where possible, used as a sexual plaything.

Like Cate Blanchett in the latest big-screen Second World War epic, who saves her lover from a German machine gun not by opening fire but with a passionate, lingering kiss, O'Sullivan and her fellow agents knew how to play the part - and the men who underestimated them sometimes paid with their lives.

Playing dirty was par for the course, part of what Winston Churchill, who had ordered the Special Operations Executive to "set Europe ablaze", called total war.

The women, whose training had included a commando course in the Highlands of Scotland, were taught how to use guns and explosives, trained in sabotage and wireless telegraphy and shown how to live covertly in occupied territory.

Most importantly and controversially they had to master silent killing and unarmed combat. That such training was being given at all affronted Britain's military purists, who thought of war in terms of grand, open battlefields. That it was being given to women was anathema to them.

As Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal wrote to a fellow officer: "I think you will agree that there is a vast difference in ethics between the time-honoured operation of the dropping of a spy from the air and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins."

O'Sullivan had come to the attention of the Special Operations Executive in May 1943, as an acting corporal in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force No 45068 stationed at RAF Compton Bassett, in England. Her file shows she had been a student at the Commercial College in Dublin and was working at the beginning of the Second World War, with an address at 2 Charleville Road, in Rathmines.

But if she had turned her back on the dullness of Dublin during the Emergency years, to look for adventure in Britain, her early days in uniform were not entirely happy.

Although she seemed "to be popular with all the students", her training reports were nearly all bad, and her instructors were exasperated by her temper. At one point she went absent without leave.

Her radio skills marked her out as a good wireless operator, however, "if her temperamental difficulties could be overcome", and, in what set her apart, she was fluent in French, Dutch and Flemish.

Language skills were vital behind enemy lines, where O'Sullivan had been ordered to go as a wireless operator for the "Fireman" resistance circuit. She moved from safe house to safe house, using her Josette code name to transmit vital secrets back to London from the area around Limoges, the porcelain centre in western central France where the Gestapo and their French collaborators were ever-present dangers.

The Nazis regarded radio operators as the weakest link in the resistance, as they had to use cumbersome wireless sets to send lengthy coded messages that German direction-finders could easily intercept.

Facing almost certain death if she was caught, O'Sullivan learned reams of poetry to use as code, learning the lines by heart to cut down on risky transmission time.

She is said to have found it hard to learn to ride a bike an unimaginable obstacle to a wireless operator, for whom mobility could mean the difference between life and death. O'Sullivan's difficulty with cycling could have been due in part to the chronic lung trouble she suffered throughout her mission.

Her file notes that she kept herself on the move, however, cycling between the towns of Fresselines, Puylandon, Ganoillat and St Dizier, where she transmitted from a grocer's shop whose assistant would launch into song to warn her of danger.

Although German agents followed her, and spies tried to infiltrate her resistance cell, O'Sullivan managed seven transmitters that had been hidden in the yards of houses, transmitting from all of them in the run up to D-Day, on June 6, 1944.

Capture was never far away. Once, while cycling between safe houses with a wireless transmitter concealed in a suitcase that was strapped to her bicycle, she was stopped at a German checkpoint. The soldiers demanded she open the suitcase. But just then, when all seemed lost, a lieutenant arrived and, brushing past the soldiers, told O'Sullivan she resembled a woman he knew back home.

She spun a yarn about how her mother was German and, for half an hour, flirted with him for all she was worth. Disarmed by the promise of a date the next day, the officer sent her off, forgetting to look in her suitcase.

Such guile was part of the reason why O'Sullivan survived for so long in France; on such high-risk operations, agents had a life expectancy of just six weeks. Seven months into her mission, however, Paddy was returned to Britain.

Having been commended by her superiors for doing a "first-class job", she was preparing for another foray, this time to Germany in early 1945, when some friends she had confided in revealed her exploits to the press.

The Daily Mail described the 25-year-old as "a vivacious personality [with] good looks, calculated daring and a knowledge of languages" that made her "one of the most valuable pre-D-Day parachutists for the Allied Command in Europe".

In a less gallant remark, an RAF squadron leader wrote in the Sunday Express that O'Sullivan and her fellow agents were interesting because they were "not hearty and horsey young women with masculine chins [but] pretty young girls who would look demure and sweet in crinolines".

With her cover blown, the war held no further adventure for O'Sullivan. Her file ends with an entry that she went to India on 16 June 1945, some months before the Special Operations Executive was disbanded.

Her life afterwards is a mystery. Despite exhaustive inquiries in Britain and Ireland, the Irish Independent could not trace her post-war years.

The Foreign Office confirmed she was born on January 3, 1918, in Dublin, and died on March 5, 1994. We know, too, that she was awarded an MBE.

A niece contacted the Foreign Office for information in 1990, but by then O'Sullivan was in a nursing home and too ill to correspond.

Beryl Escott, a retired squadron leader and an expert on the Special Operations Executive, believes O'Sullivan suffered from Alzheimer's disease in her final years. In another dead end, the house at 2 Charleville Road has been converted to flats.

Even now, it seems, the woman who spent the war deceiving those around her for the good of the Allies is still able to keep us in the dark.

What happened to Maureen after the war? We would love to hear from anyone who knows. Please write to: Irish SOE Agent, c/o Features, Irish Independent, 90 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin 2

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