SOE Agent Profiles

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George Hiller

Recruited: May 1943

Role: Circuit Organiser (F Section)

Circuit: FOOTMAN

Codename: Maxime

Fate: Wounded in action, survived

image of SOE agent George Hiller

George Francis Hiller was born in Paris on 15 December 1916, the son of a British father and French mother, and was educated at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris and Exeter College, Oxford. He pursued a diplomatic career, and was a consular officer at the outbreak of war. Taking a junior commission in the Reconnaissance Corps, he was recommended to SOE and passed to its French Section, which he joined in May 1943.

A quiet, thoughtful character with a cool and confident persona, Hiller was selected for the job of organiser, and in January 1944 he was parachuted with wireless operator Cyril Watney into the Lot in south‐western France. His objective was to begin FOOTMAN, a new circuit which would support a socialist leader, Jean Vincent (known as "Colonel Vény"): Veny had already boasted of commanding considerable resistance forces to another SOE agent, Harry Peulevé, in nearby Corrèze, and Hiller's job would be to arm, train and direct them. Hiller's first action, the sabotage of the Ratier aircraft works in Figeac, was one of F Section's biggest successes and put the factory out of action for months, but Hiller's problems with Vény ran into problems which would draw much more on his skills as a diplomat.

As with other ambitious self‐styled resistance leaders, Colonel Vény had secured SOE's support by exaggerating his own influence and importance, and Hiller was dismayed to find virtually no sign of organised resistance on the ground (another SOE organiser sent to meet Vény's groups on the Riviera encountered a similar situation, expecting to find several thousand men but counting a total of fourteen). With no choice but to build up their secret army from scratch, Hiller and Watney employed the help of writer André Malraux, who had recently become one of de Gaulle's regional military commanders. By June FOOTMAN had grown to a force of 600 men, and when D‐Day arrived Hiller's teams attacked railway traffic and telecommunications targets, bringing the Lot to a standstill and delaying the 2nd SS Panzer division "Das Reich" on its way north to Normandy. Repeated railway sabotage on the important main line between Cahors and Brive rendered it useless to the Germans, who eventually gave up trying to repair it.

While FOOTMAN's groups launched sporadic guerrilla attacks on local German forces throughout the summer, it never equalled the successes of neighbouring SOE circuits such as Jacques Poirier's DIGGER or George Starr's WHEELWRIGHT. Later reviewing his own work, Hiller reckoned that "most of my time was spent in trying to deal with personal quarrels or political disputes" though he also acknowledged that poor support from London had also been critical: additional SOE officers and much of the materiel – not least the hundreds of containers dropped by parachute as part of "Operation Cadillac" on Bastille Day – arrived too late to be really useful. While local support for the resistance in this rural part of France had been solid, continued political wrangling between the communists, Vény, and gaullist groups had largely foiled Hiller's attempts to organise a unified resistance effort through June and July, and the opportunity to take control of the region slipped through his fingers. Neighbouring maquis would steal money, arms and ammunition from each other and intercept Hiller's supply drops, and anti‐British feelings encouraged by figures such as Vény, who came to resent SOE's interference and his own insignificance, made it difficult to impose any order or authority on the situation. Many SOE agents had to negotiate similar rivalries in other parts of the country, but few if any encountered the intrigues and continual shifts of power that FOOTMAN did. No‐one handled them more deftly or perceptively than Hiller, and without his leadership much less would have been achieved.

On 23 July Hiller and Malraux ran into a German roadblock near the town of Gramat. The injured Malraux was taken prisoner (and would later be released); Hiller was more seriously wounded, but managed to escape. Despite the presence of a large German column in the area, Watney summoned an emergency RAF supply drop the next night to parachute in essential medical supplies (Hiller was reportedly the first European to benefit from the new wonder drug, Penicillin), before another air operation successfully transported him back to England for surgery.

By the time he had recovered Hiller had no reason to return to the Lot: the retreat of German forces from the south‐west and the dominance of de Gaulle's Forces Françaises de l'Interieur (FFI) meant that FOOTMAN's force, now totalling 1800 men, had nothing more to do. However, the manner in which he had undertaken one of F Section's most difficult liaison missions did not go unnoticed, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1945. Maurice Buckmaster, his commanding officer, described him as "an absolutely first‐class officer, the most efficient technical man we have produced".

After the war, George Hiller worked in variety of diplomatic posts across the world, and married Judith Buchanan in 1963. Following a move to the British embassy in Brussels he was diagnosed with a serious illness, and he died two years later, in 1972. His wartime exploits are remembered in Jacques Poirier's The Giraffe Has a Long Neck, published in 1995.

Further reading

The Giraffe Has a Long Neck by Jacques Poirier (Pen and Sword, 1995).

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