SOE Agent Profiles

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Isidore Newman

Recruited: July 1941

Roles: Wireless Operator (F Section)


Codenames: Julien, Pepe

Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, executed

image of SOE agent Isidore Newman

Isidore Newman was born in Leeds on 26 January 1916, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up in Durham, where he trained as a primary school teacher before moving to Hull in 1938; his family soon followed when his father's cloth business went bankrupt. He joined the Royal Corps of Signals in August 1940 and was posted to an AA battery in Sheffield, before joining SOE's French (or F) Section in July 1941.

SOE was desperate for signalmen who could be transformed into clandestine wireless operators and within days Newman was sent to begin preliminary training at Wanborough Manor near Guildford, taking on the pseudonym of 'Matthieu Elliot' to disguise his identity from other recruits. The course instructors soon noticed his less than perfect French - he'd studied the language at university, but had only spent a couple of weeks on the Continent, travelling across Belgium and northern France - and they also had some concerns over his moodiness during his commando training in Scotland, but there was no question about his technical abilities and he proved himself a determined and dedicated student.

His first assignment would be to support Francis Basin's URCHIN circuit on the Cote d'Azur. In April he left Gibraltar with fellow agent Edward Zeff, travelling by submarine to the Riviera coast: Peter Churchill guided them in canoes to the Pointe de l'Illette, situated just outside the old walls of Antibes and yards from the home of their contact, Elie Lévy, a Jewish doctor working in the local resistance. After some minor problems finding a good safe house, Newman began his new undercover life as 'Jacques Nemorin', transmitting URCHIN's telegrams. He got on well with Basin and everything went smoothly until Basin was arrested by French police in August; Churchill was then brought back to replace URCHIN with SPINDLE, a new circuit that would work more closely with André Girard, self-appointed head of the local CARTE organisation. SOE had great hopes for CARTE, and Churchill's job would be to get the best out of it.

Newman was not impressed by his new organiser's security and soon found it necessary to keep on the move, shifting between safe houses in and around Cannes. He was also becoming bogged down with an increasing workload. The megalomaniacal Girard - now Newman's boss as much as Churchill - refused to abbreviate his long-winded, wordy telegrams to London, in which he demanded more and more supplies and arms, and even with the help of newly arrived wireless operators Harry Despaigne and Harry Peulevé, Newman was forced to transmit through the night to shift the backlog. Churchill, anxious to maintain links with Girard, preferred not to interfere.

Despairing of CARTE's cavalier attitude and the general lack of direction shown by SPINDLE, Despaigne and Peulevé quickly washed their hands of the situation and headed for Spain, but Newman felt a responsibility to stay on. Churchill had other ideas, though. He'd taken on a stray wireless operator, Adolphe Rabinovitch, and wanted him to replace Newman. Frustrated, confused and exhausted - he'd sent nearly 200 messages since arriving in March - Newman had little choice but to comply, and was put aboard the November felucca back to Gibraltar. He submitted a critical report on Churchill's and Girard's conduct when he arrived back in London a fortnight later.

Although he must have felt drained by the last eight months, Newman immediately volunteered for a second mission. Buckmaster agreed to send him to a new circuit but his flight was postponed at the end of December due to bad weather, and a wireless refresher course was arranged for him instead. In fact it wasn't until July 1943 that he left for France again, this time to join the SALESMAN network in Rouen and Le Havre, arriving by Lysander at a landing ground near Tours.

SALESMAN had been running since May, but was in need of a reliable radio link with London to begin coordinating supply drops. Its organiser, Philippe Liewer, arranged for Newman to stay with Denise Desvaux, a dressmaker living on rue de Fontenelle in Rouen: operating under the new cover name of 'Pierre Jacques Nerault' and codenamed Pepe, he would pose as her dress designer and nephew (evidence collected later suggested that their relationship soon became an intimate one). After living under CARTE's lax security the previous year, Newman made use of Liewer's contacts and quickly set up three separate radio posts. He reportedly cycled 1500 kilometres a month between them, accompanied by a bodyguard, never transmitting more than twice from the same location before moving to the next.

The department of Seine-Maritime was heavily garrisoned, but SALESMAN made effective use of the arms it was now beginning to receive: in September it sank an 800-ton minesweeper, and wrecked a local power station the following month. The circuit's security was excellent but Gestapo agents soon began flowing into the area, and German radio direction-finding teams came very close to hunting down Newman, even deducing the times of his transmission schedules. He was forced to stop work altogether for six weeks, in case they got any closer.

In February 1944 Liewer returned to England, leaving SALESMAN in the hands of his lieutenant Claude Malraux. His group successfully derailed a troop train later that month but in early March the organisation quickly unravelled, and on 8 March Malraux himself was captured in Rouen. Within hours almost all of his contacts were blown, and a telegram from Harry Peulevé reported that Newman too had been arrested.

In April, Liewer returned to France and sent his assistant Violette Szabo to Rouen to find out what had happened. From her reports the story of Newman's capture emerged. The evening before his arrest, Newman had been expecting Malraux to arrive for dinner, and had become worried when he failed to show. As a precaution, Newman then informed his bodyguard that he would be moving to another safe house twenty miles away, but decided to put off the journey until the next afternoon. Such an experienced agent should have known better, and this poor decision would ultimately cost him his life. The following day he and Madame Desvaux decided to have lunch with Malraux's fiancée before leaving the house. Moments after they'd finished eating the Gestapo arrived; Newman made a run for the back door but was quickly caught and handcuffed.

The evidence gathered by Liewer and Szabo suggests that he gave away the locations of his safe houses almost immediately, and the six families who had sheltered him were reportedly taken away the next day. This may explain the reason for Maurice Buckmaster's comment, left in Newman's file made in late 1945, that “a strong rumour that he sold out to the enemy” was still in circulation. Desvaux, having been released after ten days, was allowed to bring them parcels three times a week at the Palais de Justice and reported that both were in good health; although Malraux had initially been beaten, Newman was apparently not tortured, and might have expected to be used in an exchange or be treated as a prisoner of war. In a letter to Newman's mother, Desvaux later recalled his confidence at their final meeting, telling her “in six months we shall meet again, be patient Denise...and wait for me”.

In April Newman and Malraux were moved to Compiègne camp; a week later a bus took them to Paris, first to the Gestapo prison at Place des Etats-Unis, then Fresnes prison. The captured agents who boarded it along the way included BUTLER's organiser Jean Bouguennec and his wireless operator Marcel Rousset; Canadian agents Frank Pickersgill and John Macalister of the doomed ARCHDEACON network, and arms instructor George McBain; PROSPER's Gilbert Norman, 'limping terribly' according to Rousset after being shot during a recent escape attempt; wireless operator John Young, of John Starr's ACROBAT; and Edward Wilkinson, organiser of PRIVET.

Their destination was Rawicz prison in Silesia (now south-west Poland), which took four days to reach by train. Conditions here were bad. Rousset reported poor food, only 15 minutes daily exercise and all of them were kept in solitary confinement. In May Rousset, Pickersgill, Macalister, McBain and Garel were recalled to Paris for further interrogation, but Newman, Norman, Young and Wilkinson remained. At the beginning of September 1944 Newman's group was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp, along with three other F Section inmates, Sidney Jones, Marcus Bloom and Georges Clement. During 6 and 7 September Newman and his group were shot at or near the camp's quarry, along with 40 agents from SOE's Dutch section.

Isidore Newman was made a posthumous MBE in 1946, and is commemorated at the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey, the SOE memorial at Mauthausen and the F Section memorial at Valençay in France.

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