SOE Agent Profiles

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Maurice Southgate

Recruited: May 1942

Roles: Circuit Organiser (F Section)


Codename: Hector

Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, survived

image of SOE agent Maurice Southgate

Maurice Southgate was born on 20 June 1913 to British parents. Educated in Paris, he attended a technical college and went on to start his own upholstery business. When war came he served with the British Expeditionary Force, and in June 1940 he was evacuated from St Nazaire on the doomed liner Lancastria: attacked by German aircraft on its way to England, it sank with the loss of more than 3000 passengers, though Southgate was able to swim away and was picked up by another vessel. In London he was posted by the RAF to the Air Ministry, but in May 1942 his name passed through to SOE's French Section, and he was accepted for training in July.

Impressed by his serious and thorough approach, Southgate's instructors gave glowing reports on his performance throughout the courses, and he was groomed for the job of organiser for STATIONER, a new circuit which would operate across the Limousin, in western France. Parachuting near Clermont‐Ferrand in January 1943 with his courier Jacqueline Nearne, he soon built up networks around Châteauroux, Vierzon and Limoges, and also in the far south‐west, around Tarbes. A wireless operator, Amedée Maingard, joined them in April, and by the end of the summer STATIONER had begun an impressive campaign of sabotage, attacking railway targets, power stations and aircraft works. To cope with their rapidly expanding network a courier, Pearl Witherington, arrived to assist Nearne in September, and a month later Southgate was flown back to London to give a report on his progress.

With D‐Day only a few months away, he returned knowing the risks of capture were greater than ever: in December the Gestapo had arrested one of STATIONER's important contacts, and a price was now put on his own head. After parachuting safely near Toulouse on 25 January 1944 he immediately found himself burdened with an enormous workload, having to arrange numerous reception committees, fetch and relocate other agents, keep in close contact with his lieutenants and equip maquis units in anticipation of the Allied landings. By April he reported having 2500 men under his control, but on 1 May a Gestapo trap was laid and he was arrested visiting his new wireless operator, René Mathieu, in Montluçon. Exhausted by the demands of his responsibilities, Southgate had missed the secret signal showing that the house was not safe.

As acting head Maingard split up STATIONER: Pearl Witherington went on to succesfully lead the northern sector, renamed WRESTLER; Maingard himself covered the Indre, Vienne and parts of the Creuse with SHIPWRIGHT, and Philippe Liewer arrived in June to (re)create SALESMAN, around Limoges.

After some initial rough treatment Southgate was transferred to 84, Avenue Foch, headquarters of the SS counter‐espionage service, There he met another F Section agent, John Starr, who had been caught the previous year: Starr, who had known Southgate before the war, had been kept at Avenue Foch by the Germans to assist with the questioning of other captured agents. Southgate was kept at Fresnes prison until August, when he and 36 other agents were deported to Germany, destined for Buchenwald concentration camp. In September sixteen were called to the main gate and executed by hanging, and to avoid the same fate Southgate was admitted to the camp hospital in October through the intervention of Alfred Balachowsky, a prisoner who had formerly been an SOE sub‐agent in Paris. Having faked a stomach complaint to get into hospital, Southgate then spent several more weeks being genuinely ill, and after his recovery was moved to work in the tailor's shop. Although he kept a low profile, he was nevertheless forced to hide in the area known as the Little Camp with surviving agents Alfred and Henry Newton, and Christopher Burney when the SS began hunting for them. All four lived to see the liberation of Buchenwald by American forces on 11 April 1945.

F Section's commanding officer, Maurice Buckmaster, considered Southgate to be among the very best of his agents, and he was awarded the DSO for his actions. Southgate testified at the American war crimes trials at Dachau in 1947, and returned to work in France, later retiring near Sarlat. He was interviewed for the occasional newspaper article about his time in Buchenwald but rarely recounted his experiences, though he did contribute to Liane Jones's book A Quiet Courage shortly before his death in February 1990.

Extracts from Southgate's early war diary have recently been posted online by Parade Antiques.

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