SOE Agent Profiles

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Peter Lake

Recruited: October 1941

Role: Weapons Instructor (F Section)

Circuit: DIGGER

Codenames: Basil, Jean-Pierre

Fate: Survived

image of SOE agent Peter Lake

Peter Ivan Lake was born on 30 January 1915 in Surrey, but he grew up in Majorca, where his father was British consul. He read Modern Languages at St John's College, Oxford, and was working for a merchant bank in Ghana at the outbreak of war. He managed to make his way back to England, and was eventually commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, where he served with the Field Security Police before being recommended to SOE by a chance acquaintance in a pub.

After a brief period of training, his first assignment sent him back to West Africa, and the Spanish-ruled island of Fernando Pó in the Gulf of Guinea. In January 1942 the Italian merchant ship Duchessa d'Aosta sailed into Santa Isabel accompanied by two smaller German vessels. Lake, working at the British consulate, enticed the crews to come ashore, while a small SOE force aboard the Maid Honor, a converted trawler, quietly took control of all three ships and towed them out to sea. Aside from SOE's material gains, the success of 'Operation Postmaster' proved Lake's ability to hold his nerve and maintain his cover - the Spanish authorities took no action against him after the incident.

He laid low until his return to England in August 1943. Being too well known in Africa, he was transferred to F Section, which prepared him for the role of liaison officer and instructor in Occupied France. After doing well on SOE's training courses at Beaulieu and Howbury Hall in Bedfordshire, he was picked to join Jacques Poirier's newly formed DIGGER network, covering the Corrèze and Dordogne departments. He parachuted with wireless operator Ralph Beauclerk on the night of 9/10 April 1944, landing safely near Domme on the southern bank of the Dordogne, where they were greeted by one of Poirier's local reception committees.

Despite his less than perfect French Lake was largely left to his own devices, as Poirier had planned to spend several days in Paris. Introduced to a young maquis leader named René Coustellier, or "Soleil", he was quickly acquainted with his group and told that if he did not agree to arm them, Lake would be shot. Although impressed by the extraordinary zeal of Soleil, he soon managed to distance himself from him, and began working with other less volatile maquis leaders across the Dordogne, including 'Carlos', a veteran Spanish Republican who commanded groups of his countrymen based around Périgueux. Lodged with Poirier, Poirier's Alsatian dog, Dick, Beauclerk and several others at a deserted chateau near Limeuil, Lake and his companions became an effective and close-knit team. They were joined by writer and resister André Malraux, who christened them the farfelus (madcaps).

On the night of 4 June Beauclerk received the coded BBC message 'The giraffe has a long neck', which signalled that D-Day was imminent. DIGGER immediately began disrupting trains and other communications, and Lake enthusiastically took to obstructing the advance of the Panzer division Das Reich, blowing up 500 yards of railway track at Neuvic and several bridges around Périgueux. The combined efforts of DIGGER held up Das Reich for nearly a week, and SOE's networks further north made sure it didn't reach Normandy for a fortnight.

Following a massive Allied supply drop in July, the combined efforts of Poirier and other local leaders subdued the German garrison at Brive-la-Gaillarde on 15 August. Brive became the first town in France to be liberated by Resistance forces, and before negotiating the terms of surrender with the town's commander, Colonel Böhmer, Lake donned a British uniform specially parachuted in for the occasion.

With German forces rapidly retreating from south west France, Poirier sent Lake to attack an isolated enemy detachment on the island of Oléron, off the Charente-Maritime coast. Within days of arriving he heard rumours that Charles de Gaulle was visiting the nearby town of Saintes, and decided to accompany several French officers on their way to greet him. However, Lake was crestfallen when the general simply declared 'We don't need you here', and demanded that as a British officer he should return to England immediately: unknown to him, de Gaulle had shown the same contempt for fellow F Section agents Roger Landes and George Starr, neither of whom responded as courteously. Despite this snub, France did at least recognise Lake's work, later making him a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur and awarding him the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Military Cross. Following a few months working as a liaison officer for the Italian Section, he left SOE in August 1945.

Lake's post-war life was spent working for the Foreign Office, and included postings to Iceland, Syria, Indonesia, Paris and Venice. More than a decade after meeting de Gaulle, he was re-introduced at a reception in Brazil, during which their previous disagreement was finally laid to rest. Retiring in the mid-1970s, Peter Lake returned to Cambridge, where he died in June 2009.

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