Agent Michael Trotobas and SOE in Northern France, Steward Kent & Nick Nicholas

Agent Michael Trotobas and SOE in Northern France, Steward Kent & Nick Nicholas

Michael Trotobas was one of the more successful SOE operatives in France during the Second World War, setting up the large ‘Farmer’ network, which carried out a series of successful sabotage attacks in the north-east of France. This book looks at the development of that networks, its activities in the industrial north-east of France, and the series of events that eventually led to Trotobas’s death.

Michael Trotobas was born in England to a French father and Irish mother. He spent some of his childhood living with his Aunt in France, and was thus educated in France. After his return to Britain he joined the army, and was present with the BEF during the disastrous campaign in France in 1940. After escaping via Dunkirk he was recruited by SOE, and took part in one of their first operations, a disastrous mass landing of agents in Vichy France. This ended with him in French captivity, but he then took part in a mass breakout and managed to get back to Britain. His next mission was to the Lille area, close to where he had been posted in 1940.

One of the interesting features of this story is that Trotobas seems to have achieved everything he did despite suffering from poorly chosen British subordinates. His original radio operator, Arthur Staggs, struggled to ever make contact with London and eventually had to be found a different role. After the network had been set up he was sent a new second in command, F.W.M Reeve, who appears to have been entirely unsuited to the role, and who eventually played a controversial role in Trotobas’s death as well as causing near constant discontent within the network.

Trotobas’s success comes across as being largely due to his ability to work with the French and his decision to compartmentalise his organisation as much as possible, so a disaster in one part of the network wouldn’t lead to the collapse of the entire thing. Having said that there were also some quite shocking lapses of security, the most notable being the decision to produce a written list of supporters of the network that was meant to be sent back to London, but that almost inevitably ended up falling into German hands.

One of the nice features of this book is that it avoids the tendency in books on SOE of focusing on the failures, the end of networks and the capture or death of agents. Those events do of course play a part in the story, but we also get much more on the circuit’s many successes, including a long running campaign of sabotage on the railways, and some impressive raids on French factories. This includes an operation in the Fives Engineering Works that reads like something from a Boy’s Own adventure, with Trotobas and his team bluffing their way into the factory pretending to be working with a ‘Gestapo’ officer.

This is one of the best books I have read on SOE, providing a nicely balanced account of the activities of Trotobas and his network. Their successes aren’t over-played and the feuds and disagreements that played a part in Trotobas’s fall are examined in some detail, but don’t dominate.

1 - Beginnings
2 - The Diehard
3 - SOE
4 - Training
5 - Vestige
6 - Mauzac
7 - Farmer
8 - Foundation
9 - Interlude
10 - Expansion
11 - Frustration
12 - Despair
13 - Optimism
14 - Fives
15 - Arrests
16 - Shootings
17 - Movement
18 - Panic
19 - Confrontation
20 - Execution
21 - Countdown
22 - Pressure
23 - Dominoes
24 - Downfall
25 - Continuum
26 - Post mortem
27 - Inquest

Author: Steward Kent & Nick Nicholas
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 288
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2015

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