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The man who fooled them all During the war, Harry Cole served in the British Army, the French Resistance - and the Gestapo. Robert Ryan, whose latest novel is based on new material from MI5 files.
I first came across the name Harold Cole while researching the wartime career of Airey Neave, whom I wanted to use as a walk-on character in a novel about Whitney Straight, the American racing driver/pilot. Neave, subsequently famous for his role in elevating Mrs Thatcher to the leadership of the Tory party and his death at the hands of an Irish bomb in the House of Commons car park, had enjoyed a remarkable war. The first Englishman to escape from Colditz, he was later head of Room 900, the shadowy section of the MI9 which aided and abetted Allied escapers and evaders in Europe. He followed the liberating Allied divisions across France, Belgium and Holland with a ragtag privateer army, collecting soldiers and airmen - and their local helpers - who had avoided capture.
In late 1944 he was in a Paris still giddy from the Liberation and the epuration sauvage, the settling of Occupation scores. Neave, though, was searching for the man he designated ‘the most interesting and dangerous of our particular opponents’. He was not referring to a high ranking Gestapo or Abwehr officer, or even a particularly heinous Vichy official, but to a renegade sergeant from the British army, Harold Cole, whom Neave believed had not only decimated escape lines, resulting in the death of dozens of people, but had willingly donned the reviled Gestapo uniform to help interrogate his countrymen in the cells of the notorious Avenue Foch.
In fact, by the end of his run, Cole, who used at least thirteen aliases, had served in the British army, the French resistance, the German Sicherheitsdienst (the SD, effectively a branch of the Gestapo) and the American 6th Army. At times he added bogus stints as an Inspector from Scotland Yard, a bodyguard for Mrs Simpson, and a spy for the Special Intelligence Services to his CV. Perhaps in a less self-deceiving moment he also described himself in a letter to a mistress as a ‘psychologically complicated, unbalanced criminal’. She was one of many lovers; he had ‘a craving for women’ and was ‘very attractive to them’ according to his MI5 file, despite being physically unprepossessing - ‘thin, reddish fair hair, blue eyes, long pale face, false upper teeth, small moustache.’
Yet at one point this career criminal and Casanova showed a large spark of decency, helping to deliver, by his own estimate, ‘more than a 100 escaped parachutists and pilots’ down the ‘rat line’ from Lille to Marseilles, often literally under the Germans noses. To some of those he helped, he was, and remained, a charismatic and daring saviour.
This combination of feted hero and despised villain fascinated me and Whitney Straight was set aside. Although Neave would retain his walk-on part, the focus of the new book, The Blue Noon, now switched to Harry Cole, his treacherous opponent.
Quite a character. And since the book was published, I have been told that he was probably in the Canadian army for a while as well.
Originally a short story commissioned by Arena magazine when it was edited by Peter Howarth. It was based on the true tale of the first man ever to win the Monaco Grand Prix, a mysterious Englishman called Williams, who drove a privately entered Bugatti. Throughout the Thirties this man with one name and his beautiful companion, Eve, were a fixture on the race circuits of Europe. Few knowing that he had once been a mere chauffeur (for the once famous portrait painter Sir William Orpen) and she his employer’s mistress. Williams continued to race Bugattis, often in the company of WW1 war hero and air ace Robert Benoist (imagine a cross between Stirling Moss and James Hunt, with the former’s skill and the latter’s charisma) and the highly talented youngster Jean-Pierre Wimille.
Come WW2, Williams returned to England and trained for Special Operations Executive (SOE), the subterfuge and sabotage force set up by Churchill. Parachuted back into France with orders to set up a ‘circuit’, Williams recruited not only his wife but his former racing colleagues.
It was a great story - three hugely talented drivers against the Nazi occupiers. I discovered that although there were people working on biographies of Williams, details of his wartime efforts were scant (his SOE file was pitiful, Robert’s was fuller) and publication was a long way off, if ever.
Peter Howarth suggested I fictionalise the missing parts, so I wrote the short story, which I subsequently tried to develop into a novel. Unfortunately, part of the problem was that the saga had such a glum ending - betrayal, deportation, concentration camps, death - that it ended on a real downbeat note, for a novel at least. Then, in 2001, Jack Bond, a film director, was put in touch with me by the SOE office. He, it seemed, had information which threw new light on the tale. It certainly breathed fresh life into it, and what was to have been my first novel finally became my fourth (although the first as Robert Ryan). The movie, however, languishes in development hell for the time being.
- http://www.conscript-heroes.com/Couriers%20page.html1877989 Sgt Harold 'Paul' Cole (1906-1946) was the organisation's man in Lille and from late 1940 his job had been to collect escapers and evaders and escort them down to Marseille. As a civilian Cole had been a petty criminal and con-artist and in the Royal Engineers he was a thief and deserter, but as a courier he was perfect - confident, audacious and very successful - until the day he was exposed and accused of embezzlement.
Cole was confronted by Pat O'Leary, Francois Duprez, Mario Prassinos and Bruce Dowding in the Rodocanachi apartment on 2 November 1941 and accused of stealing funds from the organisation. After breaking down and confessing all and while the others were still discussing his fate, Cole escaped from the flat and went first to Paris and then back to Madeleine Deram's home at rue Bernadette, La Madeleine where he and Mme Deram were arrested by Cornelius Verloop of the Abwehr on 6 December, the same day as Francois Duprez was arrested at his desk in the Mayor's office in Lille. Cole's arrest was reported to Roland Lepers who promptly left Lille with Madeleine Damerment. They finally crossed the Pyrenees in March 1942 en route for England where Lepers joined the French air force and Madeleine joined SOE.
Two days later Alfred Lanselle, Pierre Carpentier, Désiré Didry, Bruce Dowding, Maurice Dechaumont and Drotais Dubois were all arrested by the German Geheime Feldpolitzei (GFP) and in at least four cases, Cole accompanied them. On 11 December Cole again accompanied GFP men to arrest Vladimir de Fligue and Fernand Holweck in Paris and on 14 December it was the turn of Andre Postal-Vinay. Strangely, despite these apparent betrayals in Lille and Paris, Cole did not denounce Jeannine Voglimacci in La Madeleine and ironically it was Mme Voglimacci who was later to play such a major role in Cole's exposure as a traitor by approaching one of the gaolers at Loos prison and obtaining a written indictment of his treachery from the Abbe Carpentier.
Here are the same facts with a few extra details added: Cole, Madeleine Deram, Francois Duprez were all arrested on the same day - Cole and Deram by the GFP apparently on information from a Dutch double agent working for the Abwehr. Francois Duprez was then traced as the signatory on Cole's false identity card. Two days later Alfred Lanselle, Pierre Carpentier, Désiré Didry, Bruce Dowding, Maurice Dechaumont and Drotais Dubois were arrested and in some cases (by his own admission Dowding, Carpentier, Didry and Dubois) Cole was present. However several well known (certainly to Cole) escape line workers were not arrested - Voglimacci and the Damerment family are the most obvious examples in the north but there were many more. The Salingue family in Burbure were visited by Cole and the GFP and while Fernand escaped, his wife Elisa was later released for lack of evidence that surely Cole could have provided had he a mind to as he knew them very well. Nor is there any evidence that he betrayed anyone in the south - not even Pat O'Leary who had punched him in the face or Nancy Fiocca who had so clearly despised him. The evidence suggests to me that the Germans had done their homework and raided a series of houses they knew about (certainly Désiré Didry and Pierre Carpentier), taking Cole with them on some occasions - perhaps as psychological pressure on their victims - but they didn't necessarily need him.
After the arrests in Paris Cole got away from his Abwehr handlers, went to ground in the city and on 10 April 1942 married Suzanne Warenghem. However this union did not last long and on 9 June Cole and Warenghem were arrested by Louis Triffe of the Vichy police DST in Lyons and charged with espionage. On 21 July they were brought to trial and Cole was sentenced to death but Suzanne was acquitted. She went to Marseille where she gave birth to Alain Patrick in October but despite the best efforts of Dr Rodocanachi, the baby died in January the following year. In November 1942 Cole was saved from execution when the Germans took over Vichy France and eventually he was recruited by SS Major Hans Keiffer of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) to work with him at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris.
Harold Cole is described by Reginald Spooner of Scotland Yard as "the worst traitor of the war" and by Airey Neave as "the most selfish and callous of German agents" and "the most successful of our enemies". Cole survived the war but in June 1945 he was arrested in Saulgau, Germany by Peter Hope of MI5 and sent to a prison in Paris. He escaped the Paris Detention Barracks in November and was finally shot dead in January 1946 by Paris gendarmes looking for deserters.
- http://www.rafinfo.org.uk/rafescape/guerisse.htmHarold Cole - 'Paul'
'Captain Harold Cole' was one of the O'Leary Line's most active helpers in northern France. However, it was found that no such officer called Captain Harold Cole existed in the Army at the Dunkirk period.
Scotland Yard records did throw up a petty criminal, called Harold Cole, who had trained as an engineer. He was known as a con-man and housebreaker. A Sergeant Harold Cole had absconded from the BEF in the Spring of 1940 with the sergeants' mess funds in his charge. When France was occupied he turned up in Lille as 'Captain Harold Cole' of the British Secret Service.
His French had a strong English accent and when questioned by the Germans he would claim to be deaf and dumb, pretending to use sign language. He did organise a genuine escape line from Lille and those involved have told of his audacity when escorting evaders at that time.
In September 1941 O'Leary sent a young attractive French girl to work as a guide with Cole and over the next three months she and Cole took 35 evaders from Paris over the Demarcation Line between Occupied and Vichy France. Late in December 1941 they were married.
By the Autumn of 1941 Donald Darling ('Sunday') working from the British Embassy in Lisbon, became suspicious about Cole. In January 1942 Darling moved to Gibraltar, nominally as a civil liaison officer but actually to interrogate every arrival claiming to be an escaper or evader - military or civil - passing through from occupied territories. He was in a good position to pick up concerns about security.
Cole had been provided with large funds for Duprez, a Lille helper. When O'Leary checked on this, Duprez claimed nothing had reached him: Duprez and O'Leary crossed the Demarcation Line intending to report their suspicions about Cole to Garrow. On reaching Marseille they heard that Garrow had been arrested. In December of 1941 O'Leary ordered Cole to Marseille to confront him with a charge of misappropriating the Line's funds.
A meeting with Cole was arranged in Dr Rodocanachi's flat in the Rue Roux de Brignoles. Cole denied O'Leary's accusations of misappropriation. When O'Leary brought Duprez into the room Cole appeared shocked. He moved towards O'Leary who knocked him down with a blow to the mouth, O'Leary severely injuring his fist in the process. As Cole lay injured on the floor, he made a sort of confession.
Cole was locked in the bathroom whilst O'Leary and those with him (including Prassinos and Bruce Dowding) discussed what they should do with him - kill him or send him back to England? A noise from the bathroom alerted them - Dowding caught sight of Cole escaping through the bathroom window. A chase ensued but Cole managed to get away and returned to Lille.
Warnings went out to the Line but it was difficult for many to believe that an Englishman could have turned traitor. Duprez, for example, refused to move and change his name, preferring to stay with his family and business.
Later it emerged that Cole had been arrested in Lille by the Abwehr on December 6th 1941 and it was presumably at this point that he changed sides. Cole was probably threatened with execution and was described as having a 'yellow streak' in his character, according to Neave.
The Abbé Carpentier had been using his own printing press to provide the line with identity cards and passes. On December 8th 1941 Cole helped two Germans disguised as RAF evaders to arrest the Abbé. Dowding, who was hiding in the house, recognised Cole's voice and on escaping he rushed to warn other agents in the area. However Cole had given the Germans many addresses and at the third of Dowding's warning visits they were waiting for him and arrested him.
It was a letter from the Abbé smuggled out of Loos prison, which reached O'Leary several months later that detailed the extent - 30 written pages of names and addresses - of Cole's betrayal of the O'Leary Line. Duprez, Dowding and the Abbé were all badly treated and later executed.
In March 1942 O'Leary came out on his own escape line to attend a meeting in Gibraltar with Darling and his boss Langley. O'Leary found his own doubts about Cole confirmed and it was decided that Cole should be executed on sight. All the intelligence services were warned about Cole and steps were taken to protect those who Cole may have been able to compromise.
Apparently the Abwehr office in Brussels then used Cole - operating with several aliases including Delobel, Joseph Deram, Richard Godfrey - extensively to penetrate the Line. Neave says that whilst there was no firm evidence about Cole's agreement to work with the Germans, it seems probable he was 'persuaded' to do so by Sonderführer Richard Christmann of the Abwehr. The latter had already penetrated several SOE circuits in France using a bogus escape line. Christmann also worked with Colonel Giskes on the Nordpol deception of SOE in Holland.
In April 1942 Cole and his wife crossed the Demarcation Line and were soon arrested in Lyon on the orders of the pro-Allied head of the Lyon DST, Louis Triffe. Aware of the stories of Cole's collaboration, Triffe sought to protect resistance organisations in the Unoccupied Zone.
Cole's wife, now pregnant, would not believe that her husband was a traitor until a French detective hit him in the face, whereupon Cole confessed. The Coles were tried by court-martial on charges of espionage and delivering French citizens into the hands of the Germans. Cole was convicted and sentenced to death.
His wife was acquitted: she returned to Marseille in August 1942 and contacted O'Leary, after having writing a bitter letter to Cole. On 30th October 1942 she had a son, who died in January 1943. She again took up resistance activities but was arrested by the Germans when they occupied Vichy France. She held out against their interrogations on the O'Leary organisation and eventually escaped to Paris in September 1943.
Cole, who had denounced her, was released to search for his wife in the winter of 1943. Fortunately, she was lifted from Brittany by the Royal Navy in April 1944. She underwent SOE training, survived the war, remarried, and lived until the end of the century.
What of Cole? In 1944, when the Gestapo was now in overall charge of police operations in France, Cole was working for SS Sturmbannführer Richard Kieffer, head of the SD in Paris. Following the Allied invasion, Cole was again denouncing people involved in hiding airmen in the round up, executions and deportations of hundreds of resistance workers carried out by a vengeful Gestapo and SD in June 1944. Neave was told that Cole had left Paris dressed as a German officer on 17th August 1944.
In the Spring of 1945 Cole surfaced again in the American Zone of Occupied Germany, masquerading as an English Captain called Mason: he claimed to be working on an intelligence task. With him was SS Sturmbannführer Richard Kieffer of the SD, for whom he sought a safe conduct in view of the latter's usefulness.
Cole was rewarded by the Americans with the rank of Captain and an interrogation job in their Counter Intelligence Corps. He promptly used this to denounce his former Gestapo and SD colleagues.
In August 1945 Darling was by now head of the MI 9 Awards Bureau in Paris, seeking to identify genuine helpers. He was approached by one of Cole's mistresses. She claimed that Cole was in fact not a traitor as he was working as an Intelligence Officer for the Allies. She showed Darling a note from Cole, from which he quietly noted the address. He contacted French and British Security and Cole was arrested at a cocktail party at the HQ where he was working in the American Zone.
He was brought to Paris and identified by Rev Donald Caskie, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Marseille end of the O'Leary Line. Held in American custody, Cole managed to persuade his guards that he should be allowed to write his 'memoirs' in the prison guard room. Unfortunately he was not closely enough watched and slipped away in American Sergeant's jacket.
According to Neave, Cole convinced the proprietress of Billy's Bar in the Rue de Grenelle that he was a US Sergeant waiting for his demobilisation and he stayed in hiding above that establishment.
Although the French BCRA were looking for him, it seems that it was a routine police search for deserters that brought Cole's end. Two gendarmes had been warned that someone was in hiding above Billy's Bar. When they knocked Cole appeared, holding a pistol. He fired three times, wounding one of them, but they returned fire, shooting Cole dead. His body was identified by Guérisse, recently released from Dachau.
Cole was a traitor to his country. He betrayed about 150 French people who worked for the Allied cause, of whom it believed 50 - mostly involved with the O'Leary Line - gave their lives. He is even said to have helped the Gestapo to torture some of those he betrayed. He also deceived his wife, sending her on false errands to collect airmen and later denounced her aged aunts who had hidden airmen, in order to steal their jewellery.
In retrospect Neave believed that had there been effective radio comunication with London at the time, the damage Cole caused, or much of it, might have been avoided. Communication with London was still reliant on messages concealed in toothpaste carried by couriers over the Pyrenees.
- The Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force (SAARF) - http://www.insigne.org/SAARF-I.htmFor one American, SAARF was a bizarre and nearly ignominious end to an illustrious wartime career. As the leader of the 101st Airborne Division's Pathfinders, Captain Frank Lillyman may have been the first American paratrooper to set foot on French soil during the Allied invasion. And though Lillyman no doubt found himself in more than one precarious situation while serving with the 101st, nothing prepared him for the likes of Harold Cole.
In a war that produced more than its share of villains, Harold Cole was in a class by himself. Cole began his career in treachery in 1927 when he deserted from the West Kent Regiment. He again joined the British Army at the outbreak of the war, and again, after Dunkirk, he deserted, but this time to the Germans. At long last Cole found an organization suited to his sense of ethics: The Gestapo, which had use for someone who could pass so convincingly for a downed British airman or an escaped British soldier.
From about 1940 or 1941 until the end of the war, Cole was instrumental in betraying to the Gestapo a large number of downed RAF airmen, British agents, soldiers, and escapees, and members of various resistance groups. Cole's base of operations was Paris, where he had his own room on the top floor of Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Later, he was moved to Berlin where the Gestapo and RSHA kept him busy. Before Berlin fell, Cole managed to make his way to the south of France and the shores of Lake Constance, and there his path crossed that of Captain Lillyman.
Lillyman was operating with a SAARF team in the Lake Constance area when he met Cole, who by then had managed to ingratiate himself with the incredibly naive U.S. Army CIC in the region, who had supplied Cole with an American Army uniform and identity card. As far as Lillyman knew, Cole, like himself, was searching for war criminals.
Cole persuaded Lillyman that a man living in the area, a man who just happened to have a fine Mercedes motor car, was a traitor and should be arrested. Lillyman accompanied Cole to make the arrest, but rather than arrest the 'traitor', Cole shot him dead and drove off in the Mercedes.
The wily Cole immediately reported the incident to the American authorities but altered the story ever so slightly: Lillyman had shot the man and taken the car! Incredibly, Lillyman was arrested and sent to Frankfurt to await court-martial.
Fortunately for Lillyman, the truth of the matter was eventually sorted out and a court-martial was never convened. And not long thereafter, Cole was killed in a shoot-out with the Paris police; no doubt to the disappointment of Lillyman, who must have been sustained through the affair by the hope that someday he might have a minute or two alone with Mr. Cole.
- The Story Of Michael Trotobas - http://www.storyhouse.org/margie2.htmlLife was constantly hazardous for all SOE agents. While Trotobas was in prison at the end of 1941, Madeleine Damerment met Monsieur Paul, who told her he was a British captain and leader of an escape organisation of British Intelligence. He was in fact, Corporal Harold Cole who worked for the Pat organisation of Dr. Albert Guerisse, but later he became a traitor and betrayed the organisation to the Gestapo. In great danger because of Paul's treachery, Madeleine escaped to England but returned to France in 1944. She was executed with three other women SOE agents at Dachau on 12 September that year.
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