Authors: Leslie Thomas
by Leslie Thomas
Dedicated to his son Mark
Scanned by Bill
The occupation of secret agent is bizarre and sometimes frankly comic. Professor M. R. D. Foot in his official history of the British Special Operations Executive in wartime France describes an 'atmosphere of adventure and daring often with a touch of light opera thrown in'.
He records that the initial raid attempt on occupied Europe after Dunkirk resulted in the three British participants having to row home. (It took thirteen hours.) Churchill called it a 'foolish fiasco'.
Plans to drop the first parachutist agent into France were marred by his last-moment refusal to jump. A later raider dropped on the roof of a police station. A third, a Frenchman, jumped and then quietly went home to his wife for the remainder of the war. Another parachutist hung in a tree all through a dark night, to discover at dawn that his feet were inches from the ground. Peter Churchill was horrified to have ebullient and noisy Frenchmen, like football supporters, taking him to a rendezvous at a secret air strip.
Agents, not infrequently, spoke imperfect French, or none at all. One, questioned by the Gestapo on a train, and unable to speak French, pretended to be a dolt and got away with it. Another, who did speak the language, blithely told the Germans he was a British Officer carrying a radio transmitter. They laughed and let him go.
One operative, wearing an English overcoat and smoking a pipe, met his secret contact in public with the words 'How are you mate?' A resistance leader 'hiding' among a group of plain-clothes Gestapo men in a bar was loudly sought out by some downed RAF men -
in uniform -
and seeking asylum.
The French also had their oddities. Before 1940 they entrusted at least part of their espionage plans to two men - one nearly blind and the other stone deaf. During the German Occupation they used a submarine to land agents, a vessel impotent in normal operations - a fault in its tubes sent its torpedoes in circles!
In the realm of the outlandish, then, George Ormerod, whose tale is told here, was not alone ...
'It is not Policy to use a good intelligence agent for a dangerous
mission involving sabotage. He is more valuable lying low,
making contacts and gathering information. Others, more readily replaced, should be used for violent or dubious projects ...' Intelligence Directive August 1940
The little-known island of Chausey lies between Jersey and the
Normandy coast. Two kilometres in length and seven hundred
metres at its widest, it has a population of about fifty. It is cast about with islets and many rocks. Of all the Channel Islands group, it alone is part of France.
At dawn on September 20th, 1940, at the ebb of the highest tide of the year (a prodigious rise and fall of forty-one feet) a
nervous London police officer and a young French schoolmistress, who was also a trained killer, landed on the island.
It was the first Anglo-French raid on Occupied Europe follow
ing Dunkirk and the collapse of France.
Two nights later the infiltrators - Detective-Sergeant George Ormerod, aged thirty-five, of 'V Division Metropolitan Police,
and Madame Marie-Thérèse Velin, aged twenty-six, from the
village of St Luc-au-Perche in Lower Normandy - were put ashore,
by the Germans themselves,
at Granville on the main
land. By then they were accompanied by a thin, ugly mongrel
Their adventure has never been told before, not because it has been concealed by the Official Secrets Act, or any other
such bureaucratic device, as so many have, but merely because
the two people most concerned had never felt the need to talk about it. In addition, as with other early escapades of its nature, the documentation is missing from the files, a fact
which gives rise to the suspicion that the operation was tacitly
I first heard the strange story of the Dove and the Dodo, as they were called, from Madame Velin herself, twenty-three years after it took place. She was then living on the French Pacific Island of New Caledonia, about twenty miles from Noumea, its capital.
to London after a newspaper assignment, covering the visit of Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip to Australia. New Caledonia is a little over two hours flying from Sydney and I had gone there for a few days holiday.
It was at a dinner party on my second evening that I first heard the name of Marie-Thérèse Velin. My host, a young doctor doing his National Service in the colony, was treating
her for a tropical ailment which caused temporary spasms of
He mentioned that she had been a member of the wartime
resistance in France and had settled in New Caledonia as a school teacher in the early nineteen-fifties. It was suggested that I might like to accompany him on a visit to her the
following day, as she spoke good English but had little oppor
tunity of doing so on the island.
I agreed and in the late afternoon, when the day had cooled off a little, we went out from the town and into the copra country beyond, the road running straight between miles of coconut plantations, until we eventually came to a sedate
cottage overlooking a shell beach. On the veranda, looking out
over the sea, was Marie-Thérèse Velin whose name was to remain with me for a long time after that day.
When I first saw her that afternoon in 1963 she appeared much older than she was. The illness which was then in its second month had drained her face and her blindness had returned to remain for two further days. She looked quite small sitting there in her bamboo chair and her hands, laid on her lap, were veined and delicate. She held them up at one
point to make some comment in the conversation and I noticed
that it was possible to see the light around the edges of her fingers and thumbs. I did not know then that she had once
been described, by allies and enemies, as a dangerous woman.
She was obviously pleased in a quiet way that I had come to see her because she enjoyed conversing in her good but
painstaking English. We remained for a couple of hours, trying
to tie up fragments of her memories of England to the places that I knew. At one point I mentioned the Channel Islands
and for a moment her face lightened to a smile. 'Have you ever
been to the Channel Island of Chausey?' she asked eagerly.
'It is the only one of the islands that is still French. The English
have taken the rest long ago.'
Not only had I not been to Chausey, I had never heard of it.
The smile remained with her. 'Not many people know,' she
said in a playful whisper. 'We Normans keep it a secret. Go there one day. It is delightful. I went there once.'
If I imagined that this might be the opening of some reminiscence I was mistaken, at least for that day. But three days later, with my doctor friend, I once again drove to the bamboo house by the sea and there she was still, sitting, staring out to the horizon she could no longer see. Her eyes were a good deal improved that day, however, and we had a very cheerful afternoon during which we ceremoniously drank Chinese tea and ate colonial French
After talking for a while she rose and said: 'I will show you something I have hidden, like a secret. I do not show it to many people in New Caledonia. In some way it does not belong here in the Pacific'
With that she went gracefully into the cool house and returned with a small leather case which she opened to reveal a medal. On the face of it was the two-barred cross of Lorraine. It was, she said proudly,
La Medaille de la Resistance,
awarded only to members of the French underground movement.
Naturally I asked her questions about her part in the move
ment, but she politely declined to enlarge on it, merely showing
how pleased she was that I had enjoyed seeing the medal. However, I was conscious that she wanted to tell me some
thing, something connected with England and with the medal,
and I was right. On my third visit to her house, the day before I was due to fly from Noumea, she quite abruptly began to tell me the story.
'I was one of the first agents of Free France to be landed in my country after the German Occupation, you know,' she said, glancing to see my reaction. 'I was with an Englishman.
A man codenamed Dodo. His real name was Ormerod, George
Ormerod. He was a policeman. It was only September 1940, just a few weeks after the British deserted from Dunkirk.'
My journalist's desire not to spoil a good story prevented me from querying this version of history. I was glad because the next thing she said was: 'The Englishman was a London
policeman. I was going to make a check on possible resistance groups in Normandy, to help to form them and organize them,
because these were very early days and little had been done to oppose the Germans. My companion was going to Paris to arrest a murderer.'
It was one of those moments when you swallow but say nothing. She went on: 'We were landed by a British submarine on that same island of Chausey which I mentioned to you the other day. It was necessary to kill some of the enemy. After that the Germans very kindly put us ashore on the mainland and we had a strange and dangerous journey through France to Paris. We did not always - how do you say it? - "get on" very well because we were both so different. He was a petit bourgeois, a Conservative and a policeman as well, and I was a radical, I suppose almost a Communist
in those days. But we lived together, sometimes very danger
ously, for some weeks, and there was a feeling, a bond, between
us. I often think of him now,' she laughed. 'He was so ... old fashioned.'
'And he was going to Paris to find a
'Yes Paris, with all the Germans there. But he was very determined and one-minded about it. Just as I was about my mission. Very often the two objects got in each other's way. And he did not like killing Germans.'
At this point she took the story from the start and talked for about two hours about this strangest of adventures. I was
almost conscious of my eyes widening as she related the tale.
Viewed now it seems extraordinary. But she spoke of unusual
When she had finished - and after a long pause and silence - I told her I would like to write something about it and saw
immediately how the alarm jumped to her face. 'Oh no, please
Monsieur,' she remonstrated. 'I am telling you because you are English and in many ways it is an English story. Not because I want you to write it. That would be terrible.'
Every journalist knows the sinking feeling when someone
blithely tells him they know of a plan to steal the Crown Jewels, or blow up Parliament, and then pleads with him to keep it confidential. But it was impossible for me not to agree. I promised I would write nothing and she believed me and thanked me. Then she said: 'One day perhaps you can tell it. When I am dead.' Then she smiled that distant smile, a smile
apparently intended for someone far away beyond the horizon,
and added: 'But first you must find George Ormerod - my English policeman - and ask him too.'
I returned to England and pushed the story from my mind, certainly from any professional point of view. After all it was
only one amazing thing in the war when many amazing things
had happened every day before breakfast. At first, however,
from private curiosity, I checked the name and history of Detective-Sergeant George Ormerod in the records of the
Metropolitan Police. He was there all right but with no clue to the extraordinary escapade of 1940. He retired in 1965 with a pat and a pension.
But that was as far as I took it. After all, I had a promise to keep.
Then last summer in Paris I went to the Museum of the Order of the Liberation in the Boulevard Latour-Maubourg, a poignant collection of mementoes of the Occupation of France and the Resistance Movement. On a day when I have
no doubt the Louvre was crowded and people were frenetically
ascending and descending the Eiffel Tower, I was the only visitor in that sad gallery. Marie-Thérèse Velin had returned to my thoughts.
That evening, on the impulse, I took a train to Granville in
Normandy, where Marie-Thérèse and George Ormerod, those
odd companions, were so obligingly landed by the Germans.
In a bar by the harbour the following night I saw what I next
sought, a group of blue-overalled fishermen, middle-aged to
elderly, the sort who looked as if they had been in the town in the wartime days.
After a few cognacs and some general conversation, I tried the subject. Casually I said:I met a Frenchwoman a few years ago in New Caledonia. Her name was Marie-Thérèse
Velin. She told me she had come here to Granville during the
war as a Free French agent.'
It was first time lucky. Immediately the expressions changed,
especially that of one of the older men. The others looked at
him oddly. 'The Dove,' he muttered. 'She was called the Dove.
Her name is not popular in this place.' He shook his heavy, grey head and swallowed the rest of his cognac.
I was here then, in Granville,' he confirmed. 'We had re-
turned defeated from the war and she came here and she wanted us to fight. There was no sympathy for fighting, you
understand. France was crushed, in pieces. The Germans were
here. And she wanted us to fight! She was brave, I suppose, but she was dangerous, Monsieur, very dangerous. We are not fond of her memory.'