I don’t often get a chance to practise curtseying, a skill I learned at ballet school before I hit double figures. But today I had the pleasure of doing a minimalist bob at the same time as I shook hands with Princess Anne who came, she said, wearing two hats, although I could not see any. The first hat was the one she earned as patron to the Special Forces Club, the second as Commander in Chief of the Fanys or First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a group used these days as a support mechanism to all the emergency services in times of crisis. Back in 1942 it was deemed necessary for the SOE women about to parachute into occupied France to be made Fanys in order to give them, it was hoped, some protection as officers if they were captured. Sadly it did not help these three nor 13 of the 39 other women sent into France who did not survive. Either hat would have more than qualified the Princess to unveil today’s plaque to the heroines Andrée Borell, Denise Bloch and Madeleine Damerment who, before leaving the UK, spent some time in this house. Then it was called the London Reception Centre at 101 Nightingale Lane used by M15 following instructions that all refugees from occupied Europe had to be escorted here for interviews to ensure they were not a plant or enemy agents.
Military historian Paul McCue spoke briefly about the individual women. Denise Bloch, shot at Ravensbruck was, he admitted, ‘not the fittest,’ Madeleine Damerment, the assistant postmistress killed in Dachau, was a woman of absolute loyalty and Andree Borell, the first woman from SOE to parachute into France in 1942, was “the best of us all,” according to her male colleagues. He did not mention her barbaric end when her injection of phenol, intended to render her unconscious, wore off and she fought the Nazi guard trying to push her into the oven and death. She was 24. Witnesses heard her screaming. I could not stop myself thinking about this today and how deeply her courage deserves to be remembered. Thanks to Brian Stonehouse, the fellow SOE agent and artist subject of an earlier blog here, who was able after the war to provide SOE chief Vera Atkins with a sketch of the four women he had noticed arriving at the all-male Natzweiler-Struthof camp, Borell was at least identified and her extraordinary bravery until the end of her short life, recorded for posterity.
But today’s event was moving in other ways, not just because the small group of Fanys were evocatively dressed in 1940’s uniform. The house at 101 Nightingale Lane is now the wonderful Nightingale Hammerson care home and two inmates, guests at the ceremony now in their 90’s, had also suffered in the conflict. Both were eleven year old ‘kindertransport’ children who never saw any of their family again and both were able to chat about their experiences without rancour and even to laugh as they told Princess Anne how they survived in Britain. Theirs too are almost unimaginable stories yet it would be good if the small group of school children present will somehow try and imagine the choices facing some children and their parents in 1938 and 39 when they return to discuss them in history lessons.