Accidental Agent


John Goldsmith’s wartime exploits are all the more remarkable considering that at first his services were consistently refused due to his being over 30. Not easily deterred he eventually became a tank driving instructor in the ranks. In 1942 accidental circumstances saw his recruitment into Buckmaster’s F Section of the Special Operations Executive. His faultless French and upbringing in Paris were to prove invaluable.

Commissioned overnight and after intensive training he was parachuted into France for the first of his three missions. His adventures included crossing the Pyrenees, sabotage, forming his own circuits, being captured by the Gestapo, a daring escape and black-marketeering. In 1944, now a Major, he was advisor to the Maquis in the Mont Ventoux area where they fought the Germans in pitched battles and won.

Although this refreshingly modest account does not admit to it, Goldsmith’s extraordinary war is best summed up by his DSO, MC, three Croix de Guerre and Legion d’honneur. Accidental Agent is as thrilling an account of war behind enemy lines as has ever been written.The author’s descriptions of his experiences and the many colourful characters he came across are a joy to read.

This excerpt describes his experience of living undercover in Paris in mid 1943:

As the list of arrests and ‘blown’ circuits grew, I redoubled my precautions.

Sometimes danger threatened from the quarter where it was least expected. One night in the early summer I was travelling by train near Clermont-Ferrand when an air-raid or some trouble on the line forced it to stop. It halted in open country for more than an hour and, as it had been made quite plain that it would be some time before it got moving again, I got out to stretch my legs. All sorts of people, German and French, were climbing down and doing the same.

Unbelievably I bumped into someone in the gloom and recognized Brian Rafferty, a dare-devil young Irishman whom I had met in England. He was working a sabotage group in the area and operated under the code-name Dominique. Without thinking he laughed and said in English, ‘Fancy meeting you here … ’, and he continued to talk in English. In heated French I told him to shut up and stop playing the bloody fool, walked away and made sure that I was nowhere near him when we set off again.

Not long afterwards Rafferty was picked up in Clermont-Ferrand because, it was reported, he had been too casual about a conversation (this time in French) in a café. One report said he had been heard to say he was looking forward to a moonlight operation. Whatever the reason was, Rafferty paid with his life. He spent two years in concentration camps before being shot a couple of months before the war ended.

Being a secret agent could be terribly boring at times. You might spend six weeks hanging about, trying to be inconspicuous, just for the sake of an hour’s work which, if it went according to plan, was not very exciting in any case. You had to be on the right spot at the right time, available and in contact with your superiors up to the moment of action.

In between times there was the simple question to be faced of making yourself scarce. You had to eat somewhere, sleep somewhere and occasionally you felt a desperate need to talk to someone, even though you were aware that to do so could be dangerous, if not fatal. Boredom was, in fact, a menace that no one was taught to contend with at the training school. Boredom was something individuals had to deal with themselves, and it cost quite a few men and women their lives when they came up with the wrong solution.

The most insidious thing about it was that it induced a sense of security at just the moment when one should have been alert for surprise moves by the enemy. I learned this to my cost during a gloriously sunny spell in Paris in June 1943.

Having contacted Lejeune I was obliged to wait for a courier to pass on a message to Lyons that I would be somewhat later in returning than I had anticipated — there were some minor snags I had to iron out – and that meant kicking my heels for a while.

It was strange and irritating being an outcast in the place of my birth, a Paris that was far from what I was used to, a city almost deserted. For a start there was hardly any traffic. If you saw a petrol-driven car it contained either Germans, or collaborators, or some essential user like a doctor.

The ordinary Frenchmen chugged about the boulevards from time to time in weird contraptions with small furnaces at the rear which supplied wood gas to a balloon-like container on the roof. The top-speed of these gazogénes was claimed to be about 30 m.p.h. going downhill with the wind behind them, but even that was an exaggeration.

Anyway, the appearance of even these monstrosities was rare and it was possible to cross the road to the Arc de Triomphe in complete safety. If you were going to be knocked down by anything it was more likely to be a cyclist or a taxi velo. The latter was a primitive substitute for the ordinary cab and consisted of a hefty two-wheel bicycle towing a wickerwork seat for two people. There was no shortage of fares for them, as long as it wasn’t raining, and it was quite customary for couples to make their way even to night-clubs in the velos.

The velo drivers developed leg-muscles as hard as billiard balls. A man has to be pretty fit to cycle all the way up the Champs Elysees towing, perhaps, twenty stone behind him.

Gone with the peace-time traffic jams were the crowds. The café tables which would have been packed on a normal summer’s day had a forlorn look about them. If they boasted more than a handful of people it was wise to avoid them; almost certainly they were patronized by Germans or their sympathizers.

But rationing was the main cause for the empty tables. The French who could afford to spend their money on black market food took it home to cook. They could see no point in allowing a restaurateur to add his charges to the already exorbitant price of food and vegetables.

I confined myself to eating only once or twice a week in a black-market restaurant even though I had no problem with money. It was just a question of not drawing attention to yourself. Big restaurants were places to be avoided. So were hotels.

The Gestapo, and indeed the French police, had a nasty habit of inspecting registers in the early hours of the morning. To a knock on the door an Englishman dreaming of home might easily reply in his own language ‘Yes?’ or ‘Who is it?’ That was not all. If they didn’t like your writing, or if you had an unusual name, you heard a knock on your bedroom door at 6 a.m. and had to answer a lot of questions about what you were doing in Paris and who your friends were. A visit to the local police station followed if you were unable to answer the questions satisfactorily.

Much safer places to spend an undisturbed night were the maisons de passe. One thing the Germans had not closed down were the brothels and they put the maisons de passe more or less on the same level. These were generally crumbling, rather scruffy hotels where a man could take girl for a couple of hours at any time of the day or night with no questions asked.

It was an old French custom and to have instituted systematic searches would have been very impractical, as there were literally hundreds of these establishments. Furthermore, there was no question of the owners of the maisons de passe asking his visitors to sign in. And so you were safe, or as safe as anything could be for an agent. You could book a room, say you were expecting mademoiselle, and as there was a constant flow of females no one had any reason to disbelieve you, and put up your feet for a few hours.