In last month’s posting, I reported that Patrick Marnham and I had sent a letter to the Editor of the Journal of Intelligence and National Security expressing our disappointment that he had decided to publish a rather feeble article by Francis Suttill about the collapse of his father’s network (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02684527.2022.2159115 ). I eventually heard back from Professor Mark Phythian, the editor, who informed me that it was not the policy of the Journal to publish letters. I accordingly told him that I would publish the correspondence on coldspur, and it thus appears below.
Percy and Marnham to JINS (January 31, 2023)
As two historians who have investigated the PROSPER affair with some thoroughness, we were dismayed by your decision to publish Francis Suttill’s article on the collapse of his father’s network, in which he attempts to prove that British Intelligence could not have contributed to the demise of the PROSPER circuit. We believe that Mr Suttill deserves much sympathy over the loss of his father, and much respect for the work he has done in tracing the activities of the PROSPER network in France, but, regrettably, he does not bring a methodological approach to analyzing the paradoxes inherent in the records of its destruction. He brings no fresh evidence to the table, and ignores much of what has been laid out already. Moreover, by focussing attention on one narrow set of events, his article misses the major controversial aspects of the treatment of the network by the British military and intelligence organizations. Mr Suttill appears not to have read Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows or Antony Percy’s supplementary series of analyses of the events of the summer of 1943 available at www.coldspur.com. *
A thorough rebuttal of Mr Suttill’s claims would probably require as much space as he took up in his article, so we limit our observations here to nine major points.
- No New Information: The primary claim for the appearance of his article appears to be that ‘newly released information enables the sequence of events that led to the disaster to be set out in detail’. Yet that assertion is both incorrect and irrelevant. The only new archival source he presents relates to the trial records of the prosecution of Pierre Culioli in 1949. With the exception of the evidence given in camera by the Swiss PROSPER agent Armel Guerne – incidentally a very mendacious witness, as his Personal File at The National Archives confirms – these records have all been available for public inspection in French national and departmental archives for many years. And nothing in his article sheds any significant new light on the sequence of events leading to the arrests, which several books (e.g. War in the Shadows, Stella King’s Jacqueline) have already described. The provision of more detail on the disaster, including the description of the sudden speed with which the Gestapo exploited the information they had gathered, reveals nothing about any decisions being made by political, military or deception committees in London.
- Valid Conspiracy Theories: Mr Suttill’s main objective appears to be the debunking of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ concerning the betrayal of the PROSPER circuit. (Such theories, in his mind, apparently spawned without any identified actors being responsible for them.) Yet ‘conspiracy theory’ is a fashionable pejorative term, and disguises the fact that, if evidence of conspiratorial activity is noted, an analyst is bound to develop some theory to explain the phenomenon. This process is not the same as ‘search[ing] for a scapegoat’, in Mr Suttill’s terms. Ever since the 1948 trial of Henri Déricourt, who had undeniably been in contact with the Gestapo while acting as an air movements officer for SOE, but who was saved from a probable death sentence by the evidence of Nicolas Bodington, the Number 2 in SOE’s F Section, questions have been asked about the motivations of SOE officers in failing to withdraw Déricourt from circulation. Mr Suttill refers elliptically to the fact that Déricourt ‘was believed to be a double agent’, but refrains from issuing any firm opinion himself.
- SOE Inaction: The immediate antecedent events are very important. SOE failed to take action when the first suggestions of German infiltration of its networks came to light in the spring of 1943. The PROSPER network was already exposed to a degree, since it had recruited some dubious individuals from the discredited CARTE network, but Major Suttill had begun to distrust Déricourt and to suspect that he might have betrayed information about his network. He reported on his suspicions to his commanders when he was in London in May 1943. While it is true that the network had also been undermined by a series of very poor tradecraft practices (a topic which Mr Suttill finesses), a security-conscious intelligence organization would have immediately closed down the circuits to control the contagion, and undertaken a proper investigation. Instead Major Suttill was encouraged to put his ‘secret armies’ on the alert, something admitted by the authorized historian, M. R. D. Foot, as well as by Mr Suttill.
- False Antithesis: Mr Suttill titles his article ‘Was the Prosper French resistance circuit betrayed by the British in 1943?’, and concludes that the circuit ‘could not have been betrayed by the British as part of a deception plan’. Yet his attention focuses solely on the events that led to the arrest of Pierre Culioli and Yvonne Rudellat, alongside the recently parachuted-in agents McAlister and Pickersgill. We do not believe that any historian, journalist or biographer has ever made the claim that a British intelligence service manipulated a Gestapo operation leading to the capture of SOE personnel by the Gestapo, including Suttill, Norman and Borrel. It is however apparent that these arrests were the consequence of a strategy that had already dangerously ignored the evidence of German infiltration of the greater PROSPER network. Thus Mr Suttill’s painstaking reconstruction of the events of the June arrest is directed at a strawman opponent. The question of the manner of the arrests is orthogonal to that of British deviousness.
- Difficulties with Authorized History: A vitally important aspect of the case ignored by Mr Suttill are the movements of his father during the second half of May 1943, and the beginning of June. For almost forty years after M. R. D. Foot’s authorized history of SOE in France first appeared in 1966, the record stood that Major Suttill returned to France on June 12 after spending a few weeks in London on ‘consultations’ (this despite the fact that Foot made careful reference to Suttill’s presence in Paris in early June, and that Pierre Culioli’s file makes reference to his return to France in May). The Foreign Office (representing the interests of the defunct SOE) supported Foot’s date, which was subsequently echoed in the narratives of such as E. H. Cookridge and Robert Marshall. Yet, when the second edition of the history appeared in 2004, Foot changed the date of Suttill’s return to May 20, without modifying any other associated part of his account. He had been persuaded by Mr. Suttill (who brought strong evidence of his father’s movements in late May) that his father had returned to France on that date. The Foreign Office has accepted this new version of the history without question: indeed, the SOE ‘historian’, Mark Seaman, has stated that Mr Suttill’s version of events constitutes ‘the last word’.
- F Section Misled: Mr Suttill unwittingly provides strong evidence to undermine his own case when he describes how the French Section of SOE was misled by either SOE’s senior officers or the Chiefs of Staff. “The French Section was not aware at this time that a 1943 invasion was no longer on; they were not told until the end of July,” he writes. Such a disclosure (which does not represent any new research) is truly shocking, since the authorities were either guilty of gross negligence (i.e. forgetting to inform a sabotage organization of a critical change in policy) or massive duplicity (i.e. encouraging the unit to carry on with its subversive activities, and preparation for battle, in the knowledge that such efforts would be in vain in the summer of 1943). Suttill attempts to dispose of this catastrophe by indicating that ‘the deception planners’ (unidentified) connived at the increase in arms shipment to France carried out by SOE, even though it was in fact in direct contravention of the policy of the Chiefs of Staff after the Casablanca Conference. Suttill does not appear to be aware of the proceedings of a highly secret TWIST committee that worked apart from the more familiar XX (Double-Cross) Committee.
- The Build-up of Arms: In fact, the arms build-up had been occurring for months, as the internal historian William Mackenzie first reported, and as publicly available SOE records from the National Archives are able to confirm. The allocation of aircraft to support this effort could not have taken place without the approval of the Chiefs of Staff and the (reluctant) acquiescence of Air Chief Marshal Harris, who wanted his heavy bombers to be directed exclusively on bombing campaigns. Thus a dangerous build-up of arms, that had to be stored and maintained, took place, when no insurrectionist attacks were authorized to be initiated until the D-Day landings of early summer 1944. This was a disaster waiting to happen. SOE in France was supposed to be engaged solely in sabotage at this time, not in the premature arming of disorganized guerrilla forces.
- The Manipulation of Major Suttill: What probably happened is that Major Suttill made a short return visit to the UK at the beginning of the June 1943 ‘moon period’, and during this visit had a meeting with Winston Churchill, an encounter that was recorded both by Cookridge and Marshall. This is a very complicated scenario, as the archival material is contradictory, and the testimony of many witnesses (such as that of Pierre Culioli, whose case Suttill follows in great detail) utterly unreliable. At the same time, the evidence provided to Foot and Suttill by the SOE advisors was equally misleading. Part of Mr. Suttill’s argument for diminishing the possibility of duplicitous behaviour on the part of the British is his (correct) claim that his father could not have met Churchill in May since the Prime Minister was out of the country. Yet, if Major Suttill did fly in to France on June 12, as was maintained for so long, he could well have had a meeting with Churchill just before then. (These theories are being developed and substantiated by us.) It is also worth mentioning that Foot himself, in SOE: The Special Operations Executive: 1940-46 (first published in 1984), wrote that Churchill may have ‘seen individual agents on their way into the field, and misbriefed them to suit a deception plan of which only he and Colonel Bevan (who headed the deception service) held the key’.
- Cavalier Dating: A last significant flaw in Mr Suttill’s approach is his handling of chronology. His dating of events frequently flies in the face of other accounts. Two examples stand out: the arrival of Gaston Cohen (WATCHMAKER), an ancillary wireless operator, destined for the JUGGLER circuit; and the dropping of canisters that exploded at Neuvy. In contradiction of Cohen’s account of the events, in which he stated that he arrived on June 10/11, Mr. Suttill endorses an SOE-manipulated amendment to Cohen’s testimony that pushes his arrival back three days, thus removing ‘evidence’ of PROSPER’s presence in France before the ‘official’ June 12 date of his return. On the other hand, in defiance of several other witness accounts that describe the Neuvy incident as occurring on June 13-14, Mr. Suttill places it a couple of days earlier, perhaps to counter E. H. Cookridge’s suggestion that the operation had been launched as part of a fresh campaign, encouraged by Major Suttill, to accelerate delivery of material to the secret armies.
Mr Suttill describes himself as ‘an accidental historian’. But one does not become a historian by accident: it requires training, and the application of methodology. Unfortunately, Mr Suttill has not applied any discipline to his researches, and has privately admitted that, if he encounters statements or assertions that appear to contradict his main argument, he ignores them since an inspection would involve ‘speculation’. Yet proper historiography requires exploring such paradoxical evidence, and developing hypotheses in an attempt to distinguish the authentic from the fake, and to offer a convincing explanation of what really happened. Dismissing such attempts as ‘conspiracy theories’ is simply inadequate. Historians sometimes have to develop conspiracy theories because there is evidence of a real conspiracy.
Antony Percy (M.A., D. Phil); author of Misdefending the Realm and of ‘Courier, traitor, bigamist, fabulist: behind the mythology of a superspy’ published in this journal (December 2020)
Patrick Marnham; (author of War in the Shadows, The Death of Jean Moulin, and several other volumes)
http://www.coldspur.com/claude-danseys-mischief/ (June 2021)
http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-lets-twist-again/ (August 2021)
http://www.coldspur.com/the-prosper-disaster/ (October 2021)
http://www.coldspur.com/dericourts-double-act/ (November 2021)
http://www.coldspur.com/all-quiet-on-the-second-front/ (February 2022)
http://www.coldspur.com/bridgehead-revisited-three-months-in-1943/ (March 2022)
http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/ (April 2022)
http://www.coldspur.com/the-demise-of-prosper/ (August 2022)
http://www.coldspur.com/prospers-flit/ (January 2023)
Phythian to Percy (February 9)
I am getting in touch as Editor of Intelligence and National Security in response to your email about Francis Suttill’s piece on the PROSPER circuit, which has been passed on to me.
Our intention is to publish this piece in the journal as a Research Note, as it draws on recent archival openings or availability to update an existing line of analysis or argument. In this case, it is the documentary evidence publicly available from the trial papers of Pierre Culioli, which Francis Suttill has used as a basis for further reflection on the question of responsibility for the collapse of the PROSPER circuit. As you know, this is a case that he has studied over many years, including publishing a piece in Intelligence and National Security over a decade ago, co-authored with M.R.D. Foot (this appeared in issue 26/1, 2011). As such, this Research Note represents a short update on his earlier work.
At the same time, I am aware that there is some debate and disagreement among historians on this question given issues of evidence and the documentary record, as there can be in relation to other areas of SOE’s operations.
If you, either alone or together with Patrick Marnham, would like to write an article in response to the line of explanation advanced by Francis Suttill that sets out your preferred explanation for the collapse of the PROSPER circuit, the evidence that makes this your preferred explanation, and perhaps acknowledging where gaps in evidence remain and might possibly be filled in the future, then I would be very interested in taking this forward for publication in the journal. SOE continues to be a subject of great interest to its readers, and I am keen to promote academic debate in the journal.
If this is something that might be of interest to you, I will be very happy to discuss it further.
Professor Mark Phythian FAcSS
School of History, Politics & International Relations
University of Leicester
Percy to Phythian (February 10)
Many thanks for your response. Forgive me, but I am a little confused by it.
When I first read your message, I gained the impression that you were planning to publish our letter as a ‘Research Note’, but, on re-reading it, I concluded that it was Mr. Suttill’s piece over which you were declaring your intentions. Yet that does not make sense to me, as the piece has already been published. (Indeed it was I who brought its appearance to the notice of Mr. Suttill, who was not expecting it until the summer.)
Could you perhaps inform us of your intentions for publishing our letter? As you can imagine, Mr. Marnham and I put a lot of thought and care into it, and should be disappointed if it fell on stony ground, as we believe that it constitutes an important corrective to Mr. Suttill’s text.
I wonder whether you could also tell us something about the editorial cycle of Mr. Suttill’s piece. On the on-line SOE forum, Mr. Suttill wrote as follows: “At the end of last year, I wrote an article summarising the evidence concerning the arrest of my father and showing that not only did no one in Britain orchestrate it but that they could not have done so even if they had wished to. The journal Intelligence and National Security agreed to publish it in their June issue to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the events but I have just discovered that it is already available online.” I found Mr. Suttill’s explanation of the gist of his piece very bizarre, and incorrect in its claims, and wondered why the Journal would so quickly agree to help promote an external commemorative event. Is that an editorial policy? I imagine the piece must have gone through the customary peer review, but Mr. Marnham and I wonder who could be more steeped in this issue than the two of us.
Patrick and I look forward to receiving your response.
Best wishes, Tony.
Phythian to Percy (February 13)
Thanks for your email. I was referring to publication of Francis Suttill’s piece in an issue of the journal. At present, it is available electronically via the journal website as one of the ‘Articles in Press’ that are queued up for publication in a future issue of the journal. The journal itself is published seven times per year. It is just coincidence that this piece is due to appear in the issue dated June 2023. This is when the piece will be sufficiently close to the top of the queue to be included in an issue. It is not designed to coincide with an anniversary.
I’m afraid we do not publish letters. However, as I mentioned in my email to you, if you are interested in putting a response in academic article format, I would be interested in taking it forward. I should emphasise that this would need to go through a peer review process, as do all the pieces we publish.
Percy to Phythian (February 16)
Thank you for your response. Patrick Marnham and I regret that you cannot publish our letter. I shall accordingly publish the correspondence on my personal website, www.coldspur.com. It had been our intention to give you a chance to use the letter first, but it will now enjoy unrestricted access.
We were puzzled by your previous statement about the matter: “At the same time, I am aware that there is some debate and disagreement among historians on this question given issues of evidence and the documentary record, as there can be in relation to other areas of SOE’s operations.”
We are not aware of any ‘debate’ or ‘disagreement’ being carried on ‘among historians’ in any serious outlet, apart from a short flurry of letters in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of years ago, after Patrick’s book was reviewed. As we explained in our letter, Mr Suttill and his colleagues have in fact have done all they can to stifle debate. Mr Suttill has declined any invitation to discuss the controversial aspects of his story, and Mark Seaman, who describes himself as the ‘SOE historian’, declared in his Foreword to Mr Suttill’s book that it ‘finally puts to rest a 70-year-old debate’. He furthermore characterized any alternative analyses as ‘persistent, indiscriminate conspiracy theories’, which is not the language of an open-minded scholar. That opinion was reinforced by Duncan Stuart (the last ‘SOE Advisor to the Foreign Office’), stating that the publication constitutes ‘the definitive account’ of the PROSPER circuit. Those actions do not indicate to us evidence of a desire to engage in creative inquiry. Could you perhaps inform us which qualified and independent historians are involved in this debate, and where their arguments appear?
You will perhaps understand why we shall decline your invitation to submit a ‘response’ in ‘academic article format’, as we believe it would dignify Mr Suttill’s ‘Research Note’ with a scholarliness that it does not deserve.
(And that’s it. If I receive any further explanation from Professor Phythian, I shall post it here.)
One Response to Special Bulletin: PROSPER & the Letter to JINS
I never heard back from Professor Phythian, but today (March 10) I received an email from Francis Suttill, who felt that I had been ignoring him, and demanded that I provide him personally with evidence to support my claims. He obviously had not studied anything on coldspur, although I had advertised it in previous correspondence. I thus guided him to the site, and this posting specifically, as it was clear that he had not read it. He wrote in turn: “I have neither the time nor the inclination to plough through a website to find out whether you have answered my questions.” To this I riposted that what he called ‘ploughing’ was what we historians call ‘research’, and declared that I, likewise, had neither the time nor the inclination to repeat for his benefit information that I had openly published.
Mr Suttill took great offence at this, and seems to think that I am the one who is reluctant to engage in debate, when he has been the stubborn one who has refused to discuss anything with which he disagrees, as it would constitute ‘speculation’. The man is not only lazy, but absurdly self-important.