This sparkling biography of a small-part actor who did two missions into Nazi-occupied France as a radio operator for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) begins with a rather iffy 60 pages on his identity and pre-war stage career; much of what the agent said about himself was contradictory, much was exaggerated, and little of it was reliable. Almost everybody who met him agreed that he was tremendous fun to be with; anyone who knew him at all well realised that he was homosexual — in an age when homosexuality was illegal. Who his father was remains in some doubt; his mother was an opera singer, under the stage name of Emma Luart. He seems to have been born — certainly he was brought up — in Brussels; his first brush with the secret world was to act as a teenage courier for Edith Cavell’s escape line. His mother was then able to bring him over to England as a refugee. His name was Denis Rake.
By mere luck, he got taken under the wing of Lady Aberconway, who got him trained as a telegraph operator. He did not stay at that job long, picked up work as a circus stage-hand, drifted into work as a small-part comedian in theatres and night clubs, and helped to run a small hotel. As the next world war approached, he notified the war office of his fluency in French and in Morse, and so got absorbed into SOE, which badly needed Morse operators. Noble friends continued to help him: his sponsor for SOE was the Marquess of Carisbrooke.
Geoffrey Elliott originally got interested in SOE because his father had been an unsuccessful agent for it in Yugoslavia (as described in Elliott’s first book, I Spy). He has dexterously woven together what he has found in SOE’s archives, now open at Kew, in Rake’s own erratic and charming autobiography Rake’s Progress, in the rest of the large literature on SOE, and in old theatre playbills. He notices that Rake’s life between the wars, as a gay in a society that strongly disapproved of gays, gave him a good grounding in how to behave as a secret agent.
He takes us through Rake’s training in SOE’s paramilitary schools, including a parachute course, and then through both Rake’s missions to France. The first, much of it spent in French and Spanish prisons, ran from May 1942. He was arrested by bad luck, but then had the good luck to be held by a prison warden who let him go when the Germans occupied the southern part of France, hitherto more or less free of them. He had to cross the Pyrenees in midwinter, and was promptly rearrested. It took months to get him back to England, where he spent the next winter passing on what he knew to other agents in training.
His second mission, from April to September 1944, was with John Farmer and the irrepressible Nancy Wake, GM, to a large maquis in the Massif Central, from which Rake emerged with a well-earned Military Cross. Elliott depicts the abrupt ups and downs of an agent’s life with highly readable skill, bringing out the terror as well as the ecstasy, Rake was always in danger, quite often under fire, and had the misfortune to have his lover killed at his side. Nancy, who had had to leave her husband behind when she fled from Marseilles in 1941, only heard he was dead at a victory parade. Elliott winds down his story with what little is known of the rest of Rake’s career, including his starring role as the man with the cat in Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié.
Elliott has penetrated deeper than most authors do into the muddles that dogged much of SOE’s work in the field, and shows a wide and cultivated understanding of English and French 20th-century society, quite apart from the intricacies of resistance, which he has also mastered. His book is therefore required reading both for resistance and social historians.