Andrée Borrel: A French War Heroine
Andrée Borrel was born into a working-class family in Louveciennes, Yvelines in the suburbs of Paris on 18th November 1919, growing up she was an active girl who liked hiking and most other outdoor activities. At the age of fourteen she left school and became a dress maker then moved to Paris where she worked in several different shops.
When World War II broke out, the then nineteen-year-old girl went to the Mediterranean port city of Toulon where she trained as a nurse's aid with the ‘Association des Dames de France’(ADF). Following her training, she commenced worked in Beaucaire treating wounded French Army soldiers. After France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the ADF came under the control of Marshal Pétain. Borrel, who was not willing to accept her country's defeat, joined the French Resistance helping British airmen shot down over France to escape through the ‘underground railway’ back to Britain. Along with Maurice Dufour, she established a villa in Perpignan near the Spanish border and co-operated with the escape network of Albert Guérisse.
In December 1941 Borrel's resistance group was uncovered and she fled to Lisbon, Portugal. There, she worked at the Free French Propaganda Office for a short time until April 1942 when she travelled to London. From General de Gaulle's Free French bureau she learned about the French Section of the Special Operations Executive and immediately signed up.
On the night of 24th September 1942, Borrel and fellow SOE agent, Lise de Baissac (Odile) became the first female agents to be parachuted into occupied France. They were flown in from RAF Tempsford. Borrel dropped first at night, Baissac dropped near Poitiers while Borrel dropped into a field near the village of Mer, not far from the Loire River and was picked up by members of a local resistance team.
Because of her intimate knowledge of Paris, Borrel was sent there to work as a courier for the new ‘Prosper’ network run by Francis Suttill. She soon made contact in Paris with Germaine and Madeleine Tambour. Suttill was so impressed with Borrel's performance that in the spring of 1943 she was made second in command of the Paris network. Whilst working in the Prosper network she took part in sabotage, raiding a power station, and supervising weapons drops.
Probably because of a traitor, in June 1943 several members of the Prosper network were arrested by the Gestapo on 23rd June 1943, including network leader Francis Suttill and Andrée Borrel. Andrée was interrogated in the Gestapo's Paris headquarters and then held in Fresnes prison. She remained there until May 1944 when, together with three other captured female SOE agents, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky and Diana Rowden, Borrel was shipped to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.
On 6th July 1944, 24-year-old Andrée Borrel and her three compatriots were given lethal injections of phenol, then incinerated in the camp's crematorium. Evidence collected immediately after the war by Squadron Officer Vera Atkins and Major Bill Barkworth of the SAS War Crimes investigation team, indicates that Borrel regained consciousness before being placed in the cremation oven and fought to save her life, facially scarring the camp executioner who was placing her in the oven. However, she was unable to escape and was put into the flames whilst still alive. Both the doctor who administered the injection and the camp executioner were later executed by the Allies for war crimes.
Posthumously, the government of France awarded her the Croix de Guerre in recognition of her heroic sacrifice for her country's freedom. The concentration camp where she died is now a French government historical site. A plaque to Andrée Borrel and the three women who died with her is part of the Deportation Memorial on the site. As one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of her country, Lieutenant Borrel is listed on the ‘Roll of Honor’ on the Valençay SOE Memorial in the town of Valençay, in the Indre département of France.
In 1985, SOE agent and painter Brian Stonehouse, who saw Andrée Borrel and the three other female SOE agents at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp just before their deaths, painted a poignant watercolour of the four women which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London, England.