Yvonne Cormeau (F) Section

YVONNE Cormeau, who has died aged 88, carried out secret operations in Occupied France under the codename Annette and evaded arrest despite some narrow escapes.

Yvonne Cormeau might not have been as well known as contemporaries such as Odette Hallowes or Violette Szabo, but her work for Special Operations Executive (SOE) was no less vital. As an F Section wireless operator, she provided SOE and the French Resistance with a run of 13 months' essential communications.

On the night of Aug 22 1943, Yvonne Cormeau was dropped by parachute near the hamlet of St Antoine du Queyret, north-east of Bordeaux.

Her specific mission was to operate with George Starr, known as Hilaire. He was the highly successful commander of Wheelwright, SOE's largest circuit, which included about 20 SOE-trained agents and covered a large area in south-west France. Yvonne Cormeau, by sending more than 400 wireless messages, contributed to the isolation of the Wehrmacht Group G garrison near Toulouse while Wheelwright agents cut power and telephone lines.

She also maintained contact with F Section in London, making detailed arrangements for the provision of arms and supplies to be dropped by parachute for the Maquis.

Yvonne Cormeau was almost seized after being betrayed by an agent codenamed Rodolph. But she managed to continue operating despite being confronted by "wanted" posters in her neighbourhood which gave an accurate sketch of her appearance.

Once while in the field with Maquis fighters she was wounded in the leg. Her dress, complete with bullet hole, and a bloodstained briefcase, are exhibited along with her WAAF officer's uniform at the Imperial War Museum.

On another occasion, after keeping a rendezvous with Starr, Yvonne Cormeau was stopped at a road block and questioned. The couple were held, each with a gun in the back, while German guards sought further orders.

In the event, the Germans accepted her identity documents' description of her as a district nurse, and she succeeded in passing her wireless equipment off as an X-ray machine.

Yvonne Cormeau survived another scare when, after being woken up in the middle of the night by the Gestapo, she made off into the countryside pursued by gunfire.

Beatrice Yvonne Biesterfeld was born in Shanghai on Dec 18 1909, the daughter of a Belgian consular official and Scottish mother. She was educated in Belgium and Scotland.

In 1937 she married Charles Edouard Emile Cormeau, a chartered accountant working in London. In November 1940 her husband was wounded in France while serving with the Rifle Brigade.

Shortly afterwards he was killed when their London home was bombed, but Yvonne's life was saved by a bath which fell over her head and protected her.

Widowed, Yvonne Cormeau decided to take her husband's place in the Armed Forces. She enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and was secretary to the station commander at RAF Innsworth until posted to the operations room at RAF Swinderby. After answering an appeal on the noticeboard for linguists, Yvonne Cormeau was recruited by SOE and trained as an F Section wireless operator.

A year after the end of the war, she was demobilised with the WAAF rank of flight officer. She then worked as a translator and in the SOE section at the Foreign Office. She became a linchpin of F Section veterans and arranged their annual Bastille Day dinner.

Late in life, Yvonne Cormeau, received recognition of a sort as the subject of 'This is Your Life'. She was also featured in a television series, 'Wish Me Luck'.

Yvonne Cormeau was bird-like, kind, generous and unassuming. If she had lived a charmed wartime life, her declining years were blighted by injury. She fell down some stairs and broke her neck and was later hurt by a mugger in London.

After the war she was appointed MBE, and decorated with the Légion d'honneur, Croix de guerre and Médaille combattant volontaire de la Résistance.

Telegraph Obituaries Jan 1998.

Return to Home Page