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Remembering... Peter Lake MC

Remembering... Peter Lake MC

SOE hero’s sabotage ops with French Resistance slowed Panzer advance after D-Day but cut no ice with De Gaulle

By Dennis Abbott

Peter Lake MC, a Brussels committee member in the early Sixties, served in France with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) F Section during the Second World War, at the same time as former branch Chairman and President George Starr. Like Starr, Lake was treated disparagingly by General Charles De Gaulle, who ordered him to get out of France in 1944 despite his courageous work with the Resistance.

Peter Lake MC

Peter Lake was born on 30 January 1915 in Limpsfield, Surrey. His father, Ivan, a solicitor, moved the family to Majorca when Peter was six and later became British honorary consul in Palma. Lake was educated at Clifton College, a public school in Bristol, London University and St John’s College, Oxford, where he read French and Spanish, earning what he described as a “very modest” degree.

Lake was working for the Standard Bank of West Africa in Accra, Ghana, at the outbreak of the Second World War. His immediate thought was to enlist and he contacted the commanding officer of the Gold Coast Regiment. His job, however, was regarded as a reserved occupation and Lake was forced to bide his time.

He made his way back to Britain, travelling overland across the Sahara and via Gibraltar, arriving at Weymouth just before the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940. After resigning from his bank job, Lake did his basic training at the Royal Corps of Signals depot in Prestatyn, North Wales. Spotting a notice seeking people proficient in languages, Lake put his name forward and was posted to the Intelligence Corps. While stationed with Eastern Command Headquarters in Bedfordshire, he met a member of the SOE who said his profile could be useful.

A successful interview followed and Lake was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. After intensive training in unarmed combat and explosives at Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands, Lake was sent to Fernando Pó (now Bioko) in Equatorial Guinea, off the coast of West Africa. In January 1942, he was involved in the audacious capture of an Italian liner, Duchessa d’Aosta, and two German boats at Santa Isabel (Malabo). 

F Section

After 18 months in West Africa, Lake transferred to SOE’s F (France) Section under Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Further training followed in Scotland, Ringway parachute school, and Beaulieu, where Lake was taught techniques for withstanding interrogation.  

He flew out from RAF Tempsford on 9 April 1944 with radio operator Ralph Beauclerk (Casimir). After a three-hour flight, they were dropped over Siorac-en-Périgord in the Dordogne and met by a reception committee from the Digger network led by Captain Jacques Poirier (Nestor). He immediately took the new arrivals for a hearty meal at the home of a carpenter, Robert Brouillet, known as “Le Bolshevik” due to his political leanings.

Peter Lake (left) with fellow SOE agent, Jacques Poirer. Image taken from Forgotten Voices of the Secret War

Lake’s mission was to provide instruction on the use of arms and explosives. Originally code-named Basil but now known under his false identity as Jean-Pierre Lenormand, Lake spent his first few days in the nearby Forêt de la Bessede, in a safe house owned by a Doctor Remboux and his wife.

He was introduced to René Coustellier (Soleil), also a Communist, who ran a maquis cell in Villefranche-du-Périgord. They travelled there by train and, in an act of bravado, Coustellier insisted they used a carriage reserved for enemy troops. Inside, they found an Austrian soldier who was persuaded at gun-point by Coustellier to keep quiet.  

Lake was taken by bicycle to a forest clearing where he met Coustellier’s unit. To his surprise, they were mostly older men from Catalonia, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, but they were fit and experienced fighters. “[They] looked like the kind of maquis with whom you could do business,” Lake later remarked.

New identity

Although he could be understood in French, Lake knew he would never pass as a Frenchman if arrested. He was constantly on the move to reduce the risk of betrayal and avoided towns policed by the collaborationist Milice. He also obtained new identity papers which stated he was a refugee worker from the west of Belgium. This cover story would explain his unusual accent if he was stopped by a German patrol, but would not convince the Milice. Fortunately, he was never caught.

Lake worked with different maquis units including Ancelle, Marcel and Roland, reporting back to Poirier. He knew D-Day was approaching and had to convince his charges not to do anything rash that might draw attention to the coming invasion. On 4 June, the BBC broadcast the long-awaited message that the landings were imminent: “The giraffe has a long neck.”

On D-Day itself, 6 June, Lake was hiding out in the Forêt Barade near Thenon, with Roger Deschamps, regarded by Lake as one of the best Resistance leaders.

The news of the invasion was, in Lake’s words, “fairly electrifying” and he made his way back to Poirier’s command post.

The biggest immediate threat came from the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich which had units in the Toulouse and Bordeaux areas. Tanks and artillery were moved north by rail and Lake was able to use his SOE training to good effect by blowing up tracks and bridges. Such raids helped delay the German advance after D-Day for up to a fortnight, helping to ensure the allies faced less opposition and gained a bridgehead beyond the landing beaches.

Reprisals

Lake was shocked, however, when he learnt of the severe reprisals by Das Reich units in response to Resistance activity. Some 643 civilians, including women and children, were massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June. Closer to Lake’s area of operation, shortly before he was flown in, the Brehmer Division razed the village of Rouffignac to the ground after two German officers were captured. The pair had escaped unharmed but returned for retribution.  

While training the maquis, Lake came into contact with André Malraux, a French writer who had fought in Spain and was much admired. Malraux was awarded the British Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his work with the SOE. De Gaulle appointed him Minister for Information after the war.

Lake set up a new base near Urval at the Château de la Poujade, owned by a half-British marquis, Gerard Commarque. He had all the approaches mined in case of unwelcome visits. 

Following a massive supply drop of arms on 14 July, Lake was able to equip the majority of the maquis in the area. A notable success was the capture of the German garrison at Brive-la-Gaillarde. Its commander, Colonel Heinrich Böhmer was led to believe he was surrounded by a large allied force and surrendered with 650 men on 15 August, with barely a shot fired. Poirier, Lake and Beauclerk, by now wearing British uniform, were present for the surrender. It was the first town liberated by the Resistance.

Peter Lake 

As the Germans withdrew from the Dordogne and Corrèze, Lake moved to Bordeaux, where the Germans still had a large garrison. He hoped to blow a bridge to cut them off but realised his plastic explosives would not be up to the job. Instead, he travelled further up the coast to Marennes, facing the island of Oléron, where the Germans had a sizeable Atlantic Wall detachment.

Lake telephoned the unit’s commander and informed him he was surrounded by vastly superior forces. This time the German was not duped and refused to surrender, holding out for several weeks. 

You have no business here

On 18 September 1944 General de Gaulle visited nearby Saintes and Lake accompanied French officers to meet him. He was introduced as “Le Capitaine Jean-Pierre”. The conversation did not go well.

De Gaulle: “Jean-Pierre, that’s a French name.”

Lake: “My nom de guerre, mon Général.”

De Gaulle: What are you doing here?”

Lake: “I belong to the Inter-Allied Mission for Dordogne, and I am at the moment with Dordogne troops at Marennes, mon Général.”

De Gaulle: “But what are you doing here?”

Lake: “I am training certain troops for special operations.”

De Gaulle: “Our troops don’t need training. You have no business here.”

Lake: “I obey the orders of my superiors.”

De Gaulle: “You have no business here, I say. You have no right to exercise a command.”

Lake: “Mon Général I exercise no command.”

De Gaulle: “We don’t need you here. I have already told one Aristide [Roger Landes], who was indulging in politics, to get out. Another I have dispatched is Hilaire [George Starr] in Toulouse. It only remains for you to leave. You too must go home. Return, return quickly. Au revoir.”

Charles de Gaulle with Winston Churchill at an Armistice Day parade in Paris, Novemeber 1944. Courtesy of Creative Commons 

In his 2018 biography De Gaulle, Professor Julian Jackson explains the General’s startling reaction was down to his “obsession with restoring the authority of the state and allowing no challenges to its – to his – authority”.

Lake’s SOE file, detailing the conversation, was deemed so sensitive that it was only released by the British National Archives 55 years later.

Around the time of his meeting with De Gaulle, Lake was ordered to Limoges ready to be airlifted from Le Blanc back to the UK. He took a few days leave to get married and was then attached to SOE’s Italian section under Colonel Cecil Roseberry. The war was nearing its end and Lake was mostly engaged in administrative duties, destroying Italian reports regarded at the time as ephemeral rather than historic.

Belgium 

Lake was awarded the Military Cross for his exploits in the build-up to D-Day. Despite the snub by De Gaulle, he was later made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and awarded the Croix de Guerre by France.

After the war, he joined the Foreign Office and served as consul in Mozambique, France, Iceland, Syria, Indonesia, Italy, Brazil and Belgium.

He was re-introduced to De Gaulle at a reception in Rio de Janeiro a decade or so after their infamous meeting. This time De Gaulle was charming and his earlier slight almost forgotten.

Lake joined the Brussels branch of the RBL during his time in Belgium and was a committee member in the early Sixties.

After retiring in 1975, he worked with the Cambridge Wildlife Trust and pursued his interest in bookbinding.

Lake died in Cambridge on 26 June 2009, aged 94. He was survived by his wife Kay, two sons and a daughter.

We will remember him.

Sources:

Interview with Peter Lake, Imperial War Museum

Nigel Perrin, University of Kent: https://nigelperrin.com/peterlake.htm

Obituary, The Times and Daily Telegraph

Das Reich by Max Hastings

Forgotten Voices of the Secret War: An Inside History of Special Operations in the Second World War by Roderick Bailey (photo)

 

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