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Beaulieu's important role in the Second World War

Lady Montagu is telling the stories of two WWII special agents in a new exhibition at Beaulieu Photography by Kate Hunter
Lady Montagu is telling the stories of two WWII special agents in a new exhibition at Beaulieu Photography by Kate Hunter

Lady Montagu shares the stories of two World War II special agents who paid the ultimate sacrifice in a special exhibition at Beaulieu, which opens this month.

It was the ultimate sacrifice. In October 1942, 32-year-old Francis Suttill left behind his wife and two baby sons to become leader of the biggest Special Operations Executive (SOE) circuit in France – the Paris-based ‘Prosper’ network.

As an agent secretly parachuted into Nazi-controlled France, he organised hundreds of Resistance supporters to conduct sabotage and reconnaissance to assist the Allied cause, supplying volunteer fighters with weapons and equipment parachuted from England.

When the network fell in June 1943, Francis was captured by the Germans and spent 18 months in a concentration camp before being executed in March 1945.

Great British Life: Lady Montagu, who carried out her own in-depth research for the new SOE display Photography by Kate HunterLady Montagu, who carried out her own in-depth research for the new SOE display Photography by Kate Hunter

Now, the work of both Francis and Yvonne Rudellat, the first female SOE agent to be sent into German-occupied France, are being remembered in a special exhibition at Beaulieu. The location is significant, as the agents were just two of many who were trained on the Montagu family estate in the New Forest, before heading into Occupied Europe on their hazardous missions.

There has been an SOE museum at Beaulieu for the past 15 years, but it was the present Lady Montagu who personally carried out in-depth research for the new display, speaking to the families of both Francis and Yvonne, to piece together the stories of their lives in a bid to share the work they did, and the sacrifices they made, with the wider public.

This has been a deeply personal project for Lady Montagu, who is a member of the UK’s only remaining all-woman military unit, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, to which Yvonne Rudellat also belonged. It was while working as the regiment’s archives officer and attending a private reception for surviving SOE agents at Beaulieu in 2000 that she first met her now husband, Lord Montagu.

'As archives officer, I was very interested in the Beaulieu Estate’s role as the ‘Finishing School for Secret Agents’, as it was nicknamed. When they’d completed their basic training elsewhere in the British Isles, most were sent to Beaulieu for final debriefing and a practical training exercise where they had to go off with false identities and pretend to do what they were going to do in Europe. The local police were then notified to go and look for them, and they had to make sure they weren’t caught,' she explains.

Great British Life: In the Second World War the Beaulieu estate was the ‘Finishing School for Secret Agents Photography by Kate HunterIn the Second World War the Beaulieu estate was the ‘Finishing School for Secret Agents Photography by Kate Hunter

Lady Montagu had always been keen to put together a more personal exhibition on some of the individuals involved in SOE, feeling that many such presentations failed to bring their personal stories to life.

'A lot of exhibitions make these agents look like comic-book heroes,' she says. 'They were nothing of the sort. The two people I've chosen had children, and nobody made them go. He was in the army, she was a single mother and a London landlady. But they were both half-French and were desperate to help the country of their birth when it was invaded.

'Francis Suttill was a university-educated barrister who was just starting a career as an international lawyer. Yvonne Rudellat was a fun-loving older woman with an adult daughter who had separated from her husband. For her, I think it was more of an adventure.’

'But both were under no illusions about what they were going to,’ Lady Montagu emphasises.’ They both knew they might not come back. It was about doing the right thing.'

Both Francis and Yvonne worked on the same SOE circuit. While Francis led the network, Yvonne was initially a courier and then became the deputy leader of a sub-circuit, so the pair would have known each other and worked together.

While Francis concentrated on co-ordinating arms drops and the distribution of weapons, Yvonne kept explosives under her bed in her safe house in France, using them to sabotage railway lines, factories and a power station. Arrested just a few days before Francis, she was eventually taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died of typhus a few days after it was liberated. She was 45.

Great British Life: Lady Montagu first met her husband at a private reception for surviving SOE agents Photography by Kate HunterLady Montagu first met her husband at a private reception for surviving SOE agents Photography by Kate Hunter

'I wanted to use the exhibition as a memorial to two people who I don’t feel have been adequately recognised, and who stand as examples of the very different types of individual who quietly volunteer to do difficult things for the greater good,’ Lady Montagu adds. ‘I was initially drawn to the story of Francis Suttill, who I felt had a very, very difficult and lonely job, almost an impossible one. Because the network he commanded ultimately failed, he wasn't remembered as he should have been.’

'What’s more, he had 18 months in a concentration camp to think about the fact that he was never going to see his wife and children again. That's mental as well as physical torture.'

Lady Montagu met with Francis's son, who wrote a book about his father's fate, as well as with Yvonne's granddaughter, to piece together their personal stories. She also travelled to France to visit the places where they hid and worked, and to meet descendants of the people they worked with.

She is especially pleased with the two films she narrates in the exhibition – one for each agent – which present a picture of their personalities through letters home and accounts by those who knew them.

'I really wanted visitors to understand that these were just regular people,' she says. 'I’ve tried to explore why I think they volunteered and a bit about who they were as characters. I've always been haunted by the idea that it was here that all these very different individuals enjoyed a few days of peace and tranquillity just before they went off. In their case, for the last time.'

Lady Montagu is keen that the stories are told to a new generation through the displays, which feature personal artefacts belonging to Yvonne, including her suitcase, as well as one of the many canisters containing supplies which was dropped to Francis Suttill’s reception committee in a French field by the RAF.

Great British Life: There has been an SOE museum at Beaulieu for the past 15 year Photography by Kate HunterThere has been an SOE museum at Beaulieu for the past 15 year Photography by Kate Hunter

'Not surprisingly, most of those who stop and read through the display are older people. But if I can see one youngster stopping to look or asking their parents or grandparents what these people did, then it's worth it. That's important. I think many people alive today couldn’t imagine Western Europe being torn apart by war,' she adds. 'But I think we are closer to that than we have ever been since.'

With a father who worked for NATO and family holidays spent absorbing history at battle sites across France, Italy and Germany, Lady Montagu has always had an interest in the Second World War.

And as 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the fall of the Prosper network, it seemed a fitting time to research and stage the new additions to the exhibition.

'There's so much to see here at Beaulieu: the motor museum, Palace House, the abbey, a wonderful children’s playground…but when you come upon the SOE exhibition, you check yourself a little bit and the mood changes, because all of that happened here too. The good and the bad. I think it's important to remember that. It's part of our collective history in this part of Hampshire.'

* Lady Montagu can be heard telling the stories of Francis Suttill and Yvonne Rudellat in a recording at the new exhibition, which can be seen as part of a visit to Beaulieu.

For tickets and details see beaulieu.co.uk or call 01590 612345.



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