On 10th July 1946 the British War Office wrote to Thomas Plewman, formerly of Athy informing him of his wife’s death at the hand of the Germans almost two years previously. His wife, Eliane, was just 26 years old when she was executed along with three other women, all of whom were agents for Special Operations Executives engaged in helping the French Resistance Movement in German occupied France.
Thomas Plewman was the eldest son of Francis Victor Plewman and his wife, formerly Florence Haylock of Leicester, England who were married in 1911. There were two other sons, Francis who died young and Norman who in time inherited the family home at Woodstock, Athy. Thomas went to Leicester in England in 1933 where his maternal grandfather J.W. Haylock was a well known businessman. His future wife, Eliane Sophie Browne-Bartroli, was born in Marseilles in 1917 to a French mother and an English father. She was educated in France and at Ashford, Kent. After working for some time in Bermingham she took up employment as a translator in March 1937 with George Odom Limited at their Leicester office. It was in Leicester that she first met Thomas Plewman and the young couple married after Eliane returned to work in London in 1941. When the war broke Eliane Sophie Plewman who was proficient in a number of continental languages joined the British Embassy in Madrid and later worked in the Ministry of Information in London.
The German occupation of her homeland caused her great concern and like many others born and reared in France she was anxious to work with the French Resistance Movement. The Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) set up by the British authorities in July 1940 to organise sabotage and create Resistance Movements in enemy controlled countries afforded Eliane Sophie Plewman the ideal opportunity to do so. On joining the S.O.E. she was seconded for training in Manchester and in the North West highlands of Scotland. In the meantime her husband Thomas had joined the Royal Artillery.
On the night of 14th August 1943 the now fully trained S.O.E. agent Eliane Sophie Plewman was parachuted into France near the town of Lons le Saunier. From the start her mission was dogged by bad luck. The satchel of money she brought with her to help finance the resistance movement in the locality was stolen after she had put it aside for later collection. Greater problems had to be surmounted when on landing she discovered that those intended to be her first contacts within the Resistance Movement had been arrested and removed from the area.
Undaunted she displayed enormous courage and initiative in following through with her mission and before long she had established contacts with a circle of resistance fighters. From then onwards she kept in contact with them, all the time couriering messages between her home town of Marseilles and Roquebrune where radio operators were based. The S.O.E. files, now open to the public in the Public Records Office in London show that she travelled constantly, maintaining liaison between the various resistance groups, acting as guides to newly arrived agents and transporting equipment and documents whenever required. She was also personally involved in various acts of sabotage and the area in which she worked code named “the monk circuit” was particularly active in hampering and restricting the movement of rail traffic in and out of Marseilles.
In March 1944 Eliane was living in an apartment at Rue Merentie in Marseilles. Her involvement with the Resistance Movement was betrayed to the Germans and on 23rd March 1944 she was arrested by the Gestapo who had entered and occupied her apartment. Several members of the Resistance Movement who called to the apartment were arrested and subsequently executed. Marcus Binney, author of the S.O.E. history “The Women who lived for Danger” gives us some measure of the brutality associated with her captors when he wrote “the Gestapo in Marseilles was brutal, even by Gestapo terms”.
Eliane Sophie was detained by the Gestapo for at least fifteen days and she was subjected to electric shock torture, physical beatings, as well as inhuman water torture sessions. Despite savage treatment at the hands of the Gestapo she did not divulge any information and was subsequently incarcerated initially in the prison of Les Baumettes in Marseilles and later in the notorious Parisian prison of Fresnes.
On 12th May 1944 with seven other female prisoners, all of them S.O.E. agents, Eliane Sophie Plewman was sent by train to the German town of Karlsruhe where she was detained in the local prison for the next four months. The D Day landing which took place on 6th June 1944 was the start of the Allied push for victory, but even as the allied troops advanced through France the lives of some of the French female prisoners held in Karlsruhe were about to come to an end.
On the night of 11th September Eliane Sophie Plewman and three of her colleagues were handed over by an elderly prison warden to two Gestapo officers who brought them by train to Munich. From there they made the 20 mile journey by local train to Dachau. On arrival at Dachau station they walked to the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp which they reached at about 12 midnight. They did not know what fate awaited them but the statement of Christian Ott, one of the Gestapo agents who brought the prisoners to Dachau, recounts what happened. Ott who was captured by allied soldiers at the end of the war confirmed that early in the morning of 12th September 1944 Eliane Sophie Plewman and her three companions were taken out into the yard at Dachau Concentration Camp. Only then were they told that they were to be shot. Ordered to kneel on the ground the four brave women held hands as each in turn was shot through the back of the neck.
Twenty-two months later the letter advising Thomas Plewman of his wife’s death arrived at 8 Stoneygate Avenue, Leicester. He had seen her for the last time just shortly before she was parachuted into France in August 1943. Eliane Sophie Plewman was 26 years old when she was executed. She was subsequently posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star and the King’s Commendation.
In a quiet street in the Mediterranean port of Marseilles the city authorities erected a plaque at the Rue Merentie house where Eliane was arrested. The tribute on the Memorial expresses gratitude to the heroes of the French Resistance Movement. A memorial tablet in St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London also commemorates this brave French woman who was married to Athy man Thomas Plewman. Thomas Plewman who himself served in the Royal Artillery throughout the Second World War died four years ago.