Benjamin Cowburn, or Benoît as he was codenamed, parachuted into France in early 1941. Before the war he had lived in Paris as an engineer, and his fluent French and local knowledge made him an ideal recruit to SOE. In No Cloak, No Dagger he records in matter-of-fact tones activating contacts; setting up letter-drops, safe-houses and parachute landing sites; failures and successes, and the truly appalling casualty rate amongst the first agents. His account is at once professional, and deeply personal – the thrilling adventures of an agent who ‘had always laughed at the “spy-thriller” type of story’.
What bizarre events occur and what characters he meets: the major escaping France who has killed 96 Germans in two wars and is terrified he will die without killing another four to make his ‘century’; the triple agent Victoire who betrays the German who first ‘turned’ her, and the railwaymen who don’t turn a hair at carrying British agents over the border concealed in the train’s engine. Cowburn is frank about the many near-disasters: the navy sent in ‘pram dinghies’ to take the agents off a beach, which were ‘about as seaworthy as an inverted umbrella’; his resistance group left their plans drawn on a school blackboard, but luckily the headmaster’s wife saw them and scrubbed them off. Aware of the terrible fates that his recruits and fellow agents suffered – many of his friends were tortured and then shot – Cowburn ascribes his own survival not to judgement, but to luck. Yet his indomitable, calm and cheerful spirit shines out in his prose, whether he is putting itching powder in Wehrmacht laundry or recording his own reactions – on hearing that he has been betrayed, Cowburn did not feel a tingling scalp or sickness in the pit of the stomach, but rather found himself ‘stuffing another forkful of pommes de terre à l’huile into my mouth’. A magnificent portrait of what life was like for a secret agent in occupied France, this is, above all, a moving tribute to the ‘Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who wished neither to collaborate nor to wait in misery, but who felt the urge ... to form the hidden, glowing world of faith and resistance’. In his introduction to ‘this astonishing story of secrets, lies and big bangs’ novelist Giles Foden praises the literary skill that has made this memoir a classic of the genre.