The Conservative MP for Beckenham has revealed how his mother entered Bergen-Belsen with British Special Forces during the Second World War but never mentioned it until her deathbed because she was “ashamed”.
Bob Stewart MP revealed his mother’s role in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during a House of Commons debate on the persecution of Christians late last week. Agents in the top secret unit engaged in espionage, sabotage, raids and reconnaissance across all enemy territory from 1940.
Stewart, a retired Army colonel who also served as an intelligence officer in Northern Ireland, said: “My mother, who went to Belsen in 1945 as an officer in the SOE, never told me that she had been there until just before she died.
“When I asked: ‘How the heck, Mum, did you not tell me that you had been in Belsen in 1945 with the British Expeditionary Force as an SOE agent’ – a spy, effectively – she said: ‘It is because, Robert, I am ashamed.’
“I said: ‘Mum, what do you mean, ashamed?’ She said: ‘I am ashamed because the Holocaust happened when I was alive.’ Now I understand what she meant. We have got to stop the persecution of any religion.”
The SOE was set up and operated in near total secrecy, with Churchill having famously ordering it to “set Europe ablaze”. Agents, including dozens of Jewish operatives who had earlier fled Nazi occupation, worked alongside resistance groups behind enemy lines.
They had some spectacular successes, such as disrupting German communications ahead of the D-Day landings, and assassinating Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich, deputy chief of the SS, in Czechoslovakia in 1942.
Unlike other Special Forces, SOE operatives wore plain clothes, meaning they could be tortured and killed by the Gestapo if caught. Many were – the average life expectancy of an SOE agent was six weeks. They were typically parachuted in, armed with silenced guns, forged papers, special explosives and clandestine transmitters.
It was due to cooperation between SOE and Polish resistance fighters that the first Allied intelligence on the Holocaust reached London in June 1942. A joint Polish Home Army-SOE operation to liberate Auschwitz was even hatched, but the British rejected it as infeasible.