17 March 1903|
|Died||6 July 1944
KZ Natzweiler-Struthof, France
|Allegiance||United Kingdom, France|
|Service/branch||Special Operations Executive, French Resistance|
|Years of service||1943-1944|
|Rank||Field agent (Courier)|
|Commands held||Donkeyman, Inventor|
|Awards||King's Commendation for Brave Conduct|
Vera Leigh (born Vera Glass on 17 March 1903 in Leeds, England - died 6 July 1944) was a member of the French Resistance and a British SOE agent during World War II. In 1944 she was captured by the Germans and executed at Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.
Abandoned by her parents soon after birth, she was adopted by H. Eugene Leigh, an American racehorse trainer who raced in the United States, winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and in Europe where he owned stables at Maisons Laffitte near Paris, France. Her plaque of remembrance, re-edited to remove 'was murdered at' and replaced with 'died for her country' is mounted to this day on the wall of the Holy Trinity Church in Maisons Laffitte.
She had an early ambition to become a jockey, but after completing her education she worked as a dress designer. In 1927 she went into partnership with two friends to establish a 'grand maison' (fashion house) known as Rose Valois in the Place Vendôme, Paris.
After the fall of Paris in the Second World War, Leigh left for Lyon to join her fiancé. She became involved in the French Resistance, helping to run an escape line for Allied servicemen trapped behind enemy lines. In 1942 she used the same escape route to cross the Pyrenees to Spain in the hope of reaching England, but found herself imprisoned for several months at the Miranda de Ebro internment camp near Bilbao. Eventually, with assistance from a British Embassy official, Leigh was released from the camp and completed the journey to England via Gibraltar.
Special Operations Executive
After offering her services for the war effort, Leigh came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive, who recruited her for F Section, and she became an Ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She excelled in her training and was known to be "the best shot in the party". Leigh was dispatched on her first and only mission and returned to France on 14/15 May 1943. She arrived at a field in the Cher Valley, near Tours, one of four new arrivals that night who were received by F Section's air movements officer, Henri Dericourt. Her companions were Juliane Aisner, Sidney Jones and Marcel Clech. Aisner was to be a courier for Dericourt's Farrier circuit, while Jones (an arms instructor) and Clech (a wireless operator) were to join Leigh in establishing a new sub-circuit known as 'Inventor', which was to work alongside the Prosper network.
After receiving further instructions at a safe house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Leigh took an apartment in Paris and carried messages from Jones in and out of the city as far as the Ardennes. One day in the Gare Saint-Lazare, she met by chance her sister's husband, who ran a safe house for Allied airmen as part of an escape line. She increased her own risk by becoming involved with this operation, escorting some of the men through the Parisian streets to their next contacts. She also socialised openly with other agents, including Julienne Aisner.
Capture and execution
On 30 October 1943, Leigh was arrested at a café near the Place des Ternes and taken to Fresnes prison. The Germans already knew everything about her activities. On 13 May 1944, Leigh was taken from Fresnes prison to 84 Avenue Foch, the Paris headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst. Others taken there at the same time included Andrée Borrel, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Sonya Olschanezky and Madeleine Damerment.
On 6 July 1944, Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel, and Sonya Olschanezky were taken to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof. Later that day they were injected with phenol and placed in the crematorium furnace. One of the women, possibly identified by Vera Atkins as Leigh, may have resisted her murder. The same woman may have revived when placed in the oven, and was able to scratch the face of the executioner, Peter Straub, before dying.
- Jones, Liane. A Quiet Courage: Women Agents in the French Resistance London, Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1990. ISBN 0-593-01663-7
- Sarah Helm, 'A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE', 2005 pp247-261.
- Helm pp431-432.
- Kramer, Rita. Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France (2008) Penguin Books, UK ISBN 978-0-14-024423-6
- Helm p432.
- Marucs Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002. ISBN 0-340-81840-9
- Sarah Helm, A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, London, Abacus, 2005 ISBN 978-0-349-11936-6