• Si Biggs

Yvonne Burney "Odette" the youngest female SOE agent passes away at 95


Yvonne Jeanne de Vibraye Baseden MBE; Legion of Honour; the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, (20 January 1922 – 28 October 2017), later known as Yvonne Burney, was one of approximately fifty female Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents.  

Yvonne Burney was the youngest female SOE agent to be parachuted into wartime France, where she organised one of the largest daylight air drops of arms to the resistance, before being betrayed, arrested by the Gestapo, and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. 

On 4 September 1940 (aged 18), Baseden joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a General Duties Clerk (Service No 4189). She was commissioned in 1941 (later promoted to the rank of Section Officer) and worked in the RAF Intelligence branch, where she assisted in the interrogation of captured airmen and submarine crews. It was through this work that she came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which she joined on 24 May 1943. One of the youngest SOE women to be dropped by parachute, aged 22, Baseden left from RAF Tempsford airbase near Sandy on the night of 18/19 March 1944. Her field name was "Odette". She was parachuted into France with Gonzague Saint Geniès, a French organizer (field name: "Lucien"). They were dropped into South West France, close to the village of Gabarret. The local resistance were working for George Starr's network named "Wheelwright". They hid them for a few days, then she made her own way across France, her wireless equipment travelling separately, to Jura in Eastern France, where she worked for four months as the wireless operator to the Scholar circuit. Her cover story was that she was "Mademoiselle Yvonne Bernier", a shorthand typist and secretary. 

Following the largest daylight air drop of the war to that date, during a routine search by the Gestapo on 26 June 1944, she was trapped in a cheese factory with seven colleagues from the network. Her organiser took a suicide pill immediately, as he was known to the Gestapo. Baseden was found, arrested and taken away for local questioning. At the end of that month, she was moved to the Gestapo Headquarters in Dijon and kept in solitary confinement. On 25 August 1944, she was transferred to a prison in Saarbrücken and then to Ravensbrück concentration camp on 4 September of the same year. While at Ravensbrück, she became ill and was put in the camp hospital, nursed by, among others, Mary Lindell, where she remained until the liberation of the camp. She was one of 50 women released from Ravensbrück to the Swedish Red Cross. All the women were driven in coaches across Germany and Denmark and then on to Sweden. In Malmö, they were cleaned and deloused. Baseden spent her first nights of freedom on a mattress on the floor of the Malmö Museum of Prehistory, sleeping under the skeletons of dinosaurs. She was then flown to Scotland and put on a train to Euston. On her arrival at Euston, there was no one to meet her, so she called the Air Ministry and the duty officer arranged for Vera Atkins to meet her. Atkins then took her home to her father at Brockwell Park. 

After the war, she became the first regular subject of the BBC programme This Is Your Life when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the BBC Television Theatre in September 1955. She married and moved to what was then Northern Rhodesia, where her husband worked in the Colonial Service. She remarried in 1966, took the name Yvonne Burney, and moved to Portugal and then in 1999 returned to London.[1] She no longer wanted to talk about her experiences in the war, but gave a brief interview to Sarah Helm for her biography of Vera Atkins. She also appeared in a French documentary (Robert et les Ombres) in which she met, 60 years after the events, two of the Resistance fighters who were in the field when she was dropped. 

Baseden died in October 2017 at the age of 95. 

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