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They Fought Alone

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Member Reviews

The history of SOE and intelligence services in France during the Second World War has always fascinated me, and using the Starr brothers to explore that story is a really interesting way of exploring and personalising that. They were so alone - all the risk and so little support if anything went wrong.
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Loved this story of espionage and thinks intrigue during WW111. Fascinating true tale of what was going on behind the scenes of an agency that no one knew about. George and John Starr were true hero's. Fighting in France as British secret agents was a very dangerous job. No one to claim them if something goes wrong. Full of bravery, betrayal and torture. Brothers willing to give their all. So much history and refers to look up. I received this book from Net Galley and Penguin Press a honest review and no compensation otherwise.
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Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

	Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can't be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed. 
In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass. 
If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. 
Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.
A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.


KMS, 22 August 2018
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I am intrigued by everything I read about Britain’s WWII secret spy machine, the Secret Operations Executive (SOE). “They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France” by Charles Glass advanced my SOE knowledge greatly as it recounts the real-life story of two Anglo-American recruits, the Starr brothers, who become legends among those who fought the Nazis at any cost. 

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As the Publisher’s Note explains: 
From the bestselling author of Americans in Paris and The Deserters, comes the astounding story of Britain's Special Operations Executive, one of World War II's most important secret fighting forces:

As far as the public knew, Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) did not exist. After the defeat of the French Army and Britain's retreat from the Continent in June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill created the top-secret espionage operation to "set Europe ablaze." The agents infiltrated Nazi-occupied territory, parachuting behind enemy lines and hiding in plain sight, quietly but forcefully recruiting, training, and arming local French résistants to attack the German war machine. SOE would not only change the course of the war, but the nature of combat itself. Of the many brave men and women conscripted, two Anglo-American recruits, the Starr brothers, stood out to become legendary figures to the guerillas, assassins, and saboteurs they led.

While both brothers were sent across the channel to organize against the Germans, their fates in war could hardly have been more different. Captain George Starr commanded networks of résistants in southwest France, cutting German communications, destroying weapons factories, and delaying the arrival of Nazi troops to Normandy by seventeen days after D-Day. Younger brother Lieutenant John Starr laid groundwork for resistance in the Burgundy countryside until he was betrayed, captured, tortured, and imprisoned by the Nazis in France and sent to a series of concentration camps in Germany and Austria. 

Feats of boldness and bravado were many, but appalling scandals, including George's supposed torture and execution of Nazis prisoners, and John's alleged collaboration with his German captors, overshadowed them all. At the war's end, Britain, France, and the United States awarded both brothers medals for heroism, and George would become one of only three among thousands of SOE operatives to achieve the rank of colonel. Yet, their battle honors did little to allay postwar allegations against them, and when they returned to England, their government accused both brothers of heinous war crimes.”

Here, for the first time, is the story of one of the great clandestine organizations of World War II, and of two heroic brothers whose ordeals during and after the war challenged the accepted myths of Britain's wartime resistance in occupied France. Written with complete and unrivaled access to only recently declassified documents from Britain's SOE files, French archives, family letters, diaries, and court records, along with interviews from surviving wartime Resistance fighters, They Fought Alone is a real-life thriller. Renowned journalist and war correspondent Charles Glass exposes a dramatic tale of spies, sabotage, and the daring men and women who risked everything to change the course of World War II.
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“They Fought Alone” will keep you up into the wee hours as you follow the exploits of these SOE legends. Highly recommended!

Pub Date 11 Sep 2018

Thanks to PENGUIN GROUP The Penguin Press and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are fully mine.

#TheyFoughtAlone #NetGalley
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Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

If you know anything about SOE then you have heard about the Starr brothers, maybe not in depth and maybe just by their code names, but you have heard them. John Starr was at Avenue Foch at the same as Noor Khan and was one of the men who planned an escape attempt with her.

Charles Glass presents the story of the brothers’ actions in SOE during the second World War. George Starr avoided capture and lead a rather effective group of resistance operatives in occupied France. His brother, John Starr, was not as lucky.

In many ways, using the two brothers, Glass shows the divergent paths an SOE operative could take. Capture in most case, meant torture and death. But freedom could mean death as well, but also to strike against the Nazis, then possibly, possibly honors after the war.

Not that those who joined SOE did so for honors; it was a top-secret organization after all.

The book’s one problem is the same problem that is in any book about SOE, what is the truth and what actually happened. It’s hard, and then you have to factor in the times, the situation and all that.

To be fair, Glass does his best. He does note when something is rumor and when something is fact. If there are two divergent stories, he gives both with context and pros and cons. This is especially important when dealing with John Starr’s story as his is less clear cut than his brothers. Did he help the enemy or not, if he did is he at fault are questions that Glass must attend to, and he does, quite well. While he is sympathetic to his subjects, he is not blind or totally in awe. It is a balanced recounting.

The Starrs are the focus of the book, but Glass does give time to various members of the Circuit and other prisoners. 

This book is nice addition to the works about the members of SOE.
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