Arthur Staggs was the radio operator for the Special Operations Executive’s “Farmer” network in occupied France, working in the region around Lille under the nom de guerre of Albert Foulon. He was kind enough to meet me in February 2008, in the small town of Thame, Oxfordshire, to talk about his memories of clandestine life, and I drew on his recollections to add atmosphere and authenticity to the fictional World War Two “Steeplejack” operation in “The Secret Fire”.
Mr Staggs, a tough Londoner born within the sound of Bow bells in 1912, spent much of his life before the war in northern France, after his widowed father married a French woman. He spoke the local patois of the Roubaix area like a native.
Aged 96, he fights acute joint pain these days with the same iron will-power that made him a redoubtable boxer, wrestler and weightlifter before the war — and that carried him through two months of Nazi interrogation following his arrest in December 1943.
He recounts his capture by the Gestapo here.
“Rat-a-tat at the door. My friend’s wife opens the door, and who bursts in? Gestapo,” he remembers. “The Germans walk in, and they’ve got these submachine guns, and one is stuck in my belly. That’s the biggest fright I had. That’s when the shivers came, that’s when the sweat came. I thought: he’s only got to press that trigger, and I’m oblivious.”
In February 1944, his cover identity as a local man still intact, Mr Staggs was released, the local Gestapo chief joking that they’d believed he was “un parachutiste anglais” – an English agent. Mr Staggs laughed back at him.
A website on SOE and special forces history, run by Bernie Harris, features a recording of Mr Staggs’ radio call-sign in Morse code, and provides many more details about his life and clandestine career.
Following his time with the “Farmer” circuit, which specialized in railway sabotage, Mr Staggs lost touch with SOE and worked, after his release by the Gestapo, with French resistance forces under the new name of Captain Bebert. Among their many activities after D-Day were damaging V-1 flying bombs on the ground before they could be launched, and preventing Nazi forces from blowing up bridges to impede the Allied advance.
As a result of his wartime experiences – the loss of brave friends, the constant strain of clandestinity, his time in captivity — Mr Staggs suffered from what doctors termed “nervous exhaustion” for seven years after returning home.
In the living room of his comfortable ground floor flat, a certificate bearing Mr Staggs’ name hangs on the wall: the Legion d’Honneur, the highest decoration granted by the French state, for outstanding valour. He was awarded it three days before his 93rd birthday.
Mr Staggs makes a cameo appearance in the Morbecque sections of “The Secret Fire”.
(Credits: 1943 photo by permission of Arthur Staggs; 2008 photo and audio Martin Langfield)