Jacques de Guélis – War hero

Members of SOE in southern France in 1944. Source: By Imperial War Museum. - Imperial War Museum. Catalogue number: HU 66187, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50518753

Major Jacques de Guélis was an agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The unit existed due to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wanting to initiate a sabotage operation that would “set Europe ablaze.”

Jacques Theodore Paul Marie Vaillant de Guélis was born in Cardiff to a French coal exporter named Raoul and his wife, Marie.

Guélis’ first mission began on August 6, 1941 – 75 years ago. He went back again and again for a total of three missions behind enemy lines in Nazi Europe.  He also arranged contacts for Virginia Hall. Hall was a one-legged spy who became the Gestapo’s #1 most wanted agent in France. Guélis’ received numerous medals, including three Croix de Guerre from the French government. Still, his story is not widely known.

He was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), evacuated from Dunkirk and then sent back into France to help troops get out of the country and back home. In April of 1941, he interviewed to work for the SOE. He was hired, in part, due to the fluent French he spoke.

The SOE was a British secret service organized in 1940 for the purpose of encouraging underground resistance and performing sabotage in Nazi-occupied lands. Agents were trained to kill silently and place explosives to destroy train tracks and communication lines. Other agents were dropped into enemy territory to radio information and requests back to London. The SOE was disbanded in 1946 because some objected to its “ungentlemanly behavior.”

De Guélis was a high-ranking figure in the SOE who briefed agents before they were sent on their missions, an important enough man that the SOE (mostly) refrained from sending him into the field. A secret SOE memo said that “[it was] felt that de Guélis’s special qualifications and the unusual circumstances of the present case made it a suitable instance for exception.”

They sent de Guélis on a three-fold mission to find suitable landing fields for Royal Air Force aircraft dropping off supplies and agents, recruit potential agents, and prepare the way for Virginia Hall. Hall, known by the Germans as the “Limping Lady,” could not parachute in due to an artificial leg.

The head of SOE, Brigadier Colin Gubbins, said de Guélis was an agent whose “ardor and efficiency” were “equaled by [his] personal courage.”

De Guélis was awarded the MBE (military division). He died in August of 1945 after an ex-soldier from Germany hit him with a car. De Guélis is buried in Cathay Cemetery in Cardiff.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE