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The biography of Sir Frank Nelson KCMG, the first Chief of the Special Operations Executive.
Mike Palmer's book is the foundation of a British Heritage 'Blue Plaque' submission to acknowledge the work of Sir Frank Nelson, a name forgotten in history.
REMEMBERING SIR FRANK NELSON
5th August 1883 - 11th August 1966
SOE CD1 - THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR FRANK NELSON
Mike's new biography tells the story of Sir Frank Nelson, who became the architect and initial head of the WW2 clandestine organisation called the Special Operations Executive.
Mike recalls, “During my research, I was lucky enough to spend four days with Sir Frank’s second wife Moira; meeting Lady Nelson was a huge privilege, and a very humbling experience. At 95 years of age, she was full of enthusiasm for my work, and provided me with much information of her late husband who died in 1966. Moira herself sadly passed away on 25th March 2019 before the publication of my book. The couple were married in 1952; Sir Frank was 68, while Moira was just 30 years old. They had met during 1950 when Sir Frank was admitted to a French hospital where Moira was working as a night sister.
As a young man, Frank Nelson rose through the ranks of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, settling in India during 1911, where he became very successful and an extremely wealthy individual. He joined the Bombay Light Horse Volunteer Reserve Force as an officer when World War One was declared but was not deployed to the European theatre. He continued to work in the banking sector, focussing his efforts on India’s financial institutions, and worked for the British Government who controlled that country’s budget and administration. Frank Nelson became a Director of The Bank of India, served as the Chairman of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, and became the President of the Associated Chamber of Commerce of India and Ceylon; he was also a member of the legislative council of Bombay until 1924. His influence and noted success offered him a wealth of personal opportunities, and as a partner in the brokerage firm of Symons, Barlow and Company, he sought to capitalise on his position. Frank’s achievements in India were acknowledged and in 1924, he returned to England where he received a knighthood. Almost immediately Sir Frank became the MP for the Unionist-Conservatives in Stroud Gloucestershire, and remained in political office until 1931, when he resigned to take up private business. During 1939 he became the British Consul in Basle Switzerland, working undercover for the Secret Intelligence Service, as a member of Claude Dansey’s Z Network, gathering information and creating ‘safe’ routes for people and materials leaving the country. Sir Frank remained in situ until the summer of 1940, arriving back in England on June 20th, where he was tasked to create a single subversive force from the amalgamation of three individual sections within the British secret service.
The Special Operations Executive was established to undermine the Nazis in occupied countries, by using local resisters to achieve that goal. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, stated that "The British Government wanted a new organisation to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants”. Small-scale sabotage, propaganda, and resistance against the Nazis could only be achieved with the help of pro-British supporters and embedded S.O.E. agents who would manage these volunteers and coordinate their missions. The organisation would provide the training, arms, supplies, finance, and radio communications between Britain and the resister groups.
Sir Frank Nelson slowly built around him a functioning administration for this completely new entity, often referred to as the 'Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare'. His efforts were monumental, and he worked sixteen hours a day for weeks on end, establishing a viable covert asset in the war effort. Under extreme difficulties from both within and outside of Whitehall, Sir Frank demonstrated the usefulness of his group, which would grow rapidly, employing over thirteen thousand people; 470 agents alone would be sent into France, to “Set Europe Ablaze”. Embarking on subterfuge and guerrilla warfare operations across occupied Europe and beyond, S.O.E. would come of age a play an important role in the liberation of Europe, especially during the build-up to Operation Overlord in 1944. 'The Baker Street Irregulars', as they would be known had set up their headquarters at 64 Baker Street in London but also acquired countless other properties across the UK.
Sir Frank destroyed his health in creating the template for S.O.E., and by May 1942, felt compelled, through exhaustion, to leave the organisation, which was then on a crest of a wave. After a few weeks leave of recuperation in Wales, Sir Frank returned to London where he was again knighted. He was also promoted to Wing Commander and deployed to Washington DC in America, becoming head of the British R.A.F. Air Intelligence Mission. During the final days of the war, in June 1945, Sir Frank was sent to Detmold, Germany and promoted to Air Commodore, becoming the chief of Air Intelligence for the British Control Commission.
As to the effectiveness of the Special Operations Executive, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in May 1945 that “the disruption of enemy rail communications, the harassing of German road moves, and the continual and increasing strain placed on German security services throughout occupied Europe by the organised forces of Resistance, played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory”. He also believed that S.O.E.’s activities had shortened the war by six months, calling it the “equivalent of 15 troop divisions”.
When the war was over, Sir Frank like many other S.O.E. personnel drifted into obscurity. He had become an old man who was no longer the centre of international business, nor required during the global modernisation of the financial institutions, and he subsequently became lost and indifferent to life. His first marriage had collapsed many years earlier, and he rarely saw or spoke to his only son; Sir Frank was no longer a wealthy man and he felt alone, and with so few friends was on his own.
The war had changed Britain and its people, and in London Sir Frank felt isolated amongst growing numbers of new and younger faces appearing at his old sanctuary of The Carlton Club. He was unsettled, vulnerable, and found the greyness of the capital depressing, so he travelled back and forth to Cannes in France looking for answers. Sir Frank unfortunately descended into a period of drug dependency and darkness before being rescued in 1950 by a young woman named Moira Carling. She was a remarkable individual, having worked with the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe, in his experimental treatments on badly burned allied airmen, known as the ‘Guinea Pigs’. Moira had become Sir Frank’s nurse during his hospitalisation in France and their relationship developed from friendship into love; the pair married in 1952, soon after Sir Frank’s first wife died. Although very happy together, Sir Frank and Lady Nelson lived in the shadows, enduring a frugal existence due to their poor financial situation. For the first few years of married life, they rented an ancient houseboat on the Thrupp Canal, in Oxfordshire before finding more appropriate rented accommodation. Moira was devoted to her aging husband and both felt a sense of contentment, being at peace with the world around them.
Sir Frank died on August 11th 1966 and wanted to be buried at the Shipton-on-Cherwell Church, but his estranged son insisted that his father be cremated in Oxford. Only four people attended the brief service and Sir Frank’s ashes were scattered on open ground.
‘S.O.E. CD 1 – The Life and Times of Sir Frank Nelson’ tells the story of an important but forgotten wartime hero who lived during a fascinating and tumultuous period in British history. Mike’s meticulous research presents the reader with a colourful and detailed picture of a time gone by. This official biography adds one of the last remaining bricks in the wall of the Special Operations Executive story and shines a light on a selfless man driven by hard work and National duty.
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