REVIEW: Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith
The astonishing untold story of the author’s father, the lone American on a 4-person SOE commando team dropped behind German lines in France, whose epic feats of irregular warfare proved vital in keeping Nazi tanks away from Normandy after D-Day.
When Daniel Guiet was a child and his family moved country, as they frequently did, his father had one possession, a tin bread box, that always made the trip. Daniel was admonished never to touch the box, but one day he couldn’t resist. What he found astonished him: a .45 automatic and five full clips; three slim knives; a length of wire with a wooden handle at each end; thin pieces of paper with random numbers on them; several passports with his father’s photograph, each bearing a different name; and silk squares imprinted with different countries’ flags, bearing messages in unfamiliar alphabets. The messages, he discovered much later, were variations on a theme: I am an American. Take me to the nearest Allied military office. You will be paid.
Eventually Jean Claude Guiet revealed to his family that he had been in the CIA, but it was only at the very end of his life that he spoke of the mission during World War II that marked the beginning of his career in clandestine service. It is one of the last great untold stories of the war, and Daniel Guiet and his collaborator, the writer Tim Smith, have spent several years bringing it to life. Jean Claude was an American citizen but a child of France, and fluent in the language; he was also extremely bright. The American military was on the lookout for native French speakers to be seconded to a secret British special operations commando operation, dropping saboteurs behind German lines in France to coordinate aid to the French Resistance and lead missions wreaking havoc on Germany’s military efforts across the entire country. Jean Claude was recruited, and his life was changed forever. Though the human cost was terrible, the mission succeeded beyond the Allies’ wildest dreams.
Scholars of Mayhem tells the story of Jean Claude and the other three agents in his “circuit,” codenamed Salesman, a unit of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, the secret service ordered by Churchill to “Set Europe ablaze.” Parachuted into France the day after D-Day, the Salesman team organized, armed, and commanded a ghostly army of 10,000 French Resistance fighters. National pride has kept the story of SOE in France obscure, but of this there is no doubt: While the Resistance had plenty of heart, it was SOE that gave it teeth and claws. Scholars of Mayhem adds brilliantly to that picture, and further underscores what a close-run thing the success of the Allied breakout from the Normandy landings actually was.
I’m chalking up a long list of books on this subject and couldn’t resist adding this one to the bunch. Many SOE agents didn’t survive so to read the story of one who did cheered me up. I was also fascinated to learn how much he and his team along with the maquisards with whom they worked contributed to the success of the Normandy invasion (75th anniversary today! ) – even though they were hundreds of miles from the beaches.
As with most of the SOE agents – those people charged with creating “mayhem – sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines” – Jean Claude Guiet was recruited in the US by OSS (who were looking for PhDs who can win a bar fight) due to his proficiency in French and ability to blend in with the natives. In fact, he was a native, having been born there to his French parents, before moving while young to the US. It wasn’t until he was drafted into the US Army that he gained US citizenship. Some of the people involved in SOE in England made me say “Aha!” including the head of codes whose father had a bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road and the one who wrote the book upon which the movie “The Fly” was based.
After going through numerous tests both physical and mental and then proving himself adept at wireless communication, he traveled to Britain and went through even more tests (being trained in “Gutter Fighting” techniques by a former Shanghai policemen who said “There’s no fair play; no rules except one: kill or be killed.” ) before being assigned to a four person SOE team due to be parachuted into France. Several false starts later, they arrived and enjoyed the first real eggs they’d eaten in over a year. Their French hosts were horrified at the thought of the powdered eggs which were all that was then available through rations.
Soon the Salesman II group was at work helping to prevent the movement of German troops and tanks towards Normandy where the toehold on the beaches was still in doubt. Guiet was one of the people to hear of the reprisals the Germans took in Tulle and see the horror of Oradour-sur-Glane. He also helped with railroad sabotage and retrieving parcels filled with ammunition and guns from Britain to arm the resistance fighters. Along with the leader of the local marquisards, the agents helped bluff the Germans into surrendering Limoges.
SOE was credited with shortening the war by months and saving thousands of lives. It had “warriors, engineers, cryptographers, forgers, actors, murderers, burglars, and thieves.” And exploding rats. I’m so glad that you gave your father “that damned machine” (as your mother called his computer) and that this story was recorded because it’s not “ordinary” or uninteresting as your father claimed. It’s fascinating and a book I inhaled. B+