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Love behind enemy lines: An Anglo-Canadian couple’s D-day exploits

Sonia and Guy d’Artois.
Wikimedia
“Tell 14 the Queen’s terrace is wide,” said the BBC presenter over radio airwaves on June 1, 1944. To most listeners in occupied France, the strange statement would have meant little. To Guy d’Artois, a 27-year-old Canadian agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE)—together with French Resistance fighters of the DITCHER circuit—the cryptic code signified the news they had been waiting for: D-Day would begin within the next 15 days.

There was no time to lose.

d’Artois’ duties, alongside the Maquis groups he led behind enemy lines, were to hamper German movements in advance of Operation Neptune. Whether sabotaging rail lines, cutting communications or ambushing convoys, it was his job to occupy the occupiers around Charolles and the wider Saône-et-Loire region of France while the Allied invasion proceeded in Normandy.

d’Artois was never alone in his clandestine efforts, nor was he by himself in a very different sense. In another part of the country—he couldn’t know where—the Québécois officer’s new wife of mere weeks, a 20-year-old Briton named Sonia d’Artois (née Butt), was performing similar duties with the SOE.

While they once hoped that they might work together, fate had determined otherwise. And their whirlwind of an adventure was only just beginning.

Guy was born in Richmond, Que., on April 9, 1917—the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Seven years later, on May 14, 1924, Sonia started life in Eastchurch, England.

“Sonia spent those years in southern France where her mother preferred to live,” explained Nahlah Ayed, author of The War We Won Apart: The Untold Story of Two Elite Agents Who Became One of the Most Decorated Couples of WWII. “That had a direct bearing on her role in the SOE because not only could she speak French, but she could also be French—or at least act like it.”

“For Guy,” Ayed continued, “his life had been shaped by conflict from the start. His family had also been hit by the Depression and, like so many others, answering the call brought a sense of belonging and a regular paycheque.”

“The risks were huge.”

Initially unable to enlist as an infantryman due to his health history, Guy instead served within a rehabilitation unit to help wounded Canadian personnel. In time, however, he secured a place in the Royal 22e Régiment (the Van Doos). He later transferred to the First Special Service Force (often known as the Devil’s Brigade), participating in Operation Cottage—the liberation of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands—before being scouted as a potential candidate for special assignments. Following intense training at Canada’s renowned Camp X, Guy proved he had what it took for the SOE.

It was during Guy’s return to the U.K. for SOE training that he met his future wife. Having served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force since she was 17, Sonia had pulled family strings to land more interesting work.

Yet the pair’s relationship during the training period got off to a rocky start.

“Sonia loved to play pranks,” said Ayed. “He did as well. She found him a bit annoying as he was definitely the know-it-all in the class. He found her annoying and called her a weak little girl. They even had two physical altercations when Sonia pushed Guy into a river and he smeared her face with mud. But they found a common cause, and worked well as a team.”

A romance developed, and was cemented when Guy witnessed Sonia’s first-ever parachute jump. It would be a significant milestone in their still-fledgling journey, prompting Guy to make a promise to himself. “I decided to ask her to marry me,” he once recounted.

The promise was fulfilled when the couple wed on April 15, 1944, although they were destined to endure numerous struggles—not least a love triangle with SOE agent Sydney Hudson, whom Sonia had by then already encountered. Far more pressing from May 23 was Guy’s departure for occupied France. Within days—on May 28—Sonia boarded her own flight bound for the German stronghold in Le Mans, France.

“The risks were huge,” noted Ayed. “By that stage, there had already been several SOE agents—Canadian or otherwise—killed or picked up and taken to concentration camps. It’s a testament to their courage that they ever went.”

It’s almost as though their shared war set the tone for their whole lives.

In the Le Mans area, Sonia—codenamed Blanche—organized efforts ahead of D-Day, cycling around the countryside as a courier carrying money, weapons and supplies. With newly acquired skills, however, her duties soon evolved.

“She was involved in training—often against real German convoys,” Ayed says. “She was also reported to be an excellent recruiter, and became, in essence, a second-in-command for the entire HEADMASTER circuit.”

In a strange twist of fate, the circuit’s leader turned out to be Hudson, the former love interest of Sonia. Unsure of whether they would survive, a fleeting affair reignited—one that Sonia would confess to upon seeing Guy again.

In the meantime, Guy mobilized his Maquis groups against would-be German reinforcements to the Normandy beachhead. Though code-named Dieudonné (“God-given”), he affectionately became known as Michel le Canadien as he transformed the scattered French bands into a coherent fighting force.

“Guy organized his own battalion to Canadian military standards,” said Ayed. “He trained and equipped about 3,000 men in the region—even if he did ruffle a lot of feathers locally with some of his unilateral decisions. But he also built quite a following; many maquis leaders were incredibly loyal to him.”

The gradual liberation of France enabled Guy and Sonia to be reunited. Still considered newlyweds, they were afforded a second chance by moving to Canada in December 1944. Fresh struggles nevertheless awaited the couple, partly due to Guy’s deep roots within the Canadian forces.

Over the subsequent years, Guy’s military exploits included—but were not limited to—commanding the short-lived Canadian Special Air Service Company and spearheading a daring Arctic rescue mission in 1947. He likewise served in the Korean War before securing other posts in Europe and Asia.

“Despite his achievements, I sense that Guy had a hard time outdoing Michel le Canadien,” suggested Ayed. “As for his and Sonia’s relationship, it’s almost as though their shared war set the tone for their whole lives, engaged in battles they fought separately, even if they did clearly love each other.”

Guy spent his later years living with the effects of dementia before dying on March 15, 1999, at the age of 81. The British-Canadian Sonia herself died on Dec. 21, 2014, having by then reached 90. Yet their intertwined legacy lives on—highlighted anew through Ayed’s new book.

“We often forget those, like Sonia and Guy, who went in before D-Day,” said Ayed. “We often forget those Canadians, alongside others, who lost their lives during the preparations—and that some were women. We must remember that quietly and individually, these people helped armies win a war.”


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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.