Marcus Bloom (pictured above) was a businessman before he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE)
Marcus Bloom was an unlikely spy. A bon viveur who followed a playboy lifestyle of swish apartments, expense accounts and beautiful women, he was far from the dashing, image of a secret agent.
He drove a pale blue convertible Delage classic car, an icon of French style, was often seen at the wheel sporting a white pilot’s flying helmet, and owned a Great Dane called Sphinx.
In his mid-30s with a balding head, reddish moustache and a figure turned decidedly portly from the good life, he even struggled to enlist at the start of World War Two.
But his intelligence and ingenuity elevated him to the elite level of British spies risking their lives to disrupt and derail the Nazi war machine in France.
For almost a year he adopted the persona of French citizen Michel Boileau living near Toulouse while dodging German patrols to operate a prized radio set that relayed vital information between his Special Operations Executive (SOE) handlers and Resistance groups.
The Super Palace theatre in Battersea where a young Bloom was manager. He also managed a restaurant in Hove before being sent to Paris to run its burgeoning European operation
Bloom was instrumental in saving downed Allied airmen, took part in sabotage missions and supplied his French comrades with arms, money and information until he was betrayed, beaten up, tortured and then shipped to a notorious concentration camp.
Witness reports tell of him being dragged bloodied through the streets of Toulouse and being systematically beaten when transferred to a prison, in Paris.
He did not crack but was one of 104 agents – 13 of them women – who were killed or executed in France.
Bloom in uniform. He was instrumental in saving downed Allied airmen and took part in sabotage missions
Every bit of Marcus Bloom’s story is astonishing and it is only coming to full light now thanks to the research of historian Paul McCue and archivist Martin Sugarman, of the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and women (AJEX).
‘He was an ebullient entrepreneur who, on the surface, would not have appeared ideal spy material but he hated Fascism and was prepared to stand up to it,’ said McCue, an author and trustee of the Secret World War 2 Learning Network. ‘His bravery was astounding and it is right that his story is being told.’
Bloom’s family, which had Polish roots, had humble beginnings in London’s East End but his father became a pioneer of mail order goods and they prospered and sent their four boys to private schools.
The second eldest, he stood out for his gregarious, enterprising character and was soon working in the family business, which had diversified into textiles and running a chain of cinemas, at a time when they were packed nightly. He enjoyed the profile of managing the Super Palace cinema in Battersea, London, and a restaurant in Hove before being sent to Paris to run its burgeoning European operation.
Bloom developed an interest in polo, shooting and mixed with aristocracy at Parisian racecourses and would have remained in France but for a business downturn and the start of WW2. He returned to England determined to enlist and utilise his French knowledge and contacts but was rebuffed.
Wanborough Manor, near Guildford, an SOE training base during WW2. Bloom joined an intake that was trained at the Elizabethan manor house
Nazi forces were storming across Europe and France was about to fall when his obvious potential was recognised but he still faced suspicion when he finally made it to the SOE training courses.
His lack of physical prowess was one thing but being Jewish marked him out for concern with one senior officer observing: ‘Physical effort seems to come hard to this pink yid’ while another described him as ‘slightly Jewish in his outlook and appearance’.
Bloom joined an intake that was trained at Wanborough Manor, an Elizabethan manor house near Guildford that was requisitioned by the SOE. Other graduates were the agents Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, who were both executed at concentration camps.
Bloom’s intelligence, resilience and easy charm lifted him above the petty discriminations which were more a symptom of ageing officer class attitudes than operational barriers.
The chateau home of Count Jean D’Aligny, who had hidden 35 tons of French military supplies on his estate, where the Gestapo captured Bloom after his network was betrayed
He was spirited into France by boat, landing near Marseille with fellow Jewish agent Captain Isidore Newman, a 28-year-old teacher from Hull, and they joined separated networks only meeting again just before their grisly deaths.
Codenamed BISHOP, he operated effectively, helping destroy an explosives factory and derail a supply train as well as coordinating the return of British airmen via Spain. He was based at the chateau home of Count Jean d’Aligny, who had hidden 35 tons of French military supplies on his estate, but was rounded up after being betrayed by a double agent.
Handcuffed to a Spanish member of his group, the pair leapt from a window of the chateau and escaped across country, crossing a river several times to throw pursuing dogs off their scent before attempting to contact a pro-Resistance gendarmerie 12 kilometres away only to be met by the Gestapo and they were re-arrested.
The notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, which was run by members of the SS Death’s Head unit, near Linz in Austria, where Bloom met his death
Guards at Mauthausen. The Nazis were desperate to stamp out the growing Resistance movement which was causing huge impact and embarrassment
German officers walk up the Stairs of Death. Mauthausen was built next to a granite quarry where inmates were set to work, cracking rocks then carrying them up 180 narrow steps
Retribution was swift and brutal and Bloom was seen being led through the streets of Toulouse with a blooded face. His next stop was Fresnes Prison, in the heart of Paris, where he was regularly ferried to the Gestapo base at Avenue Foch for beatings and torture.
‘He was badly beaten but appears to have given nothing away which is a very admirable thing,’ adds McCue. ‘He didn’t give away any of his radio codes or security checks.
‘He was very brave and held out under brutal interrogation. Bloom was an ordinary man who volunteered for a highly-dangerous role in the war, believing that his chances of survival were only 50:50. He had a love of France and a hatred of fascism and was prepared to stand up for his beliefs and risk his life for them.’
A memorial tablet to the Allied agents murdered at Mauthausen, with Bloom’s name seen on the left, sixth from the top
The Nazis were desperate to stamp out the growing Resistance movement which, supported and supplied by SOE agents, was causing huge impact and embarrassment. Captured spies were tortured and then dispatched to concentration camps.
Bloom’s French wife Germaine was able to visit him in Paris and provide some food and comfort during what would be his final days before he was moved to high security prison in Silesia and then, in a party of 47 Allied agents, to Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz in Austria, which claimed 300,000 victims gassed, hanged, shot, drowned in huge water cisterns, clubbed or worked to death before it was liberated.
Mauthausen, which was run by members of the SS Death’s Head unit, was built next to a granite quarry where inmates were set to work, cracking rocks then carrying them up 180 narrow, uneven steps, known as ‘The Stairs of Death’.
Bloom, and 28-year-old Newman, arrived on September 5, 1944, and were kept for two days in a garage before having numbers 1 to 47 painted on their chests – the order in which they were to be executed. They were marched down to the quarry floor and told to pick up rocks and run up the stairs where they were shot in the back and officially recorded as ‘killed while trying to escape’.
Bloom reportedly threw his rock at a guard and ran up the steps before being gunned down. His body was never recovered.
The pitiful scenes of hundreds of prisoners carrying heavy rocks up the 180 steps of the ‘Stairs of Death’ – 180 narrow, uneven steps
Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust says: ‘It is so important to share these stories. Everyone should know the names of Lt Marcus Bloom and Captain Isidore Newman, two British heroes who fought the Nazis. They were brutally tortured and murdered at the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp.
‘These stories shine a light on brave efforts of individuals in the most awful of times. This year, as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the victims persecuted by the Nazis and those who survived, but we also pay tribute to those who stood against the darkness. The Holocaust is part of British history, a part of our national consciousness, and we should all know and remember these two names.’
Marcus Bloom is officially commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial near Woking, Surrey, and the Valencay memorial, a monument to SOE agents in France. He is also remembered on a plaque to the 47 murdered agents and on a private memorial erected by his family at Mauthausen.