Chris Husbands shares the story of Charles Milne Skepper: the LSE Sociology student, teacher and finally posthumous benefactor who joined the Special Operations Executive and worked as an agent during the Second World War.
Charles Milne Skepper was a student at LSE 1926-29, earning a First in the BSc (Econ), special subject Sociology, before a brief period as a graduate student (though he did not complete his doctorate) and also an assistant teacher of Sociology 1930-32.
Skepper was born on 26 February 1905 in Richmond, Surrey. He and his younger sister (who also became an LSE student) spent much of their early life in France, although Skepper studied at Queen Elizabeth’s School in Cranbrook from September 1914 to July 1920. He was highly intelligent, a gifted linguist (in German, Spanish and Chinese as well as perfect French), left-wing and a self-described atheist. In the late 1920s he made two visits to the Soviet Union and had been a member of Friends of the Soviet Union, though was disabused by these visits of his earlier positive views of Soviet Communism. Throughout the 1930s he was in a partnership operating from near Paris, trading in antiques and travelling in the trade between France and Beijing.
In 1939 he volunteered for military service in Britain and was later in charge of the propaganda broadcasting station of the British Ministry of Information in Shanghai. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, he sought to escape and spent time with Chinese guerrillas, but was captured by the Japanese, ill-treated, and sentenced to four years in prison for anti-Japanese activities, having been accused of helping four American marines to escape. However, he was repatriated when he was included in an exchange of diplomats between the United Kingdom and Japan in December 1941.
In 1942 he applied to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), citing the LSE Martin White Professor of Sociology, Morris Ginsberg, as one of his referees. With several codenames, including Henri Edouard Truchot and Bernard, Skepper was parachuted into France on 17 June 1943 to work with the French Resistance in the Monk Circuit operating in the Marseilles region. He organised a number of significant acts of sabotage but was arrested with others on 23 or 25 March 1944 in the flat where he was then living, after betrayal by a French national working for the Gestapo (who was executed after the War). Initial reports in his SOE file were that he was killed rather than arrested, but later information suggested that he was arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo, and probably sent to Germany.
Skepper was one of the few SOE agents whose fate has never been finally resolved. According to his SOE file, postwar interviews with the French national who arrested him and with the two interviewing Gestapo officers unsurprisingly produced no relevant information; as a War Office officer noted of the latter, they would ‘run their heads into the noose if they say anything’. After much inconclusive research on his fate in the year after the War ended, Skepper’s death was officially recognised by the War Office on 28 October 1946, where it was recorded as ‘Presumed died while in enemy hands on or shortly after 1 April 1944’.
That date may have been too early. There have been a number of speculations about his death but one possibility, for which no firm evidence has yet been found, is that Skepper was executed, very brutally, in Buchenwald concentration camp in the autumn of 1944. A number of French, Belgian, English and Canadians who belonged to Allied secret services were hanged by the SS in Buchenwald, which is where a number of British agents are known from other sources to have met their deaths. It is at least possible in all the circumstances that Skepper was executed there.
Skepper’s SOE file ends with a document dated 10 February 1948. Skepper’s final rank was Captain and he was awarded a posthumous MBE; a posthumous Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the citation for which was issued on 16 January 1946 and signed by De Gaulle; and A L’Ordre de l’Armée. Skepper’s name is memorialised on the LSE war memorial in the Old Building, Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and in the SOE F Section Memorial at Valençay in France. There is also a commemorative plaque on the apartment building where Skepper and his comrades were captured in 1944.
By 8 May 1946, the first anniversary of VE Day, he was presumed officially dead for the purpose of probate, though the substantive assumption of death occurred in October 1946, as described above. However, although he had died intestate, he had left a ‘soldier’s will’ and his estate was administered on 18 January 1948, with the administration document elliptically saying merely that he had died ‘on war service’. His whole estate was valued at £38,035 18s 2d and his mother then informed the School that he had said that, in the event of his death, at least part of this should be used for the furtherance of sociology at the School. Thus, a bequest of £20,000 (currently worth approximately £500,000-£700,000) was made for, according to the associated Trust Deed, ‘Sociological Research at the School’ by the establishment of The Charles Skepper House for Sociological Research with a Research Fellowship and Studentships.
Little apparently came of the intended Research Fellowship and Studentships. The Charles Skepper House project was originally a large facility at LSE’s property on John Adam Street just south of the Strand. Now there is no longer any physical trace of any such facility at LSE and Skepper’s name has more or less disappeared into oblivion.
Contributed by Chris Husbands (Emeritus Reader in the Department of Sociology at LSE)