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On the night of June 15, 1943, a Halifax bomber roared over a field at Châtillon-sur-Cher, not far from the town of Blois, in occupied France. Two parachutes popped out of the gloom. The jumpers were a pair of young Canadians, Frank Pickersgill and Ken Macalister.

  • Unlikely Soldiers, by Jonathan F. Vance, HarperCollins, 307 pages, $29.95

In Unlikely Soldiers, historian Jonathan Vance honours these young men by reminding us who they were and evoking that long-ago, far-away and almost forgotten interwar Canada they came out of. With careful research and an admirably limpid prose style, he unskeins the tangled story of their espionage mission: what they hoped to accomplish and what happened to them. It is story of courage and derring-do that reads ultimately as a tragedy.

Frank Pickersgill, born in 1915, grew up on a bush farm in Manitoba. His father, a postmaster, allegedly "borrowed" money from a post-office account and apparently set fire to the post office to cover his tracks. Charged with arson, Pickersgill senior was given the option of joining Canada's First World War army. Wounded in 1917, he never fully recovered from his experience on the Western Front and died when his son, Frank, was 5.

With powerful brains, willpower and lots of maternal support, Frank and his older brother, Jack, overcame all obstacles. By 1940, Jack was already a key civil servant in the Department of External Affairs, soon to join the Prime Minister's Office and well on his way to becoming a legendary Ottawa mandarin.

Frank, after graduate studies at the University of Toronto, was a freelance journalist in Paris when the Germans invaded. After escaping from a detention camp - some fellow inmates were French-Canadian priests, with collaborationist attitudes reflecting the calcified, morally defunct nationalism of 1930s Quebec - Pickersgill reached neutral Lisbon, then London, where he was recruited by the Special Operations Executive.

SOE, a.k.a. "The Firm," headquartered in Baker Street, had been tasked by the Churchill government with undermining the strength and spirit of the occupying forces in Europe by subversion and sabotage.

Pickersgill's companion on the night of June 15 was Ken Macalister, another star student at the University of Toronto and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Highly strung, intellectually gifted, bored with Oxford, Macalister had married a Frenchwoman and was stuck in Normandy when the war started. After trying to enlist in the French army - and being rejected on account of poor eyesight - he made it back to England in 1940. Another brilliant, passionate, determined young Canadian, unlikely to adapt well to regimental life, Macalister was recruited and trained in the black arts of espionage by the SOE.

This is a story of youth, determination and unbelievable courage. It is also a story about what went wrong. Pickersgill and Macalister were dropped to link up with an established SOE network called "Physician," led by one Francis Suttill, described by another resistance leader as "a tall distinguished looking man trying desperately to look like a Frenchman."

By the time Pickersgill and Macalister landed in that French field, Physician had been so hopelessly compromised from so many different angles that it is impossible for even a meticulous historian like Vance to point out exactly when and where it all went wrong.

For example, in November, 1942, an exhaustive report containing names and personal information of 62 potential resistants in a network called "Carte" had been stolen from a careless courier by German agents. Since some of the Carte people were used in setting up "Physician" in late 1942, it is entirely possible that the network was contaminated from its earliest days. Physician was being rolled up, and the two Canadians were arrested within days of their parachute drop, before any useful resistance work could be done.

Ken Macalister and Frank Pickersgill, along with dozens of other SOE agents and French resistants, were arrested, interrogated, beaten, tortured and ultimately shipped in cattle cars to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where on Sept. 9, 1944 - a couple of weeks after the Allies had finally smashed the power of the German armies in France - they were strangled with loops of piano wire.

So at its heart, this is a story about death, and the courage of two young men who knew perfectly well what they were getting into. It is also a story of incompetence, amateurishness and strategic shakiness on the part of the fabled SOE.

British planners in the early days of the war had envisaged defeating Germany not on the battlefield but through selective attacks against its economy. Ironically, one of the models for the SOE's campaign of subversion and sabotage was the guerrilla campaign Irish Republicans had deployed against the British 20 years earlier. But Sinn Fein had used hit-and-run tactics against a British government constrained by popular opinion in the Empire and the United States. It seems unlikely that the "bold Fenian men" would have stood a chance against the unrestrained brutality of a Nazi regime.

Dropping extraordinarily brave men and women into France to organize and supply resistance networks was excruciatingly dangerous. Damage inflicted on the enemy was always limited, and the regular armed forces much resented the siphoning of talent into "secret shows." Macalister and Pickersgill were passionate francophiles who spoke the language well, but could never have passed as natives, which says something about the garbled thinking at the Firm. More effective French resistance nets were run by communists in the vast working-class districts of Paris.

Graduation photographs of Pickersgill and Macalister in the frontispiece are very moving; but these are the only illustrations in the book. More photographs, and a few maps, would have been enriching and useful to this reader. What remains clear from Vance's powerfully detailed and extraordinarily moving account is that these two young men were aware of the risks they ran, were determined to do whatever they could to help expunge Nazism from the world and displayed unfailing courage all the way to their hideous deaths.

Peter Behrens is the author of The Law of Dreams.