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Calgary production connects local man with his mom’s ‘ungentlemanly’ past

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A new theatrical adaptation of a lesser-known Second World War story is making waves in the city, but it holds a particularly special meaning for one Calgarian.

Vertigo Theatre’s The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare is familiar to local retiree Bob d’Artois. The play is inspired by the real-life female operatives of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization of which d’Artois’ mother, Sonia d’Artois (née Butt), was a part.

“Mother came from Britain,” said d’Artois. “For 15 or so years, she went to school in France. Then the war broke out. She wanted to get involved. Not with any specific role…I think my mother wasn’t even conscious of death. I think she got into this because it was an adventure, and she wanted to do something for Britain.”

It was Sonia d’Artois’ education in French that led her to the SOE. The organization operated clandestinely with the knowledge of a select few, including Winston Churchill, whose instructions were: “Go and set Europe ablaze.”

The SOE’s use of sabotage and guerilla warfare was considered unorthodox by “traditional” military personnel, which led to it being nicknamed the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Especially unorthodox was the SOE’s use of women in combat as field agents. Fifty-five women were recruited to the SOE, including Sonia.

“Once she was recruited, the story then starts to blossom,” said d’Artois.

“As she’s up in Scotland, and training, there’s some French-Canadian dude who’s up there, too. He was seven years older than her, and they clicked, they connected.”

That French-Canadian dude was Guy d’Artois, Bob d’Artois’ father. Training together in close proximity, Sonia and Guy fell in love and were married in secret in London.

“When their commanding officer found out that they had run off and got married, he blew a stack,” said d’Artois.

“They could not be a team. One gets captured, the other blabs. Guy was sent to France next week. A week or so later, Sonia was sent to a completely different sector. For about six months, neither knew if the other was alive.”

An article in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph on Sonia d’Artois from 1954, and a 1944 German-issued permit for a pistol, likely obtained through bribes or falsified altogether. CONTRIBUTED

During those six months, Sonia served as a courier between SOE agents and members of the French Resistance. She was integral to maintaining her section’s civilian cover and safe house. Much of this work was in preparation for the eventual invasion of Allied forces into Europe: D-Day, June 6, 1944.

“Once the invasion happened, sabotage became that much more critical,” said d’Artois. In particular, Sonia’s coordinating and courier efforts delayed the 2nd SS Panzer Division, which was headed to intercept the Allied advance from Normandy. Her section’s demolition of a bridge near Evreux severely hindered the advance of German tanks.

In recognition of her service, Sonia was awarded the Order of the British Empire. She died in Montreal on Dec. 21, 2014 at the age of 90. This June, Bob d’Artois, along with one of his two brothers and one of this three sisters, will be attending a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, at the invitation of the federal government.

Meanwhile, back in Calgary, Vertigo Theatre’s presentation of The Invisible will be playing until June 9. d’Artois was invited to attend the show on May 18 and meet some of the cast.

In the play, several female SOE stories are amalgamated, but for d’Artois the truth of the story shines through in its heart.

“Mother was never one to seek any kind of limelight or exposure about what she did,” said d’Artois.

“What would she think about this? As a performance, I know she would think it’s phenomenal. As a veteran, I think she’d be happiest for every hero to be recognized.”