They ranged from girls barely out of high school to mature mothers, from working-class women to aristocrats, from the plain to the beautiful, from the prim and proper to wild high-lifers. The only women from the Western Allies to bear arms in action during the Second World War, they suffered torture, the misery of the concentration camps, and death at the hands of Nazi butchers. They were a band of sisters such as has not been seen before or since, and the only thing they had in common was language—they all spoke French. Now, sixty-seven years after peace broke out in Europe, all but one or two are dead. They are the women agents of the Special Operations Executive, the special force founded in 1940 on the explicit orders of Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.”
Ironically, one of the first of these women was not even British; she was a feisty American redhead named Virginia Hall. A graduate of Radcliffe and Barnard and a failed applicant to the U.S. State Department, she was living in France when Germany invaded in 1940. As a result of a prewar hunting accident, Hall had an artificial foot, an injury that would have been enough to get any man out of front-line duty. It didn’t keep Hall back: she made her way to London and, despite being a citizen of a neutral country, was recruited by the SOE. Once back in France she worked for fourteen months posing as a journalist for the New York Post. When Germany finally took over the Vichy zone in 1942, the incoming head of the Lyons Gestapo, the infamous Klaus Barbie, declared, “I would give anything to get hold of that Canadian [sic] bitch.” Artificial foot or not, his quarry escaped over the Pyrenees into Spain before he could act. Returning to London, Hall attached herself to the nascent American equivalent of SOE, the Office of Strategic Services, and was once again put ashore in France in 1944 to liaise with resistance groups in the months leading up to the D-Day landings. After the war, she served in the organization that grew out of the OSS—the CIA.
If Virginia Hall’s story is remarkable, Noor Inayat Khan’s is almost incredible. The product of an unlikely marriage between an Indian prince and a distant relative of Mary Baker Eddy, Inayat Khan was largely brought up in Paris, where her father instructed fashionable French ladies in the ways of Sufi mysticism. Ethereal and beautiful, she was a poet, a considerable musician, and a published writer of fairy stories for children; but when her family found refuge in London in 1940, Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and became a wireless operator. Fluent French and training as a wireless operator was an irresistible combination of skills for the SOE recruiters. So it was that in 1943 this unlikely agent—she seemed incapable of telling a lie—was landed by light aircraft in France, to work with the ill-fated PROSPER network in Paris. While her colleagues were being arrested, Inayat Khan remained at large for months, the only active SOE radio operator in the Paris area. Changing addresses on a daily basis, lugging her wireless from one safe house to another, she evaded capture by a mixture of luck and native cunning. The end came when she was betrayed in October 1943. At first imprisoned in the Gestapo HQ in Paris, Noor was later kept shackled and in solitary confinement in a prison in Germany; in September 1944, in the company of three other captured SOE women, she was moved to Dachau. There, after being stripped and hideously beaten, she was shot. Inayat Khan died, so one of the witnesses reported, with a single word, liberté, on her lips.
In complete contrast to Noor, Violette Bushell was a working-class London girl with a Cockney accent. Like Noor, Bushell had been partly brought up in France and so spoke the language. A beautiful, impetuous young woman, she was barely twenty when she married a French Foreign Legionnaire named Etienne Szabo. Szabo died fighting at the battle of El Alamein, so by the time Violette came to the attention of SOE she was not only a widow but also mother of a one-year-old girl. When Bushell left on her second mission to France, the senior cryptographer in SOE gave her his own composition, “The Life That I Have,” for her poem code. Something told him he was never going to see her again, and he was right: captured after a gun fight with German soldiers in June 1944, Bushell was sent to Ravensbrück, where she was executed in 1945.
Noor Inayat Khan and Violette Bushell gave their lives, but there were also survivors, such as Odette Sansom, who endured torture (she had her toenails torn out one by one) and solitary confinement in Ravensbrück concentration camp. And the pugnacious Australian Nancy Wake, who married a French millionaire before the war, helped the French Resistance in the south of France, and, later, following the landings in Normandy, led a group of several thousand Resistance fighters. Blunt and outspoken to the end, she died only recently, at the age of ninety-eight.
There was Christine Granville, whose English name belied her origins—she was, in fact, the Polish countess Krystyna Skarbek. In 1944, she parachuted into the Vercors. She worked with one of SOE’s most successful circuits and, in an extraordinary act of bravery, rescued her circuit leader and two colleagues from the Gestapo. A woman of immense charm and courage, Granville became friends after the war with Ian Fleming, himself a wartime intelligence officer. Whether she was the inspiration for Fleming’s first Bond heroine, Vesper Lynd, is a matter of debate; what is certain is that Granville was real, a woman of vivid personality whom no one could forget. Sadly, postwar life was not kind to her: seven years after the war she was brutally murdered in London by a stalker.
It feels almost invidious to choose these individual stories to stand in for all the women of SOE. There were thirty-nine in all, and most were modest, ordinary women who did the most extraordinary things in the course of duty. When it was over, they shunned the exposure of film and book and quietly got on with their lives. Until her death two years ago, Eileen Nearne, one of the trio of concentration-camp survivors, lived on her own in the southwest of England without her neighbors knowing anything about her war record; Yvonne Baseden, the final member of that trio, is still alive. She has never courted publicity.
My personal interest was captured long ago by the story of one of the thirty-nine, a women named Anne-Marie Walters. In 1943, my mother served with her in the WAAF. Half-French and brought up in Geneva, Walters was recruited by SOE when she was only nineteen. She was an intelligent, headstrong girl and immediately after the war she wrote about her experiences in France in a prize-winning book titled Moondrop to Gascony . It was one of the first, and remains one of the best, accounts of an SOE agent’s work. My mother’s battered copy, which she gave to me when I was only ten, sits on the bookshelf beside my desk as I write. It has been an inspiration.
But there is more than personal interest in all this; this is a piece of significant social history. At a time when the role of women was undergoing great change, when Rosie the Riveter was working in the factories for the first time and WAAFs, WRNS, WAVES, and WACS were serving in most branches of the armed forces, the women of the Special Operations Executive were setting the pace. They showed that not only could women work like men, they could fight like men, too. A diverse group, they had in common a love of France and the courage to work alone, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week under the constant threat of the most terrifying secret police of all. The only faith they held in common was a belief in freedom from tyranny. It’s a pretty inspiring record.
Simon Mawer is the author of Trapeze.