“We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone – the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.” Odette Sansom, SOE Operative, quote from the book Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer.
Following France’s capitulation to Germany, and the signing of the armistice between those nations on June 22, 1940, England’s Foreign Office made an argument that they find some way to assist the French and other resistance movements. A “new organization to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the networks of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants” was proposed by Hugh Dalton, who’d been appointed to the task by Winston Churchill, with the instruction to “now set Europe ablaze”. Soon named the Special Operations Executive (SOE), it was headquartered at 64 Baker Street, in London.
Agents’ training was tough and intensive, including a commando course, and mock interrogations, as well as training in the use of guns, explosives, wireless telegraphy, sabotage and how to survive their clandestine existence in Nazi-occupied territory. They were also taught the techniques of unarmed combat and silent killing. Major William Ewart Fairbairn, in charge of teaching these “ungentlemanly techniques” to the SOE said: “This, is WAR, not sport. Your aim is to kill your opponent as quickly as possible.” It would become clear that female SOE agents were equally as capable in this regard as their male counterparts.
“In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women … have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.” Captain Selwyn Jepson, SOE Senior Recruiting Officer.
In April 1942 Winston Churchill gave his approval on sending female agents into Europe (they had previously been employed in behind-the-scenes work in London rather than in harm’s way). The French Section of the SOE was under the leadership of Maurice Buckmaster, and Vera Atkins, CBE of F Section and Buckmaster’s Intelligence Officer, a masterful asset to the operation and its agents.
Vera Atkins’ attention to the most minute of details, and her resourcefulness at culling information, papers, and clothing, among other things, made her a formidable supervisor. Her SOE agent George Millar said of Atkins that she was “wonderfully soothing in her difficult job. A tough, clever and thorough officer”.
SOE agents carried out three primary jobs: “Circuit” (group) leaders were almost exclusively men. Wireless operators were both men, and women, despite the danger of the job. Lugging the conspicuous 30 pound equipment was bad enough, but the seventy feet of antenna required was also dangerous. That, and the fact that the Nazis generally could locate a radio transmission within half an hour. Finally, couriers were generally always women. Able-bodied men would raise suspicions, because they were either expected to be in the military, or they had been conscripted for forced labor outside of France.
Vera Atkins prepared her charges for their missions, as well as guarding their possessions and private papers – wills. She attended every departure of the agents that she could, and likewise attempted to be present for every return. Too many of her agents did not return. Of the 39 women SOE agents Vera Atkins sent into Europe, thirteen perished.
Two Who Did Not Return. Agents who were captured – men and women alike – faced brutal interrogations, torture and subsequent imprisonment or death, or both. Of the thirteen women who lost their lives in the battle for freedom, two women have reached legendary status for their bravery and fortitude.
Code Name: Louise. Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell Szabo was a French-born girl who moved to London with her family before the war. She had married French Foreign Legionnaire, officer Etienne Szabo and they had a daughter, though Szabo, who died of wounds received in the battle of El Alamain, never saw his child. Following her husband’s death, Violette Szabo offered her considerable resources as a fluent French speaker and someone familiar with France, to the SOE.
Following intense training, including navigation, escape and evasion, demolitions, explosives and cryptology, on April 5, 1944 Szabo parachuted into German-occupied territory near Cherbourg. Her first mission was a success. After reorganizing a group, she led them in sabotage missions, and her wireless reports with locations and details of factories producing war materials for the Germans enabled British bombers to decimate them. She returned to England safely on April 30, 1944.
On June 7, 1944, after arriving in Limoges, France, however, she was a passenger in a car stopped by a Gestapo road-block on June 10. Her fellow Maquis section agents escaped while she retreated into a house and fought off the enemy with a Sten gun until her ammunition ran out and she was arrested. After SD interrogation and torture in Limoges, including sexual assault, rape and severe beatings, reports of which indicate she divulged no information, she was interned first in Fresnes Prison in Paris. Later, Szabo was transferred to the Ravensbruch concentration camp. There, along with three other female SOE agents, - Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefert and Lillian Rolfe, Violette Szabo was executed with a bullet through the neck and her remains disposed of in the crematorium. Szabo, posthumously honored with the British George Cross, the Member of the Order of the British Empire and the French Croix de Guerre, was 23 years old.
Code Name: Nora. Princess Noor Inayat Khan had lived with her family in Russian, London and France before the outbreak of war. In 1940 the family fled to London on June 22, 1940 ahead of advancing German troops. Though influenced by her family’s pacifist teaching, she joined the WAAF and as Aircraftwoman 2nd Class was given wireless operator training. This stood her in good stead when she entered SOE training. Despite her superiors’ misgivings about her ability to engage in secret warfare, her fluency in French and wireless training tipped the scales in her favor. Khan was the first female operator dropped into France and despite the arrest of over half the radio operators in her group, she refused to return to Britain and continued transmitting.
Betrayed by one of two SOE agents, Khan was arrested on October 13, 1943 and interrogated in Paris. All reports indicate that she was a fierce fighter, and was designated an extremely dangerous prisoner. Her interrogation lasted over a month during which she attempted escape twice. Gestapo head Hans Kieffer later testified that she never gave them any information. She managed to escape on November 25, 1943, but was immediately recaptured and was imprisoned. Shackled in chains befitting her dangerous status, she was sent to Dachau concentration camp, along with fellow SOE agents Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment. All four were shot and executed. However, a Dutch prisoner witnessed, and later recounted, Khan’s brutal end. He claimed that an SS officer stripped and beat her until she was “a bloody mess”, before shooting her. Just before she was shot, she screamed “Liberte!”. The women’s bodies were sent to the crematorium.
Khan was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, the Member of the British Empire and the French Croix de Guerre. She was 30.
Two Who Returned.
Code Name: Lise. Odette Marie Celine Sansom was the daughter of a WWI hero and the wife of an Englishman. Her husband was already in the military when Sansom was asked to join the SOE. Leaving her three daughters, she made her landing near Cannes in 1942. As happened with numerous others, there were double-agents and betrayals and Sansom, along with her supervisor, Peter Churchill, were arrested. Odette immediately showed her mettle. Following her imprisonment Sansom was tortured by the Gestapo, which abuse included having all her toenails pulled out. She failed to break and stuck with her cover story: That she and Churchill were husband and wife and Peter was, in fact, the nephew of Prime Minister Churchill. Regardless ,Odette was condemned to death and transferred to Germany (along with Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andree Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky) and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Unlike her unfortunate compatriots, who were executed there, the erstwhile Sansom, despite being emaciated and gravely ill, actually talked the camp commandant, Friz Suhren, into releasing her. In the face of the allies and the advancing Red army, he did just that.
Sansom was awarded the George Cross for bravery, and the Member of the Order of the British Empire and the French Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. She died in 1995 at age 82.
Code Name: Witch. The bane of the Nazis throughout the war, Nancy Wake became the most decorated servicewoman of World War II. Born in New Zealand and with Maori in the mix of her ethnic makeup, Wake ultimately ran away from home at 16 and began training as a nurse. With her earnings she ended up in London, but moved to Europe to work as a journalist. At the start of the war she was living in France in the height of luxury, married to a wealthy Frenchman. Six months after her wedding Germany invaded France. Wake joined the French Resistance and worked as a courier and smuggler as well as aiding refugees fleeing in advance of the Nazis. She helped more than a thousand escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers to escape through France into Spain. Already under observation by the Gestapo she was so skilled at evading them that they named her The White Mouse. By 1943 they had put her at the top of their most wanted list. It was decided she was too “hot” and she should leave France. She made six attempts to escape by crossing the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. She was captured on one attempt by the French Milice (Vichy militia) and tortured for four days. She escaped with the assistance of another WWII legend, Patrick O’Leary, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII.”.
After reaching London she began work with the SOE. As with the other women she was officially first assigned to the “First Air Nursing Yeomanry”, which was the innocuous cover that remained in place until after the war. Parachuting with a male SOE agent into the Auvergne region to organize the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion, they were in the thick of 22,000 German troops. She led men in guerilla warfare, biked over 100 miles through checkpoints with replacement radio gear (in 71 hours). She said of her safe arrival “I got back and they said ‘how are you?’. I cried. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t do anything. I just cried.”
Tears or not, she continued to plan drops and sabotages, hiding in the woods and traveling clandestinely to coordinate. Tracked by the Germans, in June 1944, 22,000 SS troops attacked her 7,000 Maquis. The end results after Nancy and her troops escaped: 1,400 German fatalities; 100 Maquis dead. Wake continued waging her amazing war against the enemy, including a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon, where she killed a sentry with her bare hands to prevent him raising the alert. And following another raid, on a German gun factory, she fought her way out, surviving shootouts at German roadblocks and personally executing a German female spy.
After the war The White Mouse, was showered with recognition. The George Medal for “leadership and bravery under fire”, the Résistance Medal, Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star and the Medal of Freedom from America. Oddly Australia, her adopted homeland, failed to recognize her until 2004 when she was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2006 she received the New Zealand RSA Badge in Gold. Nancy Wake is alive and living in a New Zealand nursing home, aged 97.
Aftermath: Immediately after the war ended, the SOE was disbanded. But Vera Watkins demanded to know what had happened to the 13 women who never returned. She finagled a military commission and hunted down the ends of all the courageous agents she had sent off to their deaths. In the process she gathered evidence against numerous Gestapo, SS and Nazi military which was used in prosecutions against them at the Nuremburg and Dachau war crimes trials. Of her tireless efforts, Atkins said: “You owe people something, after all, who fought for you and risked their life for you.”
Let them have silence.
Call the roll of their names
and let it go at that.
To long sleep and deep silence
they have gone.
Deep among the never forgotten.