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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

World War II - Women of the SOE

“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.”

Silence, yes
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.

Carl Sandburg

Lise Horton


Nicholas Genovese said...

That was a great article. Thanks for bringing the SOE to my attention. I'd never heard of them before. Great and courageous women they were.


Carly Carson said...


Very powerful. I had to stop reading. And now I feel sick. I guess you can tell I could never ever do something like that. I don't know where people find the courage.

Susan Macatee said...

What a fascinating post, Lise! I'd never heard of these women. Isn't it something how most historical accounts neglect to tell the story of all these brave and heroic women.

True life heroines!

Lise said...

Nick, thanks for stopping by. Like so many of the exploits of women during WWII, the SOE were somehow just "left out" of so many histories of the War.

I'm glad their bravery is being recognized in recent books that are getting press.

Lise said...

Sorry it was distressing, Carly - in fact, I think that it is the average person who just exhibits straightforward courage. I bet we'd be surprised if we found ourselves in similar circumstances!

I'm sorry you stopped reading, though, because two of the women who came through it all and survived were at the end!

Lise said...

Susan, that's one of the things that I discovered when I started in-depth research into WWII. All those histories about the "greatest generation" seemed to focus on just the male half. Nurses, pilots, spies, journalists and the women who worked on the Manhattan project are finally getting their day in the sun - albeit a day late and a dollar short! More often than not by female authors who have discovered their contributions. Thanks for reading!

Gwynlyn said...

What a fabulous post, Lise. Like everyone else, I had no idea the SOE and its brave "Women Warriors" existed. I guess it's too hard to send them back to the kids and the stove after they've shown so much courage and fortitude so better not give all the other ladies ideas!

I don't know I could have withstood what these women endured and pray the day never comes when I must find out.

Unknown said...

Lise, Wow. These are the stories that must be told. Thanks for sharing that great history that is never taught. These women didn't let evil ride roughshod over the world.

Patricia Barraclough said...

What a wonderful piece. So often the contributions of women during wartime are overlooked. They have proven over and over again that their bravery, cunning and intellect can match any man's.
Thank you for bringing these brave women's stories to light.

Lise said...

Thrilled that folks have enjoyed my blog post. I, too, was ignorant of these and other women's amazing efforts during WWII. The more I learn, the more I want to know about other women and the exploits that may still be lurking in the shadows. Let's make sure to cast our light on them wherever we find them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lise, Really well written and researched article. Knowing of your work and personal commitments this piece becomes truly remarkable

Anonymous said...

Hi Lise, Really well written and researched article. Knowing of your work and personal commitments this piece becomes truly remarkable

Valerie Oakleaf said...

All I can say is WOW!
What a FANTASTIC article, Lise. Your research is fascintating and I had no idea how much those women did for the fight. Bless all their hearts!
Thank you so much for posting.

Becky said...

Wow what amazing women. Their stories remind me of a book I just finished reading titled, "Abandoned and Forgotten," by Evelyne Tannehill. The author has wrote the most amazing story about her real-life experience as a young German girl, who becomes orphaned during World War II. In my opinion she is a hero also!

Maria Ferrer said...

Thank you for bringing the SOE to our attention. I have never heard of them. And probably if I had, it would have been all the news about the men. But women are courageous and fierce fighters as well, as those brave women demonstrated. I'm glad they were all recognized by their countries. Hopefully more books will be written about them so history will not forget them.

Sarah C said...

Simply amazing. I've never heard of the SOE either, what a pity they aren't more well known. I am taken aback by these incredible women and there interesting stories! Thanks so much for enlightening us :)

Lisbeth Eng said...

What amazing women! Thanks for bringing their stories to our attention, Lise. Anyone who doubts the bravery and heroism of woman should read this. I especially love this quote: "Woman...have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men." I've recently read articles about woman serving in the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan and they still don't get all the recognition they deserve. Some folks don't believe that women "have what it takes." They should read about the brave women in your post and perhaps they'll be convinced. These are truly inspiring stories.

Gregg said...

Great piece! I read what was possibly an obituary of a British woman who was sent to Paris and targeted at senior German officers, at least one of whom she killed. As I recall after the war she relocated to Canada - but I cannot remember her name. ANy idea who this was? Not completely sure she was with the SOE.

Anonymous said...

Lise, Thankyou for educating me of these soldiers.I was a ranger in Vietnam ...there always was a lot of "chest thumping" after a mission,but these women..they just got the job done.Their sacrifice,courage and devotion to duty should be held in awe by all.Jeff

Anonymous said...

Great article. Can I ask where you got the information from that Churchill gave his approval for women to be sent out as secret agents in April 1942?

Anonymous said...

best article available encompassing
the women of the SOE. The true
tradition of unparallelled VALOUR
like Boadicea or Jean de Arques.
They really need to make one wonderous blockbuster movie
with the exploits of all these
women in it. God bless them.
(from a previously retired disabled vet -intelligence officer then navy pilot)

takeo said...

This helped me with my essay, perfect!

Mary de Laszlo said...

ownedThank you for this article which is very helpful for the novel I am working on.
I have heard of these remarkable women before and have read a couple of novels about them.
There were many very courageous women doing men's jobs during the wars. I only recently heard about women ferry pilots and was so impressed I have written a novel about them, due out in August.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I was talking to my elderly neighbour who serviced vehicles during WW2. He spoke of a young woman who was trained at Poundon and was rumoured to have perished. He believed she was from Guernsey possibly. I will continue to research her but this article was very helpful.

june said...

I just read this great article following a conversation with my daughter telling her of brave young women sent with radios into France during WW11. I believe they had a nickname but at 82 yrs I am not sure. I had also understood that their recognition and awards did not come easily or quickly! Like so many, my daughter had not heard of this group. I must look for books about them in order to re-educate both of us. They must not be forgotten. I hope that their story inspires young women to "stand up and be counted" when faced with similar threats to our world.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, a lot of the information is inaccurate. For example, Khan was not betrayed by one or more SOE agents but a French collaborator who was paid by the Germans for information.

Anonymous said...

hah u lame oldie. these gals are ded