Incredible story of spy heroines
WOMEN have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men,” said Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruiting officer Selwyn Jepson to Winston Churchill in 1942. He was trying to persuade the Prime Minister that the time had come to start recruiting female secret agents to be dropped into wartime France.
Churchill agreed, and so began the training of French-speaking women as radio operators. Their job was to gather information, transmit it to London, help coordinate the evacuation of British personnel and, later in the war, harry the Germans through sabotage and combat.
To describe this as dangerous would be a laughable understatement. The life expectancy of a radio operator in the field was six weeks. The risk of detection – by betrayal, interception of signals or through infiltration by German agents – was ever present. These women were young, mostly in their 20s or 30s; Violette Szabo, made famous by the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride, even had a two-year-old daughter.
In this superb book, Rick Stroud honours their awe-inspiring bravery and self-sacrifice by telling their stories with a historian’s attention to detail and a novelist’s empathy and sense of drama. It is a pacy chronological account, keeping track of each agent’s exploits whilst interweaving it with a punchy narrative of the war. It is vividly and concisely delivered by a writer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of World War Two, and as with all books about the bravery of those who fought Nazi tyranny, confronts us with the challenging question: what would I have done?
Some of the women were intrepid by nature. Nancy Wake, a New Zealander brought up in Sydney, used an inheritance from an aunt to escape boredom at home and make her way to London aged 20. There, she talked her way into a job as a journalist and was sent to Paris. She married a wealthy Frenchman and after witnessing the mistreatment of Jews in Vienna, determined that if she could help undermine the Germans, she would. Before she found her way into the service of SOE, she had already spent many months acting as a courier based in Marseille for the Resistance.
The extraordinary tale of how she sprang a fellow underground agent, Highlander Ian Garrow, from prison under the Germans’ noses, epitomises her fearlessness.
Then there was Krystyna Skarbek, a Polish-Jewish aristocrat, who had persuaded London to send her to Hungary to ski over the mountains from Czechoslovakia into Poland carrying anti-German propaganda. She succeeded, in the depths of winter, passing the dead, frozen bodies of fleeing refugees en route. Skarbek was described as “absolutely fearless” by intelligence officers in London.
Not every agent was a dashing adventurer. Noor Inayat Khan, half American, half Indian, was a gentle Sorbonne child psychology graduate, described by her SOE instructor as “completely self-effacing”. She was very close to her mother and younger siblings, and had started to have success as a translator of children’s stories.
Khan was clumsy with explosives and lacked confidence. Two of her fellow trainees urged their superiors not to deploy her, but the SOE sent her in. She made some mistakes, but Khan proved to be one of the bravest of them all. When she was arrested, it was not through her own errors and she held firm in the face of appalling privations and mistreatment. This sweet soul was one of the most redoubtable heroes of the war, male or female.
There is a jaw-dropping incident, when a French agent betrays her comrades. And then there was the question of how to judge if someone was a double agent. Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE, had to decide whether to deploy a male French operative, who was regarded with suspicion by some members of staff. Such were the man’s skills, Buckmaster sent him in, subsequently overruling intelligence to the effect that the man was a double agent. The truth was that the operative had been working hand in glove with the Germans all along. This misjudgment had very grave consequences for agents in the field.
Once the Allies invaded France, the female agents found themselves in a combat zone and they rose to the occasion. Some were in charge of thousands of Resistance fighters. Others were captured and some faced the most terrible deaths. To read this book is to feel awe at their heroism and outrage on their behalf. And to hope one is never asked to live up to the example they set.