In­cred­i­ble story of spy hero­ines

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Rick Stroud Si­mon & Schus­ter, £20 Re­view by Re­becca McQuil­lan

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.

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