‘These are deeds which should not pass away and names that must not wither’
Women had been brought into the armed services in various vital roles at the outset of the war—administrative, controllers, liaison, interpreters, transport— but a line was drawn against their engagement ‘in the field’. In 1942, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) found itself at a critical low level with trained male agents in the occupied countries, especially in that most vulnerable of areas—wireless operators—and a plea was made to the War Cabinet to sanction the sending out of women. Also, it was realized that women would be able to move around more freely in an occupied territory than did the men—the Germans still had a stereotyped image of the role of women—and a girl on bicycle with a carrier was a common sight (Escott, 1991).
Although SOE, set up by Churchill in the summer of 1940, was the main organization engaged with aiding the resistance networks in Europe, it was often in conflict with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and there were other secret services in play. De Gaulle’s Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action (BCRA) was supported by the RF Section in SOE. There were also Polish, Czech, Belgian and Dutch organizations—then the American OSS and the Soviet NKVD. The F Section of SOE was chiefly responsible for sending out agents —couriers, wireless operators and saboteurs—to France.
Once a woman had been taken on—after a complex series of interviews and tests—she underwent a period of intensive training, varying from 4 to 10 months. This usually started with a stiff course of physical and military training at Wanborough Manor near Guildford, including wireless operating, map-reading and the use of small arms. This went on to more intensive training for wireless operators at Compton Bassett, then the ‘Group A’ Special Training School at Arisaig in the western highlands of Scotland, where they were schooled in sabotage, combat and knife skills—taught by commandos, thugs and poachers. No concession was made to sex, and some one-third of trainees dropped out. Then it was on to parachute training at Ringway Airfield near Manchester based at Tatton Park.
The final course of training was in the ‘Group B’ Finishing School at Beaulieu, at Lord Montagu’s estate in the New Forest, which had been requisitioned by the SOE (Riols, 2013). Here they learnt espionage and counter-intelligence techniques, the use of wireless codes, deciphering the messages personnels that the BBC sent out to France and such skills as document photography. They also suffered sessions of mock interrogation where they were severely grilled. Those who came through (and there were still some who didn’t) were then given their new identities, which they learnt then to live with, even under duress.
Like all agents, each woman was assigned a code name and sent out to join a specific resistance network. In France, these were known as réseaux—and there were dozens scattered around in the country, each named after an English professional category (MUSICIAN, FARMER, VENTRILOQUIST..). Each organizer of a network, le chef de réseau, was assisted by a radio operator (or ‘pianist’) and a courier. It was these key roles that the women agents mainly filled.
Here are some of their stories.
LISE de BAISSAC
On the night of 24 September 1942, Andrée Borrel (‘Denise’), and fellow agent, Lise de Baissac (‘Odile’) became the first women SOE agents to be flown out of RAF Tempsford together — Andrée being parachuted down near Mer in the Loire valley to join Francis Suttill’s new PROSPER Paris network — Lise not far, near Poitiers, to act as courier-organizer with the SCIENTIST circuit Andrée grew up in a Paris suburb and, at the outbreak of war, travelled to Toulon where she worked as a nursing aid with the Association des Dames de France (ADF), later with the French Resistance, helping British airmen shot down over France to escape through the network of Albert Guérisse. When the group was uncovered, she escaped to England via Lisbon and joined the SOE. She took part in sabotage with the Prosper network but was betrayed to the Gestapo and arrested in June 1943, interrogated, then transferred to Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges mountains of Alsace. There, she and three other women agents—Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky and Diana Rowden—were together executed by lethal phenol injections and cremated, 6 July 1944. The camp is now a French historical site and a plaque there commemorates the four women. In 1985, Brian Stonehouse, SOE agent and painter, who saw the women there at the camp, did a poignant watercolour of the four, which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London. Lise de Baissac was born in Mauritius to a French family who moved to Paris in 1919. At the occupation of Paris in 1940, she and her brother, Claude, escaped to England via Gibraltar and were both recruited by the SOE. She trained at Beaulieu with Mary Herbert, Odette Sansom and Jacqueline Neane and commissioned into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in July 1942. She was active on two separate missions to France, joining her brother Claude with the Scientist then Pimento network in Normandy, her life being recaptured in the French film, Les Femmes de l’Ombre. She died in 2004 at the age of 98.
ODETTE SANSOM Odette (‘Lise’), the daughter of a French World War 1 hero, Gaston Brailly, contracted polio at seven and spent a year blind, then paralysed for another. She married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, in 1931 and moved to England, being enlisted into the SOE through FANY in 1942. Having put her three daughters in a convent school, and after numerous failed flight attempts, she was landed by felucca boat near Marseille that November, joining Peter Churchill’s SPINDLE network as a courier. In April 1943, they were both captured by Hugo Bleicher, an Abwehr counter-intelligence agent, and she was severely tortured, then condemned to death and transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in July 1944. She was probably spared execution as the camp commandant, Fritz Sühren, believed her to be related to Winston Churchill (through her relationship with Peter) and gave himself up, with her as hostage, to the invading Americans. She married Peter Churchill after the war, then divorced and re-married George Hallowes. She was awarded the George Cross—the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for civilians (women were not then considered eligible for military awards—and possibly still aren’t). The 1950 film Odette, starring Anna Neagle, featured her life. She died in 1995.
JACUELINE and EILEEN ‘Didi’ NEARNE The sisters Jacqueline (‘Josette’) and Eileen (‘Rose’) Nearne were born to an English father and Spanish-French mother, moving to France in 1923. When France fell, they both made their way to England via boat from Gibraltar and, together with a brother, Francis, were taken on by the SOE. Jacqueline was the first to be flown out, taking off from Tempsford the night of 25 January 1943 with Sqn Ldr Maurice Southgate, organizer of the STATIONER network, to be parachuted down near Brioude. She worked as a courier link between several SOE networks in Paris, Clemont-Ferrand, Toulouse and Poitiers, also escorting downed RAF airmen along escape routes across the Pyrénées. She was fifteen months in the field before being brought back by Lysander in April 1944. In 1946, she took part in an RAF documentary film, Now It Can Be Told. After the war, she worked as a liaison officer at the United Nations in Washington. She never married, and died in 1982, only 66.
Eileen (‘Didi’) was landed by Lysander, in a field a little far north of Châteauroux, in company with the leader of the new WIZARD circuit, Jean Savy, on 2 March 1944. As he was known to the Gestapo, Savy was flown back the next month, with Jacqueline Nearne—so that Didi went on to Paris to work as wireless operator with the SPIRITUALIST network. Although kept busy, moving around for other networks, she felt lonely and then, on 25 July, she was discovered and arrested, and put in a cattle truck with other girls and agents to Ravensbrück. She took up little acts of sabotage working in the instrument factory there, was punished, but survived and escaped finally to the American lines. She had difficulty convincing the Americans of her story but was finally returned to England in May 1945, gaunt and haggard. Like her sister, she never married, and never quite recovered from her time in captivity. She became a virtual recluse, hiding away her wartime honours from neighbours. When her body was discovered in a little flat in Torquay in September 2010, a council burial was arranged —until her niece, Odile, was contacted and the full extent of Didi’s true history became a media sensation. It was her story that moved Baroness Christine Crawley to raise a Debate in the House of Lords, in June 2011, calling for more recognition for the SOE women agents.
Both sisters were awarded the MBE and the Croix de Guerre. A portrait of Jacqueline Nearne, by Brian Stonehouse in the 1950s, hangs in the Special Forces Club in London. Their niece, Odile Nearne, made a special visit to Tempsford in September 2013 and put in a piece of the mosaic being crafted for the planned Memorial.
Born in Leeds, Vera Leigh (‘Simone’) was abandoned by her parents and adopted by Eugène Leigh, a wealthy American racehorse trainer, who also had stables in England and Maisons Laffitte near Paris. She wanted to become a jockey but, after completing her education, took up dress design and established a grand maison in the Place Vendôme in Paris. On the occupation of Paris, she left to join her fiancé in Lyons, became involved with helping the Resistance to aid British servicemen to get across the Pyrénées, escaping herself via Gibraltar. She volunteered for the SOE, excelled in training (known to be ‘the best shot in the party’) and, in May 1943, was landed by Lysander in a field near Tours, together with another woman agent, Julienne Aisner. She worked as courier for the DONKEYMAN and INVENTOR networks, quickly re-acquainting herself with fashionable Parisian life—so coming to the notice of German agents, including the notorious Abwehr intelligence agent, Hugo Bleicher. She was finally arrested end-October 1943. After imprisonment and torture at the Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch, she was taken to Frèsnes prison, then Karlsruhe and finally, the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. She was reportedly whipped and raped then, with the three other women agents named earlier, executed by phenol injection and cremated, 6 July 1944. Apart from the plaque at the camp itself, there is a remembrance plate in the Holy Trinity church at Maisons Laffitte. She was nominated for the George Cross but finally received only the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
Princess NOOR INAYAT KHAN
Noor-un-Nisa (‘Madeleine’) was born in Moscow in 1914. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, a musician and Sufi teacher, was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Ruler of Mysore in India, and met and married her American mother, Ora Ray Baker, whilst travelling through the United States. At the outbreak of the First World War, the family moved to London in Bloomsbury, then to Suresnes near Paris in France. She studied at the Sorbonne and took up music and poetry, later writing stories for children. With the family, she escaped to England on the occupation of Paris, joined the WAAF as ‘Nora Baker’ and was recruited to the SOE in 1942. She trained as a radio operator, hitting the keys hard—so earning the name ‘Bang-away-Lulu’. She was flown to France on the night of 16 June 1943, in company with two other women agents— Cécile Lefort and Diana Rowden—to a reception at Veux Briollay near Paris, arranged by Henri Déricourt, later suspected as a traitor, and joined the PROSPER network. She had a number of close shaves when the network was broken by the Gestapo, having to move around Paris to make her transmissions, being finally betrayed by a mystery French-woman and arrested in October that year. She managed to escape from prison but was recaptured, then sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where, being labelled dangerous and uncooperative, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement. Despite repeated torture, she refused to reveal any information and, in September 1944, with three other SOE women agents, she was transferred to Dachau, where all four were shot in the back of the head. Reportedly, her final word was the call, Liberté. In addition to the Croix de Guerre, she was awarded the George Cross.
YOLANDE BEEKMAN Of Swiss parentage, Yolande Elsa Unternahrer (‘Mariette’) was born in Paris and moved to London as a child, schooling in Hampstead Heath,then finishing school in Switzerland. When war broke out, she joined the WAAF and was recruited by the SOE in February 1943, training with Noor Inayat Khan and Yvonne Cormeau. She married a Dutch SOE agent, Jaap Beekman, but soon after, was landed by Lysander on the night of 17/18 September 1943 and joined the MUSICIAN circuit, led by Gustave (Guy) Biéler, at St Quentin, as a wireless operator coordinating drops of supplies for sabotage operations. In January 1944, the network was betrayed and Biéler and she were brutally tortured. She was sent to Fresnes prison, then Karlsruhe, then abruptly transferred to Dachau together with fellow agents, Madeleine Damerment, Eliane Plewman and Noor Inayat Khan. All four were executed by a shot through the back of the head at dawn on 13 September 1944. The French government honoured her with the Croix de Guerre but she was only Mentioned in Despatches in Britain.
PEARL WITHERINGTON Cecile Pearl Witherington (‘Marie’ ‘Pauline’) was born in Paris to British expatriate parents and was working as assistant to the Air Attaché at the British Embassy when war broke out. She escaped France with her mother and sisters, found work at the Air Ministry in London, then recruited by the SOE after meeting up with an old school friend, Maurice Southgate, who was going out to lead the STATIONER circuit in south-west France. She was parachuted down in September 1943 as a second courier to Southgate, helping Jacqueline Nearne, and as arms-trainer to the Maquis guerrilla fighters. When Southgate was arrested in May 1944, just before D-day, Stationer collapsed—and Pearl was charged with setting up a new network, WRESTLER, in the Indre department, leading the 1500 Maquis in her command to sabotage and attacks on German convoys—culminating in the surrender of some 18,000 German troops to the Americans, having inflicted around a thousand casualties over the previous four months. The French later made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, also awarding her the Croix de Guerre. She was recommended for the Military Cross, which was turned down as women agents were considered ineligible for military decorations. When offered a consolatory civil MBE, Pearl rejected it with the note that ‘there was nothing remotely civil about what I did’. She accepted a military MBE with three other fellow women agents, later changed to a CBE. She considered the award of her parachute wings, at the age of 91, as the greatest honour she had ever received. She died two years later.
Born in Geneva to an English father (an Oxford don) and a French mother, Anne-Marie Walters (‘Colette’) was educated in France, where the family also holidayed. At the outbreak of war, she joined the WAAF and was recruited by the SOE in July 1943—and parachuted down, together with Claude Arnault (with whom she was romantically involved), in the Armagnac area to join George Starr’s WHEELWRIGHT circuit as courier, working alongside Yvonne Cormeau.
She was a controversial character—a report at the SOE School in Beaulieu noted she was ”well-educated, intelligent, quick, practical and cunning .. erratic .. a strong character, domineering, aggressive and self-confident .. vain and rather conceited ..” —and she was accused by Starr of being undisciplined. Her award-winning memoir, Moondrop to Gascony, published in 1946, is a vivid account of the day-to-day travails of a courier agent. She was awarded the MBE and Croix de Guerre, and died in 1998.
DENISE BLOCH Born to Jewish parents in Paris in 1916, Denise Bloch (‘Ambroise’) grew up in a house of boys, the elder two joining her father into the French army on the outbreak of war. She learnt to live a secret life as the family adjusted to life in Paris during the occupation, escaping to Lyon in the summer of 1942, barely in time to evade the Vel d’hive round-up and deportation of 12,000 Parisian Jews to the death camps. There, she joined the Resistance movement, acting as courier, then joining George Starr’s WHEELWRIGHT circuit at Toulouse. In the spring of 1943 they were in difficulties and Starr sent her off, through Spain, to lobby London for help. Her transit through all the grilling and training as wireless operator with SOE’s F Section proved a trying experience but she was finally flown back from Tempsford in March 1944 to be landed with Robert Benoist, who was charged with the new CLERGYMAN circuit operating out from Rambouillet south-west of Paris, carrying out sabotage missions in the Loire valley. Through it all, she transmitted to London, using Leo Marks’ ‘Toast’ code-poem: “Make the most of it - A coast to coast – Toast of it – For what you think – Has been God-sent to you – Has only been lent to you”..
In the frantic resistance activity following D-Day, the circuit was betrayed and, with other key workers, Denise was arrested, interrogated and transferred finally, in company with Violette Szabo and Lilian Rolfe, to Ravensbrück—where all three were shot and cremated.
MARY HERBERT — PADDY O’SULLIVAN Of the two Irish women agents, Mary Herbert (‘Claudine’) was amongst the first to be trained by the SOE and, unlike the others, went out by sea—submarine to Gibraltar, then a felucca boat to the coast near Marseilles in October 1942, to join the SCIENTIST circuit run by Claude de Baissac. She was a linguist, who had worked as a translator at the Air Ministry before the war and worked as a courier for the circuit, ferrying messages and radio-sets between Paris and Bordeaux. She fell under the spell of Claude—a most attractive, forceful man—and they became lovers, leading to her giving birth to a baby daughter, Claudine. Despite arrest and interrogation after the circuit had been betrayed, she survived the war, later marrying Claude and settling in London.
Maureen Patricia ‘Paddy’ O’Sullivan (‘Josette’) flew out from Tempsford on 22 March 1944, landing heavily by parachute near Limoges, to join the FIREMAN network. Although a Dubliner, born to an Irish journalist father and Breton-German mother, she had been brought up by a Belgian aunt in Bruges when her mother died, and was training as a nurse at Highgate Hospital in London on the outbreak of the war. She joined the WAAF, was recruited by the SOE and trained as a wireless operator. She seduced German soldiers at checkpoints with promises of assignations and, in the frenetic run-up to D-day, transmitted over 300 messages, successfully helping in the surrender of a large retreating German force. She was awarded the MBE and the Croix de Guerre.
The most celebrated all the women agents, Violette Szabó (‘Louise’) was born in Paris to an English taxi-driver father and a French mother. The family moved to London and Violette grew up in Brixton and was working at the perfume counter of a shop there at the outbreak of the war. She met a dashing young Hungarian officer in the French Foreign Legion, Étienne Szabó, at the Bastille Day parade in London in 1940 and married after a whirlwind romance. A little after their daughter, Tania, was born, she learnt that Étienne had been killed at the Battle of El Alamein—and the event moved her to volunteer for the SOE in 1942,to ‘get my own back.’
‘A dark-haired slip of mischief’ with a cockney accent is how Leo Marks described her in his book, Between Silk and Cyanide, when he took on schooling her in the use of code for wireless messaging. He gave her the now famous code-poem that he had composed himself a little earlier on the death of his sweetheart, Ruth:
The life that I have / Is all that I have And the life that I have / Is yours. The love that I have / Of the life that I have Is yours and yours and yours. A sleep I shall have / A rest I shall have Yet death will be but a pause. For the peace of my years / In the long green grass Will be yours and yours and yours.
She was reputed to be the deadliest shot in her training school—having learnt to win cigarettes, being continually short of money, at shooting galleries. She was adored by her training instructors for her ready courage and endless infectious cockney laughter. On her first mission, she was flown out in April 1944 and parachuted down near Cherbourg, then rendezvousing with Philippe Liewer in Paris, and was entrusted with the task of investigating the extent that his réseau in Rouen had been broken by the Germans. She successfully helped with sabotage missions at Barentin and was repatriated by Lysander 3 weeks later. Her second mission out in June 1944, just after D-day and a day before her daughter Tania’s birthday, she was dropped by parachute in a troubled area near Limoges, where the Germans were carrying out reprisals following a maquis operation. The car she was travelling in was stopped and she was captured after a gunfight.
She was severely tortured during interrogation over many weeks, then transferred to Ravensbrück and on to a labour camp. In a train enroute, which was strafed by the RAF, she is remembered for crawling down to another compartment with water for fellow prisoners—‘My God that girl had guts’ remembered Yeo-Thomas (‘the White Rabbit’) in later years. She was transferred back to Ravensbrück and, on 27 January 1945, she was executed with three other women agents, Denise Bloch, Cécile Lefort and Liliane Rolfe. She was awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre after Vera Atkins finally uncovered the truth of the executions in 1946. Her life is celebrated in the book and film, Carve her Name with Pride, and in many books, including one by her daughter, Tania Szabó. There is a memorial bust of her on the Albert Embankment in London and a museum in Wormelow, Herefordshire, at a home she stayed at during a break in the war.
The youngest of six children, Nancy Wake (‘Heléne’ ‘Andrée’) was born in New Zealand but grew up in Australia—and was perhaps the most decorated servicewoman of the War, and also the most outspoken and colourful. She became a nurse, then a journalist—and once interviewed Hitler—then married a wealthy French industrialist, Henry Fiocca, and lived the good life in Marseilles. After the fall of France in the war, she became active in the resistance network with her husband, helping Jews to escape, becoming known to the Germans as ‘The White Mouse’. She escaped herself, across Spain, to Britain in 1943 and was recruited by the SOE. She was trained in guerrilla combat and parachuted back into France in April 1944. When her parachute became snagged in a tree, she recounted, a French resistance fighter freed her and said he wished all trees bore “such beautiful fruit”. “Don’t give me that French shit”, retorted Nancy.
She joined the maquis group in the Forest of Tronçais and led attacks on German installations near Montluçon. Until the liberation of France, her maquisards fought off 22,000 SS soldiers, causing numerous casualties. She learnt, after the War, that her husband had been tortured to death by the Gestapo. She continued to work in intelligence for the Air Ministry, then re-married and returned to Australia, dabbling in politics. When her husband died in 1997, she returned to London, living in the Star and Garter Home at Richmond. It was too tame for her there, so she moved out and took up residence in the Stafford Hotel in St James’s Place in 2001. She was often to be found there most mornings, propping up the bar with the first of several gins and tonic. She died, just before her 99th birthday, in August 2011. Her ashes were scattered in the hills near Montluçon.
She was awarded the George Medal, the Chevalierde la Legion d’Honneur, the US Medal of Freedom, the New Zealand RSA Badge in Gold and, finally, a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004. When the Australians delayed the latter, she was heard to say “I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey puts its nuts.” She published her memoirs, The White Mouse, in 1985. She was reputedly the model for Sebastian Faulks’ fictional heroine, Charlotte Gray.