Susan Elia MacNeal is the Barry Award–winning and Edgar, ITW Thriller, Dilys, Agatha, Macavity, and Lefty Award–nominated author of the New York Times bestselling Maggie Hope mysteries, including Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, and The Queen’s Accomplice, and now The Paris Spy. Here, Susan reflects on the importance of female spies in WWII.
“Women,” opined Captain Selwyn Jepson, the senior recruiting officer for secret agents during World War II, “have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.”
While the female predisposition for “cool and lonely courage” is debatable, women were specifically recruited by Britain’s SOE, Special Operations Executive, to serve as secret agents—despite the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on women functioning behind enemy lines in wartime. Using female agents was a controversial decision kept secret by the British government until decades after the war. In fact, there were 39 women among the 400-plus agents in SOE’s French section; a third of them did not come home.
But why send women, especially in the early 1940s, when they still hadn’t made many gains in the workplace or academia, let alone the military?
Female agents were preferred because any young men sent into enemy territories were conspicuous—why wasn’t that man fighting at the front, or serving on a ship or a submarine? Women, who weren’t conscripted, could move freely and without raising undue alarms. They were often overlooked as possible secret agents because most Nazis didn’t believe women had the intelligence and bravery to be a spy.
And so the women of the SOE trained in secret, and then were sent abroad, often landing by parachute in the middle of the night. They carried messages, radio crystals, weapons, and heavy wireless sets, all without arousing as much suspicion as able-bodied men. “Lonely courage,” though, was an essential virtue for the agents, who had to move through enemy territory anonymously, with every chance of detection and with little support or contact from home. The Nazis offered rewards for the capture of spies, and collaborators willing to double-cross agents abounded. If the female spies were caught by the Gestapo, they would be interrogated, most likely tortured, and sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration and extermination camp. Not all survived.
In his book Lonely Courage: The True Story of the SOE Heroines Who Fought to Free Nazi-Occupied France, author Rick Stroud focuses on six diverse women whose names deserve to be known as patriots. They are:
1. Brixton-born shop assistant Violette Szabo, who worked with members of a French resistance network on two separate missions.
2. Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim Sufi princess, who was the first female radio operator infiltrated into occupied France.
3. Parisian Pearl Witherington, who led a force of over 1,500 Maquis resistors in the summer of 1944.
4. Polish Countess Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, who was known as “Churchill’s favorite spy.” She secured the defection of a strategic Nazi garrison on an Alpine pass and single-handedly rescued three officers from imminent execution.
5. One-legged American Virginia Hall, the only person to work for both the SOE and its U.S. equivalent, the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA.
6. Nancy Wake, codenamed “the White Mouse,” who supported an escape route and organized arms, training, and liaisons with London for 7,000 Maquis resistors.
These heroines are just six of the many women, from various countries, who bravely served the Allies in World War II as undercover agents and became part of the Greatest Generation. Their stories deserve to be known.