Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

SOE Heroines by Bernard O'Connor

The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents

A 1944 aerial shot of RAF Tempsford, the airfield from which most women agents were flown. (Courtesy of the East Englian Aviation Society, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

It was not until the last few decades of the 20th century that history books and media coverage of the Second World War began to change their focus from men’s roles to include the experiences of women and girls. It was the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, the introduction of women’s studies in universities and changes in examination syllabi that ensured young people began to get a more balanced view of history.

Researchers began to investigate what life was like for women and girls during the war years. Instead of their traditional portrayal in wartime films and books in secondary, subservient roles or included only for a love interest, the importance of many women’s roles in the Second World War, including in the secretive world of the Intelligence Services, has begun to be told.

Academics and authors like Juliette Pattinson, Kate Vigurs, Penny Starns, Margaret Collins-Weitz, Clare Mulley, Susan Heim and others, have brought their stories into the public eye. While Gillian Armstrong’s 2001 film Charlotte Gray portrayed the life of a woman secret agent in France, a more realistic portrayal was Jean-Paul Salomé’s 2008 film Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women Agents).

An agent receiving her last kiss before boarding the plane to the Continent. (Courtesy of Pierre Tillet, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

 

 

 

Living near RAF Tempsford, a Second World War airfield about 80km north of London and about half way between Cambridge and Bedford, I have spent several decades researching its role in supplying the resistance movements across Western Europe. It was from there that agents of the British, American, Soviet, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and French intelligence services were infiltrated into occupied Europe as organisers, couriers, wireless operators, weapons instructors, saboteurs and assassins. It was also involved in exfiltrating downed pilots and aircrew, escaped prisoners-of-war, politicians, diplomats, military personnel, resistance leaders and others who were evading capture by the authorities. In 1946, the RAF Film unit produced School for Danger, later renamed Now the Story can be Told which told the story of Jacqueline Nearne and Harry Rée, British agents who parachuted into France on a secret mission and successfully returned. Over the last few decades I have published some books on the airfield, the early ones entitled RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield and Churchill’s MOST SECRET Airfield.

Andree Borrel parachuted near St Laurent Nouan (Loir-et-Cher), on 24/25 September 1942. (Courtesy of the National Archives, TNA HS9/183, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

I found that most of the more than 2,000 personnel, both men and women based on the airfield, had signed the Official Secrets Act and were unprepared to talk or write about their experiences. Some who had been awarded medals after the war, under pressure from reporters keen to tell the stories, had their experiences printed in newspapers. However, the British, and I imagine the French government, vetted such articles to ensure no sensitive information was revealed like the names of members of the intelligence services or of people who were still alive. Names of people and places had to be changed.

However, biographies of pilots and secret agents were published after the war; films and TV documentaries were produced and eventually autobiographies appeared. While most books have been about the men, there is an increasing number about the women, notably Violette Szabó, Nancy Wake, Odette Churchill/Sansom, Christine Granville, Noor Inayat Khan and Diane Rowden.

The Government restriction on the release of sensitive documents to The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office in Kew, has meant that formerly top-secret documents are only gradually becoming available. The introduction of the British Freedom of Information Act in 2000 has released thousands of files into the public domain. The National Archives online discovery catalogue allows anyone to locate and occasionally download personnel files, mission reports and other secret government documents related to RAF Tempsford and the wartime intelligence services and has encouraged an increasing number of people to publish their memoirs and historians to reveal their secrets. The Imperial War Museum also has taped interviews with individuals who had a connection with Tempsford and the intelligence services.

The women of the SOE were not the only ones to help in the liberation of France; pictured is Simone Segouin, a member of the French Resistance who was reported to have captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres area, in addition to killing others. (Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records Administration, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

As I gave talks to local history societies, women’s institutes, town women’s guilds, church and other groups, there were numerous questions from women asking for details of what their father, grandfather, husband, uncle, brother or cousin were doing during the war as they had never talked about it. They had kept their promise having signed the Official Secrets Act. Based on my research, I was able to tell them as much as I had learned.

Focussing on the women’s stories, I published The Courier, a historical faction, in 2010, The Women of RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield in 2011 which covered not just accounts of the women agents but also the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the catering staff. Return to Holland and Return to Belgium, also published in 2011, tell the stories of women agents infiltrated into the Low Countries. Churchill’s Angels, a revised and updated account of the British women agents was published in 2012; Elzbieta Zawacka: Polish soldier and courier during World War Two in 2014, Agent Rose: The True Spy Story of Eileen Nearne, Britain's Forgotten Wartime Heroine; Designer: The true spy story of Jacqueline Nearne, a courier sent on a top secret mission to France during World War Two in 2014 and Agent Fifi and the Wartime Honey Trap Spies in 2015.

Royal Victorian Patriotic School, Wandsworth, London, where, from January 1941, MI5 interviewed refugees to determine if they were enemy agents and gain intelligence about conditions overseas. (Courtesy of Mike T under Creative Commons 2.0, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

Having been a Trustee of the Tempsford Memorial, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2013 to commemorate women agents infiltrated behind enemy lines, mostly from RAF Tempsford, I had a tentative list of over eighty women, many whose stories had yet to be told. I decided therefore to focus on the many Frenchwomen who were parachuted, landed by plane or boat into remote parts of France on moonlit nights between 1942 and 1944. SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive French Section and Free French Women Agents tells the stories of 36 brave women. Most were trained in paramilitary warfare, fieldcraft, the use of weapons and explosives, sabotage, silent killing, parachuting, codes and cyphers, wireless transmission and receiving, and general spycraft. The youngest was 19 and the oldest 53. Of the twelve who were captured, only two survived; the others were executed, some after being tortured by the sadistic officers of the Gestapo.

In recognition of their contribution to the liberation of France, the British, French and American governments honoured these 36 women with 49 awards including 11 Croix de Guerre, four with palms, nine Medaille de la Resistance, five Companion de Legion d’Honneur, four King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, four Member of the British Empire Medals, three Chevallier de Legion d’Honneur, two Order of the British Empire Medals, two Certificates of Commendation, two Sussex Medals, one Commander of Legion d’Honneur, King’s Medal of Commendation, one Medaille de Republique Française, one Military Cross, one Mentioned in Dispatches, one US Distinguished Service Cross, one US Bronze Star and one George Cross.

Bernard O'Connor's new book SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents is available for purchase now.