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  • Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE by Greg Lewis

    World War II was the war in which old gender rules changed, as intelligence agencies created specific training and roles for women. Women were trained to work as undercover combatants armed with Sten guns and grenades, cut telecommunication wires, lay mines in roadways, and organize bombing raids.

    Their work contributed greatly to the success of the D-Day invasion and the eventual Allied victory over Hitler.

    Below, Greg Lewis, co-author of Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE highlights the boldest female spies of the era.

     

    THE AGENT WITH THE FALSE LEG CALLED CUTHBERT

    Virginia Hall spied for both SOE and OSS in Occupied France, despite having only one leg. (Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite having only one leg, Baltimore-born Virginia Hall carried out missions for both the highly-secretive British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hall had lost part of her left leg in a pre-war hunting accident. She was fitted with a false leg which she nicknamed “Cuthbert.”

    Hall worked for SOE in Occupied France early in the war, while posing as a journalist for the New York Post. After the US joined the war, she returned to France for the OSS. Disguising herself as an old lady, she gathered intelligence to aid the D-Day landings. The Gestapo became aware of her and put her on its most wanted list. They referred to her as the “limping lady.”

    She survived the war and later served in the CIA.

     

    THE AGENT WHO GOT HER SECRETS IN BED

    Betty Pack worked for Britain’s MI6 in Poland before the war, sleeping with a Polish diplomat in order to find out what the Poles knew about the German Enigma code-making machine.

    Moving to an MI6 department working in the United States, Betty was asked to plan a mission to copy vital naval codes kept inside the Vichy French embassy in Washington.

    She seduced a man who worked there, and brought him in on the operation. They broke into a safe and passed the codes out to another man to be copied overnight.

    When they were disturbed by a guard Betty jumped naked into her male accomplice’s arms and pretended to have sex with him. The embarrassed guard left them alone for the rest of the night.

    The codes she copied proved vital in the American and British invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.

     

    “A NICE GIRL WHO DARNED SOCKS”

    Yolande Beekman hid in a freezing cold attic to send wireless messages to London requesting arms and supplies for the Resistance. (Courtesy: specialforcesroh.com, Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Female agents often faced sexism and even derision from their SOE instructors. Yolande Beekman was dismissed by one SOE instructor as, “A nice girl, darned the men’s socks, would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that.”

    Beekman landed in France by Lysander in September 1943 and headed to the town of Saint-Quentin, where she became wireless operator for a resistance network dedicated to blowing up canal and railway infrastructure in the area. She was so successful that the Gestapo brought in teams of radio detector vans to track her down.

    She was arrested in a canal-side café and transported to Dachau concentration camp where she was executed.

     

    THE WOMAN WHO BLUFFED HER WAY OUT OF ARREST

    Irish-born Paddy O’Sullivan had been brought up by a Belgian aunt and began the war as a nurse. Her language skills attracted her to SOE.

    She parachuted into France in March 1944 and was almost killed straight away.

    In terrible weather, the cords of her parachute became entangled. By the time she had righted them she was very low and she hit the ground very hard.

    Severely concussed, her life had been saved by the two million francs in bank notes which were stuffed into her backpack. The money was for the French resistance.

    A woman of tremendous courage and gall, she would flirt with German soldiers if she found herself in a tight spot.

    Once, while carrying her wireless in a suitcase, she was challenged at a checkpoint.

    When a soldier asked her what was in the suitcase, she laughed and said “A wireless, of course!”

    The guard thought she was joking and he sent her on her way.

    O’Sullivan risked her life to send more than 300 messages by radio to London. Like the other women, she received a number of medals after the war.

     

    THE WHITE MOUSE WHO LED AN ATTACK ON A GESTAPO HQ

    Nancy Wakes was almost thrown out of SOE but returned to lead a deadly attack on a Gestapo headquarters. (Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Gun-toting Nancy Wake planned and led a raid on Gestapo headquarters which left almost 30 Germans dead or dying. The New Zealand-born journalist was living in France at the outbreak of war and quickly became involved in resistance activity. Dubbed the “White Mouse” by the Gestapo, she fled over the Pyrenees into Spain, and trained with SOE in Britain. Wild and gregarious, Wake parachuted into Occupied France in April 1944, while suffering a raging hangover from a party the night before.

    In late July 1944, while senior Gestapo officers in the old town hall in Montluçon were enjoying a glass of schnapps before lunch, Wake led a group of armed men into the building and started shooting. On reaching the local chief’s office, she opened the door and threw in two hand grenades.
    As she said later: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

     

    THE WAR HERO WHO WAS MURDERED DURING PEACETIME

    Christine Granville planned and led a daring mission to rescue a fellow SOE agent. (Courtesy: SpyMuseum.com, Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Polish-born Christine Granville had already worked undercover for MI6 in Poland and Hungary when she was recruited by SOE.

    Described by the legendary SOE intelligence officer, Vera Atkins, as a “beautiful animal with a great appetite for love and laughter”, Granville spent months in Egypt and Palestine waiting for a mission and lost patience with SOE chiefs.

    One evening, having been introduced to a local general, she took him for a walk behind a desert sand dune. When he returned he was “knocking at the knees” and he instructed his officers to find Granville a mission immediately.

    In France, she masterminded the escape of senior SOE agent, Francis Cammaerts, by blackmailing and bribing an officer from the French Nazi police force, the Milice.

    She told the Nazi that unless he released her friend he would be handed over to the mob once the liberating forces arrived in the area.

    On delivering Cammaerts to Granville, the Nazi said: “What a wonderful woman you have.”

    Cammaerts had been due to be executed on the morning of his escape.

    Despite her wonderful war record, Granville struggled to find personal happiness after the war. She was murdered in London by a deranged man who had become obsessed with her.

    Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis new paperback edition of Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE is available for purchase now.

  • Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell

    Many people have asked me what prompted me as a New Zealander living many thousands of miles from the UK to write this book – a book about a lone English woman, an agent and courier for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

    The story of how I began to write this biography began around the year 2004 when a friend of my mother’s, Don Miles who had himself been a member of SOE, asked me if I had heard of a woman agent named Diana Rowden. Did I know what had happened to her and why was there so little written about her? We discussed this, and I had to admit, even though I was a war historian and familiar with the SOE I could not enlighten him on Diana. Eventually I started to research her, finding her name mentioned on the odd occasion in books about women agents of SOE.

    Her Finest Hour 2 Diana in uniform. (Courtesy of Paul McCue - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    And then, out of the blue I remembered a documentary I had seen on television one night during the 1980s. Images … women dressed in the style and fashion of the 1940s … their heads bowed to the ground, two with dark hair, another with died blond hair, and a fair women, a ribbon in her hair, walking down some steps, a guard tower, Germans with rifles, a door leading into a building like a crematorium … the camera walking them back up the stairs and then down again, a woman with grey hair speaking English slowly, deliberately, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Was this documentary something to do with Diana Rowden … had she been one of these women?

    The months passed and I continued my research into Diana’s life. She had worked in the Jura region of France, a particularly dangerous area as the Germans knew agents were in the zone, and with the Allies on the offensive that the end of the war was in sight. The Jura was an area riddled with Nazis double and even triple agents, spies in the pay of the German Gestapo, thieves and murderers – people only too happy to throw in their lot with the occupying forces. And then her disastrous arrest with her radio operator, John Young. Through no fault of her own Diana was arrested by a double agent and in the company of three other women agents was executed in a camp called Natzweiler in the Vosges Mountains.

    Natzweiler … the memory now makes me shiver. I will come back to this.

    Over a period of time two books were recommended to me – ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by Elisabeth Nicholas and ‘Flames in the Field’ by Rita Kramer. They were of immense help and made me even more determined to write Diana’ full biography. An idea began to grow – I would go to Alsace and visit the camp where Diana had died.

    Her Finest Hour 3 Natzweiler entrance. (Author’s collection - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    In 2005 in the company of my sister we made the long journey from Auckland to Alsace. It was a grey day when we visited. The first thing we noticed was the absence of birds and other wild life, just an eerie and deathly silence which hung over the deserted camp.  A huge white monument to the fallen stood near the entrance, while steps led down to the buildings used to house the prisoners far below. Everything was as it had been: the crematorium, the prisoners’ cells, the guard houses. A lone shoe lay at the entrance to the crematorium, old and shabby as if somebody had carelessly thrown it to one side. The oven was so small I wondered how a human body was able to fit in to its narrow cavity. I walked outside into the fresh alpine air and read the inscription on the plaque dedicated to the four SOE women agents.

    Natzweiler was a camp of hell; a men’s camp. The men were beaten by guards, starved and forced to work in a quarry all day regardless of their health. Most were suffering from disease, malnutrition and many collapsed and died on the spot. Some of the prisoners were classified Nacht und Nebel – those deemed to disappear into the night and fog.

    This was the environment which the four young women found themselves in July 1944 after being arrested and interned in France. But it was Diana’s story which kept me awake at night. I came away from my trip to Alsace with one thought only … I knew very clearly what I wanted to do and nothing would defer me from the task: I would write Diana’s story and tell the world what she had done.  Never again would she be the unknown agent.

    9781445661643

    Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell's new book Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent is available for purchase now

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