Women agents dared all to defeat Nazi Germany
Trained in secrecy, fifty British female agents were sent into Nazi-occupied Europe by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) because the Allies were desperately short of men. Often young and attractive, the women parachuted in behind enemy lines to serve as couriers and wireless operators, organize resistance groups and carry out sabotage. They included a princess and a shop girl. They spoke fluent French, were unspeakably brave and resourceful, and they did not expect they would return home alive.
They were trained in the country - agents used to joke that SOE stood for ‘Stately 'Omes of England'. They learned how to go undercover, how to handle a firearm and how to face interrogation. None of them ever gave up sensitive information under torture.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes some of them:
Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo
Image: National Portrait Gallery
The daughter of a French mother and a British father, fiery Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo, née Bushell (1921–1945), reputed to be the best shot in SOE, a beautiful widow of twenty-three, parachuted twice into France as a courier. . .Three days after arriving in France for the second time in 1944, to assist the maquis in sabotage around Limoges, she and her two companions were caught in a German ambush. According to her George Cross citation, Szabo, armed only with a sten sub-machine gun, covered her companions' retreat for twenty minutes until she had no more ammunition and was taken prisoner. When interrogation could extract nothing from her, she was imprisoned and shot at the concentration camp at Ravensbrück.
Nancy Wake (b. 1912) was an energetic New Zealand-born Australian with a strong personality. She twice worked in France, initially from her home in Marseilles, where she was known to the resistance as White Mouse. After being captured and interrogated she was rescued from prison by her friends. Then, aged thirty-two, she parachuted back into France in April 1944, and became virtually the head of 7000 maquisards in the Corrèze, whom she led with verve and by example; she returned safely to Britain in September 1944.
Of the eleven women agents who arrived in France down the short ladder of the Lysander aircraft, eight were captured, often within months of landing. Vera Eugenie Leigh (1903–1944), still beautiful at forty, was one of these agents. She became a courier between Paris and the Yonne river, and was arrested in 1943.
Another was the intrepid 28-year-old Diana Hope Rowden (1915–1944), formerly in the WAAF, who was a courier in the Dijon area and was arrested at almost the same time. Leigh and Rowden were interrogated by the Gestapo at the notorious Avenue Foch. In July 1944 they were moved to Natzweiler concentration camp where they were given lethal injections.
Lilian Verna Rolfe (1914–1945) was an imperturbable thirty-year-old woman who was set down by Lysander in April 1944, destined for the area around Orléans. Three months later she was arrested by accident: the Germans were making a sweep of the area before evacuation, and discovered to their surprise that they had caught an SOE wireless operator. She was shot at Ravensbrück.
A shy doctor's wife, Cecily Margot Lefort [née MacKenzie] (1900–1945), landed by Lysander in June 1943 and was employed as a courier in south-eastern France. Captured and later imprisoned in Ravensbrück, she probably died in the Judenlager extermination camp.
Eileen Nearne (b. 1921), at twenty-two an energetic and resourceful wireless operator, already experienced in work at one of the SOE listening stations in Britain (where messages to and from agents were sent and received), went by Lysander to work in Paris. She was caught at her set and amazingly, even after torture, persuaded the Gestapo that she was just a little shopgirl who knew nothing. Nevertheless, she was sent to Ravensbrück and afterwards, while being moved, effected a miraculous escape and was rescued by the advancing Americans.
Most notable among those who survived was the redoubtable Pearl Witherington (b. 1914). Originally a courier in the Auvergne, she revived her ailing network after her organizer's capture, and eventually commanded an active maquis of over 3500 men. So effective were her ‘modest capabilities’ that a German army of 18,000 preferred to surrender to the Americans rather than fall into the hands of her men.
Marguerite Knight (b. 1920) was a keen and competent courier in the Yonne at a confused and dangerous time in her network, who managed to survive unharmed, as did Sonya Esmée Florence Butt (b. 1924), one of the youngest of the couriers. Sonya became the weapons training officer for the maquis around Le Mans.
Immediately after the war the fate of many agents was unknown. The SOE was ordered to close, and many accounts were destroyed or lost.
It was left to Vera Atkins, the briefing and conducting officer of F section, to take a year travelling through Europe to discover the fates of those agents who did not come back - most of whom she had known personally. It was through her efforts that the tragic details became known of those courageous ones who died.
Before they did, they disrupted German occupying forces, tied down police and soldiers, especially after the Allied landings, and gave support, guidance, and supplies to the maquis and anti-German forces. General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, paid tribute to their 'very considerable part in our complete and final victory'.