Britain’s secret World War Heroines: Female Espionage in World War II

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Espionage is not always the first topic that comes to mind when thinking about World War Two. In fact, most World War espionage stories are most likely still untold. Yet, espionage was massively signifcant when referring to the successes of the British Army. Britain’s Special Operations Executive (S.O.E), active between 1940 and 1946, consisted of approximately thirteen thousand agents. Although founder Winston Churchill clearly put a lot of faith in the S.O.E, most of the British population were unaware of the organisation’s efforts during the war. Especially efforts displayed by women.

Only roughly a quarter of S.O.E spies were women, yet many of them committed great acts of bravery and courage that perhaps have gone unrecognised. Since exploring in more detail about this World War espionage, I have come across countless heroic stories worth mentioning. Without discrediting the brave efforts of thousands of British female agents, I have picked out a few of my favourite heroic female espionage stories of World War II.

“They must be taught to a level that shows they are equally as capable as their male counterparts.” This is a quote from one of Churchill’s advisors, Major General Sir Colin Gubbins, who strongly advised the Prime Minister to consider the recruitment of women into the S.O.E. Gubbins believed it was essential to recruit women into the S.O.E, and Churchill followed through with the advice.

However, there was one woman who was already ahead and became the first woman to work as a special agent for the British, two years before the S.O.E recruited women. Serving as Britain’s longest-serving female agent, Krystyna Skarbek was widely believed to be Churchill’s favourite spy. Skarbek, born in Poland in 1908, refused to watch the Nazi invasion of her native country and offered her services to the British Secret Service. Under the name of Christine Granville, Skarbek undertook missions in numerous operations in two different occupied countries where the life expectancy of a spy was less than a few months. Clare Mulley, writer of The Spy Who Loved, a book dedicated to the bravery of Skarbek, believed that “She was a remarkable woman, it is ludicrous that she is not better known”.

Starbek

Skarbek delivered some of the first intelligence to reach Britain, a microfilm showing preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Skarbek casually skied out of Poland with the footage hidden in her glove before giving it to Churchill. Her loyalty to the secret services was also unquestioned. Upon hearing the arrest of a senior S.O.E agent, Skarbek cycled 25 miles into a German camp her colleague was situated in, and harassed a Gestapo officer until the agent was set free. This was all happening whilst being terribly treated by British authorities, who were refusing her citizenship. Ultimately, I could talk all day about the courage of Skarbek. Mulley hopes a film will be made in Skarbek’s honour soon, and this is understandable with Skarbek being undoubtedly one of the bravest wartime heroines.

The bronze bust on the plinth of the S.O.E Agents memorial (pictured at the top of the page) is that of Violette Szabo. Born and raised in France, Szabo spoke fluently in French and became very useful to the ‘F’ Section (networks established in France) of the S.O.E. At only 22, and not long after the death of her husband Etienne, Szabo took on her first mission in April 1944.

Her first mission was labelled as extremely dangerous by the S.O.E. This mission saw Szabo travel alone to Rouen under a false identity until she reported back to London that one hundred French Resistance fighters had been captured. On June 8th 1944, a day after D-Day, Szabo voluntarily travelled to Limoges with a circuit team. During a courier car trip alongside a resistance leader, the pair were confronted by German forces. Szabo helped the resistance leader escape capture by encouraging them to leave her behind to be taken by the Nazis. As well as this, during deportation back to Germany via train, Szabo worked endlessly to provide water for other prisoners, which put herself at great risk.

Szabo was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in early 1945. She became the second woman to be awarded the George Cross for her efforts during the war. Violette and Etienne Szabo are the most decorated married couple of World War Two. Under such pressure-filled, dangerous circumstances, and at such a young age, Szabo should be acknowledged for her incredible acts of fearlessness on behalf of the British Army.

Many other S.O.E female agents deserve more recognition for their valiant efforts during World War Two. Noor Inayat Khan (pictured below), a descendant of Indian royalty, was the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France. Khan was branded as ‘not over-burdened with brains’, according to her training report, but this comment could not have been more wrong. Rumours of her network being infiltrated by a Nazi spy did not faze Khan, and even when English commanders urged her to return back to England, she refused. After single-handedly running a cell of spies across Paris, Khan was betrayed and imprisoned. Despite repeated beatings and torture, Khan refused to reveal information to the Nazis before being killed at Dachau. Khan’s story displays acts of determination and commitment worthy of acknowledgement.

Khan

Pearl Cornioley was also deployed into France by the S.O.E. From her position as a courier, Cornioley rose to become commander of over 3,000 underground fighters, who were responsible for killing around one thousands German soldiers. Cornioley’s troops were also accountable for the surrender of approximately 18,000 German troops too. On top of that, her unit interrupted a railway line connecting Normandy and the south of France more than 800 times during the Summer of 1944. Pearl Cornioley was the only woman to become a network leader within the S.O.E, and author E.H. Cookridge rightly described her as “one of the main pillars of the network”.

An important point to remember is that most of the women I have mentioned were not born in Britain. Most of them fled their native country and were separated from their families. Nevertheless, these women refused to sit back and watch the enemy invade their country. This is an act of bravery in itself, as well as fearlessly working as a spy in enemy territory. Modern society is gradually starting to credit these women’s efforts with memorials, books and films and I hope this continues in the future. The likes of Skarbek and Szabo are now getting the recognition they deserve.

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2 thoughts on “Britain’s secret World War Heroines: Female Espionage in World War II

  1. I have to read a Szabo biography now! It’s nice to be reminded that Women weren’t just code breakers or women of the land (equally important of course) during war but that they too saw action and should be recognised as such. There’s a tiny typo when you said that Szabo was sent on her first mission in “1994” which is a tad late but it dosen’t take from how interesting this was! great stuff!

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