Female agents of the Second World War
Chosen to work in a secretive, clandestine and mainly male domain, the women of the Special Operations Executive, French section (SOE F) were all truly remarkable. From house wives to grandmothers, shop assistants to princesses, thirty nine women passed through a rigorous training programme. They were taught: silent killing, instinctive shooting and sabotage as well as survival tactics for life in Nazi Occupied France. They were infiltrated behind enemy lines, putting them beyond the protection of the Geneva Convention. Some went by parachute, others by boat or aircraft to begin their dangerous work in enemy Occupied France as wireless operators and couriers.
Life expectancy was short, sometimes a mere six weeks but these women worked and fought hard. – Often living in solitude with no friends or company; travelling hundreds of kilometres carrying vital yet incriminating information; receiving arms or vital supplies and risking everything to make contact with SOE HQ over the radio waves. Life as an agent was scary, exhilarating and exhausting.
These female agents came from many different walks of life. Some of them were already working with the Resistance and came to England for training, whilst others were fleeing from the Gestapo. Several of the women were already ‘doing their bit’ in uniform but were frustrated and bored, yearning for adventure which their recruitment to into SOE interview promised them. The few who were mothers or house wives found themselves called to interview under various guises such as to discuss war widow’s pensions or photographs. Marguerite (Peggy) Knight was overheard speaking French at a party, whilst Yvonne Rudellat and Blanche Charlet were enlisted through the ‘old boys’ network at the Ebury Court Club in London. A few of the woman already had spouses or siblings in SOE and who had suggested them to the organisation as being suitable recruits.
SOE recruited women of all ages and from all social backgrounds from Polish Countesses to working class London girls. In terms of age the youngest was 19 year old Sonia Butt, whilst the oldest, Blanche Charlet, was 55 years old. The female agents also had different motives; Lilian Rolfe travelled from Brazil on a ship full of ‘expat’ volunteers to join up, first the WAAF then onto SOE. Whereas Odette Sansom had already tried to undertake war work but hadn’t found anything that suited her, she sent some photographs of France to the wrong address and fell into SOE ‘by mistake’.
Once the women had passed interview they were sent to on an extensive training programme consisting of some five training schools. To the amusement of some of the F section recruits most of the Special Training Schools (STS) were requisitioned manors and estates, such as Wanborough Manor in Surrey or the Beaulieu estate in the New Forest, and so it became a standing joke that that SOE actually stood for ‘Stately ‘Omes of England’.
The preliminary course was held at Special Training school 5 otherwise known as Wanborough Manor in Surrey. The course was to last a couple of weeks and was ‘conducted under commando cover’, agents were taught ‘physical training, weapons handling, unarmed combat, elementary demolitions, map reading, fieldcraft and basic signalling.
After this potential agents were sent to the West coast of Scotland to learn how to cope with the tougher side of the resistance. They had to fend for ourselves finding food and shelter in the hills, underwent physical endurance exercises and were even taught how to rock climb. They were also taught how to handle various weapons as well as self-defence, ‘Silent killing’ and ‘Close combat’.
Agents were then sent to Ringway near Manchester for parachute training. Yvonne Baseden said that ‘each jump was as unnatural as the first’. Five jumps were to be completed, but the women agents never could wear their wings on their uniform.
Wireless training followed this for those who were chosen to be wireless operators. Here Morse code became second nature, agents learnt codes and messages so they could encode and decode without hesitation. One agent described the course as ‘Morse, Morse and more Morse, I dreamt in Morse, I even started knitting in Morse’!
The final course was at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where agents put the finishing touches to their cover stories and underwent the infamous mock interrogation.
Once this was done the women would be chosen for one of two jobs: Wireless operator or courier. A wireless operator would change location as much as possible to avoid detection by Nazi Direction Finding (D/F) mobile equipment and the maximum time for a live transmission would be 20 minutes. Any longer than this and the wireless operator’s location risked compromise which could result in capture. This was often problematic as messages could become garbled or they could have a disrupted signal caused by jamming or a noisy frequency. All messages were sent and received using unique codes that the wireless operator was required to memorise.
Their work was often fraught with danger and if they were caught an entire network could fall apart as the operator was needed to ask for supplies, pass intelligence or relay other important messages such as arrest updates or requests for more agents. Wireless operators had the most dangerous job of all agents, as they risked detection whilst transmitting or capture moving about the country with their wireless sets. They also knew details about other members of the network and its activities that others did not. Training a wireless operator was time consuming and they were difficult to replace due to their specialised skills.
Couriers required the ability to blend in and keep a low profile as their job was to carry messages, reports or any other material from place to place. Their normal mode of transport would be by bicycle or train, therefore they ran the risk of encountering spot checks and roadblocks. They would help other agents find safe houses and act as lookouts for wireless operators. Couriers would rendezvous with other agents, and were therefore at risk of being drawn into traps set by the Nazis or collaborators. Couriers were also required to know as few people as possible, but in practice this was very difficult because couriers were out in public and often on the move. They could cycle considerable distances in one day and did whatever was required of them by the network leader; sometimes this would involve deputising for them, assisting with arms drops and possibly sabotage. Although this was not strictly the role of the courier it was sometimes the case that everybody was required to help.
39 women went into this work on behalf of SOE F section. Throughout the war they coded and decoded hundreds of wireless messages, attended parachute drops, cycled thousands of kilometres to deliver information and materials and blew up countless factories and railway lines, all whilst aiding and abetting the French Resistance and Maquis in liberating their country from Nazi oppression.
13 women did not return from this work, they either died or were executed at the hands of the Nazis. The 26 who did return also gave everything they could in the fight for freedom, and we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.