The Female Agents of SOE
Special Operations Executive (SOE)
In June 1940, a secret volunteer service was recruited to create havoc and to wage war behind enemy lines. The Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed by Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, was tasked by Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze.’ Agents were trained, under the Head of Training and Operations, Colonel Colin Gubbins, to conduct espionage, sabotage and aide local resistance groups. Agents were sent into Nazi occupied territory as well as the Far East (in a branch known as Force 136). The SOE recruited women in the only combat role that was permitted. The women of the SOE came from across the globe and from all walks of life, from aristocracy to the working-class and many were wives and mothers. On joining the SOE and signing the Official Secrets these women were put through physical training and learned military skills including shooting and hand to hand combat. Many of these women were often was commissioned into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, (FANY) a civilian service used as a cover for female agents.
These are the stories of just six of the incredible and brave women of the SOE.
Eileen Nearne was born on 16th March 1921 in London, England, to an English father and a Spanish mother. The youngest of three siblings, Eileen and her family moved to Paris in her early childhood, where she was brought up speaking both English and French. In 1940, when German invaded France, the family fled to Spain. By 1942, Eileen and her older sister, Jaqueline, travelled back to England where they joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and then the SOE. Her brother, Francis also joined the SOE.
In March 1944, Eileen, who later became known as 'Didi' flew to France to work with Jean Savy, another SOE agent, who was working undercover a French solicitor. The ‘Wizard’ Network was created and using the name 'Mademoiselle du Tort' and the codename ‘Rose’, Eileen set up a secret wireless radio network between Paris and London. From her lodgings in a suburb of Paris, she sent over 100 messages, over several months, that enabled British arms and weapons drops to the French resistance and aide them in preparing for the Normandy Landings. In July, Savy gained some intelligence that there was a large dump of V1 rockets and returned to London to report the information. In his absence, she joined the 'Spiritualist' network. After D-day invasion began, Eileen handled messages about landing grounds for arms for SOE's "Musician" and "Farmer" networks that were working to north-east, which lay astride the railway lines by which the Germans hoped to reinforce the Normandy front.
In July, at the age of 23, she was discovered by the Gestapo. Eileen was tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo Headquarters in Paris. They stripped her of her clothes, beat her and almost drowned her but she gave up not information. She claimed to be nothing more than a shop girl from Paris, who had thought that joining the resistance would be fun. The Gestapo did not believe her and in August she was sent to Ravensbrück, women's concentration camp near Berlin. Several months later, after having her head shaved and being further tortured, Eileen was transferred to a labour camp near Markelberg in Silesia. Here she worked for 12 hours a day as part of a labour gang. In April 1945, she and two Frenchwomen managed to escape while the gang was being taken through the forests.
After her escape she attempted walked through Germany, without means of identification and often evading further arrest and capture until she reached the advancing US army. She was initially believed to be a Nazi collaborator and held with captured SS officers. Once her account was verified by the SOE in London, she was flown back to Britain. It was believed that after the war she suffered mental and psychological trauma from her experiences and she told almost no one about what had happened to her.
Eileen Nearne received an MBE in 1946 and a Croix de Guerre by the French. Eileen worked for over 30 years as a nurse before retiring in Torquay on the south coast. She died at home in September 2010, at the age of 89, but tragically was not discovered for several days. She was buried at sea, as per her request.
Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was born on 31st December 1914 in Moscow to an Indian father, a musician, who was also direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore and an American mother. In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the family moved to London and then to Paris in 1920. Noor was a gifted poet, musician and writer, studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and composition at the Paris Conservatory and she had a series of children’s fairy tales published in France and Britain in the 1930s.
The family returned to London when the Germans occupied France in 1940 and Noor joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator. In 1942, she was recruited by the SOE. Her suitably as an agent was questioned as it was thought that she was unable to tell a lie or to lie convincingly. Despite this, Noor
was flown to Angers, France on 17th June 1943 under the codename 'Madeleine'. She was to become the radio operator for the 'Prosper' network in Paris with the task of maintaining radio communication between Britain and the Resistance in Paris. The 'Prosper' network was ill-fated and soon discovered by the Gestapo. While many agents were arrested, Noor managed to evade capture for four months and kept communication open between Paris and London by frequently moving addresses and locations, carrying her wireless equipment. At one point, Noor was the only SOE wireless operator in Paris.
Noor was betrayed in October 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo who discovered copies of all her secret signals and her wireless set. After being held at the Gestapo HQ in Paris, where she attempted escape twice, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany in November 1943 where she was kept chained up in solitary confinement. Despite repeatedly being tortured and beaten, she refused to give up any information. In September 1944, at the age of 29, Noor was transferred to Dachau concentration camp where on 13th September she was murdered. It is reported that before she was killed she uttered a single word -'liberte'. She was awarded a posthumous George Cross in 1949 and a French Croix de Guerre. Noor has a memorial at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge, London, is commemorated by an SOE memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp and at the Runnymede Air Force Memorial.
Denise Bloch was born on 21st January 1916, in Paris, France, to a Jewish family. In June 1940, after France fell to the Germans, her father and two of her brothers, who were in the French Army, were captured by the Germans. As the Nazi regime swept across France, Denise, her other brother and her mother were forced to go into hiding and attained false papers to avoid persecution for being Jews. In July 1942, the family managed to cross the boarder into the unoccupied territory of Vichy France. Here, Denise began working with the French resistance alongside SOE agents.
She was soon recruited to work for the SOE in Lyon, where she worked as a radio operator alongside British SOE agent Brian Stonehouse. Stonehouse was arrested in October 1941, force Denise to go into hiding once again, until 1943. She eventually made contact with SOE agents George Reginald Starr and Philippe de Vomécourt and began working in the South of France. The decision was made to move her London to further train as a SOE. In travelling to Britain, she walked for seventeen hours across the Pyrenees mountains and on to Gibraltar before eventually making it to London, where she trained as wireless operator.
In March 1944, she retuned to Nantes, France, where she worked for the ‘Clergyman’ circuit as a courier and took part in sabotaging and cutting German railway and telephone lines in the build up to D-Day. On 19th June 1944, Denise was arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo at their HQ in Paris. She was held in various prisons including Königsberg in Brandenburg, before being sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, along with agents Violet Szabo and Lillian Rolfe. In the camp it was said that she was suffering from gangrene, malnutrition and exposure. At some point in late January 1945, at the age of 29, Denise was murdered in the camp. She has no known grave but is commemorated at the family’s gravesite in Paris and on the at plaque at Ravensbrück concentration camp. She received a posthumous Legion d’honneur and the King’s Commendation.
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born on 1st May 1908 in Warsaw. Her father was a Polish Aristocrat named was Count Jerzy Skarbek, while her mother, Stefania Goldfeder, came from a Jewish banking family. She grew up on a country estate, where she learnt to hunt and horse ride. The opportunities afforded to her allowed her to also become an expect skier. Her father died in 1930, leaving the family close to poverty, resulting in their move to Warsaw where she briefly worked in a garage. Krystina married shortly after her father’s death, but this was not to last. She remarried in 1938, this time to a Polish Diplomat named Count Jerzy Gizycki and moved to Ethiopia.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, they decided that they were going to help defend their country. They sailed for London in late 1939 and, via some acquaintances in the capital, Krystyna was put in touch with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). After becoming an MI6 agent, Krystyna travelled to Budapest, in neutral Hungary in late 1939.
Acting as a journalist, Krystyna then skied and walked in and out of Nazi occupied Poland several times in 1940. There she helped to create a system that supplied funds and propaganda to the Polish resistance and also helped refugees across the borders. She smuggled a piece of microfilm out of Poland, by hiding it inside her gloves, that detailed ‘Operation Barbarossa’ – the planned invasion of the Soviet Union.
While in Hungary, Krystyna met Polish Army Officer and agent, Andrzej Kowerski. In January 1941, Krystyna and Andrzej were caught and arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. Krystyna bit into her tongue, causing her to cough up blood. After being sent for an x-ray, which showed scarring on her lungs, that supposedly developed from fumes when she had worked in a garage, the doctor believed she had tuberculosis. Both she and Kowerski be released and MI6 give then new identities and British passports. Her new name, which she kept for the rest of her life, would be ‘Christine Granville.’
She joined the SOE in Cairo as a wireless operator. In July 1944, Krystyna parachuted into France were she became part of the Jockey network, headed by Francis Cammaerts. As second-in-command she helped prepare the resistance fighters for Operation Dragoon, the allied invasion of the south of France. She established the first contact between the French resistance and Italian Partisans and attempted to aide Polish conscripts who were in the German army, stationed along the Franco-Italian border. In August 1944, she learned that, Francis Cammearts, had been captured and was awaiting execution. She marched to Cammearts’ captors and posing as a British agent, she convinced them that the Allied invasion was only hours away and that if the prisoners were not released they would be severally punished. All three men were released soon after.
After the war, she was awarded the George Medal and an OBE by Britain and a Croix de Guerre by France. He initial application for British citizenship was refused, but was eventually granted in 1949. She lived in the Shellbourne Hotel in Kensington, London, which was run by the Polish Relief Society, who provided cheap accommodation. Krystyna was virtually penniless, taking up jobs including a stewardess on a cruise ship. As a stewardess she met Dennis Muldowney, who became obsessed with her and stalked her. On 15th June 1952, Krystyna, aged 44, returned home to the Shellbourne Hotel, where Muldowney was waiting for her. He stabbed her to death in the hallway of her flat. Muldowney was arrested and hanged for her murder several weeks later. On 21st June 1952, Krystyna Skarbek (Christina Granville) was buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, London.
Nancy Wake was born on 30th August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand but grew up in Sydney, Australia. At the age of 16 she ran away from home to become a nurse and then in 1932, she travelled to Europe to train and work as a journalist. First, she worked in Paris for the Hearst group of newspapers, and then in Nazi Germany, where she witnessed Anti-Semitism and the brutal rise of the Nazi regime.
In November 1939, she married wealthy industrialist Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles. Initially, Nancy became an ambulance driver but just six months after they married, Germany invaded France and both Wake and Fiocca joined the Resistance after France surrendered in 1940. She joined a network, known as the Pat O’Leary Line, run by British Army Captain Ian Garrow, The network aided Allied Airmen and soldiers who were stranded or shot down in Nazi occupied France, and get them back to Britain. She also aided Jewish refugees who were attempting to flee to Spain. Nancy was highly successful, despite the Gestapo tapping her telephone, she managed to evade capture. The Gestapo called her ‘The White Mouse’ due to her ability to escape and evade arrest. In December 1940, the network was betrayed. She made the decision to flee from France but was arrested in Toulouse. After four days, she was released and she cross the Pyrenees into Spain before travelling to Britain. Her husband did not have a chance to escape. Henri remained in France and shortly after Nancy’s departure, he was arrested, tortured and murdered by the Gestapo.
Once in England, Nancy joined the French section of the SOE. In April 1944, she was parachuted into the Auvergne region of France, under the alias 'Madame Andrée' and the codename 'Witch', where she to help organise the local Maquis Resistance before the D-Day landings and organised parachute drops of arms and equipment. She also took part in a raid on a German gun factory and kept contact with the SOE in London. During a German attack, some of the radio codes were lost and Nancy cycled about 500 kilometres in 72 hours to organise replacement codes. One of her comrades said of her 'She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.'
Nancy only discovered that her husband had been murdered by the Gestapo in August 1943. In September 1944 she left the Resistance and went to SOE Headquarters in Paris, and then to London. After the war Nancy was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the French Croix de Guerre with two Palms and the French Medaille de la Resistance. She became the one of the most decorated servicewoman of the Second World War. She went on to work as clerk in France and returned to Australia in 1948, where she stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal Party candidate. In 1951, she returned to Britain where she remarried in 1957. Returning to Australia with her husband in 1960, Wake again stood for parliament in 1966 without success. After her husbands death in 1997 she returned to London in 2001. Nancy died on the 7th August 2011 at the age of 98. At her request, her ashes were scattered near Verneix in the Auvergne region on France 'over the hills where I fought alongside all those men.'
Violette Bushell was born on 26 June 1921 in Paris, France, to an English father and a French mother, who had met during the First World War. The family, including her four siblings, moved back and forth between France and England before finally settling in London in the early 1930s. At the age of 14, she worked in Woolworths in Oxford Street and in early 1940, Violette joined the Women's Land Army before beginning work at an armaments factory .
In July 1940, at the age of 19, she met Etienne Szabo, an officer in the French Foreign Legion. They were married after five weeks on 21st August and soon after Violette became a switchboard operator and telephonist. One 8th June 1942, Violette gave birth to their daughter named Tania. Etienne was killed in North Africa, four months after the birth of their daughter. Shortly after in July 1943, Violette was recruited by SOE. In April 1944, she was parachuted into France, near Cherbourg, where she acted as courier to Philippe Liewer, whose resistance network had been recently been uncovered by the Gestapo. Under the codename 'Louise', her mission was to gather intelligence and re-establish contact with members of the network . She returned to England, with Liewer, at the end of April.
She returned to France for her second mission, on 7th June 1944, the day after D-Day, to aide in the set up of a new network with the local resistance and sabotage lines of German communications. Shortly after her arrival Violette was on a courier mission with a resistance leader known as ‘Anastasie’ when they encountered German forces, whom she attempted to fight in a gun battle. Violette was captured by the Germans but she ensured that 'Anastasie' escaped.
Violette was tortured and interrogated at the Gestapo HQ in Paris before being sent to Germany. From there Violette was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945, where she was further tortured and interrogated but refused to give up any information. Violette Szabo was murdered at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, at the age of 23, in early 1945, alongside agents Denise Bloch and Lillian Rolfe. She has no known grave but in 1946 she was posthumously awarded the George Cross which presented to her daughter.