Blog 52 11/08/2017 Carve Their Names with Pride: Female Agents Behind Enemy Lines in WWII. Part 1
Carve Their Names with Pride: Female Agents Behind Enemy Lines in WWII. Part I
A monument stands by the bank of the River Thames commemorating the work of the agents of the Special Operations Executive, more commonly known as SOE. A part of it reads:
“THOSE WHO DID SURVIVE AND THOSE WHO DID NOT SURVIVE THEIR PERILOUS MISSIONS.
THEIR SEVICES WERE BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY IN THE PAGES OF HISTORY.
THEIR NAMES ARE CARVED WITH PRIDE.”
When the 1958 film “Carve Her Name with Pride”, the story of Violette Szabo, an SOE agent in France, starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Schofield was released, the British public started to become aware of female agents sent into France during WWII. For many years, much of SOE’s undercover operations were kept a secret, even until as late as 2000. But thanks to this film from the book of Violette’s life by R.K. Minney and also the book on the SOE in France by M.R.D. Foot published in 1966, the remarkable courage of these men and women behind enemy lines became known. All told, there were six sections despatched throughout France – 1,800 agents in all and less than a quarter women. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to be dropped behind enemy lines. The mere presence of a cyanide pill alone served to remind them of that. Often it was a lonely life and keeping one step ahead of the enemy was vital. Even so, a large amount of luck was needed. Many of the agents have become legendary and they have rightfully gained their place in history but we must not forget the dangerous work of the Resistance and the Maquis groups, and the average man in the street in occupied Europe who helped in their own small way. Even the smallest effort could lead to death. Today it is hard to think that someone could be shot for simply writing the letter ‘V’ on a wall or for hiding a radio, let alone tuning it to the wrong channel. It was not only the person involved that could die but their family and villagers. The bravery of these people, many just ordinary citizens, shows just what we are all capable of given the circumstances.
My own research into WWII began when I lived in Vienna. In those days, there were still remnants of the Nazi party around. I also lived and worked in a village in what had become the Russian sector under the Allied Occupation, on the outskirts of Vienna. Remnants of the war were everywhere. The film, “The Third Man”, had been based on actual events. In wartime, a flourishing black market always thrives. There are too many real-life stories to tell in one blog and without going into SOE itself in this blog, I wanted to mention a few of the people whose remarkable lives I discovered through my research for my novel, Conspiracy of Lies. Some will be familiar to you, others may not.
Christine Granville. Christine, often called Churchill’s favourite spy, was the daughter of a Polish aristocrat and his Jewish wife. She was born in 1915 and was baptized Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek. Krystyna, later to become Christine, was well-connected, fearless and an adventurer and she thrived on the adrenaline that came with being an undercover agent. Her exploits took her through Europe, to the Middle East and back in to France where she performed some of the most daring feats of the war, notably walking into Gestapo Headquarters in France and demanding the release of three captured British agents and French officers whilst still carrying broken crystals in her bag. A cool character, she bluffed her way through situations with ease. Bill Stanley Moss, a friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding, noted that she “thrived on danger”. Her affairs in the field were notorious, not least that with Francis Cammaerts – codename ‘Roger’, one of F section’s best agents. Sadly she died at the hands of a jealous lover in London in 1952. Christine was awarded the George Medal, the OBE and the Croix de Guerre.
Nancy Wake. Known as The White Mouse by the Germans, Nancy was born in New Zealand and moved to London where she worked as a journalist. She was posted to Paris in the 1920’s eventually marrying a wealthy industrialist, Henri Fiocca who died after being tortured by the Gestapo in Marseille where the couple lived, for not revealing the whereabouts of his wife. It was whilst on an assignment in Vienna that Nancy developed her hatred of Fascism. The SS had tied several Jews to a wheel and were whipping them. Nancy’s first involvement with the Resistance was in helping people escape over the Pyrenees, a route she would be forced to use herself. She was then recruited by SOE and parachuted into the Auvergne to work with the Maquis and the Resistance. A woman in a man’s world, she soon gained the respect of the men when she ordered the execution of a female French spy. One of the most wanted agents in France, she is also known to have killed a German guard with her bare hands. Living out her twilight years at the Stafford Hotel in Piccadilly, she couldn’t pay her bills. The Royal Family got to hear of this and she was invited to afternoon tea with Prince Charles. After presenting him with her book, he donated an amount of money from the Prince of Wales Trust to seeing that she lived out her days in comfort. She died in hospital at the age of 98 in 2011. She was awarded the France Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1970, the Officer of the French Foreign Legion d’Honneur in 1988 and in 2006, she was awarded the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association Badge in Gold.
Virginia Hall – code name ‘Diane’ was an American from Baltimore who worked for SOE and later OSS (American Office of Strategic Services). Like Christine, she was an adventurer and wanted to join the foreign office. During a hunting holiday in Izmir, Turkey, she had an accident and lost her leg below the knee and was fitted with a wooden one. She was 27 at the time. She then moved to Venice and was told that due to the leg, it meant she didn’t qualify to work for the foreign service. Unperturbed, she joined the ambulance corps at the outbreak of the war. After arriving in England, she joined SOE and was sent into France to map out drop zones for supplies and commandos from England and find safe homes for agents. The Germans called her ‘Artemis’ or ‘The Limping Lady’ and considered her to be one of the most dangerous of spies. She always referred to her leg as ‘Cuthbert’ and when messaging London that ‘Cuthbert’ was giving her trouble. The response was that she should ‘eliminate him’. She died in 1982. For her courage and ingenuity, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross—the only civilian woman to be so honored.
Agnes Humbert was an art historian in Paris when the Germans invaded. She was among the first of the French Resistants and it was this group at the Musee de l’Homme, who produced the newsletter Resistant. Her organisation was betrayed to the Gestapo. Some were executed but Agnes was deported and served two years in a labour camp in Germany. Her descriptions of life in France during the early years of the war are harrowing. Unlike the English agents, Agnes’s story was first published in 1946. In 1949 she was awarded the Croix de Guerre with silver gilt palm for heroism. She died in 1963.
Lucie Aubrac was a history teacher at a school in Lyon and married to Raymond, a Jewish engineer when war broke out. Both joined the Resistance straight away. Whilst pregnant, Lucie took part in raids to free members of the Resistance including imprisoned by the notorious Butcher of Lyons, Klaus Barbie, one of whom was her husband. On June 21 1943, Raymond was arrested again, along with Moulin himself, at a top level meeting of resisters in a doctor’s surgery in the Lyon district of Caluire. It did not take the Germans long to work out the identities of Moulin and most of the others they had captured. Moulin was horribly tortured and transferred to Paris, where he died. Meanwhile, Raymond was held in the Montluc prison, in Lyon, and beaten up. Lucie mounted an extraordinary scheme to release him. Pregnant again, she presented herself to the Gestapo, claiming to be the recently engaged fiancée of someone she believed to be called “Ermelin”, one of Raymond’s aliases, who, she claimed, had been innocently caught up in the raid while visiting the doctor. When told that her “fiancé” was a resister who was to be executed, she begged to be allowed to save her honour and legitimise her expected child by marrying him under a French legal clause which allowed an engaged couple to wed if one of them is about to die. The Gestapo lieutenant swallowed her story, and on the day Raymond was being transferred back from Gestapo headquarters to prison after the “marriage”, armed resisters attacked the lorry and freed him and 15 other prisoners. She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur
Marthe Cohan was a French Jew born in Metz in 1920. Because of the area’s tumultuous history, her parents grew up speaking German and so she was bi-lingual. After Kristalnacht in 1937, her family supported German Jews fleeing the Third Reich. They continued this work after moving to Poitiers. Her sister was sent to Drancy and then Auschwitz. Marthe joined the French Intelligence Service after the liberation of France and assumed the identity of a German nurse looking for her missing fiance to report on remnants of the German Army operating in the Black Forest. She was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Chevalier d’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur.
Claire Chevrillon –code name Christine Clouet was head of the Code Service for De Gaulle’s Delegation and served as the main link between the Free French Government in London and the provisional government in France. Her mother was Jewish which meant that she was particularly at risk. She was captured and spent four months in Paris’s dreaded Fresnes Prison. Claire was closely associated with some of the most famous Resistants including Jean Moulin’s close associate, Daniel Cordier. Jean Moulin fled France soon after the Germans occupied France and returned in 1942 as de Gauule’s delegate general securing the loyalty of the Maquis to de Gaulle’s Free French. After the Gestapo arrested him near Lyon, he was tortured and died on the train in Metz on his way to Germany in 1943. Both Claire Chevillon and Marthe Cohan’s stories give a great insight into the everyday life of Jews in France during the Occupation.
And for the last name in Part I, I return to the woman whose name began this blog – Violette Szabo – code name ‘Louise’. She was born in France. Her mother was French, her father English. At the outbreak of WWII she moved to London and married Etienne Szabo, a non-commissioned officer of Hungarian descent with the French Foreign Legion. When Etienne returned to North Africa, Violette enlisted in the Auxilliary Territorial Service in 1941 and was later sent to work in the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment and the Heavy Anti-Aircrafts Battery. She returned to London to give birth to her daughter. On hearing that Etienne was killed, Violette accepted SOE’s offer to be a field agent. She flew to France twice. During her second mission, she was sent to work with the Maquis of Correze and Dordogne but due to poor intelligence was unaware of the 2nd SS Panzer Division heading to Normandy. In June 1944, she set out with a friend in a Citroen, even though the French were forbidden to drive cars after D-Day. The car alerted suspicion and in the ensuing confrontation, she twisted her ankle and was captured, sent to Limoges and then on to Fresnes Prison and finally to Ravensbruck Camp. She was executed on 5th Feb 1945, aged 23, along with Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolf, two other SOE agents. Leo Marks, in charge of coding at SOE HQ, Baker St, remembered her as “A dark-eyed slip of mischief.”. It was he who composed the code poem for her – a code that would become synonomous with her bravery in the field – The Life that I Have. Violette Szabo was the second woman to be awarded the George Cross for bravery. Her award came posthumously on 17th December 1946 and was collected by her daughter Tania. Violette was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in 1947 along with La Medaille de la Resistance in 1973. Violette is also listed on the Valencay SOE memorial as one of the SOE agents who died liberating France. Violette and Etienne are the most decorated married couple of World War II.
“Conspiracy of Lies”
From the author of The Embroiderer comes a powerful account of one woman’s struggle to balance her duty to her country and a love she knows will ultimately end in tragedy.
1940. With the Germans about to enter Paris, Claire Bouchard flees France for England. Two years later she is recruited by the Special Operations Executive and sent back into occupied France to work alongside the Resistance. Working undercover as a teacher in Brittany, Claire accidentally befriends the wife of the German Commandant of Rennes and the blossoming friendship is about to become a dangerous mission.
Knowing that thousands of lives depended on her actions, Claire begins a double life as a Gestapo Commandant’s mistress in order to retrieve vital information for the Allied Invasion of France, but ghosts from her past make the deception more painful than she could have imagined.
Part historical, part romance and part thriller, Conspiracy of Lies takes us on a journey through occupied France, from the picturesque villages of rural Brittany to the glittering dinner parties of the Nazi Elite, in a story of courage, heartbreak and secrecy.
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.
Published byEbony Publishing