Blog 53. 20/08/2017 “Liberté” Female Agents behind Enemy Lines in WWII. Part II

Posted in on 19 August, 2017 in News

“Liberté” Female Agents behind Enemy Lines in WWII. Part II

A month after VE Day, and a few weeks before the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the man who had threatened to ‘Set Europe Ablaze,’ Winston Churchill, was out of office. The Special Operations Executive- SOE – was to be shut down and they closed their doors in January 1946. Among the many messages sent to Sir Charles Gubbins, the Executive Director of SOE, was one from President Eisenhower praising SOE’s “high achievements in the Battle against Germany.” He made particular mention of those responsible for communications in the occupied territories. By the time the war ended, 40,000 code groups had passed through one small room at 64 Baker St to all reaches of the empire. And as Leo Marks, code-master of SOE said in his memoirs, not all agents could code whilst others never made a single mistake. Marks came up with the code poem for Violette Szabo because she made mistakes in her training poems; Yvonne Cormeau – code-named Annette, never made a single mistake in any of her 400 transmissions; Patrick Leigh Fermor couldn’t transpose despite kidnapping a German General in Crete, and Nancy Wake never forgot hers because she used a pornographic poem made more pornographic because she purposely misspelt it.

But SOE was battle weary and despite their many successes, the guilt at their mistakes and losses was to pray on the minds of those involved for many years. The Staff was sworn to secrecy and files disappeared or were burnt in a fire shortly after. Only thirteen percent of the files remained.  Many of the agents who returned felt a deep sense of betrayal at its closure. “They all just wanted us scrubbed off the face of the earth” one F Section survivor said. Worse still, the women did not receive their rightful accolades as they were told that as FANY’s they were only entitled to civilian medals. “There was nothing civil about what I did,” said Pearl Witherington, and promptly sent her civilian MBE back. Yvonne Baseden, still traumatised by her incarceration at Ravensbuck, was even asked if she would appear on This is your Life with Eamon Andrews.

Thankfully over the years, the truth of their heroism has come out. In Part I, I spoke about the film Carve her Name with Pride highlighting Violette Szabo. The 1950 film Odette, starring Anna Neagle as Odette and Trevor Howard as Peter Churchill also brought the public’s attention to Odette Sansom. Interestingly, one of the main advisors on the script, Romanian born, Vera Atkins, the most powerful woman in SOE was the person responsible for overseeing the women in the field. Her own boss, Maurice Buckmaster, played himself in the film.

Vera Atkins

Working undercover as a spy is not new. It has been going on for centuries and whilst it might seem a glamorous life, it was anything but. Developments in technology have helped their work but at the end of the day, for both men and women, they were able to pull off their work through guile, charm and beauty. SOE was well aware of this and recruited such women. This does not mean that all women had affairs, far from it, but as Vera Atkins well knew – and this was confirmed by such heroines as Nancy Wake – if they were pulled up at road blocks, they were often able to charm their way out of a situation. In reality, an agent’s life was a solitary one. They were to keep a low profile, trust no-one and friendships were hard to form. No-one was above suspicion.

Odette Sansom Hallowes

Odette Sansom Hallowes– code-named Lise – was born in Picardy, France and married an Englishman, Roy Sansom. SOE soon marked her as a “shrewd cookie”. When she was captured along with Peter Churchill near Annecy in April 1943, she called herself Mrs Churchill. Whilst imprisoned at Fresnes Prison she was interrogated fourteen times by the Gestapo, had all of her toenails pulled out and her back was scorched with a hot poker. Still she gave nothing away. She was condemned to death two months later on two counts to which she responded, “Then you will have to make up your mind on which count because I can only die once.” She was sent to Karlesruhe and then to Ravensbruck where she was kept in solitary confinement. Had it not been for the camp’s commandant, Fritz Suhren who favoured her, she would certainly have met the same fate as the other agents. As the Russians were about to seize the camp, Suhren packed his bag and left in a car taking Odette with him in the hope that she would tell the Allies of his kindness to her. Instead, Odette told the Americans who he was and left him there taking his suitcase which she later discovered had his pistol, a writing case and his pyjamas.  Later on Vera Atkins would give evidence at the trials in Germany and at the same time search for the other missing agents, “her girls” as she referred to them and Odette’s escape was able to confirm the identity of six out of thirteen who were taken to Karlesruhe with her: Madelaine Damerant, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Diana Rowden, Andree Borrel and Elaine Plewman. Odette returned to England, was married briefly to Peter Churchill and then to her third husband, Geoffrey Hallowes, another SOE member. She was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross and was also a recipient of an MBE and the Légion d’ honneur.

Lise de Baissac

Lise de Baissac – code-named Odile – was one of the first female agents to be flown into France in September 1942. In the guise of a poor widow in Normandy, her mission was as a courier and liaison officer and to form a new circuit and to find safe houses for other agents – a formidable task so early in SOE operations. After D-Day, remarkably, she stayed put until Vera Atkins herself, arrived in the village and declared she was taking her home. She was awarded the Légion d’ honneur,  Croix de Guerre and an MBE.

Pearl Witherington

Pearl Witherington – had two code-names.  She was born in France and worked for the British Embassy in Paris until the German invasion of France and then escaped to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force – WAAF – before being recruited by SOE in 1943. Posing as a cosmetics saleswoman she worked as Maurice Southgate’s courier – code-name Marie until he was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. After his arrest she became leader of the Wrestler circuit using the new code-name Pauline. Working alongside her fiancé, Henri Cornioley, she took charge of over 1500 members of the Maquis in the Valencay region. Her organisation disrupted key railroad infrastructure more than 800 times and played an important part in fighting the Germans during the D-Day landings in particular fighting a battle against 2,000 Germans with only two small groups of the Maquis. The Germans had a price on her head of FF 1,000,000. Ultimately her network killed well over 1,000 Germans. She returned to England in October 1944, married Henri and eventually returned to live in France. She received the Military Cross after turning down the MBE (civil), the Légion d’ honneur, and her parachute wings.

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor (Nora) Inayat Khan – code-name Madeleine – was perhaps one of the most poignant agents to be sent into the field. Her father was descended from the “Tiger of Mysore,” the last Mogul emperor of Southern India. Her mother was an American. Brought up in an environment of Sufism she was a gentle, kind-hearted woman with “doll-like Eastern Looks” who abhorred violence of any kind and hated weapons. She was also a writer of children’s stories, notably The Jakarta Tales. Like Violette Szabo, the reports from the various trainers were mixed – “Came here without the foggiest idea what she was being trained for” – “unsuitable for jumping” etc. But being a musician (she played the harp) this made her an excellent wireless operator. Vera told her that her cover story would be Jeanne-Marie Renier, a children’s nurse. Noor was the first female wireless operator to be sent into France. Given the weight of the machine and her petite build, this could not have been easy for her. When she left for Angers on the night of the full-moon in June, with her was Diana Rowden going to the Jura region and Cicely Lefort working in the southeast. Instructors were still worried about Noor’s distinctive appearance, Cicely Lefort’s poor French accent, and Diana’s English looks.  By September she had disappeared and it would not be until after the war that Vera would uncover what had happened. She had been betrayed – sold to the Germans by the sister of a colleague who had been jealous of her. When she was captured, she put up a big fight and it took six men to hold her down.  She was interrogated at Avenue Foch in Paris, tried to escape twice and eventually ended up in Dachau and was brutally beaten by a sadistic guard who appeared to take pleasure in humiliating her. When he tired of her, she was made to kneel down and was shot in the back of the head. The only word she said was “Liberté.” With her were Yolande Beekman, Elaine Plewman and Madelaine Damerant.  Noor was 30 years old. She never broke or told them her real name. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

“Bravery. Bravery was what they had in common,” Vera Atkins said to her biographer. “You might find it in anyone. You just don’t know where to look.”


                                                 “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