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Women Agents of the SOE

 

War Memorial dedicated to the SOE. Photo by mattbuck (2014). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
War Memorial dedicated to the SOE. Photo by mattbuck (2014). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

We have all read or seen articles and films on the activities of spies during World War II. Usually these are about the men of MI6 (British), OSS (America), and to a much lesser extent, the Soviet Union’s spy networks (e.g., The Red Orchestra). We’ve recently heard (thanks to declassification) about the wartime contributions of British women in regards to code breaking and Operation Enigma. However, there was a group of young and very dedicated women who were important members of the clandestine British operation called Special Operations Executive (SOE).

The SOE was formed in July 1940 on the orders of Churchill. There is some question by historians as to its effectiveness during the German occupation of European territories but to the SOE agents, their activities were extremely beneficial to the various Resistance movements, especially in France. It was also very dangerous.

The organization was divided up into departments based on the country they operated in. The network in France was code named “F Section.” Women from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) or the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were recruited for the SOE. A total of 55 women served as agents during the war (39 of them in F Section). Thirteen or one third of the women dropped into France went missing and it was ultimately determined they had been murdered in various Nazi extermination camps.

The Princess Spy

Noor Inayat Khan (code name: Madeleine). Photo (unknown). PD-IWM Non Commercial License. Wikimedia Commons.
Noor Inayat Khan (code name: Madeleine). Photo (unknown). PD-IWM Non Commercial License. Wikimedia Commons.

Noor Inayat Khan was the first female SOE agent dropped into France. She was arrested and brutally interrogated. She was held under the “Nacht und Nebel” policy (refer to my blog post  Night and Fog) and ultimately transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. Noor and three other SOE women agents were executed with a shot to the back of the head.

KZ Dachau Crematorium. Photo by M. Waller (2013). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.
KZ Dachau Crematorium. Photo by M. Waller (2013). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Each SOE cell was comprised of four agents: radio operator, arms and sabotage instructor, courier, and the circuit organizer (i.e., leader). Responsibility for the recruitment and deployment of F Section agents fell to Vera Atkins (1908–2000) while overall command of F Section was handled by Maurice Buckmaster (1902–1992).

Vera Atkins

During mid-1943 it was becoming clear the SOE spy cells in France had become compromised. Rather than believing reports from several field agents and pulling agents out, Buckmaster and Atkins continued to drop more of them in; many times into the waiting arms of Nazi patrols. Immediately after the end of the war, Atkins began an intensive personal search for the 118 missing F Section agents including 14 women. She found that only one woman survived (Ravensbrück concentration camp) while the other 13 were murdered by the Nazis in the camps—lethal injections, shot, or gas chamber.

Vera Atkins, WAAF squadron officer. Photo by United Kingdom (1946). PD-Britishgov. Wikimedia Commons.
Vera Atkins, WAAF squadron officer. Photo by United Kingdom (1946). PD-Britishgov. Wikimedia Commons.

Ian Fleming (1908–1964), author of the James Bond series, was a British naval intelligence officer during World War II. He personally knew Atkins and Buckmaster and reportedly used them to create the fictional characters of “Miss Moneypenny” and “M,” respectively.

After the end of the war, SOE was integrated into the British foreign intelligence service we know today as MI6. Until recently, there was only one plaque in England (Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire) and one in France (Valençay in the Loire Valley) commemorating the agents of the SOE. Today, greater recognition is being given to these very brave spies.

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What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

We are working with Roy, our book designer, to finalize the construction of the walking tour book of medieval Paris. These two volumes are expected to be published in January or early February 2016.

Stew is working on creating the walks and individual stops for the next books: Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters?—A Walking Tour of Nazi Occupied Paris (1940–1944). It’s clear that almost every building in Paris has a story associated with the Occupation years. It is a matter of identifying them and then prioritizing the stops for you. This is quite a process considering the tangents and rabbit holes I end up going down. But it is a lot of fun if not quite depressing at times. One of my friends, Mark Vaughan, has suggested a walking tour book based on Napoléon. What do you think?

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