The Women of the SOE in History and Culture

by Allison Abra

Monument to the Special Operations Executive, across the Thames River from the British Parliament building in London. Courtesy of Allison Abra.

Monument to the Special Operations Executive, across the Thames River from the British Parliament building in London. Courtesy of Allison Abra.

On the south bank of the river Thames, just across the water from the British Parliament building, there is a small monument to the Special Operations Executive. During the Second World War, the SOE was a branch of British intelligence composed of agents of many nationalities who ventured into territories occupied by Axis forces in order to conduct sabotage and subversive warfare. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, their mission was to “set Europe ablaze.” [1] Unveiled in 2009, the monument to the SOE commemorates all of the organization’s operatives, as well as the local resistance groups with whom they worked, on several bronze plaques. But at the top of the plinth resides a sculpture bust of only one agent: a woman named Violette Szabo.

Born in Paris to a French mother and English father, Violette Szabo joined SOE after her husband, Etienne, was killed at the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Leaving a young daughter behind in Britain, Szabo conducted two missions to France, but was captured by the Germans on the second one. Following months of brutal interrogation and hard labor, she was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in February 1945 at the age of twenty-three.

Violette Szabo

Violette Szabo

Szabo was one of fifty-five women who served as agents for the SOE, while thousands more worked as support staff for the organization back in Britain. Generally commissioned in the First Aid Nurses Yeomanry (FANY) or Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the women agents trained alongside their male counterparts at secluded country estates scattered throughout the British Isles. They learned spycraft, and received weapons, unarmed combat, and parachute training. While SOE staged operations across Europe and Asia, the women agents worked almost exclusively in France. They generally acted as couriers and wireless operators, though some rose through the ranks to lead regional networks. It was very dangerous work: several women were captured and tortured by the Germans, and, in addition to Szabo, twelve of them were executed or died of illness in concentration camps.

Another of those women agents who did not survive the war was Noor Inayat Khan. The daughter of an Indian prince, born in St. Petersburg and raised in Paris, Inayat Khan was the only one to evade capture when the Germans rounded up her entire circuit of British agents within weeks of her arrival in France. Refusing an offer to return home, she spent months on the run, moving daily as she transmitted messages back to London – the only wireless operator still active in Paris – before her own arrest and execution. Another agent, Odette Sansom, was a successful courier in southern France before she was captured and sentenced to death by the Germans in 1943. She endured torture and solitary confinement, but was able to avoid execution because her cover in France had been as the wife of her fellow SOE agent, Peter Churchill. Neither was an actual relation of the British Prime Minister, but believing they might be, the Germans kept them alive as potential bargaining tools; the commandant of Ravensbrück even brought Odette with him when he surrendered to American forces in 1945, hoping to receive consideration from the Allies. Other remarkable stories of women agents include that of Polish-born Christine Granville, who managed to free several other SOE agents from Gestapo custody, or of Pearl Witherington, who took her circuit leader’s place after he was captured, coordinating thousands of resistance fighters in advance of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

In recent months, renewed attention has been paid to the women agents of the SOE, as a surviving member of their ranks received an important honor. In November 2014, Phyllis Latour Doyle, who worked for SOE as a wireless operator in the months leading up to D-Day, was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government. This event led to a flurry of news reports and posts on social media about Doyle and her fellow women agents, but significantly, they have never been far from public view.

Movie poster for Carve Her Name with Pride, 1958

Movie poster for Carve Her Name with Pride, 1958

Despite the intense secrecy that surrounded their work during the war, the history of the women agents of the SOE became known relatively quickly. Biographies and films about their experiences began to appear as early as the 1950s, with perhaps the most famous being Carve Her Name With Pride, the name given to both a book and movie about Violette Szabo. These early accounts were often replete with historical inaccuracies, but they represented the first of what would eventually become a voluminous collection of books, films, television shows, and other media about real or imagined women agents. To name only a few examples, the 1970s mini-series A Man Called Intrepid featured a character named Madelaine who was a composite of several women agents, including Noor Inayat Khan. In the 1980s, the ITV television show Wish Me Luck provided a fictionalized account of the activities of the SOE in France, but did so through a specific focus on women agents. It has also been suggested that Christine Granville was an inspiration for the character of Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and women agents subsequently appeared in Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray (which was also made into a 2001 film starring Cate Blanchett). A 2009 video game entitled Velvet Assassin is purportedly based on Violette Szabo’s story. Finally, the decision to make Szabo the representative of hundreds of agents, both male and female, on the public monument to the SOE was another important marker of the women agents’ impact.

Arguably, the pervasive presence of the women agents in the histories and cultural memory of wartime espionage has been disproportionate to their actual numbers. But as we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is worth reflecting on the multiple ways that women like Szabo, Inayat Khan, Sansom, Granville, Witherington, and Doyle altered the course of history during and after the war. British women in wartime took on a range of roles and responsibilities – in the factories, in the fields, and in the military – that contemporary society deemed to be masculine, and which produced significant social anxieties about a permanent alteration to the conventional gender order. The work undertaken by women SOE agents tested British gender boundaries to the most extreme degree, but convention was seemingly overlooked because these women had the requisite language skills and knowledge of France; historians have also shown that in general women had advantages over men in clandestine operations during the war.[2]

Social concerns about the activities of women SOE agents in wartime were of course also mitigated because their service was conducted in secret. But as the immense cultural output of stories about the women agents attests, that secret was not kept for long. In fact, historian Wendy Webster has noted that even as most British films of the 1950s sought to downplay women’s wartime service and reassert traditional domestic roles, the films about women agents constituted an exception to the rule.[3] From that point on, as new generations of women have come of age, and as campaigns for women’s rights have achieved successes and suffered setbacks, the women agents of the SOE have been there: in books of fiction and non-fiction, on movie and television screens, in video games, or gazing down on us from a monument on a riverbank in central London. Their legacy is therefore one that has transcended their important wartime service to provide a broader symbol of women’s capabilities and historical influence.

Allison Abra, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and a specialist in the study of war’s impact on British and European society and culture in the early 20th century. Her current book manuscript, English Style: National Identity, Americanization, and Popular Dance in Interwar and Wartime Britain, traces the development and expansion of commercial dancing in early twentieth century Britain within the context of contemporary gender anxieties, shifting class relations, and growing global networks of popular cultural exchange.

[1] E.H. Cookridge, Inside SOE, (London: Arthur Barker Ltd., 1966), p.3.

[2] See, for example, Margaret Collins Weitz, Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France, 1940-1945, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995).

[3] Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire: 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 88.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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