The women secret agents who risked their lives in the Second World War

On International Women’s Day, historian Dr Kate Vigurs will explore the women of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. Laura Reid reports.

Some of the women in the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War.
Some of the women in the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War.

The big screen often depicts the lives of female secret agents as exciting and enviable. But the cold reality during the Second World War was far removed from such intrigue and glamour, with women risking their lives as couriers and wireless operators behind enemy lines.

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Historian Dr Kate Vigurs has researched what life was truly like for these women in Nazi-occupied France and will share some of their stories in a talk on International Women’s Day.

Violette Szabo who worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in occupied France. Photo: PA

“Hollywood portrays life as being very glamorous and exciting but in reality it was very dangerous and lonely,” she says. “There was a continual uncertainty of not being able to trust anybody.”

The women were involved in communications between France and Britain, requesting supplies and money. They helped the local resistance prepare for the Allied invasion and paved the way for the D-Day landings.

“They were conducting acts of sabotage in France whilst troops in Britain were preparing to land,” Kate says. “Without the resistance, I don’t think D-Day would have been as succesful.”

Her talk will focus on eight of the women who were captured towards the end of the war. The Nazis arrested them in France, interrogated them and eventually transferred them to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The women included decorated agents such as Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom, who were awarded the George Cross, the highest honour given to civilians, as well as lesser known agents such as Yvonne Baseden, who received one of the biggest daylight drops of supplies of the war, and Lilian Rolfe, who managed to send 67 wireless messages to England over a three-month period.

Kate, whose PhD at the University of Leeds in 2011 looked at the realities and post-war representations of women agents in the SOE, will explore their recruitment, training, work and eventual fate in the talk, supported by a grant from the Association of Jewish Refugees.

“It’s a really good opportunity to tell the stories of the women who went before us, who changed the world that we live in,” she says.

“These women paved the way for D-Day and if it wasn’t for that, life would be very, very different for all of us. Put yourself in their shoes – would you do it? I’ve been studying this for 20 years and I know for sure that I wouldn’t.

“Really this talk is to inspire people,” she adds. “These were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

The Women of the Special Operations Executive will take place at the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, run by the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association and based at the University of Huddersfield, at 2pm on Sunday, March 8.

“The women of the SOE were instrumental in preserving the freedoms we all value,” says centre director Emma King. “But some of them paid a terrible price.

“As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War it’s important that we reflect on the bravery of these women and that we don’t take that freedom for granted.

“I’m pleased that Kate can join us on International Women’s Day to tell their stories.”

Tickets are priced £4 to £6 and are available online at or by calling 01484 471939.