A tale of bravery and tragedy - the British female special agents in France during WW2

In the dark days following the fall of France in 1940, Britain stood as a lone bulwark against the Nazis as they swept through Europe.

Historian and author Kate Vigurs in Harrogate. She has written about the women of the SOE who went to France during the Second World War. (Gary Longbottom).

Winston Churchill wanted to take the fight to Hitler and a new volunteer fighting force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was hastily set up to wage a secret war against the Germans. Its mission was sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines or, as Churchill put it, “to set Europe ablaze”.

Over the course of the war around 3,000 secret agents waged this clandestine war. Among them were many women, some of whom Dr Kate Vigurs features in her book Mission France: The True History of the Women of the SOE, which she will be discussing this afternoon at The Crown Hotel as part of the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival.

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Her book focuses on the 39 female SOE agents (out of 400) who worked undercover in France carrying out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. “You had people from working class backgrounds right up to a Polish countess, and an Indian who could trace her lineage back to royalty. Some were mothers, or housewives, but it was more important that they had the right skills than where they came from.”

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

Vigurs, who now lives in the Midlands, grew up in Harrogate and worked at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, where her interest in the wartime exploits of these remarkable women grew.

Some had links to Yorkshire. “Vera Leigh was born in Leeds. She was orphaned and adopted by a racehorse trainer in Paris and moved there. She wanted to be a jockey but ended up being a fashion designer and had a boutique and became part of the SOE.”

Another was Noor Inayat Khan, the first female radio operator to be sent into occupied France. After joining the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in 1940 she was posted to Harrogate for training as a radio operator and was billeted to Ashville College, which had been requisitioned by the Air Ministry.

Vigurs has spent several years researching female SOEs and interviewed two surviving agents, Pearl Witherington and Yvonne Baseden, who have both since died.

Christine Granville, pictured circa 1950. The daughter of a Polish count, she worked as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent during the war but was killed in 1952. (Getty Images).

“Yvonne was a wireless operator and she was in the Dijon area. Their job was to send messages back and forth requesting parachute drops or fresh supplies, or relaying information. As a result of her wireless messages the largest daylight drop of the war after D-Day happened in her area. She was sadly arrested the day after and she was eventually transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she became incredibly ill with tuberculosis.

“Towards the end of the war the Swedish sent in some Red Cross vans and she was evacuated on one of those to Sweden. She said she woke up, when she was still delirious with TB, under the skeleton of a dinosaur in Sweden’s natural history museum. But she survived, and when I went to interview her she said the war played such a small part of her life, because she’d done so much since. She was incredibly gentle and self-effacing.”

Vigurs says she hasn’t tried to glamorise these women. “I wanted to tell the true stories of all of them and not just pick out the better known ones, because they all need telling.”

And there were some mistakes. “There were some people who weren’t very good. There was a lady whose training was cut short and when she got out there didn’t really know what she was doing so they sent her home. Another woman got pregnant by a bloke from SOE and had a baby in France. It wasn’t all Charlotte Gray, things did go wrong.”

However, the work of SOEs proved particularly crucial in the run-up to the D-Day landings in June 1944. “D-Day is often overlooked in terms of resistance because the focus, of course, is on the huge Allied war effort coming through Normandy. But the Resistance and SOE were preparing the interior of France at the same time,” says Vigurs.

“The night before D-Day, 960 railway lines were blown up in northern France and that meant when the Germans realised the Allies were landing in Normandy and not in Calais as they’d assumed, they couldn’t mobilise, they had go to back on the roads where they were attacked by the Resistance and SOE.

“They also cut telephone lines which meant the Germans had to use their wireless sets not realising that their Enigma code had been cracked. Eisenhower said that the work of the SOE shortened the war by about six weeks.”

However, the German reprisals were often merciless. “People were rounded up and summarily executed and in France there was the infamous massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, so there were huge costs involved.”

These agents operated in a dangerous world where even the slightest mistake could be fatal, and 13 of the 39 female SOEs in France didn’t survive the war.

“It was so incredibly dangerous and lonely. Every time you plugged in your wireless set and started tapping a message there were people out there listening. Some people were caught with their wireless sets. One lady, Lilian Rolfe, was so tired one time that she didn’t put her wireless set away and she fell asleep, and she was caught with it all set up. So there are some real stories of tragedy.”

Rolfe was interrogated, tortured and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and was executed in February 1945. Noor Inayat Khan was another agent who didn’t live to see the end of the war. “She ended up being betrayed and was sent to Dachau.”

The bravery of these women and their achievements were recognised afterwards. The George Cross was awarded to Odette Sampson, Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, while others were awarded the Croix de Guerre and légion d’honneur, as well as MBEs and CBEs. “There’s a lovely story about Pearl, who I met,” says Vigurs.

“She was awarded the Civil MBE and she said, ‘but I’ve done nothing civil,’ and she and another woman campaigned to get it changed to a military MBE.”

Vigurs says the legacy of these women is inspirational. “An ordinary person can do something really remarkable and these women did that. They came from all walks of life, they left everything behind and put their lives on the line to go and fight.

“I don’t think they went out to prove they could do the same jobs as the men, I think they just wanted to do their duty. And it’s important we tell their stories and recognise their sheer bravery. Even jumping out of a plane is brave enough for me, never mind landing in occupied France, potentially being picked up by the Gestapo and risking life and limb every single day.”

Kate Vigurs talks about Mission France: The True History of the Women of the SOE, at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, today, The Crown Hotel, 4-5pm. Tickets £13 plus booking fee. Call 01423 562 303 or go to https://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/raworths-literature-festival

Bravery of female special agents

It was crucial that special agents spoke fluent French and could blend in.

“The idea was they would work alongside local resistance groups and help organise them and to oversee acts of sabotage against the enemy. This meant things like blowing up factories, railway lines, and trying to slow down the German war machine as much as possible,” says Vigurs.

There were also teams in England working behind the scenes. “There was a thing called the ‘camouflage section’ who were a bit like a props department and they made the clothes look French, forged ID cards or ration books, and put together all the disguised plastic explosives.

“I interviewed a lady once whose job was to pack the parachutes, so there was a huge effort back in the UK.”