Espionage has always held a certain fascination. Derring-do, cloak-and-dagger, betrayal, violence and death have always made good entertainment. But, as is often the case, truth can be far more exciting than fiction. With that in mind, here are six truly remarkable female spies from World War II.
Warsaw-born Krystyna Skarbek is often overlooked. Initially, British intelligence refused her services because she was female. That attitude didn’t last long. Having initially approached the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), she later found a home with its paramilitary rival, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Around this time, she adopted the fair more British-sounding name Christine Granville, to allow her to blend in more easily.
Returned to her native Poland, Skarbek was arrested while running a network of couriers delivering information. Feigning tuberculosis, Skarbek secured her release in January 1941. Her exploits in France were even bolder, including saving two SOE agents from execution, threatening the German officer responsible that if they died he’d soon join them.
For her work, Skarbek was awarded with the George Medal and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. In 1946, she was naturalized as a British citizen and officially took the name Christine Granville for good. Supposedly, Vesper Lynd of Casino Royale was based on Granville, although Ian Fleming never met the Polish spy.
Sadly, Granville’s end wasn’t as noble. In June 1952, she was murdered in a London hotel by an obsessed suitor, Dennis Muldowney. Muldowney pled guilty and was hanged that September.
Noor Inayat Khan
Codenamed ‘Madeleine,’ Noor Inayat Khan remains an SOE legend. Born to wealthy Indian parents, Noor fled France for England aboard the last ship leaving Bordeaux in 1940. Originally a radio operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Noor transferred when SOE radio operators (nicknamed ‘pianists’) were desperately needed. The most dangerous job for SOE agents, the average life expectancy for a pianist was six weeks.
Soon, Noor was sent to Paris, thanks to her French language skills. Within a week, she was the only pianist left in Paris. Offered emergency evacuation, Noor declined. She would do the work of multiple pianists for nearly four months. As SOE’s only Parisian pianist, she knew her worth–and so did the Nazis. After the destruction of SOE’s ‘Prosper’ network Noor insisted on trying to rebuild SOE’s Parisian network.
The Nazis offered a million francs to anyone willing to betray her. Although still unconfirmed, it is believed that Renée Garry, sister of Noor’s head agent, sold her out for only 100,000. After being captured and making multiple escape attempts, Noor was murdered at Dachau. Some reports say she was shot once. Others say she was brutally beaten and shot multiple times. Emile Garry was later captured and killed at Buchenwald, also betrayed by his own sister.
Lise de Baissac
Lise de Baissac was one of SOE’s first female agents, applying as soon as female agents were permitted. Younger brother Claude also joined. De Baissac and fellow agent Andrée Borrel were the first women to parachute into France on the SOE’s behalf. De Baissac was bold and clever, choosing an apartment near the local Gestapo headquarters while organizing airdrops of arms and supplies for the local Resistance. Further strengthening her cover, she became friendly with local Gestapo chief Grabowitz.
On her second mission, she was even bolder. To assist in readying British troops for the Normandy invasion, de Baissac gathered information on beaches, posing as an amateur archaeologist. After D-Day, she monitored local German troop movements. Taking an even bigger risk, she rented a room in the local German commander’s house. While he warned his troops to keep constant watch for Allied agents, he was actually sheltering one. De Baissac kept her friends close and enemies closer.
Remarkably, considering her many high-risk tactics, Lise de Baissac survived the war. She died in 2004, aged 98. Brother Claude also survived the war, dying in 1974.
SOE spymistress Vera Atkins was actually a Romanian Jew named Vera Rosenberg. Active with MI6 before the war started, Atkins became the deputy of Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s French section. She selected and prepared agents to infiltrate France, taking particular interest in what she often called 'my girls'.
It’s been suggested that she was the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny, James Bond’s secretary. Although Ian Fleming was active in intelligence, there’s no evidence (once again) he ever actually met her. Nor does her biography A Life in Secrets portray her as a flirtatious or especially warm person in real life.
After the war she began unofficial investigations into agents still missing in action. Working with other investigators like SAS Major Bill Barkworth, she painstakingly tracked almost all the French section’s missing agents. Some 25% of the approximately 400 agents dropped into France had perished. Atkins was instrumental in seeing some of their murderers brought to justice.
New Zealand-born Nancy Wake is another SOE legend. Married to a wealthy Frenchman later tortured to death by the Gestapo, she became their most wanted enemy with a 5-million franc price on her head. Known as the ‘White Mouse,’ she initially stayed in France when the war began, running an underground escape line for fugitives and escaped prisoners of war.
When finally arrested, she managed to escape, making her way to England and the welcoming arms of SOE. Returning to France by parachute, she began organising her enormous private army, arranging deliveries of supplies, weapons and ammunition for some 7000 resisters. She also insisted on fighting alongside them.
As one former comrade described her;
“The most feminine woman I know–until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”
Odette Hallowes is perhaps one of SOE’s less-famous female agents, though no less brave. Even her joining SOE is unusual in that she did it by accident. Her offer to help the British war effort wasn’t intended to reach SOE, but reach them it did and she was prepared to take the risk.
Odette worked in Paris with Peter Churchill until 1943 when they were both caught by the Gestapo. Tortured and interrogated, they survived by telling their captors that Peter was Winston’s nephew and Odette his wife. Peter was no relation whatsoever to Winston and he would not marry Odette after the war, but their plan worked. Both avoided execution.
Odette was sent to the women’s camp at Ravensbruck where thousands died including some of SOE’s female agents. Camp commandant Fritz Suhren, responsible for thousands of prisoners deaths, including numerous SOE agents, brought her with him when he surrendered. If Suhren thought that might help him, it didn’t: Odette testified against him. Suhren was hanged in 1950.
Since the days of Samson and Delilah (although Delilah’s haircut was more sabotage than spying), female agents accomplished far more than is often acknowledged. It’s time that changed. These six women represent a mere sliver of the women who spied in World War II, and only those who spied for the U.K. Far more worked on both sides of the war, for the main powers of both the Allies and the Axis. Without their contributions, the war would have been very different.