“Some disrupted enemy communications, others planted mines and bombs. A few, armed with grenades and Sten guns, even fought as undercover combatants.”
By Greg Lewis
THE SECOND WORLD War was in many ways a women’s war. Not only did females make major contributions to the Allied war effort as factory workers, nurses and transport pilots, but intelligence agencies recruited and trained hundreds of women from all walks of life for surveillance, espionage and sabotage missions deep behind the lines. Some disrupted enemy communications, others planted mines and bombs, while a few, armed with grenades and Sten guns, even fought as undercover combatants. Their efforts, although often overlooked, led to the success of the D-Day invasion and the eventual Allied victory over Hitler. In the book Shadow Warriors of World War II: The Daring Women of the OSS and SOE we highlight the boldest female spies of the era. Here are a few of them.
Virginia Hall: The One-Legged Spy
Despite having lost her left leg from the knee down after a 1932 hunting accident, Baltimore-born Virginia Hall carried out missions for both the highly secretive British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Fitted with an artificial limb, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert,” Hall worked early in the war for the SOE in occupied France. She often posed as a journalist for The New York Post. After the United States joined the fighting in 1941, Hall, now 35, returned to France as an operative for the OSS. Disguising herself as an old lady, she gathered intelligence for the planners of the D-Day landings. Once the Gestapo became aware of her exploits, they put her on the Nazi’s wanted list. In fact, German counter-intelligence codenamed her the “limping lady.” Hall survived the war and later served in the CIA. She died in 1982 at the age of 76.
Yolanda Beekham: “A Nice Girl Who Darned Socks”
Female agents like Britain’s Yolande Beekman often faced sexism and derision from their SOE trainers. The German and French-speaking radio operator was initially dismissed as “a nice girl, [who] darned the men’s socks,” by one instructor. “She would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that,” he further concluded. Despite such misgivings, Beekman finished her training and was landed in France by a Westland Lysander in September 1943. From there she headed to the town of Saint-Quentin where she became wireless operator for a resistance cell. Her unit was dedicated to blowing up canals and railway infrastructure in the area. Codenamed “Mariette,” she was so successful that the Gestapo brought in teams of radio detector vans to track her down. She was arrested in a canal-side café and transported to Dachau concentration camp where she was executed in 1944. She was 32.
The Deadly “White Mouse”
Gun-toting Nancy Wake is perhaps best known for planning and leading a raid on a Gestapo headquarters that left almost 30 Germans dead or wounded. The New Zealand–born journalist was living in France at the outbreak of war and quickly became involved with the resistance. A natural born spy and a crack shot to boot, the Nazis soon dubbed Wake the “White Mouse” for her ability to work secretly and elude capture. She fled over the Pyrenees into Spain to avoid capture after Berlin put a 5-million-Franc price on her head. After relocating to Britain, she volunteered for the SOE. Wild and gregarious, Wake parachuted into occupied France in April 1944 while suffering a raging hangover from a party the night before. In late July 1944, while senior Gestapo officers in the old town hall in Montluçon were enjoying a glass of schnapps before lunch, Wake led a group of armed men into the building and started shooting. On reaching the local chief’s office, she opened the door and tossed in two hand grenades. “I hate wars and violence,” she later recalled. “But if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.” Wake would go onto become one of the most decorated woman combatants of the Second World War. She continued to work in intelligence after VE Day and later would run for a seat in Australian parliament. She died in 2011 at the age of 98.
Betty Pack Got Her Secrets in Bed
Betty Pack, the 29-year old wife of an English diplomat, was already a British agent in Warsaw when war broke out. Prior to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the native of Minneapolis, Minnesota supposedly slept with a Polish official there in order to learn what that government knew about the German Enigma code machine. After moving to a MI6 section in the United States, Pack was asked in 1942 to plan a mission to copy vital naval codes kept inside the Vichy French embassy in Washington, D.C. To gain access to the documents, she seduced a man who worked in the office and brought him in on the operation. Together they cracked the embassy safe in the dead of night, grabbed the codebook and set about copying its contents. When the pair were about to be discovered by a security guard, Pack quickly stripped naked and leapt into her male accomplice’s arms to make it look like the couple were in the throes of passion. The embarrassed night watchman left the two alone for the rest of the evening. The codes she copied proved vital in the American and British invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.
Survived the War; Murdered by Stalker
Polish-born aristocrat Krystyna Skarbek (aka: Christine Granville) had already worked undercover for MI6 in Poland and Hungary when she was recruited by the SOE in 1940. Described by the legendary intelligence officer Vera Atkins as a “beautiful animal with a great appetite for love and laughter,” the 32-year-old Granville spent months in Egypt and Palestine waiting in vain for an assignment. After losing patience with her SOE chiefs, Granville seduced a local general in hopes he might set her up with a mission. It worked. She was soon inserted into France where she masterminded the escape of senior SOE agent Francis Cammaerts. Granville gained the agent’s release by threatening an officer of the French collaborationist paramilitary, the Milice, that she’d turn a mob loose on him after the Allies liberated the region. “What a wonderful woman you have,” the turncoat reportedly remarked to the captured spy after handing him over to Granville. Cammaerts had been due to be executed on the morning of his escape. After the war, a financially broke Granville could only find work as an ocean liner stewardess. She was stabbed to death in London in 1952 by a male co-worker who had become romantically obsessed with her.
The Irish Spy with a Gift for Gab
Irish-born Maureen Patricia “Paddy” O’Sullivan, who had been brought up by a Belgian aunt, began the war as an ordinary nurse. She soon realized her language skills would make her more useful to the SOE. After being trained as an agent, the 26-year-old O’Sullivan was parachuted into France three months before D-Day; she barely survived the airdrop. After leaping from the plane in foul weather, the cords of her parachute became entangled. By the time she had righted them, she was almost on the ground. O’Sullivan hit hard and suffered a concussion. She claimed that the two million Francs worth of bank notes stuffed into her backpack for the French resistance cushioned her impact and saved her life. Unflappable, she would often escape capture by flirting with the German soldiers she encountered. She was once challenged by enemy troops at a checkpoint while carrying a wireless radio in her suitcase. When the guard asked her what was in the luggage, she laughed and said, “a wireless, of course!” The soldier thought she was joking, and he sent her on her way. O’Sullivan risked her life sending more than 300 messages by radio to London. A decorated war hero, she married an accountant after the war and had two children. She died in 1994 at the age of 76.
Greg Lewis is a journalist, BAFTA award–winning producer, and author of several books. His latest work, Shadow Warriors of World War II: The Daring Women of the OSS and SOE, was co-authored with Gordon Thomas. It is published by Chicago Review Press.