Women who dared

Published : Apr 22, 2011 00:00 IST

The story of 40 exceptional individuals who strode out to give a practical demonstration of women's tenacity and boundless capability.

IN early September 2010, residents of a quiet street in the British seaside town of Torquay grew concerned about the non-appearance of a neighbour, a frail elderly woman of reclusive habits. They alerted the authorities, who entered the woman's flat to find her lying dead from a heart attack that had struck days earlier. The solitary nature of her life and death, and the apparent absence of any surviving family, pointed to a low-key funeral financed by the local council: the modern equivalent of a pauper's burial. But as they sorted through her personal effects, investigators were startled to come across bundles of obsolete French currency, age-worn correspondence written in French, and a stash of medals, among them the French Croix de Guerre. Like a newly retrieved artefact cleansed of mud by archaeologists' deft fingers, Eileen Nearne's extraordinary past began to yield its secrets.

On the night of March 3, 1944, just a week or two before her 23rd birthday, Eileen had been secretly landed in Occupied France to act as a wireless operator for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British covert organisation set up in 1940 to (in Churchill's exhortation) set Europe ablaze. Like other operatives of SOE's F (French) section (other wings dealt with Holland, Norway and other occupied countries), Eileen was part of a tightly knit team or circuit charged with carrying out sabotage behind enemy lines, coordinating with local resistants and arranging drops of arms, ammunitions and supplies.

Eileen's team had the brief of forming a new network in Paris, whose high concentration of Germans made it a particularly lethal field for agents. Over a four-month period, in the countdown to the June 1944 Allied D-Day landings in Normandy and beyond, her radio transmissions helped several SOE circuits maintain vital links with London as the battle for France gathered ferocity. Under constant threat of detection, radio operators were especially vulnerable: by this stage of the war, they could expect to last just six weeks before capture.

Fate and signal-finding technology caught up with Eileen in mid-July: captured just after sending a particularly urgent message (which she had time to destroy), she was taken in chains to the notorious Avenue Foch headquarters of the Gestapo in Paris. Interrogation under torture, including a drowning technique akin to modern water-boarding, failed to elicit any information from her, and she was packed off to Ravensbruck, the concentration camp for women north of Berlin.

After six months' hard labour, she was transferred to another camp in Silesia from which, amid the confusion of April 1945, she was able to run away, eventually reaching sanctuary in a Leipzig church, where, exhausted and half starved, she collapsed in delirium. The arrival of the advancing United States army did not quite end her ordeal: without papers, Eileen fell under suspicion of being a German agent and had to undergo a fresh round of camps and interrogations before at last being returned to Britain. On her return in June 1945, notes Beryl Escott in a new study, it was hardly surprising that she could barely walk, and after hospitalisation suffered a long physical and emotional breakdown (page 152).

As Escott's book explains, Eileen Nearne was one of 40 women agents sent into occupied France by SOE F between 1941 and 1944. Of this total, 13 would never return: one died of meningitis in the field while 12 were executed or died of starvation, disease and beatings in German concentration camps. Of those who survived, some proved more capable than others of picking up their lives in post-war conditions. Some married, in a few instances to a fellow SOE agent with whom they had worked.

In a handful of cases, women set pen to paper, among them the spirited Anne-Marie Walters, whose detailed, beautifully written account of her experiences as a 20-year-old courier in south-west France, set down soon after her return to Britain, scooped the 1947 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.1 Nancy Wake, an exuberant New Zealander whose action in France included commanding a ragtag force of French irregulars (the Maquis) several thousand strong, wrote of her days as the White Mouse (the sobriquet adopted by her frustrated German pursuers) and participated in a documentary film recreation of the action.

Other survivors retreated into obscurity, preferring to lock away their particular trysts with extreme danger, bloodshed, loss, torture and, in some cases, betrayal. Eileen Nearne may have been among those most deeply scarred by her experiences.

Today, not many of this select sorority remain alive. For Escott, a history-conscious former Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who first began researching their stories some 20 years ago, there is urgency to setting down something about each, to capturing the essence of what remains. Her new book is essentially a necklace of narratives, a chain of individual stories ordered by the sequence in which her subjects departed for France.

The cumulative impact on the reader of this artfully simple strategy is to draw us into a time of extraordinarily concentrated, on-the-edge experience, to let us sense, however fleetingly, its heady intensity as suspense, fear, and wariness interwove with adrenalin-fuelled courage and a camaraderie that could never be replicated in later life.

Varied backgrounds

What was the background of these covert fighters, and what inspired them? In a concise and useful introductory chapter, Escott reveals the diversity of their national origins, class, professional status and ages. Alongside women from the leisured classes were shop girls, clerical workers, journalists, even a professional dancer. Twenty-year-old fledglings jostled with women well into their forties. Single women relatively free of ties coexisted with young mothers prepared, in extraordinary times, to wrench themselves away from their children. The one uniting factor was flawless fluency in French, often the result of having one French parent or of having been educated outside Britain.

Motivations were similarly varied. For some, especially those of French origin, simple patriotism reigned. Others were fired by more thorough-going political awareness: Andre Morel, Paris-born and working class, had been radicalised by her involvement in the Spanish Civil War, while the journalist Nancy Wake had witnessed at first hand Nazi treatment of Jewish residents during visits to Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s.

Recruitment was haphazard. Word-of-mouth recommendation tended to prevail, although on one occasion SOE attempted to trawl more widely by putting out a BBC radio request for people with drawings or photos of interesting areas in Europe they had visited (the assumption being that such travellers might possess language skills). Would-be agents then had to pass through several stages of training, invariably conducted in sprawling mansions requisitioned for the war effort (a standing joke among agents was that SOE stood for the Stately 'Omes of England).

Candidates who survived the initial physical training and preliminary assessment (the attrition rate was high) progressed to basic guerilla warfare techniques, including explosives handling and how to kill silently, parachuting skills and more specialised training relevant to their specific covert role. Those who were to become wireless operators were put through a particularly testing regime. All messages had to be transposed into cipher or code, different for each operator, and the full message sent by Morse at a rate of at least twenty-two words per minute, together with special safety checks to prove them genuine. [Trainees] also developed a fist' or style' by which whoever received the message could tell who was sending it a kind of fingerprinting in Morse (page 17).

Trainees were required to understand the composition of their sets, learn how to diagnose faults and do repairs with makeshift materials, familiarise themselves with receiving problems such as atmospherics, static and jamming, and become adept at handling 70-foot-long aerials and disguising their sets. They also had to prepare psychologically for the loneliness and extreme pressure of their future role.

The urgent need for wireless operators (the most valuable link in the whole of our chain of operations, according to one SOE source) goes some way to explaining why, despite fierce opposition from traditionalist quarters, SOE F in 1942 began recruiting women. In occupied France, male agents were more likely to attract attention, especially younger men who were vulnerable to STO (Service Travail Obligatoire), draft labour in Germany which (unintentionally) proved such an effective recruitment tool for the Maquis.

In contrast, women were to be seen everywhere, travelling on all types of transport, especially bikes with large baskets and carriers, seeking food and commodities, visiting or looking for members of families or working in the place of absent husbands (page 12). Female agents could readily slip into this ceaseless flow of purposeful mobility.

Once delivered to France, whether by parachute, boat or small aircraft (air operations invariably conducted at night beneath a full moon), the SOE women, each with a codename (Eileen Nearne's was Rose') and a false identity, strove to activate their skills. Some excelled in quiet subterfuge, conducted behind a plausible cover. Virginia Hall (Marie'), a U.S.-born journalist of English-Dutch origin, used her status as a correspondent for the New York Post to set herself up in Lyon, where she established an invaluable safe house.

Under an unflappable exterior, notes Escott, she was a whirlwind of activity... from advising, lodging and despatching newly arrived or lost agents, to passing others onto an escape line, once even arranging a sick organiser's escape from hospital (page 36). Others took to the road, covering vast distances by bicycle, bus or gazo', any vehicle powered by a substance other than petrol, which was reserved for German use. At any point they might encounter German checkpoints: cover stories along with false papers had to be credible and well-worn.

Disaster awaited some

Inevitably, disaster awaited some. In a few instances, inability to cope under stress, or simple lack of training, pointed to fallibilities in the SOE selection process. The recruitment of Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine'), the daughter of an American mother and an Indian Sufi musician and religious teacher with family links to Tipu Sultan, continues to stir debate. With her exotic appearance, fragile disposition and slightly foreign accent (she was born in Moscow), Noor was not an obvious candidate for undercover work in France.

What she offered were exceptional abilities as a wireless operator: she was a pianist' of such dexterity, speed and accuracy that, in June 1943, well short of completing her security training, she became the first female radio operator sent by SOE to France. Her arrival coincided with a particularly catastrophic chain of events within the Physician circuit, leading to its betrayal and collapse. Survival would have been difficult for the most skilled and experienced agent, yet Noor remained at her transmitter right up to October, when she was captured and taken to Avenue Foch.

After prolonged but fruitless interrogation (She is impossible, one of her inquisitors reported. I have never met a woman like her) and a string of escape attempts, Noor was sent first to Karlsruhe prison in Germany and then to Dachau. Here, together with three other SOE women, she was abused and badly beaten before being shot.2

Given the quantum of transmissions Noor handled and her combative response to capture, Escott's judgement that she was out of her depth in France, and should never have been sent seems questionable. It constitutes a rare moment of censure in a book whose predominant tone is muted and deeply respectful. Perhaps in a concern not to privilege the words of agents who lived to write or speak about their experiences, Escott maintains the third person voice throughout, and provides no footnotes. Each narrative is of similar length, again reflecting the author's concern for equality of treatment.

Occasionally, inadequate or patchy editing interferes with the flow, with punctuation errors such as wrongly placed commas a special irritation.

But the potency of the stories Escott has to tell, and her reverence for her subjects, quickly neutralise such quibbles. In reuniting 40 exceptional individuals who, long before the advent of the women's liberation movement, strode out to give a practical demonstration of women's tenacity, courage and boundless capability, Escott has contributed a work of enduring inspiration.


1. Long out of print, Walters' account has recently been republished in an excellent expanded edition: "Moondrop to Gascony" by Anne-Marie Walters. Moho Books, Wiltshire, 2009.

2. For more on Noor's story, see Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu; The History Press, 2008.

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