“Gripping. Spies, romance, Gestapo thugs, blown-up trains, courage, and treachery (lots of treachery)—and all of it true.”—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake
In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women as spies. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.
In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflappable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.
Rigorously researched and written with razor-sharp wit, D-Day Girls is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance: a reminder of what courage—and the energy of politically animated women—can accomplish when the stakes seem incalculably high.
Praise for D-Day Girls
“Rigorously researched . . . [a] thriller in the form of a non-fiction book.”—Refinery29
“Gripping history . . . thoroughly researched and written as smoothly as a good thriller, this is a mesmerizing story of creativity, perseverance, and astonishing heroism.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The mission is this: Read D-Day Girls today. Not just for the spy flair—code names, aliases, and operating covers—but also because this history feels more relevant than ever, as an army of women and girls again find themselves in a fight for the common good.”—Lily Koppel, author of The Astronaut Wives Club
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
God Help Us
Under the eternal gaze of Admiral Lord Nelson, high on a stone column in the center of London, Mrs. Odette Sansom raced toward her appointment at the War Office. The one-eyed, one-armed hero of Trafalgar got pelted in the rain, a bronze memorial to the glory that was Pax Britannica, many bloody conflicts removed from the London of July 10, 1942.
It was the 1,043rd day of the world’s worst war.
Much of the city lay in ruins, a ragged collection of gaps and edifices, like a child’s mouth after a lost tooth. Odette tilted her hat against the unremitting damp and sprinted past the admiral’s brass lions as if spirit alone could somehow put London to rights, so that it might smile again.
Upon meeting Odette, Londoners were confronted with her Gallic élan, her essential Frenchness. She was self-consciously prettier than her English peers: big chestnut eyes, a “fresh complexion” framed by dark hair that was pulled high off her heart-shaped face and hung loose down her neck. Her light coat was cinched with a belt, the only burst of color in an otherwise bland London rain-scape; the city was full of uniforms—soldiers, sailors, airmen. The entire world had gone drab. Although she had lived in England for much of her adult life, Odette never shed her Continental air, nor did she care to; frosty Britain seemed indifferent to sex and to women. With an inextinguishable flair for the theatrical, Odette preened and men in khaki swooned. It was said she even smiled in French.
The Victoria Hotel was a grande dame on mothballs, requisitioned for war work as the administrative home of the War Office. There were no bellhops to greet Odette; the twinkling chandeliers were packed off to safe storage; the building was dingy and practical like everything else. There were no dandies sharing cigarettes in the pink marble lobby; it was still busy, but with clerks and sergeants, men in mufti held back from the front, the old, the broken, those unsuited for battle, those too useful to be sacrificed. Someone had to run the war.
Odette arrived on account of a typed invitation—her second from the War Office:
Your name has been passed to me with the suggestion that you have qualifications and information which may be of value in a phase of the war effort.
If you are available for interview, I should be glad to see you at the above address at 1100 hrs on Friday 10th July.
Would you let me know whether you can come or not?
Yours truly, Selwyn Jepson
For an unhappily married woman in the third year of the war, the letter on government stationery was rife with potential. At a minimum, Odette’s appointment afforded a precious afternoon alone; there was a new film opening in Leicester Square, Mrs. Miniver, the story of how English housewives contribute to the war by coping, how matriarchs move mountains while men are at the front. There was window-shopping to do, though, as elsewhere in Europe, very little could be bought under rations on a husband’s service pay. At best, the letter might rearrange Odette’s life a little, for what “qualifications and information” could the army need but her native French-language skills? Perhaps the War Office sought translators. Or secretaries. She was not too old to type at speed, or she could write letters to prisoners of war in France. That would be a very worthy service.
Odette did not know what would be asked of her, and the captain’s note gave away little. If the War Office had something practical in mind, she was determined to be useful.
Odette lived in the soggy countryside of Somerset. Only thirty years old, she was a single parent to three daughters under six—Lily, Françoise, and Marianne—while her husband, Roy, was enlisted in the fight against Hitler. Roy was the son of the English soldier who billeted with her family during the Great War, and she had married him young— too young—at eighteen, practically an infant herself, she reckoned, so silly and adolescent; she panicked on her wedding night and refused to leave for her honeymoon. Instead, she dragged her mother and motherin-law to the cinema.
War had marked Odette’s entire young life. She was only four years old when her father was killed at the Battle of Verdun, just days before the armistice that ended World War I. He was one of 300,000 dead, a shameful, aching waste. The children of the interwar years came of age in a wounded Europe, still bleeding from the sores of Flanders and the Somme. France felt crippled by German brutality; Germany felt likewise about her neighbors’ punitive reparations. Fatherless Odette was raised in her grandparents’ house, her Sundays a litany of mandatory graveside visits and church offerings beside her widowed mother. As with so many daughters of the Great War, trauma altered Odette; it made her at once sweet and hard, vulnerable and ferocious.
As an adult, married but alone and mothering in England, the Blitz forced Odette to abandon the bustle of city life for the safety of green and empty farmlands. In 1940 and 1941, London’s nights were pierced by bombs and lit by searchlights; the sky was a daily fireworks show of flares and flames. Had she stayed, the baby would be fitted for a gas mask; she would have learned to distinguish between the sounds of a parachute mine and an anti-aircraft gun, even as she became bilingual in French and English. Somerset was better for the girls.
Odette’s days were now an endless series of country rituals: queuing at the baker, counting out ration coupons, mending clothes when fabric was impossible to get. Propaganda posters extolled the virtue of thrift: “I’m as patriotic as can be—and ration points don’t worry me!” The message was so bleak. “Go through your wardrobe. Make do and mend.” Odette had been fashionable once, a dressmaker who could pin-tuck and pleat some ooh-la-la into any ensemble, but there was no one left to look pretty for now that she was in rural exile. “Austerity clothes for the fourth year of the war,” exclaimed women’s weeklies; jackets without trimmings and “skirts without sin” were to be applauded. Odette longed for the thrill of London, the pleasure of companionship and attention. Rustic mothering and monasticism did not suit her. It was an unexceptional life for an energetic woman.
Captain Selwyn Jepson sat at his desk in the War Office, room 055a—previously known as Victoria Hotel, room 238—a former bedroom so small that it might have been a broom closet. Shorn of any glamour for the sake of utility, the room contained only one amenity: a sink basin. There was no furniture to speak of, save for an army-issue wood table and two plain chairs. The sparseness was deliberate, at the behest of the captain, who ordered the interview room emptied of everything that might hint of officialdom or even comfort. He was not there to chitchat or to shield himself from visitors behind a big desk. He wanted nothing to get in the way of absolute trust: no separation, status, or rank—unless, of course, he was interviewing a service member, at which point he donned his uniform out of respect.
Captain Jepson looked down his nose at the file sitting before him. Mrs. Sansom had no apparent enemy affiliation; His Majesty’s Government found nothing objectionable: “Nothing Recorded Against.” In other words, she possessed no criminal record. Scotland Yard and the MI5 security service had apparently decided she was an acceptable candidate for an interview. It was not piercing enough for his standards, to be sure. He would unearth objections, should they exist.
Full Christian Names: Odette Marie Celine
Nationality at Birth: French
Upon her marriage, Odette became English by way of a legal concept known as coverture, meaning she was covered by her husband’s legal standing; she became part of him the way a hand is part of the body.
Odette’s file was opened on account of her keenness to help the war. In March 1942, an urgent call went out on the BBC evening news: The navy wanted photos of the French coast. On the 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. broadcasts, wedged between Proms concerts and news in Norwegian, the announcer explained that even the most boring souvenir photos would help the war effort. Trivial and mundane scrapbooks could turn the battle in Europe, and as went Europe, so followed the world. The announcement was one of many patriotic calls to service that year; the next morning Britons responded with some thirty thousand envelopes including ten million vacation snaps.
Odette also heeded the call. She donated her family photographs to the government, a collection of snapshots of herself as a young girl on the wide beaches near her native Amiens, of picnics and parasols, sand castles and beach shacks, of her brother, her mum, her grandparents, even a father she never got to know, the plain and ordinary reminders of summers long past.
The smallest details mattered in the world’s largest war. A top secret department at Oxford was at that moment pulling together a detailed map of the French shoreline. While England had ample information on France—Michelin maps, Baedekers narrating every harbor village, and nautical charts sounding every depth—the Admiralty required more specialized intelligence. To plan an invasion, the navy had to render a depiction of the country from wave height, from the prow of an incoming landing craft. The Inter Services Topographical Department (ISTD) was creating a comprehensive picture of the entire French coast and the Low Countries. The navy had to know what the harbors and beaches looked like, the gradient of each sloping dune, winding road, trickling river, any landscape feature that could yield insight into the water supply, blind spots, and approaches. No small-scale commando raid or aerial photographer could possibly produce such a map; the only way to get a broad picture was to cobble one together out of Britons’ prewar holidays. A cast of researchers at the Bodleian Library pored over the scrapbook bounty, taking photographs of photographs, then returned the albums to their rightful owners, who never knew what images had been preserved or even entirely why. The ISTD built a photo mosaic, a montage of family memories, and stitched the panorama together for a colossal topographical quilt. It was the platform for a battle plan of the Allied invasion of Europe. England was at war, and the last battlefield would be France.
Odette’s photographs were of no military value whatsoever. Her childhood snapshots never even found their way to the Naval War Library. Upon hearing the call on the BBC, Odette mailed her photos to the War Office, not the Admiralty; she was a non-native English speaker who misunderstood the difference. She posted her few family pictures to the wrong branch of service.
The machinery of military administration nevertheless churned. Postal clerks forwarded her note proffering assistance to a central registry, which funneled the information down appropriate, if opaque, channels to Captain Jepson.
When Odette entered the captain’s office, he rose like a man practiced in gentility. The windows were framed in heavy air raid curtains, making the close room feel even tighter; the raw light between them was harsh and electric.
Captain Jepson was an elfin man, in a dark suit, forty-two years old with a squeaky pubescent voice. In peacetime, he was a working journalist and middling mystery novelist; at war, he was a cynic who held tightly to the fixtures of his own gloomy mind. With coffee bean eyes and slick, dark hair, his suspicions gave him the air of a man who was eternally constipated.
The captain, in a clipped accent sharpened and honed at St. Paul’s School for heirs and aristocrats, started the interview with a rote question he put to anyone who entered his office: What did Odette think of the Germans?
She hated Hitler with a passion.
She detested what happened to France. Her mother was evacuated from her home; her brother was gravely wounded in the blitzkrieg and was recuperating in the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in occupied Paris, she said. Her country had been violated.
Oh, she figured she might find pity for the German people, but she had nothing but venom for the military occupiers.
The captain understood that French hereditary hostility to Germans was second only to Gallic enmity toward the English. At that moment in the war, it was his job, as his letter indicated, to select from the small but crucial subset of those he considered normal, common, and average British citizens, a few choice candidates who spoke flawless French, who could act French, and who were for all intents and purposes passably French.
“You would not know the way we do these things,” the captain began, with Odette’s file on the table before him. “We have made enquiries about you in this country and in France and we’re very satisfied by what we’ve found.”
Drama and overreaction were native to Odette, like a mother tongue. Her posture swung from demure and coquettish to highest dudgeon and outrage in less than a heartbeat.
“Well, what do you mean? Why did you have to make enquiries of me?”
In wartime England, Odette was suspect by virtue of her birth. There was resentment in Britain: The Frogs surrendered so quickly in 1940; the French army crumpled against the panzer advance; the Maginot Line was a punch line, a joke; Vichy ships in North Africa were at that moment facing off against the Allied fleet; French factories churned out weapons on behalf of a Nazi war that was killing Englishmen in Egypt.
Odette’s fidelities could become a critical component of the fight for Europe. The captain was recruiting secret soldiers for a clandestine war in Nazi territory, but women like Odette were English only by marriage; foreign-born brides of Britons were considered by many to be enemy aliens.
She rejected the insinuation with enough spite to retry the Battle of Hastings. In a fit, Odette recited her patriotic bona fides: She was a good mother to English daughters, a faithful bride to a British soldier defending king and country. She lived a quiet life, did nothing treasonous or illegal. Odette was as decent an Englishwoman as any bird born in Blighty.
“What do you think I am?”
In that moment, the captain made a decision: He was willing to risk Odette’s life.
Without specifying details of the job for which he was recruiting, or even the name of his employer, Captain Jepson offered Odette an opportunity to go to France for His Majesty’s Government, at three hundred pounds per annum. Would she volunteer?
“Wait a minute.” The captain paused. “What are your domestic circumstances?”
The minutiae of Odette’s life were detailed in the file before him, but he would not send a woman to war who pined for babies in England. Her chances of returning alive were no better than even—or less.
To the captain, she appeared unconcerned about her daughters; “Oh, they won’t bother,” he would recall as her response.
Odette was instead trapped in her thoughts. She framed the nebulous job offer in the language of a mother. Am I supposed to accept the sacrifice that other people are making without lifting a finger? she wondered. What would become of her girls if both France and then England surrendered to Hitler? She might not be useful to this tiny man, Jepson; she might not be good enough to serve. But she was determined to at least try on behalf of Lily, Françoise, and Marianne.
With only the vaguest idea of what the job entailed, Odette said, “Train me.”
The captain rose and escorted Odette the two short steps to the door, where they shook hands. She had a colossal personality and might not be willing to follow orders; she was too intense. Yet she met all qualifications: fluent French, British citizenship. The Allies had a need—a world-changing need—for women like Odette.
He returned to the file on his table and dashed off a quick note in the margins, his professional assessment of his newest hire:
God help the Germans if we can ever get her near them. But maybe God help us along the way.
Table of Contents
Character Chart x
Chapter 1 God Help Us 3
Chapter 2 Ungentlemanly Warfare 12
Chapter 3 A First-Class Agent 23
Chapter 4 The Queen of the Organization 37
Chapter 5 Merde alors! 49
Chapter 6 To the Very Last Man 63
Chapter 7 A Thousand Dangers 69
Chapter 8 The Dark Years 76
Chapter 9 Alone in the World 90
Chapter 10 Robert est arriveé 105
Chapter 11 The Paris of the Sahara 120
Chapter 12 Our Possibilities 126
Chapter 13 The Demolition Must Never Fail 143
Chapter 14 An Obstinate Woman 150
Chapter 15 An Endless Calvary 163
Chapter 16 The Swap 175
Chapter 17 The Dog Sneezed on the Curtains 191
Chapter 18 Hunted 201
Chapter 19 When the Hour of Action Strikes 209
Chapter 20 Kisses 227
Chapter 21 A Patriotic Profession 231
Chapter 22 A Little Braver 240
Chapter 23 The Sighing Begins 244
Chapter 24 Death on One Side, Life on the Other 252
Chapter 25 Your Mind Goes On Thinking 267
Epilogue: A Useful Life 275
Author's Note 287
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. The author opens the book with dialogue from Shakespeare’s Henry VI. How did you interpret this quote prior to reading D-Day Girls? After finishing the book, did your interpretation of this quote change?
2. Is there a person mentioned in D-Day Girls whom you relate to most strongly? Why?
3. Initially some leaders of the Special Operations Executive took issue with the fact that Odette was born in France. She was “suspect by virtue of her birth” (page 10). Why do you think the SOE still ultimately sent her to war? Where do you see this kind of suspicious sentiment toward those we perceive as “others” in our world today?
4. The adult women of the Special Operations Executive were frequently referred to in spoken and written communication as “girls.” The author points out that although it may sound “uncomfortable to the modern ear” (page 301), this was common language for the time. Are you uncomfortable with the usage of the word “girls”? Why or why not?
5. Why do you think that the author chose to focus most closely on Odette, Lise, and Andrée?
6. According to the author, after going off to war “the Corps Féminins were never just on the job; they retained an identity as mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives—or ex-wives—even behind enemy lines” (page 83). Is this ability to retain civilian identities even while at war an asset?
7. Do you feel that the Special Operations Executive, FANY, and other similar organizations that gave women a hands-on role in WWII were progressive for their time? Why or why not?
8. During the war, the French developed a new word—dépaysement—for their wartime sense of “not feeling at home” (page 136). Have you ever felt dépaysement in your life? In our modern world, does this word resonate?
9. The war stories of these female spies were kept under wraps as classified information until very recently. What was the purpose of this? Why do you feel that World War II history has largely hidden the roles women took on in the war?
10. What do you think is gained in our understanding of the war and the world in general by discussing the untold narratives of women such as Lise, Odette, and Andrée?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
D-Day Girls by Sarah Rose is honestly one of the top reads for me so far this year. The amount of research that was required and used for this book is astronomical and its result is just stunning. I have read a large amount of WWI and WWII nonfiction, history, biography, and nonfiction, and yet I was impressed with the amount of fascinating information and knowledge I gained from reading this gem in regards to the types of Resistance groups (British and French led), their networks, the type of guerrilla tactics that were implemented, and the type of harrowing and guttural mental and physical strength that it took for these female and male heroes to not only survive, but thrive in this atmosphere. I learned so much about female operatives, and all of the adversities that they had to overcome from the known enemy, as well as the “covert enemies” of sexism and the inability to garner equal respect, acknowledgement, rights, and rewards. These women are true heroes and make me so proud to be part of this gender. Though these women were human and flawed as the rest of us, we can use this picture of strength and heroism as a template to help overcome the adversities and problems that face us today in the modern world. Well Done! 5/5 stars enthusiastically
So many risked all to ensure victory 75 years ago in Normandy. D-DAY GIRLS tells the utterly compelling tale of female agents — members of Churchill’s Secret Operations Executive — who blew up weapon supplies and power lines, derailed trains, and sabotaged the Nazis with cunning, bravery and chutzpah to advance the Allied cause. Meticulously researched and lovingly written with an eye to giving these courageous women their due. And what a cover! Pub Date 23 Apr 2019. Thanks to the author, Crown Publishing, and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are mine. #DdayGirls #NetGalley
historical-figures, historical-places-events, historical-research, historical-setting, war-is-hell, war-experiences, spies, WW2 ***** I got this the day before release and haven't quite finished it, but since I have raved about it to more than a handful of friends I figured that I ought to post a review. The research seems impeccable but it's the humanization of each of these brave and motivated women that is so compelling. They're not all young beautiful idealists, but they are all willing to put it on the line long before it was accepted and appreciated. Each woman's involvement is detailed but not in the dry boring way as in a thesis. These women were real and so are their histories. Besides that, it is eminently readable. Great read! I requested and received a free ebook copy from Crown Publishing via NetGalley. Thank you!
Bravo to Sarah Rose for bringing to the foreground the heroic a factual historical account of the WW ll contributions of three talented and brave women agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who served in occupied France: Andrée Borrel, Odette Sansom and Lise de Baissac. This book has all the elements of a great thriller and the best part is that it is all true not historical fiction. The courageous clandestine acts of these women have been predominantly unrecognized both during and after WW ll. Those women accomplished great feats after only a very brief period of training due to wartime pressures. These women sacrificed everything towards defeating the Nazis. They accepted that the odds for their survival were slim. They have very little training due to wartime time constraints. Yet they were able to perform remarkable feats including: code breaking, blew up bridges, sabotaged the occupation etc. Lately there has been a plethora of historical fiction novels centering on women's roles involved in Resistance movements. D-Day Girls is the perfect historical text to read in order to clarify the actual events and scenarios that occurred during the WW ll time period leading to D-Day. Sarah Rose does a great job in explaining the evolution of women's participation in the SOE and other Resistance. groups. This is a great companion book to be included in a reading list for WW ll history classes which include a unit on the resistance.
D-Day Girls is an interesting look at an underexamined aspect of World War II: the role women spies, trained in England, played in organizing and coordinating resistance in France in the years leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Primarily following the recruitment, training and missions of five of these women—Andrée Borrel. Lise de Baissac, Odette Sansom, Yvonne Rudellat and Mary Herbert—author Sarah Rose does a great job of conveying their military value and how they slotted into the overall spy networks in France, while still managing to portray each as an individual with a particular personality and set of motivations. The details of their training and the nuts-and-bolts descriptions of what was required to run a clandestine guerilla operation in France were most interesting to me, as well as the information about how the SS in Paris based on Avenue Foch managed to infiltrate, turn or otherwise undercut the English spy networks. Rose’s focus, understandably given the title of her book, is always on the women, but that did leave me with questions at the end of the book about the fates of various men in their networks—some of whom collaborated with the Nazis—that I wish Rose had addressed. (And the end in general did feel a little abruptly wrapped up.) These are fairly small quibbles, however; I think D-Day Girls is admirable for telling the unknown stories of brave women whose dangerous work on behalf of the Allies has not been adequately appreciated, and I hope it gains a wide readership in their honor. Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishers for providing me with an ARC of this title in exchange for my honest review.
Fantastic history of a fascinating and little known group In D-Day Girls, author Sarah Rose illuminates the little known lives of the women who willingly went into occupied France to work with and unify those resisting the Nazi occupation during WWII. During the war, Britain faced a dearth of males the right age for spy and saboteur work as all available men were already at the front. Even if they had been able to scrounge up a decent force, Rose points out that most French men had been drafted into forced labor to make parts and necessities for the Nazis, so war-aged healthy males would have stuck out in occupied France. Necessity being the mother of invention, the then radical decision was made to conscript women for the job, extending offers of work to women who had grown up in France at some point in their lives and spoke the language like a local. A handful were ultimately deployed to work as couriers and saboteurs, parachuted in or arriving by sea under cover of night. These women helped form the backbone of the resistance, training resistance fighters to assemble and use various guns and other weaponry, blowing up railroad tunnels and tracks at crucial junctions, and causing other damage to the Nazi machine wherever possible. Standing stoic in the face of incredible danger, many of the women found their calling in the use of weaponry and sabotage that they daily engaged in, and, due to Nazi sexism, were able to slip past the German soldiers throughout France without suspicion. In D-Day Girls, Rose has created a meticulously researched work of nonfiction that flows like a spy novel, with the satisfying knowledge that the characters were in fact real life women who accomplished amazing feats in the war. A worthy and compelling read, Rose shows herself to be a gifted author to watch. My thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
D-Day Girls by Sarah Rose is well researched book about the women that assisted in the French resistance during World War 2. The stories of Lise de Baissac, Andrée Borrel, and Odette Sansom were amazing, inspiring, shocking and impressive. I received this book from Crown Publishing and #Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
What peaked my interest when I first heard about this book was that it featured women who risked their lives to help win World War 2. I love reading these type of non-fiction books because it feels like for far too long the role women played in the war was largely ignored. It's nice that as more and more these books are published, these heroic women are finally getting some recognition. Even though I have read quite a few non-fiction books featuring women during the war, almost all of the ones I have read have been about American women. So it was good change of pace for me to see just how tough and strong European women were during this period of history. The book mainly follows three women who were recruited as spies which at the time was pretty much unprecedented. Let's face it, most people back then thought the ways women could contribute to the war effort was by knitting scarves or tending to wounded soldiers. Women willing to risk their lives to help win the war was a hard concept for many people to grasp. This book provided a good starting off point for learning about these courageous females although I wouldn't say it was my favorite WW2 read. It is a decent read though so if the topic interests you, I recommend giving this one a look. Thank you to First to Read for the opportunity to read an advance digital copy! I was under no obligation to post a review and all views expressed are my honest opinion.