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The Special Operations Executive was formed by Winston Churchill in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze." In the SOE women were trained to handle guns and explosives, work undercover, endure interrogation by the Gestapo, and use complex codes. In The Women Who Lived for Danger, acclaimed historian Marcus Binney recounts the story of ten remarkable women who were dropped in occupied territories to work as secret agents.
Once they were behind enemy lines, theirs was the most dangerous war of all, as they led apparently normal civilian lives while in constant danger of arrest. They organized dropping grounds for arms and explosives destined for the Resistance, helped operate escape lines for airmen who had been shot down over Europe, and provided Allied Command with vital intelligence. SOE women agents came from all walks of life: from the dazzling Polish Countess Krystyna Skarbek (alias Christine Granville) and the American Virginia Hall, who was from a rich Baltimore family, to Marguerite Knight, a secretary in Walthamstow. Petite Lisa de Baissac lived next to Gestapo headquarters in Poitiers playing the part of a quiet widow, while twenty-year-old student Paola Del Din was sent to find a way through the German front line in Florence. Hot-tempered Paddy O'Sullivan deflected a German officer from examining her suitcase by making a date with him, and Alix d'Unienville feigned madness when captured.
The stories of these women agents some famous, some virtually unknown are told with the help of extensive new archive material. Their exploits form a new chapter of heroism in the history of warfare matched only by their determination, resourcefulness, and ability to stay cool in the face of extreme danger.
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About the Author
Marcus Binney is an accomplished historian and writer who is the author of Our Vanishing Heritage, Townhouses, and Airports. Binney attended Cambridge, and has lectured extensively to historical societies in New York, Boston, Rhode Island, and Virginia on architectural preservation and history. He has also fronted a thirty-nine-part series Mansions: The Great Houses of Europe broadcast in the U.S. between 1993 and 1997.
Binney's interest in the lives of the agents of the SOE is a personal one. His father, Lt. Col. Francis Simms, MC, walked seven hundred miles through the Apennines after twice escaping from POW camps. His mother, Sonia, did secret work with code breakers during the war and in 1955 remarried Sir George Binney, DSO, also a war hero, who had carried out one of the most successful blockade-running operations of World War II in 1941 bringing back five unarmed merchant ships from Sweden through the minefields.
Read an Excerpt
The Women Who Lived for Danger
The Agents of the Special Operations Executive
Recruitment And Training
A new form of warfare was developed and has come to stay and may prove in a future War even more important than in the last one ...
A Brief History of SOE
The girls who served as secret agents in Churchill's Special Operations Executive were young, beautiful and brave. At a time when women in the armed forces were restricted to a strictly non-combatant role in warfare, the women of SOE trained and served alongside the men. They fought not in the front line but well behind it. If caught, as were fifteen of the fifty women sent from Britain to France, they faced harsh and sometimes brutal interrogation by the Gestapo and thereafter the horrors of a concentration camp -- which only three of them survived.
SOE operated all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, but the majority of its women agents went to France. They were trained as couriers and wireless operators, and in a few cases took on an effective leadership role, charged with running Resistance circuits -- known in French as réseaux. As able-bodied men became increasingly subject to the STO, the Service du Travail Obligatoire (forced labour in Germany), young women had the advantage of being able to move about more freely and were less subject to suspicion.
Couriers did essential work, carrying money and messages to and from Resistance groups concerning recruitment and arms drops. From the time of the D-Day landings, they were involved in ambushes and hit-and-run attacks on German troops, as well as sabotage on a vastly increased scale. Couriers had to be used because the post was subject to censorship; telephone calls had to be placed through local operators who often listened in to calls; and anyone wishing to send a telegram or make a telephone call from a post office had to produce an identity card.
Agents in the field communicated with SOE by radio, tapping messages out in Morse code and using increasingly sophisticated ciphers. As the Germans had remarkably effective tracking equipment, agents were supposed to limit their time on air, but they often had to send lengthy messages, which exposed them to great danger, particularly in city areas. As more agents were caught, SOE began to supplement their numbers with women operators. Women, of course, constituted the overwhelming majority of radio operators in Britain and at overseas bases, but from June 1943, when Noor Inayat Khan was flown in by Lysander to serve as radio operator to the Cinema circuit, increasing numbers of women radio operators were infiltrated into France.
Why did women volunteer for such hazardous work? The most common reason for people serving their country in the war was that they wanted 'to do their bit', a modest way of expressing a national commitment to defeating Nazi tyranny. To serve behind enemy lines required courage and commitment of an altogether greater order, and the quality that unites the women who became agents was a steely determination to play an active role in inflicting real damage on the enemy.
With Violette Szabo, it was burning anger at the death of her legionnaire husband in the fighting at El Alamein. With the 21-year-old Paola Del Din, it was the wish to carry on the work of her brother Renato, killed leading the first attack on the fascists in a garrison town north of Udine.
In the eyes of her instructors, Noor's willingness to risk her life appeared at first to be a reaction to a broken engagement. However, it soon became clear to them that she was in fact motivated by idealism and a longing to be more active in the war effort.
In almost every case women agents had to conceal the nature of their work from their family and friends. Paola Del Din was an exception, having the help of her mother in preparing for a dangerous solo journey to break through the German front line in Florence and contact SOE. In addition, there were cases where brothers and sisters -- or even, in one or two instances, husbands and wives -- both served SOE. The most notable examples are the impressive group of Mauritian agents: the three gallant Mayer brothers, Percy, Edmund and James, and Percy's wife Berthe who continued her husband's radio transmissions from Madagascar after his arrest; Claude de Baissac and his sister Lise; the sisters 'Didi' and Jacqueline Nearne and their brother Francis. In a few cases,, notably Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, it meant leaving young children behind. Not surprisingly some in SOE had severe doubts about this, even if the children were entrusted to loving grandparents, but the women who made this difficult choice approached it in the same way as men with young children, deciding that this was a time when service to country was paramount.
No less remarkable is the youth of many of the girls. Paolo Del Din set off for Florence four weeks before her twenty-first birthday. Violette Szabo was just twenty-three when SOE dropped her in France; Christina Granville and Peggy Knight were twenty-four when they embarked on their missions. Alix d'Unienville was twenty-five, Paddy O'Sullivan twenty-six, Pearl Witherington twenty-seven and Noor Inayat Khan twenty-nine when they were sent behind enemy lines.
The background of the men who initially ran SOE was predominantly public school, Oxbridge and the City. Yet within SOE there were no distinctions between officers and other ranks. Recruitment and promotion were on grounds of ability. Violette Szabo had been working at the perfume counter in the Bon Marché store in Brixton when war broke out. Peggy Knight was a secretary for the Electricity Company in Walthamstow when she was recruited.
The obvious special ability that all these women possessed was their command of languages. They were not being sent to serve as guerrillas based in the mountains of Greece or Yugoslavia where they would be unlikely to meet the enemy except in battle ...The Women Who Lived for Danger
The Agents of the Special Operations Executive. Copyright © by Marcus Binney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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