The death of Nancy Wake, the former Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, has reminded me of what superb secret operatives women make – and why.
Miss Wake, who died at the weekend aged 98, was one of the bravest and most determined underground fighters against the Germans in Occupied France during the Second World War.
Those trying to capture her called her “White Mouse” because she always managed to wriggle out of their traps. There was a 5 million franc bounty on her head yet the highly-decorated, New Zealand-born, Australian-raised agent managed to survive not just the war but also a further 66 years after the end of hostilities.
Miss Wake was the inspiration for Sebastian Faulks’ novel Charlotte Gray, which was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett. One male comrade-in-arms in the French Resistance summed up “White Mouse” as “The most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”
But how did it come about that Miss Wake and other courageous women played such crucial roles as secret agents during the Second World War? And why were they so good at their jobs?
Most of the credit for taking on women in such a dangerous and controversial role must lie with Captain Selwyn Jepson, the author and the senior recruiting officer for the SOE, which had been formed in the summer of 1940 after the fall of France.
During my research for my most recent book, George Cross Heroes, I came across an interview that Captain Jepson had given to the Imperial War Museum long after the war. In the interview, he explained the logic behind why he had taken on women as SOE agents.
Captain Jepson said: “I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I must say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don’t work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men.
“There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to [Winston] Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, ‘What are you doing?’ I told him and he said, ‘I see you are using women to do this,’ and I said, ‘Yes, don’t you think it is a very sensible thing to do?’ And he said, ‘Yes, good luck to you.’ And that was my authority!”
Captain Jepson’s style was to tell potential recruits: “I have to decide whether I can risk your life and you have to decide whether you’re willing to risk it.”
Eventually three women were awarded the George Cross (GC) for their courageous work as British agents: Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan – all of whom have separate write-ups in George Cross Heroes. Miss Wake, incidentally, was awarded the George Medal – and many other decorations besides – for her bravery.
It helped if the women agents did not have children, but this was not an essential requirement for the job. For example, Odette Sansom, the first woman to be awarded the GC, had three young daughters, whom she sent to live in a convent during the war years. French-born and married to an Englishman, she was motivated by a love of her homeland and her adopted country.
Odette Sansom wanted to help the Allied cause and, because she spoke fluent French and knew France well, she concluded that her most valuable role would be with the Resistance. She was utterly single-minded and, despite being captured and brutally tortured by the Germans, she never gave away anything of value to the enemy.
Eventually Odette Sansom survived the war and, on August 20, 1946 she was awarded the GC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry away from the front-line. Her lengthy citation ended: “During the period of over two years in which she was in enemy hands, she displayed courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the highest possible order.”
The equally-courageous Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, both strong, self-contained women who also showed incredible defiance under the most extreme torture, were executed in the final two years of the war. They were awarded posthumous GCs.
Britain and its Second World War Allies owe a massive debt to the likes of Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Khan and, of course, the recently-departed Nancy Wake.
Interestingly, Miss Wake, unlike other women SOE agents, turned her back on countless opportunities to pursue war-time love affairs. “If I had accommodated one, the word would have spread and they’d have been coming over the mountains for more,” she said long after the war. “So, no love affairs, and that was that.”
When she was dropped into France in April 1944, her parachute became entangled in a tree. “I hope,” said Henri Tardivat, the Resistance fighter who greeted her, “that all trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”
The dangling secret agent, who once killed a German guard with her bare hands, was unimpressed by the Frenchman’s chat-up line. “Don’t give me that French shit,” she snapped back.