In June 1940, Winston Churchill appointed Hugh Dalton at the head of a new and highly secretive organisation – the SOE. Intended to combat the terrifying progress of Adolf Hitler’s army into France, Churchill gave Dalton a bold order: ‘Set Europe ablaze.’
The SOE set about training a team of secret agents to be sent undercover into Nazi-occupied France. Among these were 41 women, who fearlessly endured all manner of terrors to perform their wartime duties.
Here is the story of the female spies of the SOE:
What was the SOE?
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a World War Two organisation dedicated to espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance missions in occupied Europe. Highly dangerous, the agents of the SOE risked their lives on a daily basis in the interest of driving the Nazis out of Allied territory and bringing an end to the war.
The SOE F Section was particularly hazardous: it involved working directly from Nazi-occupied France, sending information back to the Allies, aiding the Resistance movement, and hindering the German campaign in any way possible.
Despite the clear risks, SOE agents had to be faultlessly confident in their abilities, as SOE courier Francine Agazarian once commented:
I believe none of us in the field ever gave one thought to danger. Germans were everywhere, especially in Paris; one absorbed the sight of them and went on with the job of living as ordinarily as possible and applying oneself to one’s work.
The women of the SOE
Though all working for the United Kingdom, the women of the SOE F Section hailed from across the globe. They all had one thing in common however: the ability to speak French, as assimilation into their surroundings was vital for the success of their missions.
From 19-year-old Sonya Butt from Kent in England to 53-year old Marie-Thérèse Le Chêne from Sedan in France, the women of the SOE encompassed a variety of ages and backgrounds. As the secretive organisation could not openly recruit its members, they instead had to rely on word of mouth, and as such many of the women of the SEO had relatives working alongside them, particularly brothers and husbands.
On missions into France, the agents were either parachuted, flown, or taken by boat to their positions. From there, they were placed in teams of 3, consisting of an ‘organiser’ or leader, wireless operator, and courier. Couriers were the first roles opened to women in the SOE, as they were able to travel more easily than men, who were often treated with suspicion.
Almost all organisers within the different SOE networks were men, however one woman was able to rise to this position: Pearl Witherington. Joining the SOE in 1943, Witherington was apparently the ‘best shot’ the service had ever seen during her training, and was soon sent to Indre Department in France as a courier.
On 1 May 1944, a twist of fate saw Pearl’s own organiser Maurice Southgate arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, while she and her wireless operator Amédéé Maingard took the afternoon off.
With Southgate a prisoner to the Germans, Pearl became the leader of her own SOE network, and together with Maingard at the helm of another, the pair caused over 800 interruptions of railway lines, hindering the German effort to transport troops and material to the battlefront in Normandy.
The following month she herself narrowly escaped capture when 56 truckloads of German soldiers attacked her headquarters in the village of Dun-le-Poëlier, forcing her to flee into a nearby wheat field. The Germans did not pursue her however, and instead focused on destroying the weapons found inside the building.
A key player in organising the French maquis, or resistance fighters, 4 groups from Witherington’s network were called upon to face an army of 19,000 German soldiers at the Forest of Gatine in August 1944. The maquis threatened the Germans to the point of surrender, yet unwilling surrender to a group who weren’t a ‘regular army’, they instead negotiated with US General Robert C. Macon.
To her fury, neither Witherington nor her maquis were invited to attend or participate in the official surrender. With her mission complete however, she returned to the UK in September 1944.
Lise de Baissac was recruited as a courier to the SOE in 1942, and alongside Andree Borrel was the first female agent to be parachuted into France. She then travelled to Poitiers to begin a solo mission spying on the Gestapo headquarters, living there for 11 months.
Adopting the role of an amateur archaeologist, she cycled around the country identifying possible parachute drop-zones and landing areas, collecting air-dropped weapons and supplies for transport to safe houses, and building a resistance network of her own in the process.
Her duties as a courier also involved receiving and briefing 13 newly arrived SOE agents, and arranging the clandestine departure of agents and resistance leaders back to England. In essence, she and her fellow couriers were the key figures on the ground in France, carrying messages, receiving supplies, and aiding with local resistance movements.
Her second mission into France was even more vital however – in 1943 she was stationed in Normandy, unknowingly preparing for the D-Day landings. When she at last caught wind that the Allied invasion of France was imminent, she cycled 300km in 3 days to get back to her network, suffering many close calls with German officials.
On one such occasion, she described how a group of Germans came to evict her from her accommodation, stating:
I arrived to take my clothes and found they had opened up the parachute I had made into a sleeping bag and were sitting on it. Fortunately they had no idea what it was.
Noor Inayat Khan was the first female wireless operator sent from the UK into occupied France. Of Indian Muslim and American heritage, Khan was university-educated and an excellent musician – a skill that made her a naturally talented signaller.
Acting as a wireless operator was perhaps the most dangerous role in the SOE. It involved maintaining the link between London and the resistance in France, sending messages back and forth at a time where detection by the enemy was improving as the war progressed. By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator was just 6 weeks.
In June 1943, while many in her network were being gradually rounded up by the Germans, Khan opted to stay in France, believing herself to be the only SOE operator still in Paris.
Soon after, she was betrayed by someone in the SOE’s circle and underwent a harsh interrogation process by the Gestapo. She refused to give them any information, however after discovering her notebooks, the Germans were able to imitate her messages and communicate directly to London, facilitating the capture of a further 3 SOE agents.
After a failed escape attempt, she was transported to Dachau Concentration Camp alongside her fellow female agents: Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment and Eliane Plewman. All 4 were executed at dawn on 13 September 1944, with Khan’s last word reported to be simply: “Liberté”
The fate of the SOE women
Just under half of the 41 women recruited into the SOE did not survive the war – 12 were executed by the Nazis, 2 died of disease, 1 died on a sinking ship, and 1 died of natural causes. Of the 41, 17 saw the horrors inside the German concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, and Dachau among others, including SOE survivor Odette Sansom whose story was captured in the 1950 film Odette.
25 did make it home however, and went on to live long and happy lives. Francine Agazarian lived to be 85, Lise de Baissac to 98, and Pearl Witherington to 93.
The last living female SOE member is Phyllis Latour, who during her time as an agent sent over 135 coded messages from Normandy to Britain, knitted into her silken hair ties. In April 2021, she turned 100 years old.