I've recently been reading about the agents of the Special Operations Executive, a British agency set up during World War 2 to provide undercover assistance to advance the war efforts by non-military means. In other words, spies. More specifically I've been reading about the operatives of F Section who were sent to Occupied France to assist the French resistance.
The heroism of these agents is almost unimaginable. All of them were parachuted into Occupied France, armed with codes, radios and the knowledge that if they were caught they could expect torture and death. They were all volunteers, and some of them were women. Of the 39 female agents who were sent to France, thirteen were captured and killed. 91 male agents were willed as well.
Cyrptographer and screenwriter Leo Marks was in charge of agent codes for the SOE; his book, Between Silk and Cyanide, is a fascinating history of the agency. Marks was also a briefing agent who had personal friendships with many of the agents of F Section, including Violette Szabo, a 23 year old agent who was captured by the Nazis and executed in 1944, along with three other SOE agents, Denise Bloch, Cecily LeFort, and Lilian Rolfe.
Marks also knew Noor Inayat Khan, the first female radio operative to be sent to Occupied France. Khan was a member of a royal Indian family, whose father was a famous teacher of Sufism, and whose mother was an American. Prior to the war, she had studied music and had a successful career as a children's writer, but when the war broke out she joined the WAAF, and later the SOE. Khan spent four months in Occupied France before she was betrayed to the Germans, and in 1944 was executed.
Another famous SOE agent was Christine Granville, a Polish national who used her bravery and charm to win the release of several SOE agents when they were captured by the Nazis. She was the longest serving of SOE's female agents and survived the war only to be murdered by a lovesick sailor in 1952.
I highlight the female agents here, but of course there were many men who were equally as heroic, including the White Rabbit (F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas) , who was captured by the Germans, and escaped twice, once from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Recaptured after his last attempt, he managed to persuade his jailers that he was a French national, and thus avoided execution. Yeo-Thomas survived the war to testify at the Nuremberg War Trials.
Thanks to a myriad of movies and thrillers being a spy can seem like a lot of fun and games. The history of the SOE proves that there is little fun or much game in espionage. It takes guts and bravery to walk into a trap from which you may never be able to escape. I couldn't have done what they did. I can barely manage to summon up the bravery to leave the house sometimes, much less parachute into occupied territory, knowing that I'll probably be betrayed and die a lonely horrible hungry death. It's a pity now that most of these agents are known only by World War 2 aficionados and historians. I urge you to read search out their stories and remember them.
And for those who wonder about the courage of women and their suitability for dangerous work, I point to the women of the SOE and say, oh yeah?