|Female French Resistance fighters|
One thing we really haven’t dealt with much thus far is the Second World War resistance movement. I was particularly inspired recently to read of some of the female intelligence agents, and thought you might appreciate a little mission behind enemy lines this week into the world of spies and sabotage!
Noor Inayat Khan
“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”
Born in Russia to an American mother and father of Indian nobility, Khan grew up in France. At the start of the war they fled to England, where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in November 1940. Since she was fluent in French, she was referred to recruiters for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British organization formed with the task of assisting resistance movements in occupied Europe. Once recruited, Khan became the first female radio operator to go into occupied France. In July 1943, she established herself in the Paris Prosper Network, which was soon discovered by the Nazis. The other wireless operators were captured, leaving Khan as the sole communicator with London.
She continued working until her own arrest on 13 October 1943, and while she didn’t talk during interrogations, the Germans found her notebooks, broke her code, and impersonated her SOE discarded the message as unreliable. London continued to treat the impersonated messages as genuine, leading to several more arrests and executions by the Germans.
Meanwhile, Khan attempted several escapes and even managed one successfully in November 1943 before being quickly recaptured. The Nazis deemed her “very dangerous” and sent her to Pforzheim, Germany, where she endured ten months of solitary confinement as a Night and Fog prisoner (one of Hitler’s directives against resistance workers whereby local populations would be intimidated by the disappearance of captured loved ones). In September 1944, Khan and three other SOE agents were transferred to Dachau and executed. A bronze bust of Khan now stands in London’s Gordon Square Gardens.
“They will kill me, I know. But then they would not win anything. What is the point? They’ll have a dead body, useless to them. They won’t have me. I won’t let them have me… it’s a kind of bargaining.”
It all started with a postcard. French-born Hallowes had moved with her three daughters to England at the start of the war. In 1942, the Admiralty asked civilians for photos and postcards of the French coast for military intelligence. Hallowes accidentally addressed her postcard to the war office, which led to an interviewer with a recruiter for the SOE.
While she was reluctant to leave her daughters, Hallowes trained as one of the first female SOE recruits. She landed in France in November 1942, where she contacted Captain Peter Churchill, another agent. She aided him in the resistance for the next five months.
Meanwhile, a German intelligence officer had captured one of Hallowes’s contacts and infiltrated the resistance. He captured Hallowes and Churchill on 16 April 1943 and transported them to Fresnese Prison. When the bribes failed to extract information, the two were interrogated and tortured. They quickly fabricated a story that Churchill was the nephew of the prime minister and Hallowes was his wife, hoping that this would give them a reprieve.
By July 1944, Hallowes was at the Ravensbrück concentration camp as a Night and Fog prisoner. She survived five months on a starvation diet before she was released to a normal cell. Her trial ended in May 1945, when her ward turned her over to American troops in the hopes of shortening his sentence. He was tried and executed, while Hallowes went on to enjoy life into her eighties.
“I have only one thing to say: I killed a lot of Germans, and I’m sorry I didn’t kill more.”
Wake was always a strong and independent woman. At sixteen, she ran away from home and worked as a nurse and journalist before settling in Marseille with her husband. He was a member of Marseille’s upper society, and Wake lived a life of luxury until the Germans invaded France.
Without any formal training, she became an essential member of the resistance in Marseille. She used the cover of her expensive flat and socialite status to aid refugees and Allied spies. She was so successful that the Germans nicknamed her “White Mouse” and made her the Gestapo’s most-wanted person. When the situation grew too dangerous, she fled to England in 1943.
There, she immediately joined the SOE, trained with a group of male recruits and parachuted back into France in April 1944. She became one of the leaders of the resistance group Maquis d’Auvergne, coordinating supplies and sabotage attacks for the 7,000 men under her command. Before the war’s end, the group fought 22,000 Germans and suffered only a hundred casualties, but wounded or killed 1,400 German soldiers.
Here’s an interesting anecdote about Wake: Sometimes, a firm hand was required in demonstrating to over 7,000 men that a woman could lead them. On one occasion, several new recruits refused to do their share of chores. “You don’t want to collect water, I hear?” She asked, marching up to them. They were all sitting on a tree trunk and indicated that this was so. “Well then, of course, you mustn’t,” she said sweetly. “You are gendarmes. Water-carrying is not for you. Now you just stay there comfortably in the sun and I’ll get the water for you.” She put the buckets in her car, drove to the nearby lake, filled them up and drove them back to the headquarters. Then, grim-faced, she opened the door of the car, took out one bucket of water, marched across to the first gendarme and deposited it violently over his head. “Don’t move!” she bellowed to his startled companions. Petrified, they sat where they were. One after another, she helmeted every one of them with a pail full of water. (Russel Braddon, Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine)
I appreciate your “dropping in” to celebrate these remarkable women with me this week. All information and images come from Victoria Van Vlear’s article “Subversive Heroes” in Heroes of World War II Fall 2016, pp. 87-91.
Thanks for reading,