D-Day Girls – The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
by Sarah Rose
- Sphere 2018
- ISBN: 9780451495082
- RRP $49.99 (hb)
Les Parisiennes – How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s
By Anne Sebba
- Orion Publishing Company 2016
- ISBN10 0297870971
- ISBN13 9780297870975
- RRP $67.99 (hb) / $22.99 (pb)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
The dark days of the German Reich’s occupation of France, from May 1940 until after the D-Day Normandy landings, has recently come in for renewed examination from an unlikely angle. Its women. A spate of books and films in the noughties, well over half a century since the war ended, have thrown light on what some historians have concluded to have been of little significance to the Allies’ success: the Resistance.
In her “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of her new book D-Day Girls – The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, Sarah Rose recalls how “war historian Max Hastings argued that what gets published about the female agents of SOE [Special Operations Executive or “the Firm”] is ‘romantic twaddle’”. To this Rose responds that “as a storyteller, and as a woman”, she believes that twaddle matters. “It is the stuff of human experience,” she writes. “What we feel, whom we love, how we mourn – this is the matrix in which we exist and act, even as armies blitz across continents.”
It would seem from the number of new books on the topic, Rose has a serious point. Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes – How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is yet another multi-layered account of the way women survived the deprivation and, in many cases, horrific suffering under the Nazi occupation of France. Sebba’s women make up all manner of classes, ethnicities, occupations and tactical survival choices from traitors and collaborators to those making heroic sacrifice. The women are agents, mothers and mistresses, they are from the world of art and media, some are fashion designers and a few are even aristocrats. Most manage to cope, others suffer the worst of torture. Then there are those who get through it by collaboration with the enemy.
This resistance is unplanned, even spontaneous, a struggle made from necessity. Yet, it is also a marvellous testimony to the endurance of the human spirit and gritty fight back at a personal level. The stories suggest that, at the very heart of the captured population, the will to resist found a myriad of expressions.
Sebba has interviewed a host of them, alongside using the vast collection of documents now available in archives. She has fashioned a fast paced account of a city at war under the occupation of a ruthless, and self-indulgent, army. Weaving separate stories together, the history of a decade in Paris comes to life out of the recorded experience of human risk and daring. And, while the Vichy French handed over 76,000 Jews to the death camps and 650,000 French workers to Nazi war factories, Sebba charts many acts of personal courage – from ordinary French citizens to Catholic institutions such as boarding schools and orphanages – where individuals risked death daily by hiding and caring for Jewish children, many inducted into the Catholic faith to hide their ethnic origins.
In D-Day Girls – The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II – using the published biographies of handful of the SOE women spies themselves and alongside a deep search in archival records – Sarah Rose has taken a different tack. Rose’s style evokes a fictional touch. She records events with both direct quotes from documents alongside invented thoughts and words to push events along as if readers are watching the action take place. It’s about getting into the scenes rather than having documented facts alone tell the story. It is a style aimed at making history easier to read and, for the most part, it works. Additionally, many of the actual heroines Rose uses in the book have left memoirs, adding their voices to the historical record.
The D-Day “girls” in Rose’s book are some of the best known women sent to France by the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) or the “Firm” as it was often called – its headquarters in Baker Street, London – as spies and agents to conduct undercover operations against the Nazis. Chosen for training in 1942, these women began landing in France from July 1942, although SOE’s first female agent was Virginia Hall, an American sent to France in August 1941. Hall left France in late 1942 and is not included in Rose’s D-Day girls.
As the Germans consolidated their hold on France, Winston Churchill signed off on women recruits for Baker Street – nicknamed Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. Objections were the familiar ones that women could be raped and misused by the enemy in such dangerous work. However, they could also be useful undercover couriers and information gatherers and more besides. Of those who made it through their training – and most did not – some were French born with native speaking accents to hide their identities. Overall, however, with its limited success, the sacrifice made by those sent – some to gruesome ends at the hands of the Nazis – does beg the question whether such an operation should ever have been set up.
Odette Sansom, Andree Borrel, Yvonne Rudellat, Mary Herbert and Lise de Bassac were an eclectic bunch. Their lives as spies make up the spine of Rose’s story of the women of the SOE. Odette was the mother of two daughters whom she left in England in a boarding school and the care of their grandmother. Yvonne was recruited at the age of 44 after losing her house and her cat one night in a bombing raid near Victoria Station. Mary Herbert, in her late thirties, spoke six languages and had worked for the British embassy in Warsaw.
Lise de Bassac, born in Mauritius and thus holding a British passport, had lived in Paris from her mid-teens. After the Nazis invaded, her passport made her an enemy alien and she escaped to the south where she arranged a passage to England through the American consulate. Her brother Claude was also commissioned by the SOE. Andree Borrel was, as Rose put it, “no stranger to death or to Nazis” having been part of the underground in France from the time of the German invasion, “helping some sixty-five Allied prisoners of war escape to freedom over the Spanish border”. In September 1942, Lise and Andree would be the first female agents to parachute into northern France.
None of these women were very much out of the ordinary. They had skills and developed more. But it is their cool daring that grabs the reader. And, with Sarah Rose’s style of linking fictional conversation/thoughts with archival and published record, the book is a page turner read.
Lise de Bassac took up residence a door from the Gestapo headquarters in Poitiers. Andree Borrel, with her male underground leaders Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman, held recruitment meetings in at the Hot Club, a secret jazz society. In the dark, Yvette Rudellat, tiny, thin and considered a risk because of her age (“Would she be taken seriously when explaining the finer points of plastique explosives and machine guns to teenage boys?”), abseils down a railway siding and wriggles up through a ventilation shaft of the railway passage to place explosives that blew out a tunnel that linked three large cities.
At one point, Andree Borrel was part of a small team (in a network of seven) that laid charges on some 25 electric pylons to sabotage the German/Vichy infrastructure. Women like Yvonne stood in dark cold fields awaiting drops of weapons and agents and listened to late night BBC radio for a phrase or sentence that might signal an Allied move against the Nazis in an invasion of France. They listened, waited and hoped through 1942 and 1943 but little changed. Rose does not believe their efforts were in vain, however, writing: “The special agents were all heroic, determined and human … these men and women hastened the end of the war.”
But, as the action unfolds, the networks are shown to be fraught with human error. An agent carrying names on lists falls asleep on a train and wakes to find his briefcase stolen. There follows betrayal and infiltration with some of the captured agents breaking. By the time of the D-Day landings, Odette had been arrested along with her lover and colleague Peter Churchill. Yvonne had been shot and taken into custody after treatment with a bullet that missed her skull still her head. Andree, working with Gilbert Norman in a safe house in the Bois de Bologne, had also been found and arrested. As if symbolic of the whole operation, of the women Rose records, only Lise de Bassac remained on the job as the D-Day invasion began in June 1944.
Rose writes of June 1943, when the agents believed the invasion of France by the Allies would begin, that it was a “bloodbath for the Resistance in northern France – in particular, those networks along the Channel coast”. At least 240 partisans from the Baker Street sub-circuits were caught. Those that could be recalled were taken back to England. For those caught it was a case of “night and fog”. Agents arrested were interned, interrogated, tortured and eliminated in prisons without record. After the war, British authorities would be left trying to trace the fates of their many lost agents.
As the story unfolds, it is Rose’s achievement to show the heroic contribution made by the men and especially women of the SOE in France just as their work began to crumble. Only Allied invasion and armed conflict would defeat the Nazis for all the efforts of the SOE espionage networks. But, in personalising and dramatising these individual stories, Rose leaves them a hero’s legacy. Some would be honoured after the war as significant contributors to the war effort.
While these women agents would never be held in the same regard as the men in the honour rolls, for all that, they had broken new barriers. And for any who might challenge their legacy in the war effort, Sarah Rose has her own evaluation:
Military historians debate whether la Resistance racked up strategic wins or if it was only ever a useful symbol. Let them argue … But General Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, paid the Firm the highest compliment, saying the strategic acts of sabotage by this irregular bunch of amateurs shortened the war by as much as six months, saving thousands of lives.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History