For many, mention of the secret war in France conjures images of Virginia McKenna as the agent Violette Szabo in the film Carve Her Name With Pride or Anna Neagle as Odette Churchill in Odette. In Mission France, Kate Vigurs avoids encouraging the idea of celebrity amongst Special Operations Executive – F Section, giving us first a crisp introduction to the establishment of SOE and the recruitment of its women agents. What follows is a clear appraisal of SOE strategy in France then the major part of the book, vibrant with anecdote and detail, which covers the tactical work of all the women – wireless operators or couriers – and what happened to them.
Thirty-nine women were infiltrated into France between 1942 and 1944, the youngest 19 and the oldest 51. Single, married, widowed or divorced and from a range of national backgrounds, the key requirement was that they were fluent in French and would be utterly committed to their work. Rigorous paramilitary training took place along with their male comrades in the Highlands. As the officer in charge once remarked, “there was no distinction between the sexes… crawling flat to the ground over the peaty marshes, they were all just bods in battledress.” They learned “Commando killing” with the F-S fighting knife and, well into her eighties, one of the veterans remarked that she could still kill a man using the techniques she’d been taught at Arisaig.
In France, as well as adhering to their specific roles and orders, the agents had to improvise and adapt as circumstances changed. One female SOE agent eventually became a commander of 7,000 Maquis guerillas, another was an expert bomber: a British diplomat said of her “She could do anything with dynamite, except eat it.”
Kate Vigurs lists all 39 women at the beginning of the book, with their roles and codenames, going on to explain what all of them did, their shortcomings and mistakes as well as their skills and courage. Fourteen died in the field, most of them captured by the Gestapo after their betrayal by an informer. After D-Day they were transported to Ravensbruck or Bergen-Belsen for further torture and death. Their staff officer Vera Atkins took it upon herself to research each case. She traced the fates of 12 of “her girls” and was present at the war trials of the Nazis who had been involved in their deaths.
The freshness and honesty of Mission France make it an ideal book for taking a new look at the secret war, at a time when knowledge of these brave women’s exploits is fading from living memory.
Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE, by Kate Vigurs, Yale University Press, 323pp, £20
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