Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE, by Kate Vigurs

An 'important' new history of the women of SOE.
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Mission France

Was it worth it? In 1941 Hitler issued an order, Nacht und Nebel Erlass, the Night and Fog Decree. This ordered political activists to be ‘disappeared.’ On 6 July, 1944, Sonia Olschanesky, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, and Andree Borrell, female SOE operatives from F (France) section, were ordered to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. The details are sketchy, but it seems that they were executed by lethal injection before being cremated. Dr Werner Rohde, an SS doctor, speaking at his trial, claimed that he had administered 20 millilitres of Evipan, a barbiturate, to the first woman, but became so upset he could not carry on. The grisly task was completed by a Dr Plaza, who may have administered Phenol (carbolic acid) instead.

Kate Vigurs examines the stories of the 39 women SOE agents who operated behind enemy lines between 1940 and 1944. The women loom large in popular imagination, and Vigurs sets out to rescue them from the distorting myths that have grown up around them. In the words of the great historian of the SOE, M.R.D Foot, ‘almost all of it is worthless and much of it is about the wrong people.’

It is not an easy task. As Vigurs explains, by 1949 around 100 tonnes of archival material had been destroyed by the zealous pruning of files, and by a fire at SOE’s Baker St headquarters. Furthermore, by the 1960s the public had developed quite an appetite for ‘ever more exciting stories about the SOE, the national press…making some of them into what we now call celebrities.’ Today the archive comprises of 15,000 files, about 87 per cent having been lost.

Vigurs’ approach is to weave together a narrative that arcs from selection and training, through infiltration into France, and their subsequent extraction or capture. Within this, the 39 women appear and illuminate some rich historical detail about recruitment methods, training in England (such as ‘silent killing’ and morse), the function of the cells (‘circuits’), life in occupied France, and the sexually-charged infighting amongst agents and their resistance counterparts.

Mission France consciously avoids hagiography. Many of the operational failures, and there are many described in these pages, were down to agents failing to stick to the rules and their training. Lapses such as failing to destroy code books, forgetting to hide wireless sets, and agents fraternising, act as a corrective to the more established tales of pluck and derring-do. Virginia Hall’s escape across the Pyrenees with a wooden leg is especially brilliant. The chapter on the downfall of the PROSPER network is a tragic account of the consequences of a security slip.

This is a story that deserves to be told. Why select women for a job which was inherently dangerous, at a time when women occupied a much less equal place in society? Why would women choose to part from their children and risk their lives where, as non-military agents, they could not even count on the Geneva Conventions for protection? What lessons can be learned?

We don’t really get into this detail. Some of the women, we learn, thirst for revenge for a loved one.  Nancy Wake (the inspiration for Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray) was motivated by the sight of Jews being persecuted. There’s an early reference to the STO programme, which placed most French men into Nazi forced labour, the only alternative being flight to the mountains to join the Maquis. And thus ‘women became even more useful to the resistance…and they would raise less suspicion as the men.’

This is an important book in another way though. None of what these astonishing women did would be possible today. Forged ID cards, ration cards, coded messages and covert landing sites would be futile in today’s surveillance state where we have willingly submitted to state and corporate scrutiny. Vigurs gives us a timely reminder of not only F Section’s extraordinary contribution to our freedoms, but why we may not be able to resist this sort of oppressive occupation ever again, even if we wanted to.

Justin Doherty is a classicist, former British Army officer, and advisor to governments on crises and complex situations.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.