The Women of SOE

Kate Vigurs

Kate Vigurs explores the role of women in the Special Operations Executive, French Section.
Home » Articles » Historical article » The Women of SOE

During World War Two, 39 women were specially selected to work in a secretive, clandestine and mainly male domain: the Special Operations Executive, French Section (SOE F). Ranging from housewives and mothers to shop assistants and countesses, these women were put through a rigorous training programme in which they learnt ‘Silent Killing’, instinctive shooting and sabotage, as well as survival tactics to prepare them for life as a secret agent. Some went by parachute, others landed by boat or aircraft to begin their dangerous work in enemy occupied France where, for most of them, work would involve being a wireless operator or courier. The latter often travelled hundreds of kilometres carrying vital yet incriminating information, whilst the former assisted in receiving arms and vital supplies, undertaking huge risks to make contact with SOE HQ over the radio waves.  Behind enemy lines, they operated beyond the protection of the Geneva Convention and, at worst, were given a life expectancy of six weeks.

Nazi occupation of Europe, and the resistance rising up against it, showed the War Cabinet they needed to use agents to fight from within. The fall of France came as a huge blow to the Allies and led to the forming of the Special Operations Executive. The idea for this new organisation had been mooted in several memoranda throughout the spring and early summer of 1940, and on 22 July, it was formally approved by the War Cabinet. The prime minister promptly gave the new head of SOE the much-quoted directive to ‘set Europe ablaze’.

Their objective was to coordinate and assist local clandestine activity against the Axis powers and their occupying forces in territories across Europe and beyond. SOE agents would liaise with, equip, train and arm the local resistance so that when the time came, they could pave the way for the invading forces of D-Day and fight back against the occupiers. The SOE agents would also assist with sabotage and subversion on every level; from smaller acts of resistance such as false intelligence and propaganda, to cutting power lines, derailing trains and blowing up factories. They would do all of this in spite of the Nazi threat that ‘any passive or active opposition to the German armed forces will incur the most severe retaliatory measures.’

SOE set up a number of different sections which worked in various countries including France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and Albania. It also operated in the Far East in a branch known as Force 136. The branch focusing on France would come to have six sections. Today, we focus on one of those: F Section.

In April 1942, two years after its creation, in accordance with its central tenet to ‘go straight for the objective, across any social or military conventions that may get in the way’, SOE made the ground-breaking decision to employ women in the field as secret agents. This was an unprecedented move. Up to this point, women had contributed to the war effort in a wide variety of ways, from working in munitions factories and as drivers, to clerical work and nursing. They usually worked on the home front, occasionally abroad, and only very few had recently engaged in combat behind enemy lines; indeed, the value and usefulness of women agents had just been proved to the organisation through the exploits of Virginia Hall and Krystyna Skarbek.

The paths the women took to SOE were as diverse as they were themselves. In its formative months, SOE was something of an old-boy network; word-of-mouth recruitment was encouraged, and male friends and colleagues from schools, universities, regiments and businesses sought each other out to work together. There was no women’s equivalent, and neither was there any prescribed method for recruiting female agents. Partly as a result of this, SOE recruited an extraordinary range of women, from the ranks of the aristocracy to those of working-class backgrounds, and of all ages (the youngest, Sonia Butt, was 19, while the oldest, Marie-Thérèse le Chêne, was 51).

Although no particular experience of war service was required, perhaps the most apposite recruits for SOE were women who had fled France either at the outset or in the early years of the war, whom therefore had some experience of living in Occupied France, and perhaps even working with the Resistance. Four of the female agents recruited into F Section – Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Madeleine Damerment and Nancy Wake – had previously worked on escape lines, a form of resistance which helped downed British airmen, escaped POWs or stranded servicemen to find their way out of occupied territory and back to safety. This usually meant a journey across the mountains into Spain before travelling to Gibraltar or Portugal, and then finally making it to Britain. These women, who possessed knowledge of France, an understanding of life under the occupation, and excellent language skills, were a very strong asset to SOE.

Several of the women were mothers or housewives who found themselves called to interview through various ruses, as in the case of Marguerite ‘Peggy’ Knight, who was overheard speaking French at a party, while Yvonne Rudellat was approached through contacts at the Ebury Court Club in London where she worked. A few of the women, including Lise de Baissac, Eliane Plewman and Francine Agazarian, already had spouses or siblings in SOE who put them forward as viable candidates to be considered by the organisation.

Yvonne Baseden

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was instructed to look out for exceptional women who might be useful to SOE, and indeed it identified a number of women who became SOE agents. Among them was 21-year-old Yvonne Baseden, who had joined the WAAF at the outbreak of the war (after seeking her father’s permission). Having been born in France in 1922 to a French mother and English father, in 1939 she had moved to Southampton, where she worked as a bilingual short-hand typist at an engineering firm. She had an excellent grasp of French which did not go unnoticed by the WAAF. In early 1943, she was invited for an interview in London. As soon as the interview started, Yvonne realised it was something to do with languages, though she was not given the full details at first. An opportunity to use her language skills in a way that might serve her country and allow her to see action was just what she wanted, and she was delighted to think she could do something for the war effort other than be a WAAF officer. Her F Section training began in the summer of 1943.

SOE was also able to gain access to the information provided on the many forms that civilians had to fill out for various reasons. These could be applications for identity cards, to join services, or even to get permission to fly abroad, and they could provide a wealth of details that would show whether a person had the right qualities to warrant an SOE interview. British Customs also agreed to inform SOE should anyone suitable pass through their offices, in addition to which, suitable candidates who were spotted at the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, south-west London, where MI5 interrogated all foreign nationals who had reached Britain from enemy-occupied territory, might also have their details passed on to SOE.

Age and social background were not determining factors in SOE’s recruitment process. However, the candidate’s experience, motives and personality were considered extremely important. ‘The first qualification’ for an F Section candidate was that ‘they had to be able to pass as a native of the place they were in, so they had to be French or speak native French and they had, obviously, to look French and, as if they would be able to have all the other necessary qualities for it’.  They ideally needed to have knowledge of France and the French way of life, as well as the ability to blend in. SOE F’s recruiting officer, Selwyn Jepson, outlined that they should have ‘physical courage and sufficient intelligence combined with just enough leadership to enable them to carry out one simple and specific job.’ Above all, the women had to have a willingness to entertain the possibility of working for SOE and take on the clandestine work.

The reasons for such willingness varied greatly. Women were attracted to resistance work for many reasons; to fight the regime, to protect the future of their families, or to avenge a loved one’s deportation or death. Yolande Beekman’s motives for joining SOE were ‘idealism, the “good of the cause” and devotion to duty.’ Pearl Witherington had served with the office of the British air attaché in Paris since 1933, and escaped to London after the occupation, arriving in July 1941; she wanted to find a way to join the fight against the occupiers. Nancy Wake had already worked with the resistance and wanted to go back; F Section heard of her work and admired her courage. Phyllis Latour, the daughter of a French doctor, wanted the opportunity to make her mark against the Germans in revenge for their shooting of her godmother’s father, whom she looked on as her own grandfather, and her godmother’s suicide after being imprisoned by the enemy.

Jepson recognised that the agents he recruited had many different motives, and it was his job to establish during the interview what a woman’s motive was, and if she was suitable for recruitment into SOE. The initial interview was generally conducted in central London at the former Hotel Victoria in Northumberland Avenue, or at Horse Guards. If successful, subsequent interviews might be at Orchard Court; there, F Section had use of an impressive apartment, complete with black marble bathroom.

For some women, arriving for interview would be the first time that they had even contemplated war work, whilst for other, more experienced hands, it would signal a welcome return to resistance activities. For some recruits it was a break from the monotony of a desk job in the WAAF or other services, and for several women it meant leaving behind their children in an attempt to secure their safety and the hope of a brighter future.

Jepson used the interviews to glean information, and only once he was convinced by a recruit’s potential did he tell them the precise details of the nature of the work involved, including the dangers and the chances of survival (50/50). He then waited for the candidate’s reaction, wary of initial bursts of enthusiasm which could indicate a misconceived notion about war work.

Once recruited, the women would either retain their WAAF uniform or be enlisted in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which was vital to the success of SOE both as a cover and a useful source of personnel. The FANY had originally been set up in 1907, and in World War Two it was divided into two. One part became the Women’s Transport Service (WTS FANY) which provided drivers to the RAF and the army, and the other was an autonomous FANY HQ, which continued to run in London. It was this organisation that worked alongside SOE. Not only did FANY provide cover for agents, it also paired agents with wireless operators who would get to know their ‘fist’ – the uniquely recognisable way that they tapped the Morse key while sending – and so would be able to work out if something was wrong or if agents were transmitting under duress.

The training was intended to last six to nine months. However, if an agent was desperately needed in the field or proved unusually competent, then the training period could be cut short to reflect the talents (or limitations) of the agent in question. 39 women passed their training courses and were infiltrated into enemy Occupied France. 13 did not come home. All of their stories are told in Mission France.

Kate Vigurs is a freelance historian, academic advisor, and researcher. Her postdoctoral research was used for the BBC World War One at Home series. Kate makes regular appearances on television and radio. Her debut book is Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.