SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE
WOMEN OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The film Charlotte Gray is set in Vichy France during the Second World War. The story is based on the exploits of women in Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) who worked with the French resistance in Nazi occupied France. In July 1940 the SOE was set up as a top secret network of undercover agents whose tasks were to “set Europe ablaze”. All operatives were required to be bilingual and possess the ability to pass as a native citizen of the country in which they were deployed. The recruits were required to undergo tough commando training with the emphasis on Morse code, radio operating and proficiency with both guns and explosives. Upon completion of their training they were dropped behind enemy in Nazi occupied territory where they sabotaged supply lines, mobilised resistance and relayed intelligence back to SOE HQ. The work often involved the delivery of packages and women generally did not arouse any suspicion. However, if captured their fate would be terrible. In civilian clothes they were classified as insurgents and not combatants in uniform. They did not have the same protection as prisoners of war as the Geneva Convention did not make provision for women.
The character Charlotte Gray is a composite agent based on such SOE agents as the following women:-
Andrée Borrel who was born in a suburb of North West Paris in November 1919. She left school at 14 to help support her family after her father died. Just prior to the start of the Second World War Andrée travelled to Spain to help in the Spanish Civil War against the Nazi-backed fascists but the war was almost over. She returned to France and volunteered for the Red Cross. In October 1939 her mother was advised to move to a warmer area for her health so Andrée and her sister escorted their mother to Toulon on the Mediterranean. Whilst there Andrée enrolled in a crash course in nursing and eventually qualified her to work in various hospitals. Along with Lieutenant Maurice Dufour they started working for the underground resistance after the hospitals had closed down.
In late December 1941 the safe house she and Dufour had established as part of an escape network was compromised they evacuated to London where she tried to join Free French Forces. She was rejected by them but then was approached by SOE. Whilst officially an ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) Andrée was trained by SOE to become a field agent. In September 1942 Andrée and Lisa de Baissac were the first female agents to be flown to occupied France. With her knowledge of Paris she was employed as a courier eventually becoming second-in-command of the Paris circuit. She helped set up circuits in Paris and northern France including many resistance activities until June 1943 when she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was interrogated but showed stubborn resistance and sent to Fresnes Prison before being transported to Germany with seven other SOE agents including Odette Hallows. On the 6th July 1944 Andrée with three other agent were transported to Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in France. The women were told to undress for a medical inspection and have an injection for medical reasons. The injections were lethal and their bodies were taken to the crematorium ovens. Andrée was posthumously awarded the Crois de Guerre and Médalle de la Résistance by France in recognition of her heroic defence of her homeland. Britain also awarded her the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct (KCBC).
Yvonne Cormeau MBE, born Beatrice Yvonne Biesterfield was born in Shanghai, China in December 1909. Her father was a Belgian consular official and her mother was Scottish. She was educated in Scotland and Belgium and in 1937 she married Charles Cormeau whilst living in London. Her husband was wounded in France in November 1940 after having enlisted in the The Rifle Brigade. He was sent back to the UK and was killed shortly after when their London home was bombed. A bath fell over Yvonne’s head which protected her and saved her life. In November 1941 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in an effect to take her husband’s place in the Armed Forces, where she answered an appeal for linguists. She was recruited by SOE in February 1943 and trained as a wireless operator along with Noor Inayat Khan. She had volunteered to save France from the Nazis, leaving her two year daughter behind who was brought up in a convent by Ursuline nuns in Oxfordshire. Yvonne was parachuted north east of Bordeaux where she worked as a courier and wireless operator under the disguise of district nurse. She successfully made over 400 transmissions to London and assisted in various resistance sabotage activities. She had one narrow escape where she passed her wireless equipment off as an x-ray machine. She worked for thirteen months despite being betrayed and having “wanted” posters of her displayed locally. She evaded being arrested on a number occasions with some narrow escapes. A year after the war ended she was demobilised having attained the WAAF Rank of Flight Officer. After demob she worked as a translator with SOE at the Foreign Office. She became a leading figure with the SOE veterans and arranged their annual Bastille Day Dinners. After the war she was appointed MBE and decorated with the Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance and Palmes Academiques. She was reunited with her daughter after the war and they lived in London. Yvonne was one of the earliest members of the Special Forces Club. She married James (Jim) Edgar Farrow when she was in her 70s and they lived in Derbyshire. In 1989 she was subject of “This is Your Life”. Yvonne had been invited to a cast ‘photo-call’ of the wartime series “Wish Me Luck” and was presented with the famous Big Red Book by Michael Aspell and Jane Asher, one of the stars of the series. After her husband Jim died she spent her remaining years at Fleet in Hampshire where she died on Christmas Day 1997 aged 88.
Christine Granville OBE, as she was known, whose real name was Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, was born in Poland in May 1908. She legally adopted the name Christine Granville when she became a British National in December 1946. Christine was the daughter of an impoverished Count and Jewish mother who grew up on a country estate. She enjoyed the active sporting outdoor life of a tomboy until the 1920s when the family moved to Warsaw on account of financial problems. In April 1930 she married a young business man but they were found to be incompatible and the marriage ended in divorce. Christine met her second husband at a ski resort in Poland and after they married in 1938 they set off for Kenya in Africa. Her new husband was a globetrotter and diplomat who had been offered a post of consul in Kenya, but before they actually arrived the Second World War began. Upon arrival at Cape Town they boarded another ship and headed for England. She volunteered to help the British secret services by proposing an occupied-Polish/Hungarian escape route for Polish volunteers to fight in the west together with any other available information. She was then recruited into Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and given instructions to pass on any information to SOE. In February she made her first trip over the border and by early 1941 she was ordered to leave for Belgrade. The resistance group she was in contact with had been infiltrated as the Hungarians came under more German control. The British provided her a new passport naming her as Christine Granville enabling her to escape. The Polish resistance distrusted her in the circumstances of her escape from the Gestapo. She was prevented from getting involved in any of SOE’s further major missions. She spent nearly three years taking part in second-rate missions until 1943 when she replaced a courier in Southern France for resistance leader, Francis Cammaerts. She was introduced into SOE with extensive training and in July 1944 she was dropped into Southern France and blended in with the local resistance groups. On the eve of the Allied invasion of Southern France in late 1944, Cammaerts was arrested alongside two other SOE agents. Having sequential numbered banknotes the local Gestapo officer ordered their execution in forty-eight hours. When Christine heard she presented herself as Cammaerts’ wife and the niece of General Montgomery. Informing him of the imminent invasion and the consequences of his actions, the Gestapo officer arranged for the three SOE agents to be released. A few weeks later she managed to convince 2,000 Polish men to dispose their uniforms and revolt against the Germans. She was successful as the Polish men were forcibly enlisted in the German Army. Shortly after Christine’s mission was over as the Allies had liberated France. She was recalled to London for de-briefing and again ordered back to Cairo where she stayed until the end of the war. She found she really wasn’t wanted anywhere after she arrived back in Britain. Poland was under Russian control and she couldn’t go there, while Britain was flooded with Polish ex- servicemen struggling to find work and who now were relegated to second-class citizens. Some SOE commanders managed to assist her in obtaining a British passport although they never employed her again. She had a series of mundane jobs until 1951 when she became entangled with Irishman Dennis Mulldowney. He became obsessed with her and on the 15th June 1951 he stabbed her to death after she told him of her plans to leave England for good. He waited by her body until the police arrived and admitted murdering her. He was tried and executed in 1952. For her wartime work in conjunction with the British Authorities in May 1947 Christine was made on Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). She was also awarded the George Medal for her bravery in the field. The French awarded her the Croix de Guerre for her contribution in the Liberation of France. Her medals and awards counted for nothing when she was of no further use to Britain.
Odette Hallows (maiden name Brailly) was born in the French town of Amien in April 1912, her father was killed during the Great War. She was convent educated then met Englishman Roy Sansom and they married in 1931. They moved to Britain and had three daughters. At the beginning of the Second World War Sansom joined the army and Odette with the children moved to Somerset for their safety. When Germany occupied France in 1940 she made contact with the Free French forces based in London and consequently was recruited into SOE. When she was recruited into SOE she left her daughters in a convent school. With orders to help establish a new network in Burgundy she was sent by boat to France in October 1941. She worked as a radio operator alongside Peter Churchill the SOE’s organiser in that district. Radio operation was highly dangerous with the Gestapo constantly monitoring the airwaves. They were infiltrated by German Intelligence and Odette and Churchill were arrested on the 16th April 1943. They convinced the Gestapo they were husband and wife and were related to Winston Churchill which ensured they were not executed. Odette was sent to Fresnes Prison in Paris and was tortured by the Gestapo but did not divulge any information. Along with seven other SOE agents (including Andrée Borrel) Odette was transported to Nazi Germany on the 13th May 1944. She was eventually sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp until the end of the war. In 1946 she was awarded the George Cross for bravery and appointed MBE, she was also appointed the Chavalier de la Légion d’Honneur for her work with the French resistance. In 1947 she married Churchill after her marriage to Roy Sansom was dissolved. Churchill and Odette divorced in 1956 and she married Geoffrey Hallows, a former SOE officer. Odette died on the 13th March 1995 at Walton-on-Thames and was outlived by her third husband. Her wartime experience was the subject of the 1950 film “Odette”, in which the title role was played by Anna Neagle with Trevor Howard as Churchill.
Noor Inayat Khan was also known as Nora Baker and was born in Moscow on the 1st January 1914 to an Indian father and an American mother. Her father was a musician living in London and from a noble Indian Muslim family who met his wife during his travels in the United States. Just before the outbreak of the Great War the family left Russia for London. In 1920 they moved to France where she studied at the Sorbonne and began a writing career. When France was overrun by German troops at the beginning of the Second World War the family fled to Bordeaux and on to England thence Cornwall on the 22nd June 1940. In November 1940 she joined the WAAF as a wireless operator before being recruited into SOE. She was the first woman to be sent overseas purely as a wireless operator as all women agents before had been sent as couriers. In June 1943 she was flown to France band made her way to Paris. Sending messages back to Britain she was betrayed, arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in October 1943. She did not give away any information. In November 1943 she escaped but was soon recaptured within the vicinity of Gestapo Headquarters. She was taken to Germany ‘for safe custody’ and kept in solitary confinement for ten months shackled at hands and feet. She was transferred to Dachau Concentration Camp and at dawn with three other agents on the 13th September 1944 she was executed. Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949 and a French Croix de Guerre avec étoile de vermeil (with Silver Star).
Eileen Nearne was born in 1921 in London to an English father and a Spanish mother and was the youngest of four children. Two years later the family moved to France, and Eileen became fluent in English and French. After the German invasion in 1940 Eileen and her sister Jacqueline made their way to London while the rest of the family remained in France. Upon her arrival in England she was recruited by the SOE and after training, was flown to France in March 1944 working as a wireless operator. Separately Jacqueline was also recruited by the SOE. The first message Eileen transmitted identified the location near Paris where 2000 London-bound V1 Rockets were hidden. She had an acknowledgement that the message was received by the BBC reply “Happy to know the duck had a good trip.” In July 1944 her transmitter was discovered. She survived the discovery, capture and torture by the Gestapo, escaping three times from prison camps to continue her work. By the time the war was over she had sent more than 100 coded messages across the channel. Eileen faded into virtual anonymity after the war, despite having been made an MBE, being presented with the French Croix de Guerre and winning citations for gallantry. She suffered a breakdown because of wartime experiences. After the war Eileen lived with her sister Jacqueline in London and moved to Torquay after her sister died in 1982. At the age of 89, having quietly living alone, she died of heart attack in September 2010 and at her funeral a Eulogy was read with the Royal Marines sounding the Last Post over her Union Flag draped casket.
“The love that I have, is all that I have, and the love that I have is yours” is a simple poem written by Leo Marks. The poem was given to Violette Szarbo as cipher for encoding messages. Marks was a cryptologist who wrote poems for each SOE agent in order to identify them. Violette Szarbo (maiden name Bushell) was born in Paris in June 1921 to an English father and French mother. In early 1940, whilst the family were living in England, she joined the Women’s Land Army but returned to London to work in an armament factory. She met Étienne Szarbo, an officer in the French Foreign Legion. After a whirlwind 42 day romance they married in August 1940. She was nineteen and he was thirty one. After a week’s honeymoon he returned to fight against the Vichy French. In September 1941 she enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) but soon realised she was pregnant. Étienne died of wounds received at the Second Battle of El Alemein and never saw his daughter. Violette accepted an offer to become an agent in the SOE and saw this as a way of fighting the enemy who killed her husband. On her second mission into occupied France, Violette was captured, interrogated, tortured and deported to a concentration camp in Germany and executed. Her five year old daughter Tania, was brought up by her grandmother and in December 1941 Tania received the George Cross from King George VI on behalf of her late mother. The film “Carve Her Name with Pride” was a 1958 British war drama where Violette Szarbo was played by Virginia McKenna.
The Gestapo’s most-wanted person was code-named “The White Mouse” because she had the ability to avoid capture, Nancy Wake was the Allies most decorated servicewoman in the Second World War. Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand on the 30th Aug 1912 and was the youngest of six children, and she appears to retain her maiden name all her life. In 1914 the family moved to Australia but shortly after her father returned to New Zealand leaving her mother to bring up the children. Using money she inherited from an aunt, she ran away from home at 16 years of age working as a nurse before journeying to New York and finally London where she found employment as a journalist. In 1937 Nancy met Henri Fiocca whom she married in 1939. They were living in Marseille when Germany invaded France. Before the fall of France she worked as an ambulance driver and after the fall she became a courier for the French resistance and the escape network. The Gestapo became aware of her and after the network was betrayed she decided to leave France. Her husband stayed behind but was captured and executed by the Germans but he did not betray her. She was unaware of his death until the war ended. Nancy made her way across the Pyrenees into Spain and returned to Britain where she joined SOE. She was parachuted into the Auvergne region of France in April 1944 where she remained until the Liberation of France. She became the liaison contact between London and the local maquis group which performed many successful attacks on the German forces in the area. With her coiffured hair and make-up she was a glamourous and feminine woman whose looks concealed her deadly ability. During one raid she killed an S.S. guard with her bare hands to prevent him raising the alarm. When her wireless operator had been forced to destroy vital codes during a Gestapo raid she cycled over 300 km (190 miles) through several German checkpoints to get to another group’s wireless operator to inform London of the situation. The total return journey of 380 miles took her 72 hours to complete. After the war Britain awarded her the George Medal, the U.S. gave her the Medal of Freedom and France honoured her with the Médaille de la Résistance, the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre three times. Upon returning to Australia after the war she stood as a Liberal candidate in the 1949 election campaign and again in the 1951 federal election but was defeated in both. She moved back to England after the 1951 elections. In 1957 she married John Forward, a former RAF fighter pilot and they relocated to Australia. She had an uneasy relationship with her childhood country which led her to refuse any decorations from the Australian government. However, she did relent in February 2004 and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. Her husband died in 1997 and Nancy settled for the final time in London and at the age of 98 on the 7th August 2011 she died of a chest infection at a hospital in Kingston. It was in 1999 that Nancy’s story inspired Sebastion Faulks to write the novel Charlotte Grey.
Pearl Witherington was a British subject born in Paris to British expatriate parents in June 1914. When Germany invaded France in May 1940 she was employed at the British Embassy in Paris. With her mother and three sisters she escaped occupied France eventually arriving in London in December 1940. She found work with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) for the Air Ministry. In June 1943 she joined SOE determined to fight against the German occupation of France. On completion of training she was parachuted into France in September 1943 and joined up with Maurice Southgate, the leader of the SOE Station Network and working as his courier. When Southgate was arrested in May 1944 by the Gestapo Pearl became the leader of the new SOE Wrestler Network. She reorganised the network and fielded over 1,500 members of the Maquis (resistance). During the D-Day landings of June1944 Pearl’s network played an important role fighting the German Army, and were so effective that the Germans offered one million francs for the capture of Pearl. The Germans ordered 2,000 men to attack her small force and after a fourteen hour battle the Germans lost 86 men while the maquis lost 24 out of a possible 40 men. Pearl fled to a cornfield and waited until the Germans had vacated the area before moving away. She regrouped and set-up and launched large-scale guerrilla attacks among the German columns travelling through her operations area. As well as disrupting the marching columns she damaged key railway lines connecting Southern France to the Normandy battlefield. In mid-September 1944 Pearl’s Wrestler network helped to force the 18,000 German troops, who were still in her region, to surrender to the Americans. Having completed her mission at the end of the war she returned to London where she married her fiancée, Henri Cornioley in October 1945 and they had a daughter. France recognised her bravery and awarded her the Légion d’Honneur, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la résistance. After much discussion Britain offered her a civil MBE, which she refused. Her argument being there was nothing civil about her role as a guerrilla leader. On appeal she was awarded the military MBE. The family moved back to Paris and she began a long career in the World Bank. In 2004 her MBE was upgraded to a CBE and two years later the RAF finally awarded her with her most prized possession, her Parachute Wings. As one of only a few women to lead the maquis during the war, Pearl died in February 2008.