When you think of World War II spies in Europe, is your first thought women? Recently several books and a movie reveal how women were active in the resistance against Hitler.
After Germany occupied northern and western France in June 1940, England wanted to know what was happening on the continent. The British government formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train spies to gather intelligence and coordinate resistance groups. They were dropped by a plane at night in the French countryside to identify conditions and send back reports. Many spies were quickly caught and killed. With reluctance, the SOE began to train a few women.
The historical drama, A Call to Spy, focuses on three women. In London, Vera Atkins begins to recruit women with skills, desire and courage. She was a Jewish immigrant from Romania who found the English government slow to give her citizenship papers. Virginia Hall hoped to serve in the United States’ diplomatic service, but her false leg and gender had kept her from being accepted. The third, Noor Inayat Khan, a daughter of a Russian mother and a pacifist Sufi mystic from India, trained to be a wireless operator, an especially dangerous role since the Nazis tracked illegal radio transmissions. Virginia and Noor were dropped into France with forged papers and elaborate cover stories, but little support or safety procedures beyond a cyanide pill to swallow in case they were caught.
Painting of Virginia Hall as a wireless operator in France. In the CIA Fine Arts Collection (public domain).
The movie is fast moving, cutting between the three women’s stories. The Germans retaliated on French villagers after resistance groups successfully sabotaged trains, etc. Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie in Lyon, France (“The Butcher of Lyon”) grew angry when his dragnet failed to find Hall, the “limping lady.”
The women faced many questions, including: How to identify collaborators, informants and double agents? How to move downed (and sometimes injured) Allied airmen back to safety in England? How to sabotage Nazi trains with soldiers and ammunition to support the Normandy Invasion in June 1944? One out of three British spies in France were killed.
Memorial bust of Noor Inayat Khan in Bloomsbury, London (CC 3.0)
A Call to Spy was written by Sarah Megan Thomas and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher. 124 minutes. Available on DVD.
If you want more “intelligence,” check out these books:
About Virginia Hall: Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy who Helped Win WWII (2020)
About a French woman spy: Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcades’ Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler (2019).
About Mildred Harnack, an American woman with a German husband: Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (2021) or Jennifer Chiaverini’s historical fiction, Resistance Women (2020).