Remembering Churchill's Angels, The Women Spies Behind The French Resistance

Seven decades after Winston Churchill's secret coterie of female spies were sent undercover during World War II, the United Kingdom is honoring their service and sacrifice.

Violette Szabo and Eileen Nearne
Violette Szabo and Eileen Nearne
Éric Albert

TEMPSFORD — In the back of the B-24 Liberator, amid the deafening sounds of the American bomber’s engines, Violette Szabó and her three comrades champed at the bit during the night of June 7, 1944. The Normandy landings had just begun, and stress was high. Their mission was to parachute near Limoges to slow the dreaded German Das Reich division as much as possible, which was heading north to block the allied forces.

“Our flight lasted three hours, so we got a pack of cards out and played poker,” recalls 90-year-old Bob Maloubier.

But there was obviously more at stake than five-card draw. Their lives were on the line. Maloubier, nicknamed “Paco,” was a demolition expert sent to blow up bridges and railway tracks (“two per night on average”). Violette, known as “Louise,” played the essential role of “messenger.” That is to say, she established contact with the onsite resistance fighters to coordinate their actions.

Two days after she arrived, the 22-year-old woman — already the mother of a 2-year-old girl and a widow of an officer killed two years earlier during the battle of El Alamein in Egypt — ran into a German patrol at a turn in a road. After jumping into a ditch, she made use of her sharp shooting skills with her pistol. She’d won every shooting contest she ever entered back in England. She managed to run away but twisted her ankle and was caught. Tortured by the Gestapo, she never revealed anything.

“We spent a week planning her escape,” Maloubier says. “We knew the Germans transferred her every day from the Limoges prison to the Gestapo headquarters. She was surrounded by two guards that we had planned to take out. But we arrived too late. They had just sent her to the Ravensbrück camp.”

She was executed by direct order of Adolf Hitler on Jan. 27, 1945. But near Limoges, in the Limousin region, the Das Reich division had been delayed by 15 days, which was critical to the Normandy landings’ success.

Earlier this month, the UK paid tribute to Violette Szabó’s memory. Prince Charles inaugurated a monument in Tempsford, near Cambridge, commemorating her and the other female spies sent from England during WWII. Tempsford is home to the secret airfield where planes transporting these mostly French women — whose missions were to infiltrate Nazi-occupied Europe — took off under the moonlight. The tarmac is now covered in weeds, and the barn at the end of the runway has been turned into a small museum.

Seventy-five exceptional women flew from Tempsford, and 22 of them did not survive their mission.

One quiet death resurrects memories

Their stories had been partly forgotten. It was only with the lonely death of Eileen Nearne, in 2010, that memories were rekindled. This Anglo-French woman was parachuted in the French department of Indre in 1944. She was then arrested and tortured for a long period, before being sent to Ravensbrück. She survived but never really recovered from the psychological damage of the war, and she gradually isolated herself from the world. She ultimately died alone.

Unaware of her past, the mayor of Torquay, in Devon, where she lived, planned to bury her in the town’s communal cemetery, because she had no direct family. Her identity was revealed just in time for a proper funeral to be organized. Moved by her story, Tazi Husain, a doctor from Tempsford, decided to erect the commemorative monument.

Though male secret agents died in far larger numbers during the war, the unique stories of these women are breathtaking. At the time, the Geneva Convention specifically forbade women from fighting. But they could play other critical roles.

“They didn’t draw as much attention,” says Tania Szabó, Violette’s daughter and author of a biography about her mother. They could, for instance, carry radio transmitters in baskets and cover them with vegetables. Or play naïve if needed be. This was how, in April 1944, Violette Szabó calmly talked with Germans on a train from Paris to Rouen, where she was heading to reconnect a resistance network that had been dismantled. “They showed her photos of their children. One of them even invited her back to his hotel,” Szabó says.

Sisters in arms

Noor Inayat Khan’s story is equally extraordinary. The descendant of an Indian sultan, and a Sufi Muslim who grew up on the outskirts of Paris, she fled to England with her family at the beginning of the war. Passionate and full of dreams, she decided to join the Resistance. The British secret services, who recruited her, viewed her with concern, wondering whether this frail young woman would even be fit for the task.

“She was a radio operator for three months over there, when most agents got caught after just six weeks,” writes her biographer Shrabani Basu in the book Spy Princess. Noor Inayat Khan died in Dachau at age 30.

There is also the story of Marjorie Clark, an elegant Welsh woman who wouldn’t reveal her age. As a radio operator, she was sent to North Africa, then to Italy. “When I left on the naval vessel from Liverpool, there were 10 women and 2000 men,” she remembers. “We had three boats and one of them got bombed. We managed to save almost everybody.” Two years later, she arrived into a free Rome.

Most of these female spies worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secret weapon. In 1940, as he witnessed the defeat of Continental Europe, he understood that the Nazi regime had to be weakened from the inside, with bombings and an “asymmetric” war. His own intelligence services were hesitant: This method was not worthy of “gentlemen,” they told him. But the Old Lion nevertheless created this new highly confidential branch nicknamed “Churchill’s secret army.” In six years, 13,000 people worked there, including 3,200 women.

The aim was to recruit, as discreetly as possible, agents who spoke the local languages. Noreen Riols, an Englishwoman educated at the French Lycée of London, was a perfect candidate. In 1943, she was 17 and received her call for conscription. Almost by accident, because she refused to be a minion in an ammunition factory, she was sent to 64 Baker Street in London, where an innocent plaque on the wall read: “Inter-service Research Bureau.”

It turned out to be the SOE headquarters, whose very existence was a secret. “I came upon a man who got excited, telling me no one could ever know about my work,” she says. She kept her promise. Even her mother died without knowing the truth. It wasn’t until the year 2000 — when the 60-year period of secrecy expired — that she was able to reveal the truth. She writes extensively about her experience in the recently published book, The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish: My Life in Churchill’s Secret Army, which has become a bestseller in the UK.

Spying on the spies

Noreen Riols was never sent on mission to France. Her job was to covertly assess the male agents. Her specialty was to charmingly test their ability to keep silent. Just before agents would leave on missions, their instructor would arrange a goodbye dinner, where Riols, who was introduced as a close friend, arrived “by chance.” The instructor would slip away discreetly, leaving Riols and the agent alone.

“I particularly enjoyed working at the Royal Bath Hotel, in Bournemouth, because there was a balcony,” she recalls. “I would bring them there, where it was very romantic.” Most British agents revealed nothing, she says. “But foreign agents, maybe because they were away from home, had tendencies to reveal their missions.” And when they did, they were immediately sent back to Scotland for six months of isolation.

The elegant elderly woman, who has lived in Paris for more than 50 years, is annoyed that France is still unaware of the SOE’s existence. “De Gaulle wanted to remove us. He didn’t want people to say that foreigners had helped organize the Resistance.”

Bob Maloubier fully agrees. “During the inaugural ceremony for the Tempsford monument, Prince Charles was present, the British embassy in France provided transport for us, and a British colonel took care of us, whereas the French embassy in London only sent a lackey.”

Seven decades later, the last survivors from this time are here to remember the heroism of Churchill’s female spies. For 92-year-old Bob Large, a fighter pilot during the war, they will remain engraved in his memory forever. He is the one who brought Violette Szabó, whom he found very pretty, back from her first mission in April 1944. After escaping German fires above Châteaudun, they arrived safe in Tempsford.

His eyes sparkle as he recounts his day with her. “She had fallen asleep in the plane and, when I opened the cockpit, she thought I was a German who came to arrest her. She struggled and tried to shoot me. Eventually, someone managed to explain the situation to her. She then kissed me on the cheek.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!