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.
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.”