The Women of the Special Operations Executive

During the Second World War the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) had around 50 agents who were female. A small number of these women became fairly well-known, the best examples of these are Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom- Hallowes, and Noor Inyat Khan.

Many of the other female agents can be considered as fairly unknown characters in our history. Some agents found a little fame after the war that had nothing to do with their wartime service for example Lorraine Adie Copeland, wife of CIA agent Miles Copeland, mother of Stuart Copeland and brilliant archaeologist.

Alongside their male counterparts these women learned to parachute, use weapons and explosives, and became professional saboteurs. Violette Szabo’s weapons instructor claimed that she was one of the best people with a gun he had ever taught.  Sources such as M.R.D. Foot, mention that the majority of these brave women refused the offer of their L pill. This was a cyanide capsule used if caught by the Nazis.

Capture by the Nazis was the main hazard for these women who were operating behind enemy lines, meaning torture and execution; male agents were executed less often. Out of 50 female agents 15 died while on active service, 12 were executed in the concentration camps of Dachau, Ravensbrück and Natzweiler-Struthof, one died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, Hannah Szenes was executed in Budapest and Muriel Byck died in service of Meningitis. This gave the women of SOE around a 30% casualty rate.

From many sources we know the story of Violette Szabo’s fatal second mission. Szabo, her SOE commander Philippe Liewer (Hamlet) and two colleagues were dropped into France early on 8 June 1944. On 10th June, Violette set off on her mission, in a Citroen driven by Jacques Dufour. Dufour insisted upon using the car, even though the Nazis had forbidden the use of cars after D-Day.

On their way across south central France they picked up Dufour’s friend Jean Bariaud. Unfortunately, the car had raised the suspicions of the Nazis and an unexpected roadblock had been set up to find the battalion commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, who had been captured by the local resistance. When Dufour slowed the car, the unarmed Bariaud was able to escape and warn Liewer’s team of the suspected arrest of Szabo and Dufour. When they stopped, Szabo and Dufour engaged the Germans a brief gun battle. They attempted to escape, providing each other with covering fire, and Dufour was able to evade and hide in a friend’s farm. Violette however had sprained her ankle and was captured near Salon-la-Tour.

Violette was placed in the custody of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in Limoges, for four days. Then she was moved to Paris and brought to Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch for interrogation. She was tortured by the SD, who by now knew she was an SOE agent.

Violette was then transferred to Ravensbrück where she arrived on 25 August 1944.She would endure beating and bad treatment up to her execution on 5 February 1945

Violette’s tale is one story among fifty, most of which we don’t know. Violette and the other SOE agents are true Sheroes of Freedom and History and must not be forgotten.

This blog was written by Mary Miles BA(Hons). Mary is a historian planning on doing a PhD centred on the women of SOE. She runs her own blog at runs 3 historically led Facebook pages and can be found on twitter as @tzarinadraconis 

Find out more…

Have a look at this list of ten female spies from the Second World War.

 Here is a complete list of all the women who worked for the SOE during the Second World War.

The Heroines of SOE is a book about some of these brave sheroes.

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