The Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June, 1944 – D-Day – is one of the most recognisable events of the Second World War, thanks not just to its importance militarily but to its coverage in books and films. Less well known is the complex and secret process of planning the invasion, and the significant part played by a number of women in landing troops in occupied France, as Mara Timon tells Historia.
D-Day is considered one of the greatest combined military operations ever undertaken. Few understand the role that women played in its success, not as secretaries or messengers, but as agents and double-agents, risking their lives to help make the Allied invasion a success.
These women intrigued me, and my second book, Resistance, while fiction, is about a trio of female Special Operations Executive agents, working to foil German operations in the run up to the Allied invasion on D-Day.
Let me give a bit of background: Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance, and were directed by Churchill: “set Europe ablaze.”
While SOE didn’t start recruiting women until 1942, female agents were on their books almost from the start. Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville), a Polish countess, joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1939. Her first operation began with her skiing into Nazi-occupied Poland to operate set up an intelligence network in Hungary and Poland.
Later in the war, she parachuted into Vichy to help organise French resistance fighters in southeast France, and famously rescuing the leader of her network, Francis Cammaerts, by a combination of bravado and cunning, when he was captured by the arrested by the Gestapo. Churchill claimed that she was his favourite agent.
Virginia Hall, an American journalist, joined SOE in April 1941 and arrived in Vichy four months later, the first female agent sent into France. She used her cover as a reporter for the New York Post to interview people, gather information and file stories with the sort of details useful to the Allied war effort.
Despite having a prosthetic leg (named Cuthbert) she was a master of disguise. She set up not only an intelligence network, but also helped dozens of downed Allied airmen escape through Spain. The Germans considered her the most dangerous of Allied spies.
What was now clear to SOE was that women were not only able, but they could play the German stereotypes to their advantage. Because women weren’t expected to work, they could move around during the day without causing unnecessary interest. Because women weren’t expected to be combatants, the Germans wouldn’t be looking as hard at or for them.
So from 1942 SOE began to recruit women, and these women trained alongside their male counterparts, taught weaponry and weaponless combat, orienteering, and wireless operations. How to follow someone without being noticed, and how to hide in plain sight.
They were couriers and wireless operators, spies and saboteurs, and resistance organisers. And they were effective.
Andrée Borrel was the first female combat agent to drop in to France in Sept 1942, working as a courier for the ‘Prosper’ network. She recruited coordinated supply drops and recruited, armed, and trained Resistance members.
Her jumping partner was Lise de Baissac. She cycled around France as a liaison between networks, carrying messages and contraband.
When her cover was blown, she was airlifted back to England, but returned in April 1944, working with her brother and fellow SOE agent Claude, leading a Resistance network in Normandy to conduct espionage and sabotage against the Germans on the run-up to D-Day and in the weeks after.
And then there’s the White Mouse, Nancy Wake. She parachuted into central France after D-day, tasked with organising the reception and distribution of arms intended for the Resistance.
She organised attacks on German convoys, and participated in a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, killing a SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising an alarm. She was so effective, the Germans whacked a five-million-franc bounty on her head, one of the largest of the war.
Of the 470 SOE agents operating in France, 39 were female. And despite the expectation that half the agents would be lost, 26 women survived.
But not all female operatives involved in the success of D-Day worked for SOE (or its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services). MI5 did a cracking job of intercepting all German agents in Britain, turning more than 60 into double agents.
A handful of these double-agents were involved in Operation Fortitude, the deception strategy to make the Germans anticipate the Allied invasion in Calais rather than Normandy. Two were women.
Nathalie (Lily) Sergeyev was a temperamental agent of White Russian origin. First recruited by the Germans, she handed herself over to the British. Working on a radio set given to her by her German handler, she transmitted dozens of deceptive messages from London.
There was a problem though: as part of her agreement with the British, they agreed to arrange for her beloved dog to follow her to the UK. When this didn’t happen, she came frightfully close to becoming a triple agent.
Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir was a Peruvian socialite, part of the international smart gambling set, losing more often than she won – a situation that made her an attractive recruit.
Working for the Allies she planted half-truths, and relayed propaganda with the Germans and is credited for helping dissuade the Germans from using poison gas on England, and preventing the 11th Panzer Division from reinforcing German forces in Normandy.
These women’s biographies and autobiographies are more thrilling than most thrillers on the market. They lived their lives on their own terms, breaking through stereotypes to become every bit as effective as their male counterparts.
Their bravery and daring are always an inspiration.
Mara also wrote City of Spies, where she introduced Special Operations Executive agent Elisabeth de Mornay. City of Spies was shortlisted for the Specsavers Debut Crime Novel of the Year Award.
If you’re interested in the women of SOE, you may enjoy:
Russell Braddon: Nancy Wake, SOE’s Greatest Heroine
Sarah Helm: A Life in Secrets
Imogen Kealey: Liberation (Nancy Wake). This novel is HWA Chair Imogen Robertson’s adaptation of a screenplay by Darbey Kealey
Clare Mulley: The Spy Who Loved, the biography of Krystyna Skarbek
Susan Ottaway: Sisters, Secrets and Sacrifice (Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne)
Judith L Pearson: The Wolves at the Door (Virginia Hall)
Sonia Purnell: A Woman of No Importance (Virginia Hall)
Penny Starns: Odette, World War Two’s Darling Spy
Kate Vigurs: Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE
Anne-Marie Walters’ autobiography, Moondrop to Gascony (which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1947)
For more on the intelligence work on the run-up to D-Day, see:
David Arbutat: Vanguard
Helen Fry: The Walls Have Ears
Ben MacIntyre: Double Cross
Clare Mulley has spoken to Historia a couple of times about Krystyna Skarbek: in her interview with Carolyn Kirby about getting a Blue Plaque put up in Krystyna’s memory in 2020, and when she spoke to Michael Morpurgo about his extraordinary family story involving his uncle, Francis Cammaerts, and Krystyna, who planned his escape.
Novelist Clare Harvey writes about other women, including some in the army and SOE, who took part in the Second World War in The Remarkable Women of WW2.
- Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir (the daisies will bloom tonight), portrait of Virginia Hall by Jeffrey W Bass: Wikimedia
- Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville): courtesy of Clare Mulley
- Lise de Baissac in a FANY uniform after she joined the Special Operations Executive: Wikimedia
- Nancy Wake in 1945: Wikimedia
- Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir: with thanks to El Comercio