Dr. Kate Vigurs talks about the women secret agents operating in France, their heroism, sacrifice & service in the fight against Nazi Occupation.
Dr. Kate Vigurs talks about the women secret agents operating in France, their heroism, sacrifice & service in the fight against Nazi Occupation.
Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Kate Vigurs. Vigurs is a professional freelance historian who received her PhD from the University of Leeds. Vigurs is a tour guide for Anglia Tours, covering the Western Front battlefields, Berlin and Krakow, Auschwitz, and has recently done consultancy work for the Army Museums, Ogilvy Trust and South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum. Vigurs also has her own live historical interpretation company Histories Made and regularly produces scripts, films and live performances for organizations such as English Heritage, Royal Armories, National Army Museum, RAF Museum and Imperial War Museums. Histories Made covers a wide variety of historical periods, and Vigurs interests encompass everything from the Romans to the Cold War, but especially medieval and the world wars. Today we are discussing her book, Mission France: The True History of the Women of the SOE. The book is an exciting and scholarly work detailing the 39 women hired by the British Special Operations Executive to perform undercover work in France during World War Two. These remarkable women sabotaged German equipment, organized the maquis, relayed vital information to the Allies and even killed enemy combatants. And none could tell it better than Dr. Vigurs.
Thank you so much for joining me, Dr. Kate Vigurs. My first question about this remarkable book is what drew you to write about the women of the Special Operations Executive?
Kate: Well, firstly, thank you very much for inviting me. So I wrote about the women of the Special Operations Executive. If we could shorten that to SOE so everybody knows what we’re talking about. It’s a bit of a mouthful. I wanted to write about all of the women. Now it’s the women who went into France as part of F section. France actually had six sections and in one of the other sections RF there were 11 women, but there were 39 in F section. And they drew me because a lot of them were dual nationality. And all of their archives are in our UK National Archives and they are in English. So that was the reason I chose this particular group. Some of these women are very, very famous because they received the George Cross after the war, because their stories were made into films, because novels were written. And to me, I wanted to write about the rest of them. I wanted to make sure that all 39 of them got their moment in the spotlight. And that includes women who maybe their missions weren’t so good, who didn’t last terribly long in the field, or women that have become the footnotes of history. So they’re known purely because of their association with some of the better known women. So I wanted to write about all 39 of them. And the reason I wrote about the women while being a woman myself have always been fascinated by women’s history. And to me it was just the fact that there was ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Gary: No doubt. I think that it was quite a time to be alive and for them to put themselves in danger is pretty spectacular. Can you tell us what it was like interviewing some of these women over 60 years after World War Two? Are there any anecdotes which didn’t make it into the book which you might want to share with us?
Kate: So I was very lucky to interview two of the women by the time I started my studies and, you know, really being able to go out there and explore things. Unfortunately, most of the women who had been active in the field during World War Two had passed away. But I was very, very lucky to meet two ladies. One was called Yvonne Baseden. Her married name was Burney after the war. Yvonne had been a wireless operator and she had been active up until, I believe it was till after D-Day. And she was responsible for the largest daylight drop of arms at the time in the war. Now, what I mean by that is the resistance relied on aircraft coming over from the UK, laden with weapons, with equipment that they needed. And normally these were dropped during a moon period. So the night before and after the full moon, when the reception committee is waiting out there in France, would be able to see them. But after D-Day they were able to start doing these things in daylight hours. So Yvonne had been present at the largest one and unfortunately she was arrested the day afterwards. When I met her in 2003, It’s a long time ago now, she just returned from retirement in Portugal and sadly her husband had passed away and she decided to come back to London. And the first thing she said to me was, “do we really have to talk about the war? Because I’ve achieved so much in my life since then.” And I thought, well, that’s so very, very true. But unfortunately for me, my studies at the time were very focused, and I needed to speak to her about her wartime career. She was truly remarkable in that after her capture, she spent some time at Dijon Gestapo headquarters and eventually through a series of French prisons. She ended up at Ravensbrück concentration camp, which was about 50 miles outside of Berlin, and she recounted her time at Ravensbrück to me, which I found so very humbling and difficult to listen to, that this woman before me in her old age had been through such awful treatment and the privations that she’d gone through. One of the stories she told me of her time at Ravensbrück was she was unloading a cattle wagon at the railway depot. It was one of the wagons that came containing items that had been confiscated from the Jewish population. And she was unloading pillows and she said one of the pillows burst and a feather landed on the sleeve of one of the SS men who was overseeing her. And he was furious with her. And he took the butt of his rifle and he went to hit her in the head with it. She said just luckily she managed to avoid being hit because that would surely have seriously injured if not killed her. Also at Ravensbrück, she contracted tuberculosis and she was very poorly. She was put into the river or the hospital and she was receiving treatment. And one of the remarkable things about Ravensbrück is the Swedish Red Cross sent in what they called the white vans just towards the end of the war to liberate some of the women. And she was the last woman to get onto that van and to be liberated to Sweden. Her friend Mary Lindell was supposed to join her. She was the one who had sorted the list of women to leave, but Mary couldn’t join her in the end, the commandant insisted that she stayed behind. And the story she always told me, because we did stay in touch and I did go and visit her several times, she always said, I remember waking up underneath a skeleton of a dinosaur, and then she was eventually sent home and spent several months in a sanatorium. So, yeah, the dinosaur. That was a long winded answer. I’m sorry, but the dinosaur always sticks with me. She always told me about that literally every time.
Gary: No, I can imagine. I can imagine. And it’s incredible. I suppose I shouldn’t have had to ask you what drew you to write about this, because it seems like every single one of these women has an incredible story. Of course, there are the famous ones like Virginia Hall, Nancy Wake, Violette Szabo. But the fact that you get all of these incredible stories, it must have been quite an experience for you.
Kate: It was really, really amazing. The other woman I was lucky to meet, if I may go back to this, because she’s great as well. It was a lady in wartime. She was called Pearl Witherington and she became Pearl Cornioley. She was sent out to work as a courier and when her section leader was arrested, she became the leader of her circuit. She was the first woman to do that. Not only that, she had 1500 French resistance men to try and lead. Now, this is France in 1940s, you know, they don’t listen to women, let alone English women. And suddenly she’s leading. They’re called the maquis. This is the name for the resistance who lived out in the hills and she lived with them in the forests, in the countryside. She slept underneath a parachute silk on a bed of hay. And after D-Day, she had about 3500 men that she was commanding. I believe it’s the 10th or 11th of June they came under attack and she spent the whole day hiding in a cornfield. She was amazing. She was awarded the MBE after the war and there were two branches of MBE. There’s a civil branch for people who’ve done clerical work here in the UK and there’s the military branch obviously for people who’ve served. They gave her the civil one and she said she returned it. She said, “I’ve done nothing civil, I don’t want it. I was out there, I was fighting, I was doing my thing.” Now I met her in the Loire Valley where she lived in her later years, and we were talking about the training that she had undertaken to become a secret agent. And she said, “My dear, it’s not how hard you hit them, it’s where you hit them.” And she gave me such a steely look that I immediately realized that I was buying lunch that day and I wasn’t going to argue with her. And also she had me eating snails because she only translated half of the menu. So she must have been having a laugh at me when we met. She was brilliant.
Gary: Fantastic. I will keep that advice in mind. So, you touched on this about the sexism inherent in secret services. For a long time, British intelligence services refused to employ women as spies. In my own research, I found one account of an intelligence director saying women could not be spies because they were too emotional and unfocused. When and why did the British government change their mind?
Kate: So it’s interesting, isn’t it, the emotional, unfocused bit, because the reason that the British government decided to use women was they believed they had a cool and lonely courage that men didn’t have. Now, there’s no official document as to when SOE started to use women. There’s nothing sitting in an archive. What we do have is a conversation between the recruiting officer for F section, which was a man called Major Selwyn Jepson and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. SOE had been set up in July of 1940 and this conversation occurs round about April 1942. And Jepson oh, sorry, Churchill says to Jepson, “I believe you want to use women for this task.” And Jepson says, “Yes. Do you think it would be a good idea?” And Churchill said, “yes, good luck.” And that was it. That was the conversation that happened. Now, the reason through research that I believe women were chosen to work, especially in occupied France, was down to the Service du Travail Obligatoire the forced labor program that the Germans introduced for men of military age. So after the fall of France, in June of 1940, after the Dunkirk evacuations, the French army is disbanded. It’s no longer allowed to exist. But of course there were men who were fit and healthy and the Germans wanted to utilize that. So they forced them into factories, into programs where they would be working for the German war effort. Women were not included in that program, so it was easier. By this I mean relatively easier. It’s never easy to be a secret agent in occupied territory, but it was relatively easier to move about maybe by bicycle or by train. And the women had cover stories like district nurses or medical cosmetic representatives that were easier to try and quantify. So it seems to be that’s the reason that they use women. They knew that they could do the same job. In fact, in a truly sexist comment typical of the 1940s, they said women made good wireless operators because they were used to boring and monotonous tasks. So yeah, it was. It’s an interesting decision that the government decided to use women. It was, as I say, it wasn’t official. And after the war it really did come under fire, especially by MPs and Parliament saying if we’d known that this was what was going to happen and the results of it, i.e. women not coming home, maybe they would have thought twice, but at the time it seemed a very good idea.
Gary: That is pretty remarkable. And you’d think because there was such a dearth of women historically in wars, that using women might catch the Germans off guard, which in some cases it certainly did. Of course, Nancy Wake ended up being the most wanted spy by the Gestapo and all of Europe. But before she becomes famous or any of the other women, let’s start at the beginning. How did these women come to join the SOE? What drove them and what types of women joined?
Kate: Okay, so the way that men were recruited was typical through history. What’s called the old boys network. So they’ve worked together before. Maybe they served in the Great War, they play rugby together, so on and so forth. There’s a network of men. There’s no such thing for women in 1940s Britain. And so the way the women came to SOE was through lots of different channels. We have women who had already served in the French Resistance. You’ve mentioned Nancy Wake already. People like Andrée Borel and Nancy and various other women worked on what were called escape lines. And this is where downed British airmen, servicemen who sort of become a bit lost or people just wanting to escape would go to an escape line and they would be assisted and led out of occupied territory from France. It was normally out across the Pyrenees Mountains, down into Spain. If you weren’t captured, you would then be sent to Gibraltar and through to Britain. So these escape lines were vital really for the survival of the resistance and to help British servicemen, really. So some of the women worked on the escape lines. Some of them worked for an organization called the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was the women’s branch of the RAF. A lot of them had excellent wireless skills already, and SOE requested that people come forwards but not come forwards because it wasn’t a publicly known organization, they were put forwards by the WAF for interview. You’ve also got people who siblings or spouses were in SOE there’s Lise de Baissac whose brother Claude was in SOE, Eliane Plewman husband I think was in SOE. No, it was her brother, Tom Plewman, and a couple of other people whose relatives, Jacqueline Nearne, her brother and her sister, joined up so they could put them forwards as being suitable recruits. Actually, in the case of Jacqueline, she said, “Please don’t employ my sister Eileen. I don’t want her to do this kind of work.” And the minute Jacqueline was infiltrated, Eileen was approached and ended up being sent herself. And then there were other ways women were discovered. A lady, Peggy Knight, was heard speaking French at a party, Yvonne Rudelatt and Blanche Charlet through the court club, which was basically the spy hub in London. Odette Sansom had a wireless broadcast asking for photographs of the French coastline, which she mistakenly sent to the wrong address and they were forwarded to SOE. Violette Szabo was approached to speak about her husband’s pension. He’d been killed at El Alamein and she went thinking she was speaking about a pension. But it was an SOE interview.
I think you asked me what drove them, what were their motivations? And it’s really interesting. What does drive you, patriotism? I think a sense of duty for some of them. They just wanted to do something a bit more exciting than an office job. Some of them wanted to save the future of their children, make a better world for them to live in. And some of them in particular, Phyllis Latour was avenging a loved ones death. Her godmother’s father had been executed by the Germans and her godmother had committed suicide whilst under arrest. So she wanted to avenge his and her death. Yvonne Cormeau wanted to pick up where her husband had left off. He was killed during the London Blitz. So motivation is very, very strong and very important. And our interview, it was picked up what motivation was and if it was a reasonable motivation to have and reason to be trained in terms of nationality, most of them are French or dual French. We have a lot of women whose parents met during the Great War. So an English father, a French mother, some of them came from Mauritius. Lilian Rolfe came over from Buenos Aires with a lot of other people who came over to do war service. Economic background we’ve got people from working class girls working in Woolworths or in munitions factories right up to a Polish countess. We have young women from the age of 19 up to the grand old age of 51, and just as many varieties of women as there were women in SOE itself. So everybody was different.
Gary: That is a pretty remarkable gathering of people. So what was SOE training like?
Kate: Hard, I think is the answer. I don’t think I would want to do it. The training changed as the war went on. And so I’ll just give you sort of the rundown of what they did at a certain point in the war. So they’d start with something called preliminary training, I should say. I probably sound terribly English to you. And these places were held at requisitioned houses, stately homes here in England, meaning that SOE to some people actually stood for stately homes of England. And if you look up any of these things, they’re in beautiful manor houses. Preliminary training was generally at Wanborough Manor or Winterfold Manor, both of which are in Surrey. There they would learn basic, basic Morse codes and basic firearms. Physical training. Lessons would be in French or whatever language, whichever country they were going into, and they were encouraged to drink on this particular course as well, because if you got drunk, would you bare your soul and tell somebody you were training to be a secret agent or would you even speak in the wrong language? So they needed to know how good you were. Lasted at about 2 to 3 weeks, and it was really designed to find out who wasn’t suitable. It was designed to weed out unsuitable recruits. Now we know that approximately 80 women applied for SOE and went through some sort of training. If they failed this part of the training, they were sent to a place called in Inverlair which is in Scotland, way, way up on the West Coast. It was nicknamed “the cooler.” And at “the cooler” they would unlearn all of this dreadful stuff they just learnt because it doesn’t bode well in normal society to know how to shoot or how to break locks. If they pass they went to the west coast of Scotland anyway for the paramilitary training. They learnt silent killing and unarmed combat, which was the best way of describing it as a kind of martial art going back to Pearl’s, “It’s not where you hit them, it’s not how hard you hit them. It’s where you hit them.” These guys were trained to use their body weight and to use whatever the German was wearing as a weapon against him. So his chinstrap on his helmet might be used to throttle him. A very graphic technique, ungentlemanly wayfaring it was known as. Also in Scotland they would learn instinctive shooting, so be put on sort of assault courses, learning various weapons, things like the Sten gun or the Bren gun, Colt 38, Colt 45, Webley Revolver and so on. They also learnt how to use foreign weapons because they would technically be easier to come across once they were out in the field. Parachute training would be held. Women had to undergo the same parachute training as the men and of course there were terrible accidents because it was done in quite a hurried way. So twisted ankles, smashed faces, broken legs. Then the women would be divided. And the men, if they were going to be couriers, they would go straight to finishing school. If they were going to be a wireless operator, they would go to Oxfordshire where they would learn how to do wireless communication. And that’s very difficult because not only is it in Morse code that Morse code is coded as well, they had to learn how to deal with jamming, how to deal with garbled messages, how to fix their wireless sets, which would fit inside a small suitcase, how to hang the aerial, how to escape detection. They were told they had 20 minutes to be on air, and that’s from setting up the wireless to packing it away again. Then it was the finishing school where they had to learn the finer things of resistance. So they had to live and think as if they were already in occupied territory. They lived under their cover story, under a cover name. This was at a place called Beauly and at Beauly, they also had a mock interrogation to see how they could withstand Gestapo style interrogation. This lasted between 6 to 9 months, the whole course. If they were good, it would be short. If they weren’t so good. It would be lengthened. If they were needed in occupied territory quickly, then the training would be shortened and that did have some detrimental effects further down the line. But I mean, crikey, it’s. It sounds really hard work.
Gary: Yeah, no kidding. It’s probably why Nancy Wake tried to get out of as much of it as she could. Which she did. Yeah. You’ll have to pick up the book to hear more about her antics. Did people fail the training?
Kate: Yes, they did. People didn’t make it through. It depended how far you got through the training, really, as to what happened to you afterwards. But as I say, you’re learning things that are not really permissible in a nice society, the unarmed combat specifically. So people were put to use sent to this place in Scotland and put to use making uniforms or targets, contributing to the war effort, but not actively involved in it any more. So yeah, there was one lady who I read about called Joyce Hannofey who was turned down because she was just deemed to be too self-centred to be taken any further through the process. And there must be more so hopefully we’ll find them.
Gary: Best of luck with that. I’m sure you will be invited when that comes out to do this again. What activities did the SOE agents perform in France?
Kate: They did all sorts. Now we’ve used the term spy while we’ve been chatting, and it’s not, strictly speaking accurate in that they weren’t there to gather intelligence. What they were really there for was sabotage and subversion. They were there to slow down the German war effort. So the main activities really were blowing things up, blowing up railway lines to stop movement of German troops, blowing up machinery and factories, to stop production of materials that could be used for the German war effort like tank turrets or tires or, my mind goes blank now. Anything. Anything that could be used for the German war effort. They tried to destroy it. Other activities would be preparation for D-Day. It would be training the resistance, gathering them together, organizing them and training them so that when D-Day came, they would be a decent armed force who’d be able to rise up in the interior of France whilst the Allies were landing on the beaches of Normandy. Other roles would be things like, there would be some carrying of intelligence. For example, maps would be taken to the ports so they could be sent out or instructions would be sent out. Assassination is part of it. Now, I don’t have any evidence of women doing that in France, but if we look further afield, we have the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in Czechoslovakia, which was done by SOE agents, so their roles were very varied. I think the main thing to know is that they just had to keep a low profile. They couldn’t be out there having a great time. They really needed to keep on the down low. The work of the wireless operators was to organize these parachute drops, so their job was to be on the air and to send messages, which of course was so dangerous because the Gestapo were listening out and the moment they heard an illegal wireless signal, they’d be out looking for it or listening for it. And these arms drops had to have reception committees. So that was the main job as well of SOE was to be on the ground receiving these drops and making sure that they got to the right people at the right times.
Gary: Well, thank you for the correction. So how did major events such as the USSR’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day landings, for example, change how these agents operated?
Kate: If I could take D-Day as my main example, it changed things drastically because D-Day was what they were getting ready for. D-Day was the big thing. We were waiting for the allies to get back into France. France was always going to be the gateway into the rest of Western Europe, so the ground had to be set in the interior of France as well. So as D-Day approached, now nobody knew exactly when it was going to be. But we wanted to try and make sure, I don’t know why I say we. I wasn’t there. Fearless I was like, we had to make sure. Yeah, they had to make sure that the Germans were wrong footed, really. So there was something called Operation Fortitude South involving the US Army, pretending there was a whole unit of soldiers based in the South of England and they were in inflatable tanks and things to try and dupe the Germans into thinking that the landings would be in Calais. So it was all set up that the, the resistance relied on the wireless and by the wireless of course there are two types aren’t there. There’s the kind you send a message on and what today we call the radio that you listen to. And although it was illegal to listen to the radio, they did. And it was through the radio that they got the standby message on the 1st of June, and that was their chance to check all their weaponry was sorted out and correct that their targets were re-reconnoitered, that they knew exactly what it was they were going to do. And then on the night of the 5th of June, there were about 200 action messages sent out across the radios, and this meant the resistance could rise up. Now, they did things well. They didn’t do things by halves. They blew up 960 railways in the north of France, which meant that any German troop trains trying to make their way to Normandy were slowed down. They couldn’t get there because the trains were derailing. Soldiers and equipment were either being destroyed or at least being slowed down. They cut the communications lines, they cut the telephone wires, and that meant that the Germans were driven back onto using the wireless set. They’d, of course, didn’t know that the Allies had cracked Enigma. So the boffins at Bletchley and wherever else could listen in and work out exactly what they were doing because they understood the messages. So all this kind of action and it meant that they could then I think I say in the book, The Army of the Shadows rose up and it’s very much that they’d been in hiding for so long, but now it was their time. They could put out roadblocks. They could have one on one fights or battles with the Germans where they’d never been able to do that before. So really they rose up and they fought and they tried to stop the Germans getting to Normandy and to make that path clear, if you like, for the allies to come through and get into France, break through, get everything liberated and keep going into western into Western Europe. And like you say things like Stalingrad as well, it just gave people that enthusiasm, that motivation to keep going because it must have been very, very hard after four or five years of war to still want to keep going. When you just want to go home and see your family, have a decent meal, sleep in a proper bed. It just gave them that motivation to plough on that little bit more.
Gary: I’m sure. So let’s talk a little bit about the darker side of these operations. What happened to spies when they were caught?
Kate: So once they were caught, they would normally be held in a local prison. So wherever they were caught, they’d be taken to the local Gestapo headquarters. From there, they may be interrogated, but the likelihood is they would be sent to Paris either to 84 Avenue Foch, which is not far from the Arc de Triomphe, which was one of the Gestapo headquarters, or to a place called the Rue de Souris, which was also a Gestapo prison. And it was there they were taken for interrogation. They would normally be held at Frein prison, which is on the outskirts of Paris, and be brought in for interrogation when they were required. Although some in the case of Noor Inayat Khan were held at 84 Avenue Foch and actually lived there. Not in comfort. I’m not going to say in comfort, but not in a prison cell either. She was allowed access to books and to writing materials and had a decent meal. Interrogation could take all sorts of forms, and torture, of course, was part of that. Torture could be anything from sleep deprivation to having a bright light shone in your eyes, being doused in cold water, being starved. There’s that good guy, bad guy interrogation that goes on as well. So one minute they’re being cosseted, the next minute they’re being brutally interrogated. And we have evidence of physical torture being used on these women. Eileen Narne was forced into something called the baignoire, which is really another word for waterboarding. Their heads were held under water until they almost drowned and then they’d be dragged up. Ask the question if they didn’t answer straight back down into the water again. And we have evidence of physical violence against them, toenail removal, being burned and things like that. So they were treated particularly roughly. Noor Inayat Khan actually was, I say she was treated relatively well until she tried to escape. And when she tried to escape, she was caught and she was asked to sign an affidavit to say she wouldn’t escape again, and she refused to sign it. And at that point, she was put into manacles. She was trained hands and feet, and she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany. Most of the women who were caught were then, well, all of them actually were then eventually transported via a network of prisons to the concentration camps. Some of them were executed directly the moment they arrived at the camps. Four women were executed at Natzweiler-Struthof which is the Alsace region, which was then part of Germany, is now part of France. They were murdered by lethal injection. We know for a fact that the injections were not lethal. They just knocked them out. And the women were then thrown into the crematorium oven, one of whom regained consciousness, and she scratched the face of the man pushing her into the oven. We then have four other women who were taken to Dachau, which is just outside of Munich. They were held overnight in individual prison cells. We know that Noor Inayat Khan was brutalized. She was slapped, beaten up, and the next morning the four of them were taken out and shot before being put into the crematoria. The rest of the women who were captured were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Now at Ravensbrück, we have Cecily Lefort who seemed to manage to hide her identity quite well, I think. But unfortunately, she was caught up in mass gasings when the gas chambers opened at the camp, and she was gassed in the winter of 45. Violette Szabo, Liliane Rolfe, Denise Bloch were murdered by gunshot and Yvonne Rudellat survived Ravensbrück, but she was deported from there to Bergen-Belsen, where she died. And then we have three women who survived. Ravensbrück. Odette Sansom, Yvonne Baisden, who I mentioned to you earlier, and Eileen Narne, who I also mentioned, she was the sister that, you know, her other sister didn’t want her to go. They survived. So it’s tough. It’s really, really tough. They were imprisoned on to something called the Nacht und Nebel, the Night and Fog, which was a Nazi directive that if you were a spy or a secret agent or resister, if you were captured, you would simply disappear into the night and fog. Your relatives wouldn’t know what happened to you. There would be no record kept of your death. And because of that, it was a very difficult task. After the war for a lady called Vera Atkins to find out what happened to the 12 women of SOE were murdered.
Gary: That is truly remarkable and harrowing, to say the least. And you do a fantastic yet grim job of detailing this in your book. Now, following the war, how were these women remembered? Were they and how did sensationalism play into this?
Kate: Oh, that’s a fantastic question. You could write a Ph.D. on that. Yes, they were remembered. They were remembered. But maybe in a strange way, because here in the UK, anyone who undertook this kind of work signed something called the Official Secrets Act, which locks your ability to talk about this stuff down for 60 years, just like the people who worked at Bletchley Park, for example, in the Codebreaking units. Now it’s different. A lot of people compare the two. You can’t really because Bletchley continued its sort of sneaky work, its codebreaking spy work. Whereas SOE was disbanded in 1946. Immediately after the war two things happened. Three of the women were gazetted for the George Cross, which is the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom. The women were Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Noor Inayat Khan. So two of them were posthumous awards, and to be gazetted means it goes into the public domain, it goes into the newspapers. So people would have read their citations and started to know their names. And not least, Violette Szabo’s daughter was given her medal because she’d perished in the camps by the king. And the photograph of that was printed in the newspapers. Not only this, I mentioned Vera Atkins, and she’s discussed in the later chapters of the book, these women just disappeared at the end of the war. Nobody knew what happened to them. And Vera made it her business. She said, I think she said missing, presumed dead is not good enough. We need to know what happened. So she went to Germany, she went to the war trials. And of course, the war trials were also publicized in the newspapers. So not only these women’s names, but their fates became public. And of course, they caught the public imagination because nobody knew this had been going on. People were horrified and fascinated by these stories. There was a series of articles in a newspaper called Commando Girls which highlighted the stories of some of the women who didn’t come back and, of course, those who did. And it just spiraled. The whole thing just spiraled. Films were made. The earliest film is Now, It Can Be Told, which was an RAF documentary film, which came out in 1946. And Marie Walters, one of the women, brought out her autobiography in the same year. Then the novels of Odette and carved her name with pride, came out in the fifties, followed by the films, and the whole thing just continued from there. And I would argue even 80 years later, there’s still a public fascination with these women and the sacrifices and the immense bravery that they showed.
Gary: I have no doubt their actions were pretty incredible. And of course, some in particular, like Nancy Wake, Virginia Hall, they have quite, it’s quite easy to put some of them on film, but.
Kate: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.
Gary: But speaking of the famous ones, you mention how in particular Violette Szabo is often used as a stand in for all women of the SOE, while the others are not as well remembered. The other three famous names being Virginia Hall, Nancy Wake and Noor Inayat Khan. Is there a particular figure you feel should be a larger part of the public conscience?
Kate: There are several really. But for me, my the one that I’ve been drawn to the most is Cicely Lefort, who I mentioned was murdered at Ravensbrück concentration camp. And I think it’s just because she resonates with me. We’re of a similar age. And she was married to a French doctor they’d met during the Great War. He had tuberculosis and she nursed him and they fell in love. They got married, they moved to France. They had a beautiful villa on the coast. And when war broke out, her husband said, “I think you need to go back to England. I don’t think being English in France is a good idea right now.” And she didn’t want to go, but she came across to England nonetheless. She worked for the WAF, I believe, and then joined SOE and was infiltrated back. She worked alongside a man called Cammaerts, who’s a fantastic and interesting figure. She was his courier. It was a cruel twist of fate, really, about her arrest. She was somewhere where she shouldn’t have been, and Cammaerts said, “Don’t go to this guy’s house. Meet him in his office the following day.” But she went anyway. She escaped into a coal cellar and was eventually caught and she was sent to Ravensbrück. And for me it’s the humanity of her story. She was put on a cattle truck with a load of other resistance women, and apparently all the women frantically wrote notes and pushed them through the slats in the wood on their cattle truck. And she simply wrote a letter to her husband saying, “Leaving for Germany, C,” and remarkably, that letter got to her husband. And the thing that I found eye-opening was you could communicate from the camps, you could send letters. You were allowed to do it. I had no idea you could do that. So she opened the lines of communication with Alix again. She told him she was in concentration Ravensbrück. She gave the address. He did a bit of digging around. He couldn’t find out anything about it. SOE office told him it wasn’t too bad. It was just an internment camp. Little did they know, of course. And eventually, Cicely was sent from the main camp to something called the Jugenlager the youth camp. They were told that conditions there would be better. They weren’t. They were far worse. The warm clothing was taken away from them. They had no bedding. The windows were wedged open in the middle of winter. And basically it was a way of trying to get rid of these women. And if they didn’t die quickly enough, they were sent back to the main camp. Now, remarkably, Alix Lefort wrote to his wife and asked her for a divorce while she was at Ravensbrück, which I just find remarkable. He told her that she’d endangered his life by joining the resistance. She found a doctor within the camp. She rewrote her will, writing him out of her world. Completely had it all signed and sealed. Unfortunately, she was executed. But I just find her, resilience and resourcefulness, absolutely inspiring. And if her name became a little more well known, I would be a very happy lady.
Gary: Well, hopefully if this book becomes huge given this podcast episode, no promises, but maybe more people will hear about her. The book is Mission France: The True History of the Women of the SOE. Dr. Kate Vigurs, thank you very much for being on the show.
Kate: Thank you for inviting me.
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