Warrior women: they’ve been with us as long as warrior men, it’s just that we don’t hear about them as often; very rarely in fact. But there was a point in recent history when the British state first sent women into combat. These were the women of the Special Operations Executive, who were parachuted behind the lines in occupied Europe during the Second World War. Growing up, I wanted to be these women. As an adult, I realized I had to settle for knowing more about them, and to write a book that could showcase the astonishing courage, fortitude, the sheer guts and the emotional and physical knife-edges these women walked. Here are some of the nuggets that I found:
1. The division was colloquially known as the ‘Ministry for Ungentlemanly Conduct’
These women were rebels against the suffocating expectations of their time, and they broke through boundaries that even now are thought to be the preserve of men. Dame Irene Ward, a Member of Parliament, who was present when the decision was taken to form the SOE said, ‘The War Cabinet was not fully aware of what their decision involved. If they had been, permission would almost certainly have been refused.’
2. The first woman sent into armed combat was an American who had a false leg named ‘Cuthbert'
Virginia Hall had the best of American educations and had intended to join the Foreign Service until she had a hunting accident which saw her left leg amputated from the knee down. Undeterred, she emigrated to Paris, and when war broke out, volunteered for the Allied Ambulance Service. After complaining in telegrams of the troublesome nature of ‘Cuthbert’, she was told to eliminate him if necessary and a number of the gallants in London offered to fly to France to sort him out.
3. The female leader of a major network in France refused a civilian medal when it was offered
Pearl Witherington’s group disrupted vital rail links more than eight hundred times, and she took the surrender of eighteen thousand German soldiers. In Britain, she was put forward for a Military Cross – but was ineligible because of her gender. She was offered a civilian medal but turned it down, saying that nothing she had done was remotely civil. She was later awarded a Military MBE, but her greatest joy was to receive her parachute wings in 2006 – women did one less jump than men and so were not given their wings.
4. Codes could be transmitted by poem – and those written by women were often the most scurrilous
Often the key to cracking a code was to remember a poem, but the problem was that easy poems were also known to the Germans, and their cryptographers would have a field day if anyone chose, say, the first verse of ‘God Save the King’ or Hamlet’s soliloquy. The decision was taken that the poems should be made up, should be relatively short and as memorable as possible, which meant creating lots of rhymes with a subject that was easy to recall.
5. Many women who had risked their lives were treated as embarrassments after the war
The SOE was shut down. Nobody but Churchill had ever really liked it, and it was considered a dangerously amateurish organization by the ‘professional’ spy services of MI5 and MI6. But while the men moved into business, espionage or the military, the women were often packed back to a civilian life that was as stultifying as it had been before the war. Worse, those who came from other nations were denied British passports.
Manda Scott’s fascination with the heroic and mysterious women of the SOE is what led her to write A Treachery of Spies, an espionage thriller to rival the very best. The book will be published in hardback and ebook in August 2018.