Thirty-nine women were infiltrated into France between 1942 and 1944, the youngest at 19 and the oldest at 51. Single, married, widowed or divorced and from various national origins, the essential condition was that they speak French fluently and are fully engaged in their work. Rigorous paramilitary training took place with their male comrades in the Highlands. As the officer in charge once remarked, “There was no distinction between the sexes… crawling flat on the ground above the boggy swamps, they were nothing but corps in riot gear. ” They learned about “commando murder” with the FS combat knife and, well into her eighties, one of the veterans noticed that she could still kill a man using the techniques she had been taught at Arisaig. .
For many, the mention of the Secret War in France conjures up images of Virginia McKenna as Agent Violette Szabo in the film Carve Her Name With Pride or of Anna Neagle in Odette Churchill in Odette. At Mission France, Kate Vigurs avoids encouraging the idea of fame within the Special Operations Directorate – Section F, first giving us a clear introduction to the creation of SOE and the recruitment of its female agents. What follows is a clear assessment of SOE strategy in France and then most of the book, vibrant with anecdotes and detail, which covers the tactical work of all women – wireless operators or couriers – and what is in their business. come.
Mission France, by Kate Vigurs
In France, in addition to adhering to their specific roles and orders, agents had to improvise and adapt as circumstances changed. A female SOE agent eventually became the commander of 7,000 maquis guerrillas, another was an expert bomber: a British diplomat said of her: “She could do anything with dynamite except eat it.”
Kate Vigurs lists the 39 women at the start of the book, with their roles and code names, then explains what they all did, their shortcomings and mistakes, and their skills and courage. Fourteen died on the ground, most of them captured by the Gestapo after their betrayal by an informant. After D-Day, they were transported to Ravensbruck or Bergen-Belsen for further torture and death. Their Staff Officer Vera Atkins took it upon herself to research each case. She traced the fate of 12 of “her daughters” and attended the war trials of the Nazis implicated in their deaths.
The freshness and honesty of Mission France make it an ideal book to take a new look at the secret war, at a time when knowledge of the exploits of these courageous women is fading from living memory.
Mission France: The True Story of SOE Women, by Kate Vigurs, Yale University Press, 323pp, £ 20
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