It all started whilst watching a film. Captain America. My husband and I are gigantic comic book nerds (as in our love of comic books and their heroes is gigantic, the two of us aren’t actually giant), and Captain America is our favourite. Whilst we got acquainted with the modern Marvel portrayal of Cap, I found myself in awe of his girlfriend. Agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Carter is a bottom-kicking, villain-slaying Brit, constantly underestimated by the men around her and caught in a seemingly never-ending struggle for credibility and legitimacy as a secret agent. Peggy was eventually given her own TV show, Agent Carter, so there must be more of us out there who think she is brilliant. I watched it (the aforementioned husband bought me the DVDs for Christmas), and it was revealed in season two that she is an agent for the Special Operations Executive.
Never heard of it? Don’t worry, neither has anyone else. Sadly. This is one of the oddest, most interesting pieces of history I have ever encountered. The official SOE historian, M.R.D. Foot, calls it the sort of thing that Captain Hornblower or Mycroft Holmes might have approved of. Quirky, eccentric and totally out of the ordinary. Winston Churchill realised a year or so into the Second World War that in order to defeat the Nazis, something out of the ordinary was what he needed. In July 1940, he secretly created his ‘ministry of ungentlemanly warfare’, the Special Operations Executive. Serving as a sabotage unit, this small service, the bastard child of MI5 and MI6, recruited some of the bravest men and women to serve in the Second World War. SOE was hated by MI5 and MI6, and generally by anyone in British government, military or intelligence services that encountered it. Deploying its’ agents behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied territory, SOE provided arms, finances and supplies to the French Resistance, and to anyone offering to fight back against the occupying German forces.
SOE was divided into country sections, and by far the most interesting to me is F-Section, the section of SOE which was responsible for assisting underground operations in Nazi-occupied France. It’s of particular interest to me partly because it was one of the most important sections, but mostly because it was one of only two sections of SOE, and the only military or intelligence service in Britain, to deploy women behind enemy lines as active agents. SOE sent thirty-nine women to France during the Second World War, as wireless operators, couriers and organisers, and all of them are a source of total, flabbergasting inspiration to me. These ladies threw themselves out of rickety airplanes into the pitch black, sometimes with no landing committees, lived in occupied territory, transmitted vital information back to London, fought hand to hand with Nazi soldiers, shot their way out of sticky situations and evaded capture through what were sometimes, quite frankly, ingenious means. Thirteen of them were caught, tortured and killed by the Gestapo, and not one of them gave any information of use to the Nazis before they died.
These ladies and their incredible stories are generally unheard of today, which is sad to me. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on them, but I don’t want to leave it there. They inspire me every day, and in September I commence work on a PhD studying the life and work of women like them who served in the US Air Force in Great Britain, during the Second World War and the Cold War. These ladies inspire me because unlike their male comrades, they had to fight two wars at the same time. One against the Nazis, and one for credibility, equality and fair treatment from their own people. This they did with courage, commitment and valour. I am writing this blog because many of my family and friends have become interested in ‘my ladies’, as I call them, through my research, and I’d like to share it with them. I hope that more of you can find their stories, the reason for my career, as inspiring and interesting as I do. Special thanks to my infinitely patient, encouraging husband, and to my supportive parents and friends. Couldn’t have gotten this far without you.
And thanks Peg, you put me on their trail.