Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The Germans would have done well to take note of William Congreve’s writings during World War II. While the efforts of men in war have been well highlighted, we often forget that women played just as large a role in ensuring victory. Some piloted planes, others worked hard in factories, and a very special few joined the Allied secret service. The following 10 women risked their own lives to scout enemy positions, bomb railroads, and ensure that the Third Reich met its match.
10 Andree Borrel
Andree was contributing to the war effort even before becoming a spy. This French national and her friend were responsible for an underground railway into Spain, which they used to evacuate downed Allied airmen from occupied France. When the network was betrayed in 1940, she fled to Portugal and eventually joined SOE in 1942.
She was one of the first female agents to parachute into France along with Lise de Baissac on September 24, 1942. After joining the resistance in Paris, she became second in command of the local network by March 1943. Responsible for attacking a power station and other infrastructure, she and three key members were arrested. After proving too tough to crack through interrogation, she was taken to a concentration camp where she was given a lethal injection. Andree regained consciousness after the injection. Fighting the doctors for her life, she was eventually overpowered and cremated while alive.
9 Nancy Wake
Born on August 30, 1912, in Wellington, New Zealand, Nancy worked as a journalist in pre-war Nazi Germany. After marrying a French industrialist, she joined the French Resistance in occupied France and helped British airmen escape capture. In December 1940, after being betrayed, Wake was captured. After convincing her guards that she wasn’t the woman they were looking for, she traveled to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). This was where she learned that her husband had been shot by Gestapo agents—which turned out to be a bad move on their part when Nancy came back with a vengeance.
She was dropped back into France in 1944 to coordinate Resistance attacks with the planned D-Day landings. This time she led an armed raid against Gestapo headquarters and German gun factories. After getting separated from her radio operator during a German counter-attack, she walked 200 kilometers (124 miles) and biked a 100 more kilometers (62 miles) to contact another operator. One of her resistance members said, “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.” Nancy died in 2011, at the age of 98.
8 Violette Reine
A French national, Violette moved to London before the start of the war. It was here that she met, fell in love with, married, and had a child with Etienne Szabo, a French Foreign Legion Officer serving with Free French forces. After Szabo was killed in 1942, Violette joined SOE to avenge his death (a common theme that might suggest making enemies of women was the downfall of Nazi Germany).
Replacing Philippe Liewer, an agent who had been uncovered and was hiding in Paris, she helped to completely restructure and reorder the shattered resistance movement in Normandy in June 1943. She also led sabotage missions against roads and railways as well as spotted potential bombing targets for the British. After briefly returning to Britain, she went on a second mission into France in which her car was ambushed. After holding off German troops with 64 rounds of ammunition so that her colleague could escape, she was captured and deported to Saarbrucken along with two other female agents and 37 male prisoners. During the transit, she used the cover of an Allied air raid to gather water for the imprisoned men in her final valorous act before she was executed on January 27, 1945.
7 Cecile Pearl Witherington
Cecile, a Brit born in France, joined SOE on June 8, 1943, after fleeing France. When she dropped into France on September 22, 1943, she started as a courier. The Germans, not taking kindly to even the prettiest of girls smuggling illegal weapons and intel, made even this low-level job incredibly dangerous.
When her superior was arrested, Cecile took over his duties. As leader of the Wrestler resistance network, she fielded over 1,500 fighters who played key roles in the Normandy landings. They were so effective that the Germans placed a 1,000,000 franc bounty on her head. In one instance, a force of 2,000 German soldiers were sent to attack her and her men in a battle which lasted 14 hours. The battle saw the death of 86 Germans and 24 of her freedom fighters. In all, 1,000 German soldiers were killed under her command, and railways connecting South and North France were disrupted over 800 times. In the final days of the occupation, she presided over the surrender of 18,000 Germans.
6 Virginia Hall
Virginia may be the most impressive of the women on this list. While they all kicked Hitler’s butt, Hall did it with only one real foot—the other was a prosthesis, and a terrible prosthesis given the time. No stranger to danger, she served as an ambulance driver during the invasion of France, which we’re sure was an incredibly difficult task with the lack of automatic transmissions and even harder still with the clutch.
Before even becoming an agent, she organized the resistance, helped downed pilots, and carried out raids in 1941 under the guise of an American reporter. The Germans declared the “Limping Lady” one of the most dangerous Allied spies in 1942, and with her very unique limp, she was forced out of France. The American equivalent of SOE recruited Virginia in 1944 and sent her into France via parachute in 1944, with her prosthesis in her backpack. From her landing onward, she disguised herself as a farmhand and trained French resistance troops, organized sabotages, and helped with the resistance role in D-Day.
5 Odette Hallowes
“Who you know is everything” or “Who you claim to know is everything” should be the lesson that you take away from the adventures of Odette Hallowes. After accidentally enrolling into the SOE by sending a postcard offering to help with the war effort to the wrong government office, Odette was dropped into France in 1942.
Meeting up with her supervisor Peter Churchill (no relation to Winston), Odette acted as an assistant and courier. After their operation was infiltrated, the two were arrested and tortured in Paris. What they did then most likely spared them their lives. They claimed that Peter was the nephew of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and that Odette was his wife. The two were still sent to a concentration camp in June 1943, but no death date was officially listed. In fact, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, even brought Odette with him when he surrendered. He had hoped that her connections would spare him from being labeled a war criminal. Odette later testified against him, and he was hanged in 1950.
4 Diana Rowden
At the outbreak of the war, Diana Rowden, a French journalist, joined the French Red Cross. After fleeing France in the summer of 1941, she joined the SOE in March 1943. Flown to a location northeast of Angers, she joined the “Acrobat” resistance network in June 1943.
Diana played a major role in delivering messages to other agents of the underground in Marseille, Lyon, and Paris under the noses of the Germans. She was also pivotal in the planning and execution of an attack on the Peugeot factory at Sochaux, which disrupted tank and plane manufacturing in the area. In November 1943, her network was betrayed, and Rowden was arrested. She was sent alongside fellow agents Leigh, Borrel, and Olschanezky to her death at the Natzwiler-Struthof concentration camp.
3 Vera Leigh
Leigh joined the French resistance after the fall of Paris, helping Allied servicemen trapped behind enemy lines. Thinking that she could be of more use, Vera fled to England in 1942 and was directly recruited by the SOE despite being 40 at the time (considered a little old for an agent).
Known as a crack shot by her colleagues, she arrived near Tours in May 1943. Tasked with forming an entirely new network of resistance, Leigh, by chance, met her sister’s husband who ran a safe house for Allied airmen. She took further risk to herself by also becoming involved in this operation. On the October 30, Leigh was arrested before she could fully finish her work creating the “Inventor” resistance group. Leigh was deported alongside other agents to Natzwiler-Struthof concentration camp where she was killed.
2 Krystyna Skarbek
Kyrstyna was a Polish spy who inspired the character played by Eva Green in Casino Royale, and she has our thanks for that rather drop-dead gorgeous inspiration. She also has our thanks for the pivotal role she played in occupied Poland and France. After joining the Secret Intelligence Service in 1939, she convinced a Polish Olympic skier, Jan Marusarz, to escort her from Hungary across the Tatra Mountains, which had temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius (-20 F) at the time, and into Poland. While in Poland, she made first contact with many agents and resistance groups which would prove invaluable to the British.
Furthermore, she smuggled Polish airmen to neutral Yugoslavia so that they could help the war effort. When she was captured in 1941, she pretended to cough up blood by biting her tongue, telling them that she has tuberculosis. Scars on her lungs from her job at an auto shop (emissions were pretty awful back then) confirmed the lie when German doctors took X-rays. After buying her story, they let her go and Skarbek fled to England. She was later sent to Southern France by SOE in 1944. During her time there, she successfully scaled a 610-meter (2,000 ft) cliff to reach the Col de Larche fort, convincing the garrison of 200 fellow Poles to surrender. She was stabbed to death on June 15, 1952, before she saw her country freed.
1 Lise de Baissac
After fleeing Paris in 1940, Lise de Baissac found herself in London and applied to join SOE as soon as they accepted females. Along with Andree on September 24, 1942, she was one of the first female agents to parachute into France.
Lise, posing as a poor widow, was tasked with setting up a network in the city, as well as transporting arms from the UK to French resistance members. She, of course, chose to be subtle, moving into an apartment near the Gestapo HQ and becoming acquainted with the chief, Herr Grabowski. She also used the guise of an amateur archaeologist to gather geographical information for landings. On her second mission, she returned to France on April 10, 1944 to work for another network. After D-Day, she played a role gathering information on troop movement, renting a room in a house occupied by the local commander of German forces. Lise died at age 98 in 2004.
Mark is an award-winning 10 meter swimmer and not-so-award-winning shoe wearer and air breather. His degree in History and Geography doesn’t get him nearly as many women as he had expected. You can find him on Twitter here.