The forgotten role of women spies in World War II

WWII female spy

World War II was a global conflict that required the combined efforts of millions of people to bring to an end. While many have heard of the bravery and sacrifices of soldiers on the front lines, the roles played by women in the war effort are often overlooked.


One area where women made significant contributions was in espionage, with many serving as spies and intelligence operatives.


In the face of the risks and challenges they faced, these women worked tirelessly behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, disrupt enemy operations, and aid the overall war effort.

Women's roles in the war

During World War II, women were actively recruited into the military and played crucial roles in the war effort.


They worked in factories, hospitals, and offices, as well as in more traditional roles such as nurses and clerks.


Some women also served as pilots and mechanics in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

What did Spies do in WWII?

Espionage played a crucial role in the war effort. Both sides used spies to gather intelligence and sabotage their enemies' operations. 


However, they often worked behind enemy lines, risking their lives to gather information and transmit it back to their superiors.


Spies also helped to orchestrate sabotage missions by disrupting enemy supply lines and communications.

The organization that oversaw their work was called the Special Operations Executive (SOE).


It was a British government entity that was established during World War II. The SOE was tasked with supporting resistance movements in occupied countries and gathering intelligence to support the Allied war effort.


In fact, the SOE recruited women from all walks of life, including journalists, actresses, and even housewives.


Many of them were highly educated and had specialized skills, such as radio operation, nursing, or explosives handling.

Spy hidden in shadow

1. Nancy Wake

One of the most famous female spies of World War II was Nancy Wake, also known as the "White Mouse."


Born in New Zealand, Wake grew up in Australia and later moved to France, before the war broke out.


She became involved in the French Resistance and helped to smuggle people and supplies out of Nazi-occupied France.


She later joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British organization that conducted espionage and sabotage missions in occupied Europe.

In April 1944, Wake was parachuted into occupied France to work with resistance groups there.


In June of the same year, she even fought in a battle against the German army.


She was known for her bravery, resourcefulness, and determination, and was awarded several honors for her contributions to the war effort, including the George Medal and the Croix de Guerre.

2. Vera Atkins

Born in Romania in 1908, Atkins move to England in 1937 and later became a naturalized British citizen.


At the start of the war, Atkins was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and worked as a liaison officer between the SOE and the French Resistance.


She was responsible for recruiting and training agents and coordinating their activities.

One of Atkins' most significant contributions to the war effort was her work in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion.


She traveled to France to investigate the fate of the SOE agents who had been captured by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps.


Atkins worked tirelessly to uncover the truth about their fate and to bring their killers to justice.

3. Odette Hallowes

Born in 1912 in France, Odette married an Englishman in 1931 and moved to Britain.


During the war, Hallowes joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).


She was sent to France as a courier, working to establish a network of Resistance agents and help coordinate their activities.

In 1943, Hallowes was captured by the Gestapo. She was subjected to brutal interrogation and torture but refused to reveal any information about her mission or her fellow agents.


Hallowes was later sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she spent the rest of the war.


Despite the terrible conditions and constant threat to her life, Hallowes managed to survive the camp and was liberated by Allied forces in 1945.


She was later awarded the George Cross, for her courage and determination in the face of extreme danger.

4. Lise de Baissac

Lise de Baissac was born in 1905 in France to a wealthy family. Although her early life was spent in Mauritius, her family moved to Paris in 1919.


When the Germans seized Paris in 1940, she fled to the UK. As soon as she could, de Baissac sought recruitment by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which she achieved in 1942.


She was sent to France where she worked as a courier for a network of agents which included her brother.

De Baissac spent a lot of her time recruiting new agents, meeting up with spies who had parachuted in France, and spying on German movements.


Pretending to be an amateur archaeologist, she was able to ride on a bicycle around French towns quite freely.


The information she collected was sent back to Britain to help in the war effort.


She survived the war and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her bravery.

5. Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan was a British agent of Indian descent. She was born in 1914 in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother and later moved to France with her family.


After the German occupation of France, Khan and her family moved to England, where she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.


Khan was later recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and sent to France as a wireless operator.


Her fluency in French and her knowledge of the country's culture and geography made her a valuable asset to the Allies.

Despite the dangers of her mission, Khan refused to return to England when ordered in June 1943, insisting on staying in France to continue her work.


However, in October of the same year, Khan was betrayed by a French collaborator and captured by the Gestapo.


She was subjected to torture and interrogation but refused to reveal any information about her mission or her fellow agents.


Khan was later sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed in 1944.

6. Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek, also known as Christine Granville, was a Polish-born agent.


Born in 1908 to a Polish count and a Jewish mother, Skarbek lived with her family in Warsaw.


When the war began in 1939, she moved to London. She joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), where she was sent back to occupied Poland.


Skarbek's fluency in Polish and her knowledge of the country's geography and culture made her an invaluable asset to the Allies.


Eventually, she was also sent to France.

Skarbek's most significant mission was the rescue of her fellow SOE agent, Francis Cammaerts, who had been captured by the Gestapo in France.


Skarbek organized a daring escape plan. The mission was a success, and Cammaerts was able to return to Britain and continue his work with the SOE.


Skarbek also played a key role in the liberation of France, and she was awarded the George Medal for her bravery and contributions to the war effort.

7. Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall was an American agent who was born in Baltimore in 1906. After graduating from Barnard College, she worked as a consular clerk at the US embassy in Warsaw.


She had transferred to Turkey, where an accident occurred in which she lost her left leg.


She would wear a wooden prosthetic leg to continue her duties.


Hall then worked for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and later for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS).


She worked behind enemy lines in occupied France, where she organized resistance groups, recruited agents, and gathered intelligence that was critical to Allied operations.


Hall became known as the "Limping Lady" due to her prosthetic leg and the Nazi's difficulty in capturing her.


She was also known for her disguise skills, using a variety of disguises to evade detection.