During World War, women played a vital and often overlooked role in espionage. From gathering intelligence on the front lines to serving as secret agents in enemy territory, women spies in World War were instrumental in helping the Allies win the war. Their bravery and ingenuity paved the way for future generations of women in intelligence and national security. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the fascinating and often daring stories of these incredible women spies. Let’s begin!
Can women make good spies?
In what capacity, if so?
These were the questions that an MI5 officer, Britain’s domestic counterintelligence organisation, Maxwell Knight, kept thinking about. The start of World War II and the blitzkrieg baptism of Europe were happening outside his office. The intelligence community was still exclusively a male realm in England and around the world and an exclusive, upper-class one. Yet, as Knight was going to point out, a female spy might prove helpful.
How did it all begin?
It was a dark moment for Britain and her European allies in the war during the summer of 1941. Britain was at risk because Germany had taken control of most of Europe and was bombing essential cities around the nation in what became known as the Blitz. This increased the significance of the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) missions and the contributions of three significant women inside it.
This was also when both sides of the war needed tremendous personnel and soldiers. This constant need for labour gave women new opportunities, and the American military created separate branches for women for the first time. A hitherto male-only profession, espionage, became officially open to women in the United States and other countries.
Now let’s come back to SOE…
Special Operations Executive
The SOE was a volunteer organisation founded in London in June 1940 to wage a covert fight behind enemy lines. Winston Churchill, the then British prime minister, is renowned for having instructed SOE agents to “light Europe ablaze” through espionage, sabotage, and establishing a resistance network in occupied Europe.
The SOE employed dozens of women as spies, notably the American operative Virginia Hall and the Indian-British radio operator Noor Inayat Khan. Both these ladies collaborated with Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer in charge of SOE’s F Section, which was in charge of selecting and deploying agents into France.
By the time of the D-Day assaults on June 6, 1944, the SOE, based on Baker Street in the heart of London and also known as “The Baker Street Irregulars,” “Churchill’s Secret Army,” and the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” had sent 39 women to occupied France. F Section sought after agents who could speak French and fit in with French culture since they needed to avoid being discovered. Each agent received a codename or alias and training in specialised subjects such as wireless operation (as Khan did), keeping a cover narrative going, how to burgle and pick locks, and other related topics.
The United States founded the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942 as the country’s first autonomous intelligence organisation. The OSS was created to conduct espionage and intelligence gathering, a contemporary of Britain’s SOE. Women were covertly hired to process top-secret transmissions from the field and work on other topics of classified intelligence based on the performance of female intelligence employees in the Special Operations Executives (SOE). Some elite female agents dispatched to serve in the field were trained at SOE intelligence schools. Perhaps you’ve heard of Julia McWilliams – the most well-known female OSS worker who rose from secretary to senior intelligence officer!
The Unsung Women Spies in World War I
Women have always been crucial components of the intelligence community because they might frequently eavesdrop, run messages, or convey information without getting recognised and questioned as men would have been. Spying wasn’t viewed as glamorous until after the Bond myth took hold. The Alice Network, which a woman directed, was the most effective spy ring during World War I. She was called the Queen of Spies and was named Louise de Bettignies.
Queen of Spies – Louise de Bettignies
Louise was born in France to a working-class industrial family. She was intelligent and multilingual, but like many other educated but impoverished women of the time, she chose the Jane Eyre route and supported herself by working as a governess for several aristocratic European households. When war broke out, Louise was in France. Shortly after, while visiting England, she was picked up by British intelligence, who quickly picked up on her sharp wit and her proficiency in French, German, and English.
After her return, Louise established a network of sources in German-occupied northern France. Her sources included men, women, and even children who would gather intelligence about the enemy, including troop counts, train schedules, and artillery positions.
Yet another story is that of Julia McWilliams, better known as Julia Child, the leading chef.
Julia Child – A French Chef & A Spy
In 1941, the 29-year-old Julia McWilliams had just one dream – to fight for her nation, United States, in World War II. Unfortunately, she was rejected from the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) in the Navy and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in the Army because of her height of 6-foot-2.
But someone recognised her abilities and was offered a position in the Secret Intelligence division at the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor to the CIA. During this time, a Captain Harold J. Coolidge in the Special Projects Division of the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment (ERE) Section, was looking for a team to create a shark repellent to coat explosives and ensure the pilots’ safety in water. Little did young Julia know then – this ‘recipe’ would be the first recipe she would work on!
My first big recipe was shark repellant that I mixed in a bathtub for the Navy, for the men who might get caught in the water
– Julia in an interview in 2012
Since the beginning of the conflict, American Naval officers have been the target of numerous shark attacks. Moreover, curious sharks frequently detonate bombs meant to harm adversarial groups. The OSS was charged with developing a shark deterrent for military underwater operations. Following a year of field testing and extensive trial-and-error with over 100 different compounds, including poisons, organic acids, and even rotting shark meat, the study team, which included Julia Child, discovered that copper acetate was the most efficient repellant.
Julia also worked for the US Army’s civilian Aviation Warning Service, which was responsible for keeping watch over foreign planes entering American airspace. She made a big impact in at the OSS and served her country with all her might.
The role of women has always been undervalued in the spy world, always undermined in terms of recognition.
It’s a world that needs women.
Throughout the war, women took advantage of the assumption that they were more covert than males and completed duties and missions that men could not finish. According to an SOE dispatch from Holland, women could transmit critical communications covertly in the field since they were rarely questioned and inspected at checkpoints in 1944.
Women Spies in World War – Closing Remark
In some cases, female spies played up to feminine notions of fragility or helplessness to escape difficult situations. According to historian Juliette Pattinson, “many wartime reports show that male agents were less innovative and inventive than their female counterparts,” as she writes in Behind Enemy Lines: Gender, Passing, and the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War.