Would you accept a job knowing you had a probably life expectancy of six weeks?
Yet, during the Second World War many women did just that. Having been trained by undercover agencies, such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE), they were smuggled into countries occupied by the German Reich tasked to gather intelligence, train resistance armies and commit acts of sabotage. Many did not return and those who did almost certainly witnessed, or participated in, activities which would have changed them irrevocably.
Having written two novels about the SOE, I have spent time thinking about and researching some of these women. Among others, there was the Sufi princess, Noor Inyat Khan, the American Virginia Hall who had a wooden leg and Monica de Wichfeld of the Danish resistance who I took as the inspiration for my novel, I Can't Begin to Tell You. What made them do it? Was it boredom or white-hot patriotism, or possibly a combination of both? Did women make better spies than men? How did they cope with the additional problems of being female... menstruation and contraception? How could they have left their young children if they had them?
SOE was distinguished by its willingness to use women in its top-secret work, partly on the basis that women working in the field were less noticeable than men. So it proved. There are many instances of SOE women agents couriering attaché cases containing clandestine wireless sets under the noses of German soldiers or ferrying vital messages in their shopping bags.
One of these extraordinary women was Brixton-born Violette Szabo. A war widow, mother of a tiny girl, bilingual and beautiful, she was driven by her anger and grief over her husband's death to join SOE where she was adored for her bravery and, as one eye witness put it, 'her infectious cockney laughter'. SOE's legendary codemaster, Leo Marks, fell under her spell and gave Violette his poem, 'The Life That I Have', which he had written for his dead fiancée, to use for her codes. In April 1944, she was parachuted into the highly dangerous Rouen area and, once her mission was accomplished, coolly took herself off to Paris to shop for perfume and clothes. Early into her second mission in August 1944, hobbled by an injured ankle, she was captured by a Panzer division, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on a train to Germany.
The train was bombed by the allies but, despite the danger, Violette managed to crawl to the lavatories in order to bring water to desperately thirsty male prisoners. In brutal Ravensbruck, a fellow prisoner said 'she always had such strength and never complained'. Another recalls her 'talking incessantly of her baby'. In February 1945, aged twenty-three, she was executed with two other SOE girls. Awarded a posthumous George Cross, the film Carve Her Name With Pridestarring Virginia McKenna and Paul Schofield, was later made about her life.
A bust of Violette was chosen for the SOE memorial on London's Southbank. I pass it frequently and, more often than not, I stop to look at Violette. What was she thinking when she died? I am pretty sure it would have been of her daughter.