This is the true stories of seven of the SOE heroines who fought to free Nazi-occupied France. The author has taken a chronological view of events from the rise of Hitler in 1933 to the end of the war. Structurally the book has a good table of contents and index, and contains black and white photographs and maps. There is a bibliography of over one hundred books which have been used as sources.

I have the kindle edition of this book by Rick Stroud.

In some detail

The author takes a chronological view of the lead up to WW2, the formation of the SOE and its operations during the war. Although there were 39 women who worked in ‘F-Section’ (France) his focus is on seven of them:

  • Andree Borrel, a shop assistant
  • Christine Granville, a polish aristocrat
  • Virginia Hall, an American consular service clerk
  • Noor Inayat Khan, a writer of children’s books
  • Violette Szabo, a shop assistant and widowed mother
  • Nancy Wake, an Australian Journalist
  • Pearl Witherington, a senior secretary

We discover during the book why each of these women were recruited by the SOE - their motivations and capabilities. We get glimpses of their life beforehand, their training and the missions which they went on.

The book is unstinting in highlighting the flaws and mistakes made by their handlers back home - in particular in matters of security relating to wireless transmissions. There were occasions where WT (wireless transmission) agents were captured and either forced to send messages or their equipment was used to send messages and security checks were omitted... and London messaged them back to remind them not to forget their security checks! What seem like elementary mistakes in operational security had awful ramifications in the radio war of spy and counter-spy.

More information is available about the women who survived the war, for obvious reasons. There are some occasions where dialog is given to people where it is not clear to me how that could have been sourced - however, it certainly appears to be in the spirit of what has happened as far as I can tell - and the author has a long and impressive list of sources including his work in various archives.

My Opinion

I found this chronological approach both good and bad. It was good in that it placed things into a developing context as the war progressed. On the other hand I found it difficult to get a sense of the stories of the individual women he was following, as the book was jumping between them quite regularly.

The details of some of the stories are inspiring - the courage and quick thinking of these women in difficult, isolated and dangerous situations was quite remarkable. It was also disheartening how often they realised that there was a problem, a traitor, but they were ignored or overlooked. So much damage was done simply because their handlers back home didn’t trust these women who were on the ground, and stuck with their own presuppositions.

Why you might want to read this book

My game “A Cool and Lonely Courage” is inspired by, and a celebration of, these women and others like them. This book gives you a much deeper insight into the real people behind the stories. In addition, it can help you play the game better, giving your a rich supply of situations, details and background which you can introduce into your games.

Beyond that though, I think it is worth reading for the inspiring and terrible stories of these women who had been forgotten or overlooked for many years, but who played a vital part in the liberation of France during WW2. I have some new heroes who I think about.