Women of the SOE: 50 Shades of Resistance
|monument to SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan in London|
The following speech was given by Hussein Al-alak at the 50 Shades of Resistance talk, which was given to mark International Women's Day in Manchester and was organised by the Anne Frank Trust UK. 50 Shades of Resistance was held to coincide with the presence of the Anne Frank +You exhibition.
What I wish to talk about this evening is by no means a definitive lecture on the bravery of women, who served for an organisation in World War Two.
What I am going to provide, is a short illustration into the examples of some of the women who served with the Special Operations Executive and wish to start by invoking the words of SOE agent Odette Hallowes, in honour of their memory:
"They are all our mothers and sisters, you would not be able to either learn or play in freedom today, yes, you may not ever have been born, if such women had not stood their soft, slender bodies before your future like protective steel shields throughout the Fascist terror."
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation, whose main task was to link up with resistance movements - primarily the French Resistance - to undermine the Germans in the countries they had occupied.
The SOE was tasked by Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze", through the use of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and to aid local resistance movements.
It was initially also involved in the formation of the Auxiliary Units, a top secret "stay-behind" resistance organisation which would have been activated in the event of a German invasion of Britain.
For those who knew of SOE’s existence, it was an organisation often referred to as "the Baker Street Irregulars", after the location of its London headquarters, "Churchill's Secret Army" or the "Ministry of Ungentle-manly Warfare".
Women & Espionage
To understand the historical relevance of the women who were to become part of Special Operations Executive, one must first look at examples in military history, which women undertook in the years preceding the formation of SOE.
One clear example is that of Gertrude Bell CBE, who became influential to British policy-making in the Middle East due to her skills, during and after WW1.
At the outbreak of the War, Gertrude Bell had requested for a Middle East posting but this was initially denied, but her language skills, her intricate knowledge of the tribes, routes of the region, made her skills vital for British Intelligence in getting soldiers through the deserts of Arabia, in preparation for battles against the German aligned Ottoman Empire.
Until her death, Gertrude Bell was the only woman holding political and military power in the Middle East and in 1917 was given the title of Oriental Secretary. Gertrude Bell was also famed for being the founder of the Baghdad Museum, was a central feature at the Cairo Conference in 1921, which was attended by Winston Churchill and was also responsible for training T.E.Lawrence.
Examples of female SOE agents.
Many people are aware of the active roles that women took in the resistance movements of WW2 through popular TV shows such as Secret Army, Wish Me Luck and with popular characters like Michelle of the Resistance, in the 1980’s comedy Allo Allo.
Over the past decade, depictions of SOE activity were also popularised again in films like Charlotte Grey and the European film Female Agents.
Women and the SOE
The reasons why women decided to join the SOE and make the decision to parachute behind enemy lines, despite the risk of capture and a possible death sentence was eloquently described by Nancy Wake, who died in 2011.
Nancy Wake stated, “I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas”. Codenamed the “White Mouse”, Nancy Wake went from studying journalism in London, to becoming a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune in Paris, where she reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, to becoming the number one spy on the Gestapo's most wanted list.
After visiting Vienna in 1933, she had vowed to fight against the persecution of Jews. Having married a Frenchman, and after the fall of France, Nancy Wake became a French Resistance courier, saboteur and spy - setting up escape routes and sabotaging German installations, thus saving hundreds of Allied lives.
Nancy Wake was also parachuted in to France in April 1944, before D-Day, to deliver weapons to French Resistance fighters. When asked why she became a member of the SOE, Nancy’s reply was simple: “"Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work, I used to think it didn't matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living."
For Nancy Wake, it was only after the liberation of France that she learned her husband, French businessman Henri Fiocca, had been tortured and killed by the Gestapo, for having refused to give her up.
Noor Inayat Khan
In the presence of members of the Royal Family, in 2012 a memorial was unveiled in London's Gordon Square Gardens for one of the bravest women of World War II, Noor Inayat Khan.
Having lived and studied in Paris, in May 1940 the Germans invaded France, but Noor and her family managed to get to England before France fell, and it was there that Noor joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, training as a wireless operator.
Together with her fluency in French, this led to Noor’s recruitment by the SOE and given the codename "Madeleine", Noor was parachuted in to France, where she joined the French Resistance in Paris.
After members of resistance were arrested by the Gestapo, her superiors fearing it had been infiltrated by a Nazi spy, had instructed "Madeleine" to return home. However Noor had insisted that she was the only radio operator left and therefore should stay.
For three months, “Madeline” single-handedly ran a cell of spies across Paris, frequently changing her appearance and alias’ until she was eventually captured.
Despite being the first female radio operator to be sent into Nazi occupied France, code name “Madeline” became the last essential link with London after the German occupation had destroyed the SOE's spy network in that area.
After her capture and despite being tortured by the Gestapo, during her 10 months of imprisonment, Noor managed to hold her nerve and revealed nothing of use to her captors.
Reports of Noor’s death, show how she was lined up in the Dachau Concentration Camp, alongside other SOE women who had also been captured by the Germans, and holding each others hands in the face of death, the last word that fell from Noors lips was “Liberte!”
What makes Odette Hallowes unique, is that she survived the concentration camp of Ravensbruck. When German officers sentenced SOE agent Odette Hallowes to death in 1943, I doubt they ever contemplated, that after the war, this British woman would stand in a Allied military uniform and in front of a court of law, would testify to having directly experienced the same treatment and brutality as every other prisoner of the NAZI Concentration Camps.
Odette Hallowes became a national heroine for her work with the French Resistance, and for standing up to the torture inflicted by the Gestapo but what saved the life of Odette was the commandant of Ravensbruck, hearing she was married to Peter Churchill, and that her husband was Winston Churchill's cousin.
This provided Odette with the bargaining chip she needed to survive among the horrors which surrounded her, but this also made the Germans equally confident that they had something to trade with. Files on the SOE illustrate the chilling details of Odette’s imprisonment, where she was held in solitary confinement a few yards from the camp's crematoria.
From her cell, she could hear "the screaming of the victims", where “Ashes, smoke and odour all percolated into the cell and the mental torment of these things nearly drove her mad." When the American army advanced towards the camp in April 1945, the commandant packed her into a smart sports car, and drove with her to the American lines.
She at once denounced him; and after being hospitalised for a short period, was able to give first hand accounts into the brutality of male and female Concentration Camp guards at war crime trials after the war.
One of the biggest ironies of Odette Hallowes’, is how personnel files from the Special Operations Executive, show that in her initial training, superior officers felt that Odette did not possess the "clarity of mind" required for spying but had it not been for her clarity of mind, Odette Hallowes might not have lived until 1995, where until her death at the age of 82, each year laid violets in honour of SOE women lost in the Holocaust.
The legacy of SOE
Although there is no obvious legacy, which can be attributed to the women of SOE, it is without a doubt that their bravery has paved the way for women in Britain, with Dame Stella Rimington and Baroness Eliza Manningham Buller both having held the position of Director General of MI5.
The roles which women have undertaken in saving lives and resisting persecution in ethnic based conflicts, since the end of WW2, can equally be described as carrying on the legacy of SOE, with examples of courage being witnessed, in the methods used to save lives and resist oppression in both Bosnia and Iraq.
I know from the experiences of friends, whose lives would have been cut short had it not been for the actions of women during the siege of Sarajevo, who successfully hid, smuggled, and used other methods to preserve the lives of children, who are now leading productive and constructive lives as adults, in both Europe and America.
With the same passion for writing as Anne Frank and holding the same vision for resisting persecution as the women of SOE, Iraq also saw the emergence of women writers during the height of the sectarian tensions, where the use of social media tools, became the framework for women like Riverbend to express and explain the impact that war and racism has on societies delicate fabric.
It is also no accident that it should also be a young woman, whose book Iraqi Girl: The Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq should have her proclaimed as this generations Anne Frank, as a direct result of her use of pen and paper, to be her weapon of choice, to resist both conflict and intolerance.
But I wish to finish my talk, by invoking the words of the young woman, who is the reason we are all here tonight, in this celebration of International Women’s Day, and as we all know her name is Anne Frank.
“I can see the world being turned into a wilderness; I can hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too. But yet, as I look into the heavens, I feel this will all come right, that this cruelty too, will end!”
Thank you and “Liberte!”