The Real Women of SOE

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Crawley for introducing the debate, the content of her speech and the way in which she put it across, for which we are all indebted to her. The way that she listed the names of those wonderful women was a tribute in itself.

The debate stimulates fresh awareness of ordinary women who carried out extraordinary deeds. If they had been asked beforehand whether they would make a significant mark on the war or British life, they would probably have said, “Me, I don’t think so”. However, one reads of a young woman, Yolande Unternahrer, who became a member of the SOE and was imprisoned after having been married for only six months. Men said that these women would break when under torture but they did not, and we know what can happen to women when held in captivity, but not to men. Yolande drew and wrote poetry on toilet paper in her own blood and somehow managed to do embroidery while in prison. These were quite extraordinary women who in the prime of their lives went off knowing that it was highly unlikely that they would come back.

–Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, House of Lords, June 6, 2011

The Special Operations Executive was a real organization with flesh and blood people, who went above and beyond the call of duty, and often at great cost. One of the most amazing things I’ve learned while doing research for The Tower’s Alchemist is the story of the real women of SOE. These were ordinary women who volunteered to do the extraordinary during a time when women’s contributions (especially in the arena of espionage and war) were overlooked.

Winston Churchill called SOE “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” and indeed it was. Not only were many of its agents women, but their ranks also included some convicted criminals who were offered a second chance (if they survived) and they had to fight dirty and do as much damage to Nazi operations in Europe as possible.

This week I’d like to share the stories of a few of these women: Noor Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo, and Pearl Witherington.

I look forward to posting the first story tomorrow!



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