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Female Spies in World War I and World War II

Women Undercover in World War II


World War II

Background: The SOE and the OSS

Two main oversight organizations were responsible for intelligence activities in World War II for the Allies. These were the British SOE, or Special Operations Executive, and the American OSS, or Office of Strategic Services. In addition to traditional spies, these organizations employed many ordinary men and women to covertly provide information about strategic locations and activities while leading apparently normal lives. The SOE was active in virtually every occupied country in Europe, aiding the resistance groups and monitoring enemy activity, and also had operatives in the enemy countries themselves. The American counterpart overlapped some of the SOE operations and also had operatives in the Pacific theater. Eventually, the OSS became the current CIA or Central Intelligence Agency, America's official spy agency.

Virginia Hall

An American heroine came from Baltimore, MD in the form of Virginia Hall. From a privileged family, Hall attended fine schools and colleges and wanted a career as a diplomat. This was thwarted in 1932 when she lost part of her leg in a hunting accident and had to use a wooden prosthesis. She resigned from the State Department in 1939 and was in Paris when the war started. She worked on an ambulance corps until the Vichy government took over, at which point she went to England and volunteered for the newly founded SOE.

After training she was returned to Vichy-controlled France, where she supported the Resistance until the total Nazi takeover. She escaped on foot to Spain through the mountains, no mean feat with an artificial leg. She continued to work for the SOE there until 1944 when she joined the OSS and asked to return to France. There she continued to help the underground Resistance and also provided maps to Allied forces for drop zones, found safe houses and otherwise provided intelligence activities. She assisted in training at least three battalions of French Resistance forces and continuously reported on enemy movements.

The Germans recognized her activities and made her one of their most wanted spies calling her the "woman with a limp" and "Artemis." (Hall had many aliases including "Agent Heckler," "Marie Monin," "Germaine," "Diane," and "Camille." Hall managed to teach herself to walk without a limp and employed many disguises to foil Nazi attempts to capture her. Her success in evading capture was as remarkable as the prodigious work she accomplished.

In 1943 the British had quietly awarded her the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) since she was still active as operative, and in 1945 she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. William Donovan for her efforts in France and Spain. This was the only such award to any civilian women in all of WWII.

Hall continued to work for the OSS through its transition to the CIA until 1966. At that time she retired to a farm in Barnesville, MD until her death in 1982.

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan

An author of children's books might seem an unlikely candidate for being a spy, but Princess Noor was just that. The great niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and daughter of Indian royalty, she joined the SOE as "Nora Baker" in London and trained to operate a wireless radio transmitter. She was sent to occupied France using the code name Madeline. She carried her transmitter from safe house to safe house with the Gestapo trailing her while maintaining communications for her Resistance unit. Eventually she captured and executed as a spy, in 1944. She was awarded the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the MBE for her valor.

Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell

Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born in 1921 to a French mother and a British father. Her husband Etienne Szabo was a French Foreign Legion officer who was killed in battle in North Africa. She was then recruited by the SOE and sent to France as an operative on two occasions. On the second of these she was caught giving cover to a Maquis leader and killed several German soldiers before finally being captured. Despite torture she refused to give the Gestapo any classified information and was sent to the concentration camp Ravensbruck. There she was executed.

She was posthumously honored for her work with both the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre in 1946. The Violette Szabo Museum in Wormelow, Herefordshire, England honors her memory as well. She left behind a daughter, Tania Szabo, who wrote her mother's biography, Young, Brave & Beautiful: Violette Szabo GC. Szabo and her highly decorated husband were the most decorated couple in World War II, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Barbara Lauwers

Cpl. Barbara Lauwers, Women's Army Corps, received a Bronze Star for her OSS work. Her work included using German prisoners for counterintelligence work and "cobbling" fake passports and other papers for spies and others. She was instrumental in Operation Sauerkraut, which used German prisoners to spread "black propaganda" about Adolf Hitler behind enemy lines. She created the "League of Lonely War Women," or VEK in German. This mythical organization was designed to demoralize German troops by spreading the belief that any soldier on leave could display a VEK symbol and get a girlfriend. One of her operations was so successful that 600 Czechoslovak troops defected behind Italian lines.

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