Archive for the ‘Special Operations Executive’ Category

muriel_byck_00_photo_tnSOE agent,  Muriel Byck (1981-1944), reminds us that while war may be a messy business, it is quite literally, also a dirty and germy business as well.

Muriel was born to French Jews in London although she was primarily raised on the continent, first Germany, then later, France. Muriel appears to have bounced back and forth between England and France for college and university, but eventually settled in England  in the mid-1930’s.

Byck took on a number of different jobs, none too remarkable. She worked in a theater, then as a Red Cross volunteer, and later a secretary. The secretarial work seemed to lead into war-related work as she also became an Air Raid Precautions warden.

Muriel then transitioned into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was promoted to an officer position. Naturally, Muriel spoke excellent French so it wasn’t too far a jump for her to eventually be recruited for the Special Operations Executive.

After training and three abortive attempts to jump into France, Muriel (Codename: Violette) arrived April 9, 1944. She performed duties as a wireless operator and trained local talent for the task.

Needless to say, the usually activities of evading German detection by moving around from time to time while working one’s tail off to aid the war effort takes its toll on anyone. However, a little over a month in country and Muriel began exhibiting signs of serious illness. She collapsed in the field and a doctor working for the Resistance diagnosed her with meningitis, a serious disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

muriel_byck_01_photo_tnThe problem here, is that the Germans kept sharp tabs on hospital patients, so just traipsing in the door was out of the question and sneakier means became necessary. Muriel was admitted as the niece of her uncle (read: supervisor), both of whom were evacuees from Paris. Muriel was finally admitted to a hospital but it was too late. Not six weeks after landing in France,  Muriel Byck, aged 25,  died in the arms of her supervisor.

The local population of Romarantin, France, where Byck was laid to rest,  heralded her passing as a heroine of the Resistance and commemorated the anniversary of her death  until she was moved to the Pornic War Cemetery, the burial grounds for many British servicemen who died during the war.


noor_ancestor1Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), another SOE dame, is remembered for being the first female radio operator sent into occupied France during WWII,  unfortunately, she is also, incorrectly, remembered for being a princess.

Noor has an interesting family lineage in that her father, Hazrat Khan, was descended from a defunct Muslim royal line and was also the founder of the Sufi Order International. In case you were wondering, Sufism is a practice of Islamic Mysticism. Not to be outdone, Noor’s mother, Ora Noor, was an American from new Mexico and sister to Pierre Bernard, an early American yogi instructor/scholar and all-around shady character.

Noor was better traveled than most adults by a young age. She was born in Russia and spent her early years in England before the family finally settled in France.

Noor’s father passed away when Noor was just 13. As the eldest she assumed many familial responsibilities. Noor did however find it in her to study psychology at the Sorbonne and become an accomplished musician. Noor had a career in writing poetry and children’s books and contributed her talents to French radio. All of this was brought short when the family fled France for England before the outbreak of WWII.

Despite her Sufi upbringing, which emphasizes no small amount pacifism, Noor was determined lend her efforts to defeating Nazi Germany. She joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force in 1940 where she learned to become a wireless operator. After a year of mind-numbing work, Noor requested a transfer to the SOE where she joined the now infamous F-Section. It was here in the SOE that Noor adopted the name Nora Baker.

Noor had a mixed track record with the group. Her superiors found her inconsistent and unsuitable for service, but her much needed fluency in French and her skills in wireless operations made it necessary to send her into France.

noor-khan-waaf-uniformNoor, codename “Madeleine”, was dropped into France in June 1943. She made her way to Paris and went to work. Within a very short period of time, nearly all the wireless operators in the area were captured. Despite being offered passage back to England, Noor refused to leave her post and continued transmitting while ping-ponging about the area to avoid capture. Dispatches from other officers comment on her critical and “excellent work”.

By October 1943, the gig was up. Noor was either betrayed by a suspected double agent within SOE’s Paris ranks or this same person’s sister who had lost the affections of a boyfriend to Noor and retaliated by ratting Noor out to the Nazi SS. Noor was arrested and put up one hell of a fight. Her captors were so disarmed by the former artist’s volatile reaction, that they  labeled her an “extremely dangerous prisoner”.

Noor returned the favor by escaping. Twice. Never once giving up any of her intelligence. Unfortunately, the Gestapo found copies of Noor’s coded messages, and while the codes were unbroken, they continued transmitting to the SOE posing as Noor. Unfortunately, the SOE did not follow up on the inconsistencies in these false messages. The SOE sent in additional agents, all whom were captured.

After a final escape attempt in November 1943, and after refusing to sign a paper agreeing  no further escape attempts (I know, laughable, did the Gestapo really think she would ever sign such a thing?), Noor was sent to Germany as a “Nacht und Nebel” prisoner. This meant solitary confinement. All matters pertaining to Noor were kept tightly under wraps. Noor was kept in shackles and chains 24 hours a day. A prison director testified after the war that the woman the SOE found so unsuitable maintained a policy of complete noncooperation.

Commemration plaque at Dachau.

Commemoration plaque at Dachau.

In September 1944, Noor and three other female operatives were moved to the Dachau Concentration Camp. On September 13, 1944, Noor and the three women were executed with a single shot to the head. Another prisoner who witnessed the event claimed Noor was savagely beaten by prison guards prior to execution and that her final word was “Liberté”.

A plaque at the Dachau camp commemorates the execution.


The numerous honors and awards bestowed posthumously to Noor include: the Croix de Guerre, the MBE, and the George Cross.

Events in Noor’s life were borrowed, like many other female agents, for the fictional character of Charlotte Gray. Also, numerous books and articles have been published about Noor…all referring to her as the “Princess Spy”.

As if this dame needed a lame and irrelevant title such as “Princess” to make her life more amazing.

A not-great film with some spectacular casting, 2001’s “Charlotte Gray” tells a story of a Scot SOE dame played by Cate Blanchett who joins the infamous unit after her pilot boyfriend is shot down over France.

When we first meet Charlotte, she is a returning from her native Scotland to London where she is employed. WWII has already begun and Charlotte has a rather terse conversation with a gentleman on the train regarding her opinions on the subject. He notices she is reading a book in French and hands her his card.

Charlotte is later reintroduced to the gentleman at a party where it is explained to her that said gent would like to recruit her for the SOE. Charlotte begins mulling it over when she then meets Peter, the man with whom she immediately becomes smitten.

Peter goes off to war and is later reported to have been shot down somewhere over France. This incident serves as the impetus for Charlotte to finally join the SOE. We get to witness her physical training, weapons training, radio instruction and briefings. At some point, Charlotte is deemed suitable to go operational and we get to witness what Vera Atkin’s job was largely about, and then Charlotte parachutes into France.

From there, we meet to the French Resistance leader, a local boy who doesn’t particularly like Charlotte and further complicates matters by taking in two small Jewish boys after their parents were shipped off to the concentration camps.

Charlotte gets to play nursemaid to the children by day while she helps disrupt train lines by night. She meets with handlers and tries her best to remain under the radar of local informers. All the while she is desperately trying to find out information about her boyfriend Peter.

The best scene of the film occurs when Charlotte first arrives in town and attempts to make contact with a fellow SOE agent. The woman is distraught, informs Charlotte she has been identified as an agent, and what follows is a terrifically tense few moments of police inspection while the stricken agent is led away. Charlotte later learns the agent was executed.

It’s a sloppy narrative with a lot of loose ends and one of the most anti-climactic endings of all times. But the movie was shot in a French country town where real SOE agents operated and as a period piece, you get a good sense of what these ladies were up against.

Not the best representation of a spy-dame on film, and waste of talent on the behalf of an amazing cast, but for a period piece, “Charlotte Gray” is worth checking out.

Leave no man behind. You’ve heard it, I’ve heard, it’s in just about a every war movie of the 20th century. But what we’re talking about here is slightly different. In Intel, especially covert ops, sometimes someone does get left behind, it’s the very nature of the game, but what’s more important is that those who get left behind are not forgotten.

Vera Atkins (1908-2000), for lack of a better description, was a sort of Den Mother to the British Spy outfit known as the Special Operations Executive (and a precursor to MI6). But when the war ended and all of Europe was trying to make nice with each other by sweeping all that prior nastiness under the rug, it was Vera’s single-minded determination that led to the discovery of what had happened to the SOE agents who had disappeared into the wilds of Europe during WWII.

Vera was born to a Jewish family in Bucharest, Romania in 1908, but moved to England in 1933. She attended The Sorbonne in Paris where studied modern languages. Vera returned to England in 1944 where she joined the F-Section (‘F’ for France) of the SOE as an intelligence officer.

Vera briefed agents going into the field and debriefed them coming out. An agent’s return provided valuable information on the latest goings-on on the war front which greatly aided in briefing the agents heading into that zone. For example, this is the dame who would tell you not to order creme fraiche with your coffee in France because it hadn’t been available for over a year. Little details like that could preserve your cover and save your hide.

Actually, Vera was not above patting down agents to look for a stray piece of anything that might reveal their English identity. This bird, however, was a master of finessing an agent with enough items of French origin so as to further aid their mission: a Paris Metro tickets planted in a pocket, a stamped letter from “relatives” in the country, Vera knew to make sure that every detail was perfect prior to sending her agents out into the field.

And there really was no aspect of F-Section that Vera wasn’t involved in. She had a say in recruitment, training, and who went where. She saw agents off to the airfield where they would soon being parachuting into France. She also took care of their lives at home, contacting relatives, providing cover stories during an agent’s absence, even helping agents to draw up wills should they not return from their missions. Vera knew every agent going into the field, and they damn well knew her.

After the war’s end, 118 agents from the SOE still had not returned from the field. Since SOE basically ceased to exist after the war, Vera did not have official permission to track these agents down. And this is where things get interesting.

A very important, and often seldom accomplished, part of the intelligence cycle is feedback. In the case of a covert op, that feedback comes in the form of debriefing upon an agent’s return. When an agent does not return, if no one sees to it to discover that agent’s fate, then you really have no way of knowing/assessing what went wrong, what went right, and what possibly needs to change. Fluke things happen that derail an op, but if there was poor Intel going into the mission, you have no way of knowing unless you get the opportunity to ask.

And hey, there’s the human factor after all. Vera was the lifeline for 400 agents going out into the field. She had to know them better than some of their families. In the fog of war, it’s easy for people to disappear. Vera was determined to clear the air and find out what happened to those missing agents.

It was then that Vera joined the Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) and on a self-appointed mission, spent three months criss-crossing Europe tracking down the missing.

She returned having learned the whereabouts of 117.

Atkins continued working until she was demobilized in 1947 where she retired to the countryside. She died in 2000 at the age of 92.

I’ve been a little loathe to write of Elizabeth “Betty” Thorpe Pack (1910-1963), famous WWII Spy-Dame, for the simple reason that she is too closely associated with a term this Agent truly dislikes: Sexpionage.

Sexpionage, quite simply, is a practice attributed to the dames who use those other “womanly charms” to get the intel or finish the op. This term is regularly and incorrectly attributed to ladies in the know,  just like the name “Mata Hari”.  And while this Agent won’t dispute the reality or even the necessity of utilizing such extreme methods to get a job done, this Agent does take issue with such methods garnering Ms. Pack the moniker of “Greatest Female Spy” because of them.

Okay, so here we go: Betty-Boop was born in Minneapolis, the daughter of a career Military man. Betty was a broad who, at a very early age, like to play the field. She was well educated and a striking beauty with her red hair and green eyes. She became the Paris Hilton of her day prowling the socialite circuit until she found herself knocked-up at 21 and set to marry a dull, British, embassy man twice her age.

Life wasn’t all bad as her husband’s career took her abroad to Chile, Spain, Poland, where she apparently continued to play the field. Around such time, Betty was put on the British payroll as a spy and set up to capture her first target: a Polish Prime Minister with access to the code-breaking work on the Enigma machine.

When war broke out, Betty found herself back on home turf where she was further recruited by the British (remember, the US was still neutral at this point) to set up shop in Washington DC. Her task was to obtain Italian naval codes from a certain sailor at the Italian Embassy. Betty employed her “usual methods” and voila! the Italian battle fleet is hitting skids.

Next up: Vichy France and their cipher codes. Betty set her sights on Charles Brousse, French Embassy Press Officer in order to gain access to the French Embassy in DC. She began a passionate affair with Brousse (a married person not unlike Betty, it’s easy to forget about that fact). Brousse was “turned” by the enticement of money, his dislike of Germans, and apparently Betty’s charms. The intel flowed into British hands but the cipher books were proving difficult to obtain and despite Betty’s “best efforts” with other men in the embassy, she unable to get them into the hands of the Brits.

A last ditch effort to obtain the books involved Brousse and Betty working in tandom over several nights at the French Embassy with a safe cracker. Guards were paid, others drugged, and the pinnacle event was while the safe cracker was doing his deed, Betty and Brousse engaged in the deed themselves, in flagrante delicato no less, in order to thwart discovery of their true activities when a security guard happened into the room they were in at the embassy.

So, of course, after all that hooplah, the codes were obtained. Pearl Harbor went down, America ended its neutrality, and we can all pretty much remember what happened after that.

After the war, Brousse divorced his wife and Betty’s long forgotten husband committed suicide leaving Betty and Brousse free to marry, which they did. Betty pack died in 1963 of throat cancer at the age of 53.

So what do we take away from all of this? Perhaps an argument about what makes a successful spy versus what makes a great spy? Betty was certainly successful and the intel was important, but do you compare that to the exploits of Hall, Szabo, Cornioley, and the host of other dames being dropped out of airplanes, wrangling ammo, sending secret communiques, waging war, and generally risking their lives? Does a broad using sex as her tradecraft really equate a “great” spy?

I’m not trying to undermine Betty’s accomplishments because to a certain extent we are comparing apples and radiators, but tallying up this skirt’s love of adventure and promiscuity, both of which seemed to have fueled her actions, makes this Agent glad for one thing:

That Betty Pack was on our side.

In the intermingled histories of Dames in War, you no sooner research one skirt when another comes to light. So to continue with the apparently British Babes theme that is currently in play, Violette Bushell Szabo (1921-1945) represents one of the more tragic figures of WWII.

Violette was born in Paris to a French mother and a British father. She was raised in England and at the start of the Big One, she was working at a perfume counter. Hardly representative of the adventures this gal was about to embark upon.

Violette met Etienne Szabo, a Frenchman of Hungarian descent, and after a zam-pow courtship, they married a short 42 days later. Violette was 19 years old. Etienne was sent to fight in Northern Africa while Violette was left behind where she went to work for the Auxilary Territorial Service and to gave birth to their only child, Tania. Tragically, Etienne was killed in battle in 1942, never once having seen his daughter.

This event provoked a profound change in Violette. She offered her services to the British Special Operations Executive where she met considerable resistance (much like the kind Pearl Cornioley encountered), but was cleared for service and was parachuted into France in 1944.

Codename “Louise”, Violette went to town reorganizing a fractured French Resistance network that went kablooey at the hands of the Germans. This sprite of a girl led her men to sabotage roads and bridges while Violette herself radioed back to the British important Allied bombing targets. Violette returned to England a short 25 days later, her first mission a resounding success.

Violette returned to the Limoges region of France in June with the mission to disrupt communications lines of the Germans. Violette was captured when her car encountered and unexpected roadblock and she ran out of ammo during a consequent gun fight. She was taken to prison, moved repeatedly about the country, and endured obscene amounts of torture in effort to get her to rat-out her comrades which she never did.

An SOE rescue attempt missed Violette by a mere 2 hours when in late August 1944, Violette was transported to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Violette Bushell Szabo was executed sometime during the early part of February 1945. She was shot in the back of the neck alongside two other female SOE agents. A female French section agent imprisoned in the camp later reported of Violette’s demise. Her remains were incinerated in the camp’s crematorium. She was just 23 years old.

23 Years old. It’s hard to get your head around the feats of this young dame. Most 23 year olds this Agent knows are too wrapped up in their nightlife, chasing guys, and celebrity gossip.

But Violette was of a different ilk and a different era. In our time of war, a war that is so far removed from our shores, it’s difficult to imagine the sacrifices some broads have made for the sake of better world.

In 1946, Tania Szabo, Violette and Etienne Szabo’s surviving daughter (pictured left), received the George Cross, posthumously awarded to her mother who was only the second woman to have received the honor. In 1950, seven year old Tania also received the Croix de Guerre from France for Violette’s heroism.

You gotta hand it to the British Broads of WWII. This Agent is losing track of exactly how many stories there are of the dames being deposited behind enemy lines via parachute where they raised all sorts of covert-hell. Pearl Witherington Cornioley (1914-2008) is yet another one of these stories.

Pearl, although a British subject, was born and raised in France until such time the Germans invaded in 1940 and she fled to London with her family. Pearl took on a number of jobs to assist in the war effort and eventually went to work for the Air Ministry. Not happy sitting a desk job, this dame volunteered for the SOE in 1943 where she garnered mixed reviews from the critics. On one hand, she seemed to have lacked the “personality” to be a “real leader”. On the other hand, the dame was the best sharpshooter the service had ever seen, either male or female, and apparently was pretty comfortable being dropped out of perfectly good airplane.

Despite any doubts her superiors may have had, Pearl was sent to the southern Loire region in France and worked as a courier for the local resistance until their leader was captured and shipped off to the friendly neighborhood Concentration Camp. Pearl took over the unit of local farmers and is noted for having whipped the group into prime shape. During her time there, Pearl and her men disrupted a train line to Paris no less than 800 times . Also the broad who was assumed to have “lacked” the ability to lead, led her rag-tag farmers to disrupt German D-Day communications and oversaw the the surrender of no less that 18,000 German troops…effectively putting to end any further doubts regarding Pearl’s ability to lead, one should think.

After the war, Pearl married and waged her own war against the British government for failing to properly recognize her efforts. As a woman, Pearl was ineligible to receive the Military Cross and the government instead tried to bestow upon her the MBE, a civilian honor to which Pearl replied that there was “nothing civil” about her actions during the war and rejected the award.

In a 1945 letter from Pearl to the Powers That Be:

“I am honoured that the British Government should wish to decorate me, but I consider the MBE as inappropriate and do not wish to accept it. The work was of a purely military nature in enemy-occupied country. When the time for open warfare came we planned and executed open attacks on the enemy. I spent a year in the field and had I been caught I would have been shot or, worse still, sent to a concentration camp. I do consider it most unjust to be given a civilian decoration. Our training, which we did with the men, was purely military, and as women we were expected to replace them in the field. I was responsible for the training and organisation of nearly 3,000 men for guerrilla warfare. The men have received military decorations, why this discrimination with women? Precedence? When I undertook my duties in the field I did not take into consideration the fact that my mission had no precedent.”

Go ahead and argue against that! I dare you.

Not surprisingly, Pearl eventually got her way and her proper accolades and died peacefully this last February at the ripe of age of 93 in her beloved France.