Although it may have been a surprise to learn of the extent to which female soldiers and spies played a role in the Civil War, it is likely not a surprise to learn of their role in World War II. Oddly enough, however, none of my history podcasts have shown much interest in these spies, beyond brief mentions of the intelligence work of Josephine Baker. So we will begin with this French-American star of stage and screen.
Josephine Baker (1906–1975)
Josephine Baker has an incredible history as a performer and civil rights activist and I encourage you to seek out more information on her in general. Every phase of her life is utterly fascinating, from her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, to her time on Broadway, to her success on the Paris stage (sometimes including her pet cheetah), to her adoption of her “rainbow tribe” of twelve children, to her work with the NAACP and the civil rights movement.
Less well known is the help she provided to the French government and the Resistance during World War II. To begin with, in the lead up to the conflict, she worked to assist refugees and entertain troops, including using her pilot’s license to fly into Belgium with Red Cross supplies. She was first recruited by French military intelligence in 1939 at the start of the war and tasked with collecting information from officials at embassy and ministry parties. After the invasion of France in 1940, she assisted the Free French and other Resistance efforts out of her home in the Dordogne. [Side note: If you are looking for a lesser-known region of France to explore, the Dordogne is a great choice—chock full of incredible food, outdoor activities, and castles and other historical sites.] As a popular performer, Baker was also able to travel internationally relatively easily, carrying vital information on troop movements and military support. In some cases this information was written in invisible ink on her sheet music, in others it was pinned to her underwear. Later during the war, she entertained Allied troops in North Africa. For these efforts, Baker was the first American-born woman to receive France’s Croix de Guerre and the first to receive military honors at her funeral. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1957.
And now we move on to a few women I had never heard of until the “Spies” episode of Drunk History introduced me to the tale of Virginia Hall and made me wonder how many stories like hers were out there. (This is the same episode that features Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman and Will Ferrell as Roald Dahl and is truly must-see TV.)
Virginia Hall (1906–1982)
Virginia Hall studied French, German, and Italian at university and long wanted to join the Foreign Service. However, after accidentally shooting herself in the leg during a hunting expedition in Turkey in 1932, an injury that eventually led to amputation of her left leg below the knee, her dreams of a life in the diplomatic corps seemed to be at an end. Also, she was woman, which may have been the bigger problem. [Side note: Hall’s nickname for her artificial limb was Cuthbert, a detail I feel compelled to mention.]
With the arrival of war in Europe, Hall saw a way to serve—as an ambulance driver in France. After France’s surrender, this on-the-ground experience eventually led to Hall’s recruitment by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hall then spent over a year undercover as a New York Post correspondent in and around Lyon, where she coordinated the passing of information, people, and supplies. The Germans apparently considered her the “most dangerous of all Allied spies” and gave her the nickname Artemis (goddess of the hunt). When the Germans took over the Zone Libre in 1942, Hall escaped to Spain on foot over the Pyrenees and continued her work from Madrid. She later joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and went back into France in advance of the D-Day invasion to monitor German intelligence, train Resistance forces, and help coordinate the sabotage of infrastructure used by the Germans. In September 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II. In 1951, she joined the Central Intelligence Agency.
Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944)
Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of Inayat Khan, teacher of Universal Sufism, and Ameena Begum, originally Ora Baker (cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science) of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Born in Moscow, Inayat Khan was brought up outside Paris and trained as a musician at the Paris Conservatory. She was also a published writer of fairy stories for children. After her family fled to London in 1940, Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a radio operator. She was eventually recruited as a spy and worked under the name of Nora Baker. Inayat Khan infiltrated occupied France where she spent months working as the only active SOE radio operator in the Paris area—changing addresses daily—until she was betrayed and arrested in October 1943. Despite being tortured repeatedly, she never revealed even her real name to her captors. Inayat Khan died on September 13, 1944, in the Dachau concentration camp after reportedly shouting “Liberté!” just before Nazis shot her in the head. She was awarded the French Croix de Guerre posthumously.
Nancy Wake (1912–1982)
Our next “European” spy comes from halfway around the world, from New Zealand in point of fact. Nancy Wake grew up in Sydney, Australia, but married a French industrialist and moved to Marseille just before the war. When Germany invaded, Wake immediately got involved and eventually served as a British agent in France, becoming a courier for the Resistance, working with the Maquis to coordinate over 7000 fighters, and joining the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. She was so successful and elusive that the Gestapo called her the “White Mouse” and put out a five-million-franc reward for her capture. One story about Wake killing an SS sentry with her bare hands called to mind Cary Grant’s stories of the Resistance in To Catch a Thief:
It’s wonderful. And the pastry is as light as air.
—Germaine has very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch.
—Yes, I can tell.
—She strangled a German general once… without a sound.
Following the war, Wake was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre. She continued to work for British Intelligence in Europe until the mid-1950s.
There was little she enjoyed better than ‘a bloody good drink’, and to fund her lifestyle she had sold her war medals. ‘There was no point in keeping them,’ she explained, ‘I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.’
—from Nancy Wake’s obituary in The Guardian
And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?
To read more about these incredible women:
- Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart
- Russell Braddon, Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine
- Judith Pearson, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy
- Ean Wood, The Josephine Baker Story
- Greg Elder, “Faces of Defense Intelligence: Virginia Hall – The ‘Limping Lady’” (http://www.dia.mil, 27 October 2016)
- Erika Jarvis, “Five Badass Female Spies Who Deserve Their Own World War II Movie” (Vanity Fair, 25 November 1945)
- Simon Mawer, “Special Agents: The Women of SOE” (The Paris Review, 21 May 2012)
- David Stafford, “Nancy Wake obituary” (The Guardian, 8 August 2011)
- Patricia Hruby Powell, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
- Jonah Winter, Jazz Age Josephine
For the next post in this series, see Adventurers and Explorers.