by ERIKA JARVIS
NOVEMBER 25, 2016
“Writer Steven Knight has said that his new film, Allied, is based on a story about World War II spies that he heard third-hand from an old girlfriend. It could well have been more than an urban legend, though: dozens of remarkable women played a key role in “the Resistance,” much as Marion Cotillard’s character does in the film.
These women were especially prevalent in the Special Operations Executive, a cobbled-together network of spies and amateurs that wrought havoc on German-occupied Europe; President Eisenhower later credited the organization with reversing the fortunes of the Allies against Hitler.
Scores of female operatives worked for the S.O.E. These women were trained to handle guns and explosives, memorize complex codes, organize munitions and supplies drops, endure harsh interrogation, and, in some cases, were in charge of thousands of men. To follow their stories is to follow the trajectory of the war.
It also made for tales that read like spy thrillers, the kind that should look like gold to any screenwriter. This winter, Jessica Chastain will star in The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the true story of a Polish woman undermining the Nazi occupation; 2001’s Charlotte Gray, another story of a female resistance fighter, is said to be based on a composite of real-life women. But for every Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, there’s an equally dramatic tale about a wartime heroine waiting to be told. Here are five real women whose stories would make compelling cinematic thrillers.
Vera Atkins: The Most Powerful Woman in the History of Espionage
Vera Atkins was a young Romanian working in Bucharest when she met the dashing Canadian William Stephenson, according to William Stevenson’s Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. Later, he would be known as agent “Intrepid,” the supposed inspiration for James Bond—but for now, he supplying pre-war intelligence to Britain.
Charmed by Vera, he introduced her the German ambassador to Romania (who, it’s said, loved beautiful women) in order to get information from him, Stevenson writes in Spymistress. The ploy worked. Soon, Vera began gathering intelligence for the British while outwardly working as a translator for Stephenson’s steel business.
Vera Atkins was Jewish (her real name was Rosenberg), a fact she didn’t readily disclose to the high-ranking anti-Nazi bureaucrats she worked with. In the years leading up to the war, she smuggled information to Churchill as he railed against Hitler’s regime in political exile—while the nervous English government tried to quiet him, believing Hitler’s promise not to invade.
When Churchill was brought back to power to steel England against imminent German invasion, Vera was assigned to a high-ranking position in the Special Operations Executive, also known as “Churchill’s secret army.” In spite of the S.O.E.’s success, England still needed American support. Churchill had secretly been in contact with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it was well known the Americans were deeply against entering another world war—especially with Britain’s gloomy prospects. Roosevelt sent his head of intelligence, William Donovan—the future creator of the C.I.A.—to scout the situation on the ground in Europe. Churchill made sure Donovan spent substantial time with Vera, according to Spymistress.
Vera was a firm believer in the power of ordinary citizens to wreak havoc. Stevenson writes in Spymistress that she liked invented weapons that could be assembled on the fly, like rats stuffed with explosives. Instead of trying to impress Donovan with fancy dinners, Vera deliberately took him to the heart of the S.O.E., where “underpaid amateurs . . . fiddled with bits of metal bicycle tubing for guns” and “faked horse manure to conceal explosives,” according to Spymistress. University students worked furiously to translate codes. In the end, Donovan was so impressed with the underdog S.O.E.’s effect on its formidable German enemy that he outlined the S.O.E.’s activities for Roosevelt, who in turn permitted Donovan to return to monitor the S.O.E.’s progress.
Krystyna Skarbek: Churchill’s Favorite Spy
Krystyna Skarbek was the daughter of Polish aristocracy. Her doting father taught her horsemanship and shooting; for the rest of her life she excelled in charming men. And as she roamed Europe on secret missions, she left many of them heartbroken. In 1939, the Germans invaded, quickly followed by the Russians. Krystyna was overseas, and her attempts to enlist were frustrated by the fact she was a woman. In London, according to Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, she presented the British secret service with a plan: she would ski into Nazi-occupied Poland and deliver British propaganda. Positive news about the fight against Hitler was vital to fuel the resistance, especially now that the Polish government had fled the country.
She convinced the Olympic skier Jan Marusarz to escort her over the Tatras mountains from Hungary. It was the coldest winter in memory—German patrols found so many bodies in the following spring thaw that they doubled their patrols the following winter.
Krystyna craved danger, even as her very existence was perilous: her mother was a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking heir. Though her Jewish blood meant that she would never fully be accepted by the Polish aristocracy, Krystyna’s love for Poland never wavered.
Krystyna became a vital part of the resistance, smuggling intelligence out of Poland to the allies, using her wits to evade capture and execution over and over again—including the time she bit her own tongue bloody to fake tuberculosis. She once saved the life of one of her lovers, Francis Cammaerts, by skulking around the prison where he was being held and singing one of their favorite tunes, until she heard him sing it back. Now that she knew where he was located, she entered the prison and told the guards that she was related to a senior British diplomat. The Allies had just landed; over the course of three hours, she convinced the guards that the only way they might receive mercy would be to release the prisoners. They agreed.
After the war, Krystyna led a somewhat aimless existence, and was eventually stabbed to death by another obsessed admirer.
Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah was pitched to play Krystyna in a movie about her life. When asked why, according to The Spy Who Loved, she said that Krystyna was “my father’s favorite spy.”
Nancy Wake: The Gestapo’s Most Wanted
Born in New Zealand in 1912 and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake’s life couldn’t have been sweeter. She married a wealthy man in Marseille, and was accustomed to breakfasting in a large bath with champagne and caviar on toast.
However, when war came, Wake didn’t shy away. She told her devoted husband, Henri, that she would become an ambulance driver. Since France had almost no ambulances, she made him buy her one, according to Russell Braddon’s Nancy Wake: SEO’s Greatest Heroine. She was a horrendous driver, but very determined .
Wake spread her husband’s wealth as far as she could, and inadvertently started running a sort of underground railway from her flat in Marseille. The Gestapo was soon buzzing about “the White Mouse,” a woman who was helping hundreds of downed Allied servicemen and would-be political prisoners escape to England via Spain and the Pyrenees (which Wake claimed to have walked 17 times). She was their No. 1 most-wanted fugitive, with a price of 5 million francs on her head.
After being arrested and then escaping to Britain, Wake joined the S.O.E. Then she parachuted straight back in to France. She became ensconced with the Maquis, the guerrilla resistance army pocketed through some of Southern France’s more rugged terrain. She won over local clan leaders with her know-how and became the administrative head of around 7,000 fighters, coordinating secret nighttime airdrops of weapons, explosives, and supplies. She participated in raids and killed Germans with her bare hands. According to Braddon’s Nancy Wake, one of the Maquis called her “the most feminine woman I know—until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”
After the war, she returned to her flat in Marseille, which had been commandeered by female Gestapo, who had also stolen all her furniture, writes Braddon in Nancy Wake. Wake’s husband, who was also captured in their arrest, had been tortured to death by the Gestapo searching for her. She retired to London, where she lived until she died, aged 98. Her final wish was to have her ashes sprinkled over the mountains where she had fought her hardest battles.
Pearl Cornioley: I Did Nothing Civil
Raised in Paris by English parents, Cornioley’s alcoholic father meant she was forced to help support her family. She ended up working as a shorthand typist for the English government—but made it very clear that she wanted to work with the French underground. Vera Atkins, according to Spymistress, got wind and recruited her for the S.O.E. Apparently, Pearl was the best shot—male or female—who had ever come through training.
Vera sent her to France as a courier, according to Spymistress, relaying memorized information that was too sensitive to broadcast over radio. Pearl traveled around under the pretense of being a cosmetics saleswoman, although she didn’t wear makeup.
After a few months, Pearl’s main radio operator was arrested. So she took control of a swath of territory that she called the “Marie-Wrestler circuit,” after two of her code names, Cornioley wrote in her book, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent. She lived in the woods and organized drops of supplies and explosives to arm the Maquis. Her photograph ended up on German posters that promised a reward of 1 million francs.
That didn’t deter volunteers from flocking to her, especially as it seemed more and more possible that the resistance efforts might get rid of the Germans once and for all. She went from being in charge of around 20 Maquis to 3,500.
Pearl became an expert in guerrilla warfare and resisted attempts by the French Army to treat the Maquisards as regular soldiers. “You can’t expect these men to go to an area they don’t know to engage the enemy in guerrilla warfare,” she wrote in Code Name Pauline. “You have to know the land well to do that. . . . You have to hassle the enemy and retreat immediately.”
When Pearl was offered a civil MBE for her role in the war (since military versions were not offered to women at the time), she turned it down, saying, “There was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.”
Virginia Hall: The Most Dangerous Allied Spy
The only American on this list, Hall was a plucky overachiever whose dreams of joining the United States Foreign Service led her to an embassy post in Turkey, where she accidentally shot her foot off in a hunting accident, leaving her with a wooden leg and a limp. The Foreign Service used this as an excuse to turn her down, although she suspected the rejection was really because she was a woman, Judith Pearson writes in The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy.
No matter: Hall went to work in France as an ambulance driver, but was forced to flee once France surrendered to Germany. Upon checking into the U.S. embassy in the U.K., she was surprised to be asked to provide intelligence from her time on the ground. Soon, Vera Atkins recruited her, and she was sent into Lyon under the guise of being a stringer for the New York Post. Hall was the first female S.O.E. operative to be sent into France.
Hall had found the job of her dreams. She helped smuggle out information and prisoners, and smuggle in agents and supplies. She soon became a highly wanted woman, with posters seeking la dame qui boite—the lady with a limp. Klaus Barbie, “the butcher of Lyon,” reportedly said, “I would give anything to lay my hands on that . . . bitch.” When the situation grew too dangerous, Hall fled France via the Pyrenees, on foot, in the dead of winter.
Once back in Britain, she joined the O.S.S., the American version of the S.O.E. (later to become the C.I.A.). They sent her back to France, this time disguised as an old peasant woman with gray hair. There she was a radio operator, monitoring German intelligence and organizing drops of supplies to nearly 1,500 Maquis fighters for sabotage attacks against the rail lines, tunnels, and bridges used by the Germans, according to Pearson’s The Wolves at the Door. And like the rest of these women, she undoubtedly hastened the surrender of Germany and the end of World War II.”