REVIEW: D-Day Girls (The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II) by Sarah Rose
In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women as spies. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.
In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflappable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.
Rigorously researched and written with razor-sharp wit, D-Day Girls is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance: a reminder of what courage—and the energy of politically animated women—can accomplish when the stakes seem incalculably high.
Dear Ms. Rose,
With the 75th anniversaries of World War II events taking place and the declassification of information on SOE, there are lots of books now being written about their wartime activities. This book seemed as if it would slot nicely into two I read recently about secret agents during the war. Some might look at this review and sigh, “not again, Jayne. Haven’t you read enough of these?” But given how the accomplishments and history of female agents have been largely overlooked for decades, I feel it’s important for their true heroism to finally be told.
While the book does focus on Sansom, Borrel and de Baissac, there are plenty of other women who are also mentioned. Sansom came to the attention of SOE after a mix-up with her old photographs which she had mistakenly sent to the wrong government office in response to the request for holiday snaps which showed the French coast and would be used to precisely chart D-Day routes off the beaches of Normandy. When offered a (nebulously worded) chance to help the war effort, she thought it would be more exciting than continuing with being a bored British housewife.
The agency wanted British recruits who spoke flawless French. Given the demand for manpower in the front lines and that two agencies SOE and de Gaulle’s men were looking for people with the same knowledge, the agency was forced – after much hemming, hawing and soul searching – to consider and finally approve the use of women behind enemy lines. Since so many were originally from France or – in one case – had escaped from Germany, they were all investigated and vetted. Files notes indicated that agency personnel still had other doubts.
“God help the Germans if we can ever get her (Odette Sansom) near them. But maybe God help us along the way.”
The women were taught invisible writing, lock picking, and safe cracking as well as some other unsavory skills: arson, train wrecking, forging, stalking, and alley fighting taught by the infamous Shanghai police. Every attack should be followed by a “knee kick to the testicles.” Which was probably better than what Andree Borrel, who dreamed up new ways to murder Germans (such as a sharpened pencil driven through the ear), would have done.
The resistance movement in France was a mess. The flesh was willing but the organization was weak. The SOE agents were tasked with setting up networks, gathering and sending coded information, retrieving war supplies sent from Britain and then training the French agents to use them. At first, the Gestapo and Abwehr were content to play a waiting game. As long as the agents’ activities were still scattered and mainly ineffectual, the Germans would just monitor, take names and build files, seeing who visited agents and then tracking back to others. When the time came, it would be easy to round them up. Then when the agents’ results began to improve, the Germans set to work.
I mentioned in my review of “Madame Fourcade” how astonished I was at the moments of unbelievably lax security that allowed whole networks and dozens to hundreds of agents to be wrecked and captured. Yeah, there’s more of that here as well as flipped captured agents and agents who turned out to be working a double game for the Germans. But what floored me was that one captured agent went exactly by the book in trying to warn London that he’d been taken and was being forced to transmit and a London chief refused to believe the woman who warned that she thought the agent’s “hand” was different and that he hadn’t double identified himself then insisted that a message be sent that scolded him for this. Delighted with the information, the Germans made sure not to allow the captured agent to repeat his intentional mistakes.
Pregnancy, cool nerves and luck aided some agents in avoiding capture and imprisonment. Others were not so lucky facing and enduring years of torture and mistreatment. TRIGGER WARNINGS some of what was done to them is detailed. Against all odds, some of them survived. A few came so close, dying in the days after their camps were overrun by the Allies.
For various and assorted reasons, much of what these agents did remained classified and what did get mentioned was abbreviated. Since the women were not considered as being in the military, they were not awarded military honors at the time. It has taken decades for them to receive the recognition they deserved. This detailed and witty book helps shed light on their actions, their courage and their guts. B