Heroines of WW2: the Special Operations Executive

The secret organisation the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed by the British government in 1940 to ‘coordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants’.

Recruits were toughened up with targeted training, and would have good knowledge of the Nazi-occupied country they were to be sent to.

In 1942, Churchill approved women being sent to Europe as couriers and wireless operators, as they were thought to be less conspicuous to the Gestapo than men.

39 women of the SOE did extraordinary things in the course of duty, and three were awarded the highest civilian gallantry honour, the George Cross.

Violette Szabó, GC

Violette Szabó was an agent of the SOE during World War 2 and posthumous recipient of the George Cross for her ‘magnificent courage and steadfastness’.

Violette SzaboBorn Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in a British hospital in Paris in 1921, to an English father and French mother, the family moved to Stockwell, London, when she was 11. Violette left school at 14 and worked in department stores, until joining the Women’s Land Army in 1940 and going from strawberry picking to working in an armaments factory.

Shortly after a visit to France, where she met the French Legionnaire officer Étienne Szabó (Légion d'Honneur, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre with Star and Palm, Colonial Medal), the two were married. Étienne tragically never met his daughter, Tania, who was born while he was stationed in North Africa, as his life was taken at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942 (Gazette supplement 38177). It was this trauma that made Violette agree to train as a field agent, to fight the enemy that had killed her husband.

The ability to speak both French and English made her invaluable to the SOE. She took part in strenuous paramilitary training in Scotland, where she learned skills such as cryptography and escape and evasion tactics. Her first mission, under the codename ‘Corinne Leroy’, was as a courier for Liewer's Salesman circuit in the Rouen-Le Havre red zone area, where she reported that 100 French Resistance workers had been captured by the Gestapo. She was thus promoted to the rank of Ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Her second, highly dangerous mission, along with three other colleagues, was the day after D-Day, when she was parachuted into the Limoges area to assist with coordinating the activities of the diverse Résistance and SOE groups to harass the SS-Das Reich Panzer Division from mounting from the south of France to Normandy.

Along with fellow French-English agents Denise Block and Lilian Rolfe, and after displaying great courage under fire, Violette was captured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in August 1944. Transferred to Torgau and then Königsberg for work under terrible conditions during a bitter winter (where Violette came close to mounting an escape), and then a camp on the River Oder, the three women were taken back to Ravensbrück. Between 26 January and 5 February, Violette was executed, age just 23. 

Violette was awarded a posthumous George Cross (Gazette supplement 37820), which was collected by her daughter, Tania, aged just 4, from King George VI. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government. Her astonishing bravery is detailed in The Gazette:

‘St. James's Palace, S.W.1. 17 December 1946Violette Szabo and Etienne

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to:

Violette, Madame SZABO (deceased), Women's Transport Service (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).

Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April 1944, and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice arrested by the German security authorities but each time managed to get away. Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the southwest of France. Resistance appeared hopeless but Madame Szabo, seizing a Sten-gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement, she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted. She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness.’

Together, Violette and Étienne are the most highly decorated married couple for gallantry, awarded by their respective countries. 

Odette Hallowes, GC, MBE

Odette Hallowes was an agent of the SOE during WW2, and remains the only living woman to have been awarded the George Cross, in recognition of her ‘bravery, endurance and self-sacrifice’.

Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born in Amiens, France, in 1912. She suffered the tragic loss of her father at Verdun, and serious illness left Odette blind for nearly two years. But this didn’t prevent her from being headstrong and determined. She moved to Britain after marrying Englishman Roy Samson in 1931, and they had three daughters.

Roy joined the army in 1939 and Odette and her daughters moved to Somerset. In spring 1942, Odette responded to appeals from the Admiralty to send snapshots of the French coast for war use, saying she knew the area well and was French by birth. She mistakenly sent them to the War Office, and by chance came to the attention of the SOE. After an interview with a recruiting officer, she was enrolled, passed strenuous training including parachute school, and was sent as an agent into Nazi-occupied France in 1942 to work with the French Resistance as part of the FANY unit.

With the codename ‘Lise’, she acted as courier to Peter Churchill, coordinator of the Spindle circuit, an SOE network based in Cannes. When Spindle was infiltrated and the two were betrayed, they were arrested by German intelligence organisation the Abwehr and sent to Fresnes Prison. They were tortured by the Gestapo, but Odette kept to her story throughout, that Churchill and she were married and he was the nephew of the prime minister.

Odette was condemned to death and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, but survived for two years, often in solitary confinement, before release. This is mostly thought to be due to her supposed connections with Winston Churchill, which were calculated to allow her to be used as a bargaining tool. As the Red Army approached, Fritz Suhren, the camp commandant, drove in a sports car with Odette beside him into US lines, in the hopes that this would act in his favour, though this didn’t prevent him from being hanged after trial. On release, Odette was gravely ill, weak and emaciated. Churchill was sent to a different concentration camp and also escaped execution before liberation by the US army.

Odette was awarded an MBE in 1945 for services in France during enemy occupation (Gazette supplement 37328) and the George Cross on 20 August 1946 (Gazette supplement 37693). The citation describes her horrific treatment:

‘The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: Odette Marie Celina, Mrs. SANSOM, M.B.E., Women's Transport Service (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).

Mrs. Sansom was infiltrated into enemy occupied France and worked with great courage and distinction until April, 1943, when she was arrested with her Commanding Officer. Between Marseilles and Paris on the way to the prison at Fresnes, she succeeded in speaking to her Commanding Officer and for mutual protection they agreed to maintain that they were married. She adhered to this story and even succeeded in convincing her captors in spite of considerable contrary evidence and through at least fourteen interrogations. She also drew Gestapo attention from her Commanding Officer on to herself saying that he had only come to France on her insistence. She took full responsibility and agreed that it should be herself and not her Commanding Officer who should be shot. By this action she caused the Gestapo to cease paying attention to her Commanding Officer after only two interrogations. In addition the Gestapo were most determined to discover the whereabouts of a wireless operator and of another British officer whose lives were of the greatest value to the Resistance Organisation. Mrs. Sansom was the only person who knew of their whereabouts. The Gestapo tortured her most brutally to try to make her give away this information. They seared her back with a red hot iron and, when, that failed, they pulled out all her toe-nails. Mrs. Sansom, however, continually refused to speak and by her bravery and determination, she not only saved the lives of the two officers but also enabled them to carry on their most valuable work. During the period of over two years in which she was in enemy hands, she displayed courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the highest possible order.’

Odette married Peter Churchill in 1947. They divorced in 1956, when she married Geoffrey Hallowes. In 1950, she was granted a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur for her work with the French Resistance:

‘The KING has been pleased to grant to Odette Marie Celine, Mrs. Churchill, G.C., M.B.E., unrestricted permission to wear the decoration of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, conferred upon her by the President of the French Republic in, recognition of services rendered during the war.’ (Gazette issue 39069)

In Odette Hallowes’ words, her George Cross was not to be regarded as an award to her personally, but as an acknowledgement of all those, known and unknown, alive or dead, who had served the cause of the liberation of France. She also paid tribute to Violette Szabo, saying that "She was the bravest of us all."

Odette died peacefully at her home in Surrey in 1995, age 82.

Noor Inayat Khan, GC

As an SOE agent, Noor Inayat Khan was the first woman radio operator to be sent into Nazi-occupied France. She received a posthumous George Cross for conspicuous courage, ‘both moral and physical’.Noor Khan

Noor was born in 1914 in Moscow to an Indian father, who was a musician and Sufi teacher, and American mother. The family moved to London and then Paris, where she was educated in medicine and music, and began a career as a writer. After the fall of France, Noor escaped to England and joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

Having been trained for a year as a radio operator, in 1943 she was flown to France to join the Prosper resistance in Paris, and given the codename ‘Madeleine’. She remained in France delivering messages to London, though other members of her network had been arrested. She was betrayed by a French woman and arrested by the Gestapo and, despite an escape, was recaptured and sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany. Tortured, chained and in solitary confinement, she revealed nothing to her captors for a full 10 months. In September 1944 she and three other agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp and were shot.

Her final word, uttered as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was ‘liberté’.

Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, gazetted April 1949 (Gazette supplement 38578):

‘The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE CROSS to:

Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN (9901), Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

Assistant Section Officer Nora INAYAT-KHAN was the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France, and was landed by Lysander aircraft on 16th June, 1943. During the weeks immediately following her arrival, the Gestapo made mass arrests in the Paris Resistance groups to which she had been detailed. She refused however to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group. She remained at her post therefore and did the excellent work which earned her a posthumous Mention in Despatches.

The Gestapo had a full description of her, but knew only her code name "Madeleine". They deployed considerable forces in their effort to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After 3 months, she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to their H.Q. in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and were now in a position to work back to London. They asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave them no information of any kind. She was imprisoned in one of the cells on the 5th floor of the Gestapo H.Q. and remained there for several weeks during which time she made two unsuccessful attempts at escape. She was asked to sign a declaration that she would make no further attempts, but she refused and the Chief of the Gestapo obtained permission from Berlin to send her to Germany for "safe custody". She was the first agent to be sent to Germany.

Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was sent to Karlsruhe in November 1943, and then to Pforzheim where her cell was apart from the main prison. She was considered to be a particularly dangerous and unco-operative prisoner. The Director of the prison has also been interrogated and has confirmed that Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN, when interrogated by the Karlsruhe Gestapo, refused to give any information whatsoever, either as to her work or her colleagues.

She was taken with three others to Dachau Camp on the 12 September 1944. On arrival, she was taken to the crematorium and shot.

Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical over a period of more than 12 months.’

The SOE's personnel files can be studied at The National Archives, Kew.

Images courtesy of Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust and Tania Szabó archives