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Digging out the truth about women spies

What image comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘women spies’? The stock reaction seems to be Mata Hari, or some of the James Bond girls. This was the response with which Ann Kramer was first confronted when she began work on her new book, ‘Women Wartime Spies’, writes Nick Terdre.

Her decision to dig beneath the stereotypes, taking a broad look at women’s participation in espionage and intelligence work in both world wars, was vindicated by some remarkable findings which leave the stereotypes floundering in the dust.

One invaluable nugget Ms Kramer unearthed was La Dame Blanche – The White Lady. “This was an extraordinary network of men, women and indeed children, who were operating in occupied Belgium and France in World War I, obtaining information about German troop movements, weaponry and so forth, and reporting directly to the British secret service,” she says. They were so effective that during the last 18 months of the war, La Dame Blanche was said to be supplying more than 75 percent of the intelligence coming out of occupied Belgium and France. “But there is no reference to them whatsoever in books of the First World War that I’ve looked at,” she says.

In World War Two, a considerable number of agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were female. In one of its main areas of operation, France, 39 women acted as couriers or wireless operators. In taking on such missions, they showed undoubted bravery – the chances of being betrayed or captured were very high.

“Thirteen never came back, and they died horrible deaths in concentration camps,” says Ms Kramer. “I think particular brutality was handed out, as it always is, to spies. That’s the nature of the game. If you are caught, it’s going to be unpleasant, you’ll be tortured, you’ll probably be killed.”

 

Intelligence army

Women also participated in large numbers in the intelligence work back home. Even in World War One, the British secret service, then in its infancy, relied heavily on women. “There was a positive army of hundreds of women who also fought in this secret intelligence war but from behind desks or in the corridors of the offices of British military intelligence, working as clerks, typists, telephonists, censors, decoders and translators, helping to intercept and process top-secret information,” the author writes. All this and at the time they didn’t even have the vote.

It was a similar picture in World War Two – women could not become combat troops but there was a great will to contribute in whatever way they could, including intelligence work. At Bletchley Park, for example, where the Government Code and Cipher School worked to crack enemy codes, including Enigma, women made up more than 80 per cent of the staff.

Not surprisingly the idea of women engaging in espionage and intelligence work provokes a chauvinist response in some male quarters. A notable example is one Grant Hamil, who in 1915 published an early history of the British secret service which Ms Kramer came across. “He said women are incapable of patriotism, they aren’t consistent enough, they keep falling in love, they can’t be trusted,” she recounts. “But everything I uncovered in my own research completely gave the lie to everything he said…Women were recruited and agreed to do the work, many of them out of a sense of great patriotism. Some of them had lost husbands, lovers, fiancés; they weren’t hysterical or temperamental. Some of them had children they left behind.”

Grant’s prejudices were no doubt widely shared, but not by all men. The opposite view was expressed by Captain Selwyn Jepson, the senior recruiting officer for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), when he said after the war, “Women were much better than men for the work. Women…have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage.” It was Jepson who persuaded Prime Minister Winston Churchill to allow women to be recruited to SOE.

 

Local connections

There are some local connections. Vera Atkins, assistant to the head of the SOE’s French section, settled in Winchelsea shortly before World War Two broke out and afterwards returned to these parts; she died in Hastings in 2000.

Also living locally was the niece of Madeleine Damerment, one of the SOE agents parachuted into France, who responded when Ms Kramer put a notice about her research in the local paper. Although she had never met her aunt, she was able to supply a lot of additional information about her.

When she first took on the book, Ms Kramer was not very enthusiastic about the subject of women spies. “But in the end I enjoyed writing the book very much,” she says. “And I came away with a sense of incredible admiration for the women who took part in both world wars.”

Ann Kramer is a historian based in Hastings. Her last book was Land Girls and Their Impact, published in 2008, and her next, due out this spring, is about conscientious objectors, male and female. More information is available on her website, www.annkramer.co.uk.

Women Wartime Spies, by Ann Kramer. Pen & Sword 2011, 160 pages, £19.99.

 

Posted 10:44 Thursday, Mar 8, 2012 In: Hastings People

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