Monthly Archives: May 2017

The women who spied for Britain

The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.

German soldiers in Paris

Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.

Radio used by SOE agents

It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.

One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.

Virgina Hall

Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan

Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).

Violette Szabo

Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and  Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and  Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.

Monument remembering all women who played a part in winninng the Second World War

The 39 female SOE agents who served in  France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.

Recommended Read – The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.
They break the rules and follow their hearts.

After reading the above description I was expecting ‘The Light Between Oceans’ to be a romance/crime thriller, but in fact it turned out to be so much more. Set in Australia in the aftermath of the First World War it is a moving tale of how difficult it was for survivors of that conflict to integrate back into society, how their loved ones were affected by these shadows of men from the trenches, and how those whose husbands, brothers and sons never came back from the war struggled to understand the appalling waste and come to terms with their loss. This sounds like a novel in itself, yet it is purely the backdrop for a story packed with emotional highs and lows and a sympathetic understanding of human psychology.

The main characters of the novel struggle throughout with the concepts of right and wrong, and with putting these into some sort of acceptable order. Is it ever right to break the law to help a loved one who is suffering? Can love conquer all? Can we close our eyes to the suffering we may have unknowingly caused to someone else once that has been revealed to us? You will find yourself sympathising with Tom as he struggles to support the woman he loves, even though it goes against his conscience, and you will also find yourself sympathising with the other main characters too. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is an incredibly well written novel with believable characters who draw you into their stories. Ms Stedman has great skill as a writer in that she is able to describe the places and environment which are inhabited by her story in a way which makes you feel as though you are there breathing the salty air, feeling the wind and rain etc. whilst at the same time she creates characters, including some very minor ones, whose lives you can fully appreciate and whose driving forces are wholly believable.

The themes of love and loss, fear, anger, and hope are played out against the backdrop of a lighthouse on a rocky island, The Light Between Oceans of the title, and Ms Stedman has clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the life of a lighthouse keeper in early twentieth century Australia. Her writing is very descriptive and the reader feels an affinity for the small-town community on the mainland as well as the incredibly difficult life of the lighthouse keeper and his family. It is a period of Australian history which I was not familiar with yet, by the end of the book, felt wholly engaged with.

This book is a highly emotional and moving read, I can guarantee that you will go on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and be left pondering some big philosophical questions at the end. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is certainly a book which will stay with you for some time to come and I heartily recommend it.

The Light Between Oceans can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about M L Stedman here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A British Game Of Thrones

Imagine the scenario:
There was once a king of a northern country who had a distant claim to the throne of a country in the south. When the ruler of the southern land died childless the King of the North also became King of the South, and although there was one king to rule them both the two realms remained separate and continued with their longstanding enmities. When the king died his son came to sit on the thrones of both countries but the lords of the southern lands were not happy with how he ruled and so went to war against him. The land in the north supported the southern nobles for a time, then their support moved to the king, then shifted back to the nobles once more. Power ebbed and flowed until the king was finally captured and executed. What would happen now? Who would rule? Would the lands be united at last or continue divided and at war?

Sounds like the plot to a book in the style of A Game Of Thrones, doesn’t it? Yet this is real history. The history of Scotland and England. It is a history I had to grasp to enable me to write my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’, and it is a part of the story which many people find fascinating. So, what was the situation between the two nations in the seventeenth century and how did that impact on the English Civil War?

James I

Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII, died childless. The next in line to the throne was James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and great great grandson of Henry VII. James VI and I (as he is sometimes known) moved from Edinburgh to London; England and Scotland were now united under one monarch BUT this was a dynastic union only, the Stuarts reigned over two separate and distinct countries even though King James wanted them to be united as one.

Part of the problem which James I faced was that the Scottish Church would not accept the High Anglican Church of England. When his son, Charles I, succeeded him he introduced a Scottish version of the English Prayer Book in 1637. The Scots responded with anger and rioting, culminating in a meeting of the National Covenant in 1638 which overwhelmingly objected to the prayer book; and when the General Assembly met in November 1638 all bishops were expelled from the Scottish Church which became fully Presbyterian. Charles put together a military force to bring the Scottish to heel, but didn’t like using soldiers from his southern kingdom to invade his northern one, so a settlement was reached under the ‘Pacification of Berwick’. The peace didn’t last for long, hostilities broke out again and Charles’s English forces were defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Newburn.

Charles I

This was how Charles I found himself to be the king of two kingdoms with a history of dislike for each other and widely differing views on religion. Once civil war broke out in England, with parliament looking to exercise more control over the king, his taxes, and the religion of the country, things got even more complicated. The English Parliament entered into a ‘Solemn League And Covenant’ with the Scottish Church and Scottish troops played an important role in the defeat of Charles I, constantly playing one side against the other from the outbreak of war:

22nd August 1643 Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, formally declaring war on Parliament.

August 1643 The Solemn League And Covenant promised to preserve the Scottish Church and reform religion in England and Ireland in return for Scottish help against the king.

6th May 1646 Charles I surrendered to the Scots in the hope that they would support him as their king against the old enemy, England. At the same time he was trying to negotiate with the English Parliament – unaware that the Scots were doing the same!

30th January 1647 The Scots handed Charles over to the English Parliament and he was imprisoned at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.

November 1647 The king escaped but was soon re-captured. From his prison Charles I carried out secret negotiations with the Scots, hoping for uprisings in England to coincide with an invasion from Scotland which would free him and put him back on the throne.

28th December 1647 An ‘Engagement’ was signed, with the Scots agreeing to support the king as long as he imposed the Presbyterian Church on England for three years.

Spring 1648 The uprising began in Wales and England, but the Scottish forces were delayed which enabled Cromwell to put down the Royalist forces throughout most of the country although the king’s forces held out under a long siege in Colchester. When the Scots finally invaded they were defeated at the Battle of Preston on 17th – 19th August 1649. This effectively brought the Second English Civil War to an end.

Charles I was in prison in England throughout this second war, and at the defeat of his forces was put on trial for treason, and executed. With the death of Charles I Cromwell invaded Scotland and brought it into his Commonwealth, but after his death Charles II became king and Scotland became an independent country once more. It wasn’t until 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, that the ‘Acts of Union’ were signed in England and Scotland in which the two separate states with their different legislatures but with the same ruling monarch were ‘United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain’.

Union Flag

With such complex relationships between Scotland and England, as well as divisive politics and religion within England itself, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be conflict under Charles I. It is a period of history which makes for a great story and I thoroughly enjoyed the research I conducted for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. I hope my readers will find the novel equally enjoyable!