Caroline Moorehead

The forgotten world of female espionage

Many thousands of women acted as messengers, radio operators and double agents behind enemy lines in both world wars. Here, these resilient and resolute pioneers are retrieved from the mists of history

Eileen Nearne, a member of SOE, served as a radio operator in Occupied France. [Getty Images]

When the Germans occupied northern Italy in the autumn of 1943, they were pleased with the way that young Italian women, pedalling on bicycles around the country lanes in white socks and pigtails, smiled at them. The soldiers offered to help with their loaded baskets and gave them lifts in lorries. It took some months before they discovered that these smiling girls, known as staffette, were working as couriers, spies and carriers of weapons for the Resistance, then busy forming in the foothills of the Alps. When they realised their mistake, their reaction was often brutal.

If caught, the women knew they would fare no better than the men. Prison and execution awaited them

This same temporary impunity held for the many thousands of Allied women who acted as messengers, radio operators and double agents behind enemy lines in both world wars. Helen Fry emphasises that the enemy was often slow to identify resisters in the many guises in which female Allied agents showed themselves. But, whether as nuns or farmers, shopkeepers or chatelaines of historic houses, women did indeed contribute impressively to the ‘tradecraft of espionage’.

The purpose behind the book is clear. The role of women in intelligence, both in London offices and in the field, has long been neglected, at least in part because so many files have been classified, and by no means all are open. And the women themselves, having signed the Official Secrets Act, have remained silent, even with their families. Fry, who has spent many years delving into the shadowy world of military and Secret Service archives, with books on spymasters, decoders and the Special Branch, sets out to bring light to this forgotten world.

Though Queen Elizabeth I is credited with setting up her own secret service, using codes and cyphers both within England and across the Continent, it was not until 1919 that a Secret Service Bureau was officially established in London to investigate the suspicion that German spies were seeking to undermine British life.

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