November 11 1943 is, I understand, a well-remembered day for historians of the Resistance in Nazi-Occupied France.
It was on that day that the Maquis paraded through the town of Oyonnax in an event designed as a show of strength, a morale boost for the local population. The town was chosen because there was no German garrison nearby.
More than 200 Maquisards took part. They marched, sang the Marseillaise, and then disappeared back into the mountains. The event is described in Matthew Cobb’s excellent book The Resistance.
Sometime ago I came into possession of this small medallion. It features the date ‘XI Novembre, 1943’.
One side is the Cross of Lorraine smashing a Swastika.
On the other side is an Astrix-like warrior.
I would love to know the story behind it. I assume it relates to Oyonnax, but does it?
Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE
A group biography of the fearless young women who became secret agents during World War II.
Award-winning journalists Thomas (Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land: A Perilous Journey That Shaped Israel’s Fate, 2010, etc.) and Lewis (A Bullet Saved My Life: The Remarkable Adventures of Bob Peters, 2006, etc.) bring their talent for telling detail and brisk pacing to an engrossing history of women who worked for the United States and Britain as spies, cryptographers, analysts, couriers, and resistance fighters during World War II.
Drawing from official records, memoirs, diaries, and letters, the authors detail the recruitment, training, and daring escapades of women who infiltrated enemy lines and carried out sabotage operations, ranging from stealing documents to blowing up railroad tracks. Risking their lives repeatedly, the women proved themselves ingenious and fearless.
They were also, as the authors portray them, uncommonly attractive: slim, vivacious, charming, intelligent, quick-witted, and multilingual. Among them was the irresistible Betty Pack, who took countless lovers and became known as “the spy who slept her way to obtain information”; and Evangeline Bell, “intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, and ethereal,” who had the “demanding responsibility of ensuring there were no inconsistencies in the forged documents” and articles of clothing given to French agents. Any detail could result in arrest. French clothing, for example, was sewn “with parallel threading” rather than cross-stitches, a detail for which Bell had to be alert. Spies were taught how to pick locks, reassemble documents from scraps in trash baskets, live off the land, manage a safe landing in a parachute, make a cast of a key in a bar of soap, and canvass surroundings using a shop window’s reflection.
Some training centers taught forgery, microphotography, and safecracking. Not all agents were successful: some were arrested, executed, or died in concentration camps, never seeing the victory for which they worked. The authors make a strong case for the importance of these women to the course of war, offering a fresh perspective on military history.
World War Two was the war in which old gender rules changed, as intelligence agencies created specific training and roles for women.
SHADOW WARRIORS is the story of women as undercover combatants: armed with Sten guns and grenades; cutting telecommunication wires, laying mines in roadways; organizing bombing raids; preparing the way for the D-Day invasion and harassing enemy forces as the Allies moved inland.
It begins by telling the story of how US and British intelligence agencies decided to use women as spies in a way they never had before; and of how they then recruited and trained them, as couriers, wireless operators, saboteurs and even resistance leaders.
These agents ranged from girls barely out of high school to mature mothers, from working class women to the daughters of aristocrats, from the prim and proper to wild high-livers.
They were taught how to send coded messages; how to lay explosive charges; and how to kill with knives, guns and their bare hands.
Sometimes they faced sexism and even derision from their trainers. Yolande Beekman, an efficient and courageous agent who was executed by the Germans, had been dismissed by one SOE instructor as, “A nice girl, darned the men’s socks, would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that.”
Their actions behind enemy lines were to change for ever the views of the US and UK intelligence communities on using women as agents.
Some, such as New Zealander Nancy Wake and Polish-born Christine Granville led men in battle. Granville masterminded the escape of a fellow SOE agent. Nancy led a gun and grenade attack on a Gestapo headquarters in France. American Virginia Hall became the Gestapo’s most wanted agent.
Others, such as the American Betty Pack, used their beauty and sexual allure to capture enemy secrets which would change the course of the war.
All these agents knew that torture and death were the price of failure. Some had to leave babies and children at home. Many paid the ultimate price for their bravery.
As Nancy Wake said: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”
The clandestine war, and therefore the war itself, would not have been won without the courage and contribution of these Shadow Warriors.
UK edition now available; US edition to be published by Chicago Review Press in January 2017.
A veteran of 41 Commando has made an emotional return to the beaches of Normandy.
Ted Owens, aged 88 and from Pembroke Dock, Wales, returned to the spot at which he had been wounded during the landings as part of filming for an upcoming television programme.
Ted also made an astonishing visit to a town in the Netherlands where civilians paid a terrible price – not only at the hands of the Germans but of the British too.
“It was an amazing trip into the past for me,” said Ted. “I was able to walk near Sword Beach where I landed and was wounded.
“We also went to the Walcheren Islands where I took part in a commando landing exactly 68 years ago this November.
“I spoke to many local people there. That was very moving indeed.”
Ted’s trip was filmed for the first in a special three-part series, titled ‘Welsh Heroes of World War 2’, which will be broadcast on ITV Wales on Thursday, November 1.
Ted attended a special service at Bayeux War Cemetery and was invited to the village of Maizet, along with other Welsh veterans.
Maizet holds a service every year to honour the Welsh soldiers who liberated the village in 1944.
From France, Ted travelled to Westkapelle, a town in the Dutch Walcheren islands, which were the scene of a crucial battle late in 1944.
Ahead of the invasion by troops, including Ted, the RAF bombed dykes to flood the island and weaken the German defences.
In Westkapelle, Ted met people who remember the destruction that the bombing caused.
* Watch WELSH HEROES OF WORLD WAR 2: D-DAY COMMANDO online now. D-DAY COMMANDO