Karen Iris Tucker is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about cultural politics, health and genetics.
Nearly three years into World War II, Odette Sansom received a mysterious inquiry from the War Office in London inviting her to interview for a role in helping the Allies. The French-born Sansom had fled London’s nightly bombings and was living in the English countryside with her three young daughters while her husband was away fighting. When she traveled into the city, Capt. Selwyn Jepson offered her a job in France working for His Majesty’s government but didn’t specify the dangerous details. “Her chances of returning alive were no better than even — or less,” writes Sarah Rose in “D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II.” Though Sansom had only a vague idea of her commitment, she told her recruiter, “Train me.”
Sansom is one of the daring women who engaged in gallantry and sacrifice in the service of Britain’s secret agency, the Special Operations Executive. Equal parts espionage-romance thriller and historical narrative, “D-Day Girls” traces the lives and secret activities of the 39 women who answered the call to infiltrate France. All were vetted; they had to hold British citizenship and speak French like a native to elude the Nazis in the lead-up to D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Some of the women were trained to parachute into enemy territory by the light of the moon, with agents on the ground waiting to take them to safe houses. Once settled, they began their espionage operations, convening in smoky bars to collect information from fellow spies, bicycling around the country, their backpacks overstuffed with explosives to blow up power and phone lines, and forever peering over their shoulders fearing their covers might have been blown. Some agents in the vast resistance network of men and women invariably made mistakes; others betrayed their comrades and flipped. As a consequence, some women endured Gestapo torture; some were raped.
In addition to Sansom, Rose details the lives of several women such as Andrée Borrel and Lise de Baissac. Sansom was ultimately arrested by a secret police officer, Sgt. Hugo Bleicher, after he successfully turned an operative in her circuit. Though she was starved and tortured by the Gestapo, she never divulged information about the Resistance. She was imprisoned at Germany’s Ravensbruck concentration camp, the largest women’s prison in history, but managed to escape. When Fritz Suhren, a German SS officer and Ravensbruck’s commandant, came to trial for his activities at the camp, Sansom testified and helped convict him using the evidence she collected during her time there.
Borrel was regarded by her fellow male paratroopers as “lower-class and scrappy,” though “the men found her accessible, playful, easy to like, easy to share a smoke and a laugh with.” She wound up playing an integral role in an underground escape line that escorted as many as 600 Allied invaders home.
De Baissac, who had grown up in Mauritius, the French-speaking British colony off the coast of Africa, led the resistance in Normandy in 1944. Like Borrell, she had parachuted into France and helped set up safe houses for new agents and organized the pickup of ammunition.
Many of the female agents portrayed in “D-Day Girls” were searching for nontraditional ways to be of service to the cause. In the words of de Baissac: “I didn’t want to get married. I would have been just … a wife and mother during the war.”
While chronicling the James Bond-worthy missions and love affairs of these women, Rose vividly captures the broken landscape of war. Of London, she writes, “Much of the city lay in ruins, a ragged collection of gaps and edifices, like a child’s mouth after a lost tooth.” The passages describing France are no less heart-rending: “If occupation means, literally, a place taken over, it was achingly true of Paris in the winter of 1943: Street signage was in German; swastika bunting flapped in bitter breezes; emptied apartments were filled by German troops. The French had a new word for their own sense of dislocation — dépaysement — not feeling at home. They were de-countrified.”
“D-Day Girls” is scrupulously researched. Rose not only scoured diaries, oral histories, war crime testimonies and declassified military files, she moved to France to learn the language, went parachuting and studied Morse code so she could immerse herself fully in the lives of her heroines. Packed with details and multiple storylines, “D-Day Girls” may be a bit dense for some readers, but history buffs are likely to find it a treasure trove of previously unexplored details about the lives of these female spies.
Rose doesn’t end her story with the triumphant Allied victory. Rather, in her final chapter, she addresses the inherent sexism in war: that the women who offered themselves in a fearless fight for democracy weren’t heralded back home in the way their male counterparts were. As Rose explains: “Male agents performing the same tasks might be recommended for the Victoria Cross, created by Queen Victoria, the highest honor for military gallantry. While Corps Féminins did much of the same work in the same places, they were not technically soldiers and so not eligible for military honors — only civil decorations … Their salaries and ranks were lower; so too were their war pensions.”
In her author’s note, Rose also addresses the way women at war have been minimized or erased in the way history has framed their roles. “It silences women’s stories while privileging everything else in conflict. Were it not for oral histories, most of women’s history would be lost forever.” Rose does point to some important if belated recognition for the women of the Special Operations Executive. De Baissac, for example, who ran several of her own operations, received the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, and, at age 91, was finally awarded her paratrooper wings.
“I was very happy that France had been delivered and that I had a little help that I had been able to give,” de Baissac said in reflecting on her role in the war. “My life has been worth something. That gives me pleasure.”
By Sarah Rose
384 pp. $28