Women at war
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Women at war

The unsung heroes of D-Day

Sarah Rose
Sarah Rose

A war is raging, and all the able-bodied men already are out there fighting.

The British government has a plan to help end the conflict but needs people to implement it. These people must speak French, have nerves of steel, but also have the necessary powers of persuasion that would allow them to enlist the help of the old men and young boys left behind.

These people, of course, are women.

And they are women who must parachute behind enemy lines in the dead of night, sabotage railways and communications systems, and face the very real possibility that they will be dead within six months.

They are unsung heroes. Their story can be told now only because their top-secret files have been declassified. And on November 10, Sarah Rose, author of “D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II,” will tell their story in Fair Lawn and again in Hoboken. (See box.)

Thirty-nine women worked in the secret agency called the Special Operations Executive, created by Winston Churchill’s government “to set Europe ablaze,” igniting the spark of resistance. As Ms. Rose writes, “Though Churchill liked to call the secret department his ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ the pretty phrase belied the kind of war he had in mind. It was to be the dirtiest war, beyond the rules of engagement — warfare by every available means, including murder, kidnappings, demolitions, ransoms, and torture.”

Among the women’s many firsts, “they were the first women deployed in close combat, first women paratroopers to infiltrate enemy territory, first women in active duty special forces, first female commando raiders, and first women signals officers in a war zone.”

Ms. Rose, a reporter and historian, focuses on three of these women: Odette Sansom, Lise de Baissac, and Andree Borrel. Ms. Rose jumped into her research with both feet — literally. Among the activities she undertook during the two years before she started writing, she went parachuting.

If preparing to jump was a bit nerve-wracking, “I loved it after the parachute was released,” she said. “Wafting is pleasurable. It’s exciting to have that birds-eye view.” Still, “it would have been absolutely different if I was jumping into enemy territory. And I did it during the day.”

The women warriors ranged in age from 20 to 55. The older women were not required to parachute but “came ashore via a more southerly route,” aboard decoy fishing boats, Ms. Rose said. “Still, it was not easy, outrunning Nazi gun boats.”

Ms. Rose also learned French, went to boot camp, and tried to learn Morse code — and with each activity her respect for what the 39 women had accomplished increased. “These were ordinary women with a skill the Allies needed,” she said, explaining why she felt she needed to undertake these exploits to understand “how far they were pushing themselves.

“Nobody was forced to go,” she said. “It wasn’t a draft. It was entirely voluntary. If this was the role they could play to change the outcome of the war, then they should. A woman with three kids framed it in the language of motherhood. What will happen to my daughters” if Germany wins the war?

“They were all very patriotic. With England the last country standing, a motivating force for them was doing something beyond themselves.”

Nobody went without being made completely aware of the potential of dying within the next six months. The ones who trained as radio operators had a shorter life expectancy, only about six weeks, since they were broadcasting where they were. The women were asked to sign wills and leave instructions for their families. They could back out at any moment.

Overall, Ms. Rose said, the women of the SOE were well-adapted to this work. The men of fighting age were gone; there were few men in France at all. “Just by virtue of being women, they had better cover,” she said. “The occupying nation had a kind of chauvinism. They were not looking for women to rise up against them. They saw them as humiliated.”

The women also were assets in recruiting the teens and old men left behind. “Your life is tough, but we need you to step up,” the women would tell them. As listeners and caretakers, “They were good at this kind of cajoling.”

How did she come to write the book? “I came into it cold,” Ms. Rose said. She already was interested in the subject of women in the military, so when she learned that women had taken an active part in D-Day preparations some 75 years ago, “I had to get the word out. Thirty-nine women of SOE went to war, and 14 of them never came home. These women broke barriers, smashed taboos, and altered the course of history.”

When she began her research, only four of the agents still were alive. Now there are two. While she was able to speak with only one of them, “I met many of their families and gathered a lot of oral histories. Military files were declassified in 2000.”

As she wrote the book, “I felt that I was in conversation with friends. My job was to tell their story. I have so much respect and admiration for them.” The women had not been permitted to talk about their experiences, and one woman had written that it broke her heart not to be able to share her stories with her mother.

The archives from which Ms. Rose got much of her “magic slices” of information “were never expected to be seen. It was thought that the agency would go on indefinitely and those voices would be lost. But at the end of the war, they went into storage and got declassified in the early 2000s.” They contain entries reflecting “what they’re thinking in an unvarnished way, the thoughts at the moment they’re having them.” The archives and oral history “give the truth behind the memories people have.”

Ms. Rose said she was surprised to learn “just how very active the French resistance was as part of D-Day.” Looking past the “fairy tales” told by General Charles DeGaulle, whom she depicts as ruthless, she cites things like downing telephone lines and destroying roads and rails in order to isolate Normandy, “hobbling the nation on the day the Allies came.” As a result, the German army couldn’t get reinforcements, and a trip that should have taken the Germans two days took three weeks.

Ms. Rose hopes her book will be “eye-opening,” reminding readers that motivated, politically conscious, ordinary people can change the world.


Who: Sarah Rose, author of “D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II”

What: Will speak twice

First

For whom: At the annual Veterans Recognition Program co-sponsored by Temple Beth Sholom and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI

When: November 10 at 10:30 a.m.

Where: Temple Beth Sholom, 40-25 Fair Lawn Avenue in Fair Lawn

For more information: Call Linda, (201) 951-4902

And also: Veterans of all U.S. wars and conflicts are invited to join veterans from JWV Post 651 in posting colors. Copies of “D-Day Girls” will be for sale. Beginning at 12:30 p.m., a Kristallnacht commemoration will include a historical presentation by TBS co-president Cary Reichardt with a musical ceremony. Coffee and cake will be served between programs. The community is invited to attend.

Second

For whom: The United Synagogue of Hoboken Brunch Series

When: December 8 at 10:30 a.m.

Where: At the shul, 115 Park Avenue in Hoboken

How much: $18 for United Synagogue of Hoboken members; $25 for nonmembers

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