Bravery. Whether you have a lot of it or only a little, at one point in your life you will need to be brave. Whether you have to give a speech to your bosses in a large boardroom, or you have to get a spider out of the bathroom – you will need to use your inner bravery. But whatever bravery is called upon, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to face the terrifying situations thousands of female spies confronted in World War Two. But this group of pioneering women put all fears aside to help Britain and her allies win the war against Germany, through acts of incredible bravery. Their story deserves to be heard and their amazing achievements known.
Two of this brave crew who deserve more recognition are Virginia Hall and Nancy Wake. Their stories may be relatively unknown, but it’s one that should be heard -like many of the other women who risked their lives for us during the war. It was women like Hall and Wake to whom we owe our freedom.
American born, from a young age, Virginia Hall had a knack for learning languages; speaking fluent German, French and Italian. But her aspirations of becoming a Foreign Service worker were cut short, when she lost her foot in a hunting accident. Her entire leg had to be amputated and she was fitted with a wooden one instead. But she didn’t let that stop her pursuing her adventurous life. Due to her disability, Hall couldn’t find work near her home so she began working as an ambulance driver in France, and when war broke out, the Nazis attacked and she escaped to England. Her timing was impeccable. Can you imagine driving with one leg, during a time where prosthetic legs were literally wooden and not using sophisticated technology we have today?
The British Intelligence was finding it hard to recruit suitable agents who could infiltrate countries under Nazi rule. Hall was perfect and so she volunteered and was trained as a spy. She was relocated to Vichy France, where she portrayed an American reporter and later, a milkmaid. She worked to organise the French resistance and helped carry out acts of sabotage. And she did all this with a wooden leg. By 1942, the Gestapo were so desperate to catch the ‘Woman With A Limp,’ that they offered rewards to people who could lead to her capture. Once again, Hall escaped the Nazis by walking through the snow covered Pyrenees Mountain range to Spain with her prosthetic leg when she was nearly captured in France. Once again, her bravery and determination had led her to safety.
Hall paved the way for future women spies and her modesty inspired many. After the war, Hall was to be presented with the Distinguished Service Cross by President Harry Truman. However, she refused to go public with the award, preferring to receive it without publicity. Hall’s bravery and modesty is something all women could aspire to in their everyday life, whether their inspiration is Hall or not. But after her death in 1982, Hall continued to be honoured. In late 1982, she was inducted into the Corps Hall Of Fame.
In contrast to Hall, Nancy Wake was bought up in poverty. Her earlier years show that no matter what your background is, through acts of bravery you can still achieve so much. At the age of 20, she moved to London from New Zealand, with only £150 to her name. By the age of 22, she had moved once again – this time to Paris – and was working as a journalist. Wake had the reputation of a hard-drinking, dirty joke-teller who left the bars with a different man every night. But, in 1933, she was sent to Germany to write an article on the new German Chancellor: Adolf Hitler. She interviewed him and soon discovered what the Nazis were capable of as she watched a young Jewish man beaten. From that day on, Wake vowed to oppose and ridicule the moves of Hitler and the Nazis.
It wasn’t long before she got her chance…
In early 1940, when Wake’s husband was conscripted, she signed up to work as a nurse. Fate decided she was to be an ambulance driver, which lead her to help ferry British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers to evacuation points at Dunkirk. Wake bravely decided to stay back and kill as many Gestapo as she could. She sheltered Royal Air Force pilots who had been shot down by Nazi enemy planes in France before getting them fake papers and false identities so she could ferry them to Spain. She became such a disruption for Germany, that a reward of five million Francs was offered for her capture. ‘The White Mouse,’ along with ‘The Lady With a Limp’ were both on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list. This was high praise indeed for two women during this time.
But Wake’s luck ran out. In December 1943, she was betrayed and consequently captured by the Gestapo, but she escaped and joined the intelligence service in England, where she learnt her husband had been shot by Gestapo agents, and so had an extra kick of motivation to get her revenge. Wake was trained in espionage and sabotage and in April 1944, she parachuted back into France but got caught in a tree. The French Resistance leader helped her down and said “I wish all the trees grew such beautiful fruit,” to which Wake replied – “ne me donnez pas cettemer de francaise.”
In just over a month, she was a high level officer responsible for 7,000 French Resistance fighters acquiring weapons and ammunition. Wake spent most of 1944 leading guerrilla attacks on Nazi depots and sabotaged factories, cut train tracks and killed a Nazi with her bare hands. All in a day’s work for these exceptional women. Imagine having to face these National Socialists and work against them knowing if you were caught, you’d be shot. Would you be brave enough?
When the war ended in 1945, Wake received the British George Medal, American Medal of Freedom, the French Legion d’Honneur and three Croix de Guerres, she was made a member of the Order of Australia and a street in New Zealand was named after her. However, Wake sold off her medals and lived on the money. When asked why she decided to sell her medals, Wake responded, with characteristic dryness, “I’m probably going to hell anyway and they’d just melt.”
The bravery Wake and other female spies showed through the Second World War is not celebrated enough in our society. Women like Wake and Hall greatly impeded Nazi plans and aided British troops back to safety. Furthermore, the modesty of both of these women is something to be inspired by. The life threatening tasks they undertook and the bravery they showed can only be imagined by most women today.
It can be argued that Britain won the war due to Soviet transformation, American power and German errors – such as the gigantic construction project for an underground economy which was authorised by Hitler in 1943. But it cannot be denied that female spies contributed massively to the success of Britain and her allies in the war. Women like Hall and Wake all helped to keep Britain one step ahead of the Germans and fight off the brainwashed Gestapo. These brave and courageous women went up against the Nazis and won. Alone. Without backup. We can’t even imagine this level of bravery… would we really face this today?
Only with the release of the novel Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks in 1999, have female spies really been given any recognition for their amazing work. But even despite that, they are still overshadowed by stories of the RAF pilots and even male spies. Never has there been so much owed to such an unsung group of courageous and brave women, than those thousands of hard working, brave female spies in World War Two. Defeating a bunch of testosterone driven males on one leg, sheer motivation and quick thinking. They didn’t have a chance to chicken out in the action. They used their bravery and skill to out-smart the worst threat Europe had ever faced.
These brave women should serve as inspiration for the young women of today and their stories should be told in schools to show young women that they do not have to look or act the way society tells them, to let them know that they can do what is perceived as a man’s job and that they can be the best person for it.