Female Spies in World War I and World War II

Women Undercover

Edith Cavell about 1915
Edith Cavell about 1915. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

While almost every nation yet prohibits women in combat, a long history of female involvement in warfare reaches all the way back to ancient times. Extensive documentation exists covering the role of women working undercover or otherwise involved in intelligence work in each of the two world wars.

World War I

Mata Hari

If asked to name a female spy, most people would probably be able to cite Mata Hari of World War I fame. Real name Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod, the woman the world would come to know as Mata Hari was born in the Netherlands. Her cover was that of an exotic dancer from India.

While there is little doubt regarding the legitimacy of Mata Hari's life as a stripper and sometimes-prostitute, some controversy surrounds whether she was ever actually a spy.

Famous as she was if Mata Hari was a spy, she was fairly inept at it. She was caught following contact with an informant, tried and executed as a spy by France. It later came to light that her accuser was, himself, a German spy, effectively casting doubt on her true role in World War I espionage.

Edith Cavell

Another famous spy from World War I was also executed as a spy.

Edith Cavell was born in England, growing up to become a nurse by profession. When World War I erupted, she was working in a nursing school in Belgium. Although she was not a spy as we generally view them, Edith worked undercover to help transport soldiers from France, England and Belgium escape from the Germans.

She worked as matron of a hospital and, while doing so, helped at least 200 soldiers to escape.

When the Germans realized Cavell's role in what was happening, she was put on trial for harboring foreign soldiers rather than espionage, and convicted in two days.

She was killed by a firing squad in October of 1915 and buried near the execution site despite appeals from the United States and Spain to return her body to her homeland.

After the war, her body was transported back to England. Edith Cavell was finally buried in her native land, following a Westminster Abbey service presided by King George V of England.

A statue in her honor was erected in St. Martin's Park bearing the simple but apt epitaph, Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice. The statue also carries the quote she gave to the priest who gave her communion the night before her death, "Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

Edith Cavell had, in her lifetime, cared for anyone in need regardless of which side of the war they fought out of religious conviction. She died as valiantly and honorably as she lived.

World War II

Background: The SOE and the OSS

Two main oversight organizations were responsible for intelligence activities in World War II for the Allies. These were the British SOE, or Special Operations Executive, and the American OSS, or Office of Strategic Services.

The SOE was active in virtually every occupied country in Europe along with native operatives in enemy countries, aiding resistance groups and monitoring enemy activity.

The American counterpart, the OSS, overlapped some of the SOE operations and also had operatives in the Pacific theater.

In addition to traditional spies, these organizations employed many ordinary men and women to covertly provide information on strategic locations and activities while leading apparently normal lives.

The OSS eventually became what we now refer to as the CIA or Central Intelligence Agency, America's official spy agency.

Virginia Hall

An American heroine, Virginia Hall came from Baltimore, Maryland. From a privileged family, Hall attended fine schools and colleges and wanted a career as a diplomat. Her aspirations were thwarted in 1932 when she lost part of her leg in a hunting accident and had to use a wooden prosthesis.

Having resigned from the State Department in 1939, Hall was in Paris at the start of World War II. She worked on an ambulance corps until the Henri Philippe Petain-led Vichy government took over, at which point she moved to England, volunteering for the newly-founded SOE.

SOE training completed, she was returned to Vichy-controlled France where she supported the Resistance until complete Nazi takeover. She escaped on foot to Spain through the mountains, continuing her work for the SOE there until 1944, when she joined the OSS and asked to return to France.

Returned to France, Hall continued to help the underground Resistance by, among other things, providing maps to Allied forces for drop zones, finding safe houses and providing intelligence activities. She assisted in training at least three battalions of French Resistance forces and continuously reported on enemy movements.

The Germans recognized her activities and made her one of their Most Wanted Spies, calling her the "woman with a limp" and "Artemis." Hall had many aliases including 'Agent Heckler,' 'Marie Monin,' 'Germaine,' 'Diane,' and 'Camille.'

She managed to teach herself to walk without a limp and employed many disguises, foiling Nazi attempts to capture her. Her success in evading capture was as remarkable as the prodigious work she accomplished.

Still active as an operative in 1943, the British quietly awarded Hall the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Later, in 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. William Donovan for her efforts in France and Spain. Hers was the only such award to any civilian woman in all of WWII.

Hall continued to work for the OSS through its transition to the CIA until 1966. At that time she retired to a farm in Barnesville, MD until her death in 1982.

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan

A children's book author may seem an unlikely candidate for international spy induction, but Princess Noor defied any such expectation. The great niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and daughter of Indian royalty, she joined the SOE as "Nora Baker" in London and trained to operate a wireless radio transmitter.

She was sent to occupied France under the code name 'Madeline', carrying her transmitter from safe house to safe house, maintaining communications for her Resistance unit, with the Gestapo trailing her all the way.

Khan was captured and executed as a spy in 1944. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the MBE for her valor.

Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell

Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born in 1921 to a French mother and British father. Her husband Etienne Szabo was a French Foreign Legion officer killed in battle in North Africa.

After her husband's death, Bushell was recruited by the SOE and sent to France as an operative on two occasions. On the second of these visits, she was caught giving cover to a Maquis leader. She killed several German soldiers before finally being captured.

Despite torture, Bushell refused to give the Gestapo classified information, so was sent to the concentration camp Ravensbruck, where she was executed.

She was posthumously honored for her work with both the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre in 1946. The Violette Szabo Museum in Wormelow, Herefordshire, England honors her memory as well.

She left behind a daughter, Tania Szabo, who wrote her mother's biography, Young, Brave & Beautiful: Violette Szabo GC. Szabo and her highly decorated husband were the most decorated couple in World War II, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Barbara Lauwers

Cpl. Barbara Lauwers, Women's Army Corps, received a Bronze Star for her OSS work which included using German prisoners for counterintelligence work and "cobbling" fake passports and other papers for spies and others.

Lauwers was instrumental in Operation Sauerkraut, an operation which mobilized German prisoners to spread "black propaganda" about Adolf Hitler behind enemy lines.

She created the "League of Lonely War Women," or VEK in German. This mythical organization was designed to demoralize German troops by spreading the belief that any soldier on leave could display a VEK symbol and get a girlfriend. One of her operations was so successful that 600 Czechoslovak troops defected behind Italian lines.

Amy Elizabeth Thorpe

Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, early code name 'Cynthia', later 'Betty Pack', worked for the OSS in Vichy, France. She was sometimes used as a 'swallow' -- a woman trained to seduce the enemy into sharing secret information -- and she participated in break-ins. One daring raid involved taking secret naval codes from a safe within a locked and guarded room. Another involved infiltration of the Vichy French Embassy in Washington D.C., taking important codebooks.

Maria Gulovich

Maria Gulovich fled Czechoslovakia when it was invaded, emigrating to Hungary. Working with Czech army staff and British and American intelligence teams, she assisted downed pilots, refugees, and resistance members.

Gulovich was taken by the KGB and maintained her OSS cover under fierce interrogation while assisting in the Slovak rebellion and rescue efforts for Allied pilots and crews.

Julia McWilliams Child

Julia Child was up to much more than gourmet cooking. She wanted to join the WACs or the WAVES but was turned down for being too tall, at a height of 6'2". Following this rejection, she opted to work in research and development out of the OSS Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Among the project with which she was involved: a workable shark repellent used for downed flight crews later used for US space missions with water landings and supervising an OSS facility in China.

Julia Child handled countless top secret documents before gaining television fame as The French Chef.

Marlene Dietrich

German-born Marlene Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939. She volunteered for the OSS and served both by entertaining troops on the front lines and by broadcasting nostalgic songs to battle-weary German soldiers as propaganda. She received the Medal of Freedom for her work.

Elizabeth P. McIntosh

Elizabeth P. McIntosh was a war correspondent and independent journalist who joined the OSS shortly after Pearl Harbor. She was instrumental in the interception and rewriting of postcards Japanese troops wrote home while stationed in India. She intercepted and detected orders of numerous sorts, chief among them a copy of the Imperial Order discussing terms of surrender which was then disseminated to Japanese troops.

Genevieve Feinstein

Not every woman in intelligence was a spy as we think of them. Women also played significant roles as cryptanalysts and code breakers for the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS). Genevieve Feinstein was one such woman, having been responsible for creating a machine used to decode Japanese messages. After WWII, she continued to work in intelligence.

Mary Louise Prather

Mary Louise Prather headed the SIS stenographic section. She was responsible for logging messages in code and preparing decoded messages for distribution.

Prather was primarily credited with having uncovered a previously-unnoticed yet distinct correlation between two Japanese messages which led to the decryption of a pivotal new Japanese code system.

Juliana Mickwitz

Juliana Mickwitz escaped Poland during the Nazi invasion of 1939. She became a translator of Polish, German and Russian documents and worked with the Military Intelligence Directorate of the War Department. She went on to translate voice messages.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was a singer and dancer best known at the time as 'the Creole Goddess', 'the Black Pearl' or 'the Black Venus' for her beauty. But Baker was also a spy working undercover for the French Resistance, smuggling military secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music into Portugal from France.

Hedy Lamarr

Actress Hedy Lamarr made a valuable contribution to the intelligence division by co-producing an anti-jamming device for torpedoes. She also devised a clever way of "frequency hopping" that prevented the interception of American military messages. Famous for the "Road" movies with Bob Hope, everyone knew she was an actress but few were aware she was an inventor of military importance.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake

New Zealand-born Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, AC GM, was the most decorated servicewoman among Allied troops in WWII.

Wake grew up in Australia, working early on as a nurse and later as a journalist. As a journalist, she watched the rise of Hitler, well aware of the dimension of the threat Germany posed.

Living in France with her husband at the start of World War II, Wake became a courier for the French Resistance. Among the Gestapo's Most Wanted Spies, she was in constant danger, having her phone tapped and her mail read. Nazi Germany eventually put a five million franc price on the head of the woman they called the 'White Mouse'.

When her network was uncovered, Wake fled. Forced to leave her husband behind, the Gestapo tortured him to death trying to obtain her location. She was briefly arrested but released and, after six attempts, fled to England where she joined the SOE.

In 1944 Wake parachuted back into France to assist the Maquis, where she participated in training highly effective Resistance troops. She once bicycled 100 miles through German checkpoints to replace a lost code and was reputed to have killed a German soldier with her bare hands to save others.

After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre three times, the George Medal, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the American Medal of Freedom for her undercover achievements.

Afterword

These are only a few of the women who served as spies in the two great world wars. Many took their secrets to the grave and were known only to their contacts.

They were military women, journalists, cooks, actresses, and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. Their stories demonstrate that they were ordinary women of extraordinary courage and inventiveness who helped to change the world with their work.

Women have played this role in many wars over the ages, but we are fortunate to have records of quite a few of those women who worked undercover in World War I and World War II, and we are all honored by their accomplishments.

Books:

  • The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson, The Lyons Press (2005).
  • Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth P. McIntosh, published by the Naval Institute Press.
  • Young, Brave & Beautiful: Violette Szabo GC by Tania Szabo.