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

edited by Jone Johnson Lewis

While women are still officially not allowed in combat in almost all nations, there is a long history of female involvement in warfare, even in ancient times. Espionage knows no gender and in fact being female could provide less suspicion and a better cover. There is extensive documentation of the role of women undercover and otherwise involved in intelligence work in the two world wars.

Here are some of the most fascinating characters from that history.  

World War I

Mata Hari

If asked to name a female spy, probably most people would be able to cite Mata Hari of World War I fame. Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod, born in the Netherlands but who posed as an exotic dancer who was supposed to come from India. While there is little doubt about Mata Hari's life as a stripper and a sometimes prostitute, there is actually some controversy about whether she was ever actually a spy.

Famous as she was, if she was a spy she was fairly inept at it, and she was caught as the result of an informant and executed by France as a spy. It later became known that her accuser was himself a German spy and that her real role was in doubt. Likely she is remembered both for being executed and for having a memorable name and profession.

Edith Cavell

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

Her name was Edith Cavell and she was born in England and was a nurse by profession. She was working in a nursing school in Belgium when the war erupted and although she was not a spy as we generally see them, she worked undercover to help soldiers from France, England and Belgium escape from the Germans.

At first she was allowed to continue as matron of a hospital and, while doing so, helped at least 200 more soldiers to escape. When the Germans realized what was happening she was put on trial for harboring foreign soldiers rather than for 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.

After the war her body was removed back to England and buried in her native land after a service in Westminster Abbey led by King George V of England. A statue erected in her honor in St, Martin's Park carries the eloquent epitaph of "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 towards anyone." She had in her life cared for anyone in need, regardless of which side of the war they were on, out of religious conviction, and died as valiantly as she had 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.

In addition to traditional spies, these organizations employed many ordinary men and women to covertly provide information about strategic locations and activities while leading apparently normal lives. The SOE was active in virtually every occupied country in Europe, aiding the resistance groups and monitoring enemy activity, and also had operatives in the enemy countries themselves. The American counterpart overlapped some of the SOE operations and also had operatives in the Pacific theater. Eventually, the OSS became the current 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. This was thwarted in 1932 when she lost part of her leg in a hunting accident and had to use a wooden prosthesis.

She resigned from the State Department in 1939 and was in Paris when the war started. She worked on an ambulance corps until the Vichy government took over, at which point she went to England and volunteered for the newly founded SOE.

After training she was returned to Vichy-controlled France, where she supported the Resistance until the total Nazi takeover. She escaped on foot to Spain through the mountains, no mean feat with an artificial leg. She continued to work for the SOE there until 1944 when she joined the OSS and asked to return to France. There she continued to help the underground Resistance and also provided maps to Allied forces for drop zones, found safe houses and otherwise provided 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." Hall managed to teach herself to walk without a limp and employed many disguises to foil Nazi attempts to capture her. Her success in evading capture was as remarkable as the prodigious work she accomplished.

In 1943 the British had quietly awarded her the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) since she was still active as operative, and in 1945 she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. William Donovan for her efforts in France and Spain. This was the only such award to any civilian women 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

An author of children's books might seem an unlikely candidate for being a spy, but Princess Noor was just that. 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 using the code name Madeline. She carried her transmitter from safe house to safe house with the Gestapo trailing her while maintaining communications for her Resistance unit. Eventually she captured and executed as a spy, in 1944. She was 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 a British father. Her husband Etienne Szabo was a French Foreign Legion officer who was killed in battle in North Africa. She was then recruited by the SOE and sent to France as an operative on two occasions. On the second of these she was caught giving cover to a Maquis leader and killed several German soldiers before finally being captured. Despite torture she refused to give the Gestapo any classified information and was sent to the concentration camp Ravensbruck. There 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. Her work included using German prisoners for counterintelligence work and "cobbling" fake passports and other papers for spies and others. She was instrumental in Operation Sauerkraut, which used 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, whose code name was "Cynthia" and who later used the name Betty Pack, worked for the OSS in Vichy France. She was sometimes used as a "swallow" who would seduce the enemy to get secret information, and also participated in break-ins. One daring raid involved taking secret naval codes from a locked and guarded room and from a safe within this. She also infiltrated the Vichy French Embassy in Washington DC and took important code books.

Maria Gulovich

Maria Gulovich fled Czechoslovakia when it was invaded and went to Hungary. Working with Czech army staff, and British and American intelligence teams, they assisted downed pilots, refugees and resistance members. She 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 had wanted to join the WACs or the WAVES but was turned down for being too tall at her height of 6'2". She worked out of the OSS Headquarters in Washington, DC and was in research and development. One of her projects was a workable shark repellent used for downed flight crews and later used for US space missions with water landings. She also supervised an OSS facility in China. She 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 was a volunteer for the OSS and served both by entertaining troops on the front lines and by broadcasting nostalgic songs as propaganda to German troops who were battle weary. 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 would intercept and rewrite postcards Japanese troops wrote home while stationed in India. She also detected a copy of the Imperial Order discussing terms of surrender which was then disseminated to Japanese troops, as were intercepted orders of other sorts.

Genevieve Feinstein

Not every woman in intelligence was a spy as we think of them. Women also played a significant role as cryptanalysts and code breakers. Codes were handled by the SIS or Signal Intelligence Service. Genevieve Feinstein was such a woman and she was 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 and was responsible for logging messages in code and preparing decoded messages for distribution. She uncovered a correlation between two Japanese messages that permitted the decryption of an important new Japanese code system.

Juliana Mickwitz

Juliana Mickwitz escaped Poland when the Nazi invasion of 1939 happened. She became a translator of Polish, German and Russian documents and worked with the Military Intelligence Directorate of the War Department. Later, she was used to translate voice messages.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was a famous singer and dancer called the Creole Goddess, the Black Pearl and the Black Venus for her beauty, but she was also a spy. She worked for the French Resistance undercover and smuggled military secrets into Portugal from France hidden in invisible ink on her sheet music.

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 service woman among Allied troops in WWII. She grew up in Australia and worked as a nurse and then as a journalist. As a journalist she watched the rise of Hitler and was well aware of the dimension of the threat Germany posed. When the war began she was living in France with her husband and became a courier for the French Resistance. The Gestapo called her the "White Mouse" and she became their most wanted spy. She was in constant danger with her mail read and her phone tapped and eventually had a price of 5 million francs on her head.

When her network was uncovered she fled and was briefly arrested but released and, after six attempts, went to England and there joined the SOE. She was forced to leave her husband behind and the Gestapo tortured him to death trying to learn her location. In 1944 she parachuted back into France to assist the Maquis and was participant 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.

Afterwords

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.