Top Ten Female Spies

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Alex Kershaw
June 27, 2024

1] Violette Szabo (1921-1945)

Young, beautiful, brave, joyous, and the most famous of Britain’s female SOE [Special Operations Executive] agents. Her handler in London, Leo Marks, remembered her as a “dark-haired slip of mischief...She had a Cockney accent which added to her impishness”. Even though she had a young child, she was dropped into Nazi-occupied France for a second time on 8 June 1944. Captured and then tortured by the Gestapo, she was sent to Ravensbruck and on or before 5 February 1945 made to kneel down and then shot in the back of the head by an SS officer.

Having written about some of her fellow deportees from Paris in August 1944, and visited 84 Avenue Foch, where she was interrogated, I’ve always been particularly fascinated by her tragic but inspiring story. She was portrayed memorably by Virginia McKenna in the 1958 movie, Carve Her Name With Pride. And best memorialized by one of my favorite poems, written by Leo Marks especially for Szabo so that she could practice her coding:

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

She gave her life for all of ours.

2] Virginia Hall (1906-1982)

Virginia Hall being decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945.

A truly awesome woman, arguably the most effective female spy in history, Hall was born into a wealthy Baltimore family and chose a life of service and adventure rather than cosseted privilege. Amazingly, even though she had lost part of a leg in a hunting accident, she roamed occupied France, evading the Gestapo and German intelligence agents who regarded her, reputedly, as the most dangerous of Allied spies. She first worked for SOE and, when the British forbade her from returning to France, she joined the OSS and, disguised as an elderly milkmaid, provided important help to the French resistance.

Hall was one of the first women hired by the CIA in 1947, but was, sadly, never fully appreciated and her skills not put to best use. She had helped defeat evil in WWII but could not combat patriarchy and bureaucracy in the CIA which, in a secret report on her career, noted that her fellow officers felt “she had been sidelined--shunted into backwater accounts because she had so much experience that she overshadowed her male colleagues, who felt threatened by her.”

3] Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)

Khan in 1943.

Another famous SOE agent, Khan was codenamed Madeleine, and was the first female wireless operator sent to France. Unfortunately, SOE operations in France often failed due to incompetence and betrayal. Khan was captured, held in solitary confinement for almost a year, and then executed at Dachau, aged 30, in September 1944. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross – the highest civilian award for gallantry in Britain.        

4] Nancy Wake (1912-2011)

“The White Mouse” – the “pest” the Germans “found hard to remove”.

Born in New Zealand, Wake married a wealthy French industrialist and was living in Marseille when France fell to the Nazis. She then helped downed RAF crew escape to Spain. Managing to get to Britain before she could be captured by the Gestapo, who dubbed her “The White Mouse”, she learned that her husband was not so lucky and had been executed. Wake nevertheless returned to France with the SOE and would become the most decorated servicewoman of WWII.  

5] Virginia D’Albert-Lake (1910-1997)

D’Albert-Lake in France after the war.

Born in Ohio, D’Albert-Lake grew up in Florida and married a Frenchman in the Thirties. She and her husband operated an escape line from Paris, helping more than fifty American and British airmen evade German capture. She was arrested in June 1944 and sent to Ravensbruck, which by some miracle she managed to survive. Her diary and memoir of the period is one of the most moving WWII accounts I have read. She and her husband were reunited and had a child after the war, living in Brittany where Virginia welcomed eternally grateful fly-boys she had saved.                  

6] Josefina Guerrero (1917-1996)

Guerrero received a US high school diploma in 1953, aged 33.

Guerrero was an extraordinary Filipina spy. In 1941, she was diagnosed with leprosy. Her husband left and her daughter was separated from her. She resolved to die with honor, as a soldier, and joined the resistance, providing vital information on Japanese movements. She was not searched when she told the Japanese about her disease. The stigma of the disease meant she had to fight to become the first foreign national with leprosy to obtain an American visa. She was treated for nine years in the US and granted citizenship in 1967 after a vociferous campaign by journalists and some in the military. She died in Washinton DC after a hard, painful life defined by courage and incredible resilience.  

7] Mathilde Carré (1908-2007)

The treasonous “La Chatte”.

Mathilde Carré could hardly be described as a heroine. After attending the Sorbonne, she lived in Algeria with her husband who was killed during the war. She returned to France and joined the Franco-Polish spy network, Interallié, eventually earning the moniker “La Chatte”. Arrested by the Abwehr – German intelligence - she provided names of those involved with Interallié, soon living with an Abwehr agent and even accompanying the Germans when they raided the homes of those she had betrayed.

Carré improbably ended up in England, operating as a double and triple agent. Sentenced to death for treason by the French in 1949, she was fortunate indeed – her sentence was commuted and she served just five years before being released, passing away in Paris at the grand old age of 98.

8] Velvalee Dickinson (1893-1980)

Mugshots of Dickinson.

Yes, believe it or not, there was an American woman who was actually convicted of spying for the Japanese during WWII. Born in California, a graduate of Stanford University, Dickinson befriended members of the Japanese consulate in San Francisco in the Thirties. She then moved to New York and opened a shop selling antique dolls, using her business to send intelligence on the US Navy to Japanese contacts in Argentina. She was tried for espionage and sentenced in 1944 and served seven years in prison.

Upon sentencing, the court commented: “It is hard to believe that some people do not realize that our country is engaged in a life and death struggle. Any help given to the enemy means the death of American boys who are fighting for our national security. You, as a natural-born citizen, having a University education, and selling out to the Japanese, were certainly engaged in espionage."

After prison, she changed her name to Catherine Dickerson. It was her husband, not her, who had been the spy, she had maintained. He was not able to contradict her, having died in 1943.        

9] Pearl Witherington  (1914-2008)

Pearl Witherington, aka “Marie”.

Cecile Pearl Witherington Cornioley was born in France to British parents. Her father was a notorious drunk who frittered away a substantial inheritance and so Pearl went to work at the British Embassy to support herself. She joined SOE in 1943 and during training was reported to be the “best shot” the service had ever recruited. She dropped into France by parachute and became the only woman to run an SOE network and resistance group at the same time.

Decades later, in April 2006, aged 92, Witherington was delighted to be awarded parachute wings. She had done four jumps in all, the last being when she dropped into enemy territory. “The chaps did four training jumps,” she recalled, "and the fifth was operational – and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps. So I was not entitled – and for 63 years I have been moaning to anybody who would listen because I thought it was an injustice.”


10] Vera Atkins  (1908-2000)

The formidable F section boss, Vera Atkins.

Last but not least, we come to the most powerful woman who operated in intelligence during WWII. Born Vera May Rosenberg in Romania, she rose through the ranks of SOE until by 1943 she was in charge of the service’s French section. She was childless, unmarried, Jewish, a heavy smoker, wore tailored skirt-suits and accompanied her “girls” – female SOE agents – to airfields where she would then waive them goodbye.

Tragically, many of Atkins’ “girls” – notably Noor Khan – were captured and executed. F Section, headed by Atkins, was deemed a dismal failure by some. Shrugging off the criticism, after the war Atkins traced the fate of 117 agents from her section who had gone missing. She discovered how all 14 of her “girls” who had died had in fact perished, demanding that the 12 who had lost their lives in concentration camps be recorded as having been “killed in action”.