Who The Spies Really Were

Who The Spies Really Were

Most of us hold a certain image in our minds of who a spy is: Ian Fleming’s James Bond— particularly as interpreted by the movies, John le Carré’s George Smiley, or Alan Furst’s Jean Casson.  By turns they are sexy and athletic, quiet and self-effacing, or glamorous and artistic, and almost always male. The reality is that women also played a huge and indispensable role in espionage and intelligence, especially from the onset of World War Two on.

Although fictional spies are often portrayed as potential assassins— as in James Bond’s mythical license to kill— the reality is that spies are in the information business first. Even the assassins are dependent on good leads.

Air Intelligence

In this the British were pioneers in promoting women in intelligence, right from the start of the Second World War. At the peak of the Battle of Britain Churchill said of the Royal Air Force’s pilots “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” It may surprise you to know women played a huge role on the intelligence side of that victory. They, too, were owed so much and it’s where the pioneering role of women in intelligence begins in a big way.

Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding was the architect of that victory, the man who pushed for and got the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters in the air in time. But he also created a thing called the Dowding System. Dowding realized early on that because of the unprecedented size of an aerial battlefront, planes would get lost in the vastness of the sky and not find their targets, unless they had accurate intelligence where the enemy was and got it quickly.  That meant victory depended on good management of information, and women played a huge role in managing that information. The Dowding system was the paradigm of how intelligence would come to be integrated, processed and used.

In the Battle of Britain that intelligence came from three principle sources:




The RAF enlisted large numbers of women from an early date. Eventually 180,000 would serve. (Part of the reason for this was that enlisting women freed up men for combat roles.)

*Radar was a critical advantage. Most of the radar operators in the stations located up and down the English coast were women. They tracked Luftwaffe bombers and sped that information back to command centers.

*Spotters were located at observation points leading in from the coast. Radar was new and not always reliable. Spotters, many of whom were women, visually tracked Luftwaffe bombers.

*Codebreaking was also critical. Most readers of espionage history will know of the breaking of the German Enigma cypher machines. A large center was built at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where most of the decryptions of the German Enigma was done.  Again, the majority of the staff involved in this legendary intelligence operation were women.  This also included the operators of the first electronic computers, Alan Turing’s Bombe and Colossus machines.  The first computer programmers were also almost all women.

While seemingly good news, these sources could produce an unmanageable torrent of information. It was a daunting challenge. The genius of the Dowding System is that it flowed this information along in an organized and integrated way. (Dowding could be regarded as the uncredited author of modern information management.).

This information flowed up to command centers and then down to regional control posts. The “pits” where formations of planes were moved across huge maps with long pointers while commanders watched and planned from a balcony were almost entirely staffed by women. If you could’ve listened in on their radio transmissions to pilots, you would constantly hear the voices of woman controllers directing pilots to Luftwaffe bombers and fighters.

Special Operations Executive

But women were also prominent in more stereotypical spying, particularly through Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which was tasked with sabotage and unconventional warfare inside Occupied Europe. Of the 13,000 members of the SOE, 3,200 were women. Many of these women agents were parachuted into Nazi held territory or landed by small planes in remote fields at night, infiltrating from there to their assignments, usually in cities.

Many of the women were recruited from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force because of the RAF’s technical training as radio telegraphy operators. Their job was to carry a suitcase radio, string an antenna wherever they could and send messages from Resistance forces and agents behind enemy lives to controllers in London. This was extremely dangerous work because the Gestapo had mobile radio direction finding vans  constantly roaming and looking for these transmissions.

Most operators were caught, tortured and killed.  Typical were Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan and Eliane Plewman, who were captured separately but executed together on September 12, 1944 at the Dachau concentration camp, holding hands as they were shot in the back of the neck.

*Yolande Beekman  born in Paris, Beekman trained as a WAAF radio operator and came to the attention of the SOE because of her language skills. Dropped into France, she became one of the SOE’s most effective operators, but was eventually captured and tortured by the Gestapo.

*Madeleine Damerment After the fall of France in 1940, Damerment joined the French resistance. Detected, she fled to Britain, completed radio training and was parachuted into a field near Chartres but was captured on landing.

*Noor Inayat Khan was a published author of Indian and American descent and the first female radio operator to be sent into occupied France, and Britain’s first Muslim war heroine. Captured soon after landing, she was tortured at length but never cracked.

*Eliane Plewman An Englishwoman born in Marseille, Plewman volunteered for the SOE, commissioned a Lt. In the ATS, and was parachuted at  a dangerously low altitude (under 1,000 feet) into the Jura Mountains in occupied France and was initially separated from her network. She worked for six months— a relative eternity— before being caught.

British Security Coordination

However, not all served in Europe. At the beginning of the Second World War, the then neutral United States had a scanty military intelligence establishment in separate Army and Navy departments that focused on military intelligence relevant to them.  However, the US had no proper intelligence agency per se.  In good measure Britain filled that void. After the fall of France in 1940 Britain set up an organization called British Security Coordination. Operating out of the International Building in plain sight in Rockefeller Center, BSC eventually had over 1,000 staffers, the majority of whom were women.

The initial plan in the summer of 1940 was that if Britain lost the Battle of Britain and was occupied by the Nazis, the Royal Family, a government in exile and what was left of the Royal Navy would flee to Canada. Since British Security Coordination operated out of the then neutral United States, it could direct resistance to the Nazis inside Occupied Britain. If Britain didn’t fall, BSC would fight Nazi subversion in the Western Hemisphere and Asia, and coordinate, hopefully, with the United States.

The women who staffed BSC were almost entirely Canadians. For one, they spoke North American English and fit seamlessly into the American scene. Secondly, they were next door in Canada and ready to do whatever they could.

For a young woman from a small town, farm or city in Canada, going to work in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan was the thrilling opportunity of a lifetime.  But the work was difficult and the hours long. Many roomed together but security was so strict that they were forbidden to discuss their work with their flatmates, or even acknowledge each other on the streets of Manhattan or in the Center’s elevators.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, responsible for security and counter-intelligence in Canada, vetted everyone who went to New York. All had to sign the Official Secrets Act, putting their lives on the line.

One large room on the second floor of BSC headquarters at the International Building had 105 teleprinters working around the clock with a staff of over 400 to operate them alone, not including the code room. Among them were a group of the women who were profiled in 2002  by the GAPC production Secret Secretaries for the W Network in Canada (an odd and possibly sexist title because none of them were secretaries).

*Patsy Sullivan, who came from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan to serve in Codes and Ciphers remembered that, “We were just aware it was as secret as you can get as far as the organization was concerned— and don’t ask any questions.”

*Charmian Vaughn Manchee was with her in Codes and Ciphers, every day handling some of the Allies most highly classified secrets.

*Dororhy Sewell Evenson, from Winnipeg, was a Typex operator, an encryption system similar to the German Enigma machine, but much more sophisticated and complex, and never cracked by the enemy.

*Georgie Davy McCance, was a clandestine radio operator who transmitted the coded messages the other staffers at BSC produced.

However, not all of the women of British Security Coordination worked on the intel side, some were in covet operations, too.

Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, code named Cynthia, was an American citizen who worked for British Intelligence. The closest thing to a real life James Bond, after the Nazi invasion of Poland she returned to Washington, DC.  At the time the United States was still neutral, which meant that Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Vichy France all still had embassies in Washington. Although the details are hazy, Thorpe cultivated and allegedly seduced officials at the Vichy and Italian embassies, securing valuable intelligence on Axis activities.

Office of Strategic Services

The activities of British Security Coordination didn’t end with the American entrance into the war after Pearl Harbor.  While coordinating intelligence information with the US government, it also helped set up the United State’s first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the modern CIA.  One third of the 13,000 members of the OSS were women, including some celebrities like actress Marlene Dietrich and culinary legend Julia Child.

The war opened up previously unimaginable opportunities for young people, including many young women who were frequently recruited directly from college.

*Virginia Stuart, told the New York Times  in 2019, “armed with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, I joined a group of women sworn to secrecy…” She initially was based in the “Q” Building, a un-airconditioned temporary structure on the modern site of the Kennedy Center. Working in the often sweltering Washington heat, she remembered that “We didn’t stop to ask whether something was a woman’s job or a man’s job. We did the best we could with what we had, sending most documents along to the indexing unit, another group staffed entirely by women.”

*Marion A. Frieswyk was a geographer and cartographer and a recent graduate of Potsdam College. She was sent for special training at Clark University. The OSS was tasked with gathering maps from all over the world and preparing maps for US and Allied forces. She recalled working until the wee hours of the morning one night in 1943, “We were racing to complete our assignment: a three-dimensional topographic map illustrating the rugged terrain of Sicily.” The first such map ever made, when it dried, the Joint Chiefs of Staff used it to accurately plan the imminent Allied invasion.

From the very beginning of the war until the very end— when many of the women were cruelly pushed out and told to return to marriage and children— women were essential to the intelligence organizations they served.  Without them the war would’ve been lost.

Lawrence Dudley is the author of New York Station and the forthcoming World War Two-era spy thriller, The Hungry Blade, publishing January 21, 2020, from Blackstone Publishing.

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