Following the signing of the 22 June 1940 Armistice leading to French surrender, the Allies redoubled their efforts to combat German advance in Europe. In the midst of the Battle of Britain, and with the aim of “setting Europe ablaze”, Churchill put into place a volunteer fighting force: the Special Operations Executive, also known as the SOE. The thoroughly trained agents were mostly deployed in France with the goal of assisting local networks of resistance in acts of sabotage and subversion.
Amongst the 470 agents that were parachuted into France from 1940 to 1944, 39 were women. Although that number seems small, the female spies of the SOE served as a symbolic example of how women were a crucial part of the war effort. Not only were they able to fight enemies and lead missions to the same standard as men, but gender stereotypes could surprisingly be used as a distinctive advantage on the field. As a matter of fact, the women of the SOE were the only ones permitted a combat role during the war, mostly due to their capacity to blend in with the crowd. This reinforced the feeling that women had no place on the battlefield, making their disguise systematically less questionable. In a time during which most of the work force was male, seeing a woman roaming in the streets during the day arose far less suspicion. This would allow the female agents to lead successful missions and complete tasks that were riskier than those of their male counterparts.
A successful SOE spy that serves as an impressive example of these social observations is Nancy Wake. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Wake moved to France at the age of 20 to work as a European correspondent for a British newspaper. The year was 1932 and the world was slowly starting to feel the shadow of Nazism spread through Europe. A visit to Vienna in 1933 served as a brutal way for her to realize the horrors of Hitler’s regime. During the trip, Wake witnessed firsthand the cruelty of the stormtroopers towards Jews, which profoundly shocked her. Upon her return to France, Nancy promised herself that she would do anything to stop the Nazi movement.
Nancy Wake was living in Marseille with her husband when France surrendered in 1940. She rapidly got involved in the Resistance by working as an ambulance driver while also actively participating in a successful network which helped Allied serviceman and Jews to reach security in Spain. Her feminine charm and innocent image were useful, especially when came the time to accomplish certain tasks that required proximity with German soldiers, for example when crossing checkpoints. In 1942, when the network was betrayed, the missions became too risky. Encouraged by her husband, Nancy begun a solo three-month journey to reach England. She overcame many obstacles on her way, including a four-day imprisonment and interrogation period.