Women from many countries fought alongside men in covert operations in Nazi-occupied countries during WW2.
In Britain, many of them were recruited by Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), based at 64 Baker Street in London, an address made famous by Sherlock Homes
The role of a woman in Nazi Germany was to look after the home and make babies to further the regime’s goals of racial purity. In 1936 SS leaders created Lebensborn (Fount of Life) a state-directed program ordering every SS member to father four children, whether married or not. It’s goal? To create the ideal ‘Aryan’ community. It certainly suited the men!
In the early years of the war therefore, the Nazis seriously underestimated women agents sent over to occupied France.
In fact, these ladies went through the same brutal training as the men, learning hand-to-hand combat, arms and explosive techniques, mock Nazi interrogations, parachute jumping……and the most dangerous job in the SOE, that of radio operator, with an average life expectancy of six weeks on the job.
American Virginia Hall was the first female agent sent by the SOE into active service in Nazi-occupied France, posing as a reporter for the New York Post.
An extraordinary lady, she set up safe houses, resistance and escape networks, located drop zones for money and weapons, coordinated airdrops, trained French resistance fighters for sabotage missions, and helped downed airmen and escaped prisoners of war to cross the Pyrenees to safety.
What was even more extraordinary, Virginia had lost a leg in a hunting accident, and wore an 8-pound artificial wooden leg bound to her body with straps and a belt at the waist. She named the leg Cuthbert.
Based in Lyon at first, the limping lady’ (la dame qui boite) as she became known, became one of the Allies’ most dangerous spies, evading capture by the Gestapo over and over. She was described as “conspicuous by reddish hair, a strong American accent, an artificial foot, and an imperturbable temper; she took risks often but intelligently.”
In 1942, when the Germans moved in to occupy Vichy France, she escaped by train to Perpignan. Accompanied by a guide, Virginia and Cuthbert crossed the Pyrenees into Spain in the middle of winter, a three day journey on foot in heavy snow.
She radioed SOE during the journey to say Cuthbert was causing her problems. Not recognising the nickname she used for her wooden leg, the message came back, “If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him.”