MISSION FRANCE: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WOMEN OF SOE
This is a tough book to read – both for authorship and content. I am frankly surprised at my own perseverance: The opposite of ‘Un-put-downable’. So why did I persevere? Because about a year ago I’d been invited to attend a lecture on this subject and the book had there been recommended.
What do most of us know about the Occupation of France in WW2? Most French were ashamed of their rapid defeat and simply wanted to keep their heads down, avoid trouble, do their work and hope the problem would simply go away. Contrary to myth, the number of Maquisards was small (at least until D-Day when a lot of old scores, real or imagined, were settled) because the penalties for resistance and for assisting the Allied cause in any way were very severe; and of these, the Communists hated the Gaullists and vice versa. And, as a corollary, it was much more profitable to be a collaborator as the rewards for collaboration and betrayal were really high. And anything else? The films/books Odetteand Carve Her Name With Pride.
Into this, by parachute, Lysander, or small boat, were delivered the men and women of the SOE. The French section of the SOE provided 40 women, mainly as Wireless Operators but some for sabotage and as couriers. Of this number, 14 gave their lives, and some in the most grotesque circumstances of torture and murder. One seems to have been thrown, still semi-conscious and screaming into the crematorium. The later chapters of this book, covering Incarceration and Death make for really tough reading. Almost easier just to read the ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Epilogue’.
As for authorship, I had somehow expected the earlier chapters to paint pen pictures of each of the 40 ladies and, to some extent, they do. But the author seems to have put them all in a kaleidoscope and given it a good shake, so I was soon confused as to who was whom, when was when, what was what, and where was where. And why some Agents were lucky and some immediately unlucky.
Buckmaster’s selection and training seems to have been somewhat inconsistent and haphazard. Some Agents seemed incredibly naïve and lacking in security: Ditto the Maquisards. Some were dynamically resourceful, showed brilliant initiative and courage beyond endurance in adversity. Decorations and Awards included three George Crosses, two posthumous; and a host of others.
I certainly commend the depth of the author’s 27 pages, all in small type, of listed research: Chapter ‘tiddles’, bibliographies, interviews, and archival sources. So this book is what it claims to be – The true history of the Women of SOE.
However, Vera Atkins, Buckmaster’s ‘First Lieutenant’, seems to have held the key to open every door and I sense that Sarah Helm’s book A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE may well be an easier read and I might give this a go.
It is axiomatic that this book should be read by the surviving relatives of all these brave ladies; by any French, who have a good command of English and an interest in their Nation’s history; and by Francophiles.
So, as far as NR membership is concerned, my recommendation is simply:
“Female officers of the three Services so to better know their Grandmothers’ courage.
Those who live, or have lived, in the ‘Murky World’: Nowadays even more Murky”.