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Six Heroes of World War Two: The Men and Women Who Risked All for Their Country

Updated on January 9, 2016
Behind the scenes, what appeared to be ordinary men and women were committing the most daring acts, making events like the liberation of Paris possible.
Behind the scenes, what appeared to be ordinary men and women were committing the most daring acts, making events like the liberation of Paris possible. | Source

As a matter of course, most children learn about the Second World War during their history lessons at school. The atrocities, battles, victories and hardships of all those who experienced them are well documented, as are the treaties and agreements which have, undoubtedly, shaped the world in which we live.

Rarely however are children, or adults for that matter, introduced to the characters who played a pivotal role in defeating the enemy. Assuming false identities, these men and women from all walks of life and spanning every continent, voluntarily placed themselves in perilous and unimaginable situations for their country and our collective freedoms; the heroes of World War Two.

Without doubt the numbers of men and women who risked their lives fighting the Nazis are far too numerous to mention here.

Perhaps at some point in the future they will inspire another page, but in the meantime, meet six people of outstanding character, each decorated for their heroism and selflessness and who have all, sadly, passed away.

Eileen Nearne


Heroes Of World War Two: Britain.

Until her death in 2010 the world was oblivious to the achievements of the British spy Eileen Nearne.

Although born in London to an English father, her mother's nationality is uncertain, with some reports claiming that she was French and others suggesting that she was Spanish.

Nearne's family moved from London to France when she was aged just two years old, however, by 1940, and whilst the country was under occupation, Nearne and her sister Jacqueline made their way to England.

Once in England, Nearne was recruited by Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, which was tasked with sabotage and espionage missions in Nazi occupied territory .Initially she was stationed in British listening stations, but in 1944 Nearne was flown to France and dropped behind enemy lines. She worked as a wireless operator for the Wizard Unit, whose aim was to source and organize funds for the French Resistance.

On no fewer than three occasions, Nearne was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo but managed to escape, or convince the Nazis that she was innocent. The first time she was captured she was tortured, but convinced the Gestapo of her innocence by protesting that she was merely a "shop girl". . She was later freed.

However, within four months of becoming a wireless operator, Nearne was arrested for a second time after the Gestapo had detected her transmitter. It is widely reported that Nearne was again interrogated and tortured at the Gestapo's Paris headquarters. Again Nearne was able to convince the Nazis that she had been sending messages on behalf of another, but had no idea that he was a British man. Nearne was sent to Ravensbrück Women's Concetration camp in northern Germany, where she later escaped and but was rearrested by the Nazis, only to fool them again. Eileen was freed and then hidden by a priest until US troops arrived.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp


Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist In Nazi Germany.

Can you imagine life as only one of three Jewish Journalists working in Nazi Germany under the watchful eye of the Gestapo? Werner Schlesinger's "Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany" offers the reader a glimpse into his terrifying journey. A book review.

Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas

No stranger to the horrors of war, British born Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas had served in the first World War after lying about his age, declaring that he was sixteen, and joining the US forces. He later served with the Polish Army during the conflict with the Soviet Union. After capture by the Soviet Forces, Yeo-Thomas strangled a Soviet guard to death in order to avoid execution. He then made his way to France.

At the start of the Second World War Yeo-Thomas joined the British Forces but was deemed too old for active service. Determined to help and believing that he could make a difference, he joined the SOE and was later flown into France. Yeo-Thomas was tasked with making contact with resistance groups and was pivotal in convincing Churchill that the groups had a vital role to play in defeating the enemy.

Sadly, after narrowly escaping arrest on no fewer than six occasions, and due to betrayal, Yeo-Thomas was arrested in 1944. After four days of interrogation and torture, he still maintained that he was 'just' an RAF pilot whose plane had been shot down. The details of his underground activity with the resistance groups were never divulged to the Gestapo.

Yeo-Thomas was sent to numerous prisons but was later transferred to the infamous Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Although he made several attempts to escape, they were all unsuccessful. Nevertheless, during his incarceration at Buchenwald, he was able to assume the identity of a French prisoner who had been executed at the gallows.

During April 1945, Yeo-Thomas and other prisoners were deported to Czechoslovakia. The train which was carrying them had to make frequent stops in order to bury dead prisoners, and it was during one of these stops that Yeo-Thomas and several others were able to escape.

Within the week he was recaptured, just yards from the American lines. Nevertheless, within days of capture, he managed to escape again and lead a group of French Prisoners to freedom.

Lucie Aubrac


Heroes of World War Two: France.

Together with her husband Raymond, Lucie Aubrac is hailed as one of the founding members of the first French resistance groups. Born Lucie Bernard in 1912, Machon, France, she later became an outstanding scholar, obtaining the agrégation in history, the most prestigious academic award in France. At the outbreak of the second world war, Aubrac began her career as a teacher of history in Strasbourg.

Aubrac became a committed communist, believing that Communism was the most effective defense against fascism. It was during her time in Strasbourg that she met her future husband, Raymond Samuel; a communist, engineer and a Jew. Due to antisemitism, Samuel used the resistance alias of Aubrac; a name which they both continued to use after the war.

In 1940, after her marriage to Raymond and the fall of France, Lucie resumed her teaching career in Lyon, which at the time was an unoccupied zone. It was during this period that a chance encounter with Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, led to the emergence of the first resistance groups.

Lucie and her husband were to become the founding leaders of Libération-Sud, arguably one of the most important movements of the time. The pair continued to work in their respective occupations whilst also subversively fighting the occupation and organizing resistance movements. Aubrac gave birth to her first child in May 1941, which in essence meant that she was living a triple life; mother, educator and resistor.

After the Germans occupied the whole of France, Raymond was arrested twice. The first time the Gestapo believed that they had arrested a black marketeer of no great significance, he was released, due at least in part to Lucie's interventions with the local prosecutor.

In 1943 Raymond was arrested again during a meeting of resistors in a doctors office. Raymond was held in the Montluc prison. Expecting her second child, Lucie was able to convince the Gestapo that her unborn baby was conceived out of wedlock, and begged the Gestapo to be permitted to legitimize the child by allowing her to marry its father. After allowing the couple to "marry" at Gestapo headquarters, Lucie and other members of the resistance were able to hijack the lorry transporting her husband back to prison. They successfully freed Raymond and another fifteen members of the resistance.

The couple went into hiding until they could safely be flown to London.

Stéphane Frédéric Hessel


Stéphane Frédéric Hessel

Born in Germany in 1917, Stéphane Frédéric Hessel was the son of a Jewish father whose family had joined the Lutheran church, and a Christian mother. The family moved to France in 1924, obtaining French citizenship in 1939.

During the same year, Hessel married Vitia Mirkine-Guetzevitch, a Russian-Jewish emigrée. In 1941, Hessel made his way to London and became a member of De Gaulle's intelligence unit (BCRA) and in 1944 was flown to France and tasked with distributing radio transmitters before D-Day approached.

Within four months of landing in France, Hessel was betrayed by another agent under torture. He was arrested himself and tortured before being transferred to Buchenwald Concentration camp, along with more than thirty other agents. Only three of the thirty plus agents were to avoid execution, Hessel being one of them as they were able to assume the identities of dead prisoners. Without success he attempted to escape from Buchenwald, and narrowly avoided hanging for his efforts.

Later, however, in April 1945, Hessel was able to escape from a train which was deporting him to the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. He successfully reached American lines.

After the war ended, Hessel became a diplomat and secretary to the committee which was responsible for the UN's universal declaration on human rights in 1946-1948.

Hessel remained active in left wing politics, campaigning for Palestinian statehood and, in 2010, famously penned Indignez-vous ! (Time for Outrage!) which is widely believed to have inspired the Spanish protests of 2011, among others.

Witold Pilecki


Heroes of World War Two: Poland

Although Witold Pilecki's family were originally from the Nowogródczyzna region of Poland, their estate had been confiscated due to the family's involvement with the January Uprising of 1863. Consequently, the family were forced to obtain work in the public institutions of the Russian Empire.

Born in May 1901, in karelia, Russia, Pilecki had been a member of the Polish self-defense unit and the 211th Uhlan Regiment during the first World War.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Pilecki joined the 19th Infantry Division and by the end of 1939 had become one of the founders of the Secret Polish Army, an underground resistance group.

Using the false name Tomasz Serafinski, Pilecki managed to smuggle himself into Auschwitz in 1940, with the intention of recruiting members for, and organizing, an underground resistance group. As early as 1941, he was able to send vital information to the British and US forces about the conditions within the camp and the Nazis intent of exterminating Jews, via a courier system operated by the Polish resistance throughout Europe. He urged the Allies to liberate the camp, but sadly this was deemed impossible at the time.

During 1942, Pilecki had learned of the existence of the gas chambers within the camp, and fearful that the Allies were not going to liberate Auschwitz managed, along with two others, to escape.

Due to his involvement in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Pilecki was arrested and spent the remainder of the war at both Murnau and Łambinowice Concentration camps. After Liberation from the POW camp, Pilecki joined the Free Polish Troops in Italy and agreed to return to Poland with the intention of gathering intelligence regarding the Soviet takeover.

Sadly, Pilecki was arrested by the Polish Communist regime, interrogated, tortured and then executed on May 25th, 1948.

The Tatra Mountains
The Tatra Mountains | Source
Krystyna Skarbek's Grave.
Krystyna Skarbek's Grave. | Source

Krystyna Skarbek

Born in Warsaw, Poland, on the 1 May 1908, Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born to an upper middle class family; Count Jerzy Skarbek and Jewish born Stefania Goldfeder. After her first failed marriage to Karol Getlich, Krystyna married Jerzy Gizycki in 1938, a gold panner who later became a diplomat.

When Poland was invaded in 1939, the couple were living in Ethiopia where her husband was employed by the Polish Consul. The couple transferred to London, where Skarbek approached the SOE and volunteered to work as a spy, with the intention of helping Polish resistance fighters escape from the country. Skarbek, an experienced skier, already had a plan, she would travel to Budapest and print leaflets (propaganda) then ski over the Tatra mountain range into Poland.

Skarbek managed to convince the SOE that her plan was viable, and in 1939 left for Budapest. During her mission she fell in love with the Polish war hero Andrzej Kowerski, ending her marriage to Gizycki. Kowerski and Skarbek used the aliases of Christine Granville and Andrew kennedy and, with the assistance of a member of the Polish Olympics team, Skarbek managed to cross the Tatra range and enter Poland as planned.

Together with Spies from the Polish resistance, Skarbek gathered intelligence and compiled a dossier containing photographs of German troops gathering on the Soviet Union's borders. In the meantime, and due to Skarbek's intelligence activities and the distribution of propaganda leaflets, wanted posters advertising a reward for her capture were put in every railroad station within Poland.

Skarbek and Kowerski were captured and arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, during the questioning however, Skarbek bit her own tongue so forcefully that she drew blood, convincing the Gestapo that she had TB. Due to her feigned illness both were released. Skarbek was then smuggled out of Hungary and into Yugoslavia in the trunk of a car. Kowerski, who had assumed the identity of a used car dealer, was able to follow her through hundreds of miles of Nazi occupied territory, claiming that he was delivering the Opel that he was driving to a customer across the border. The two successfully reached the SEO head quarters in Cairo.

However Skarbek's missions did not end there, in 1944 she was flown to France and tasked with aiding the French resistance fighters before the planned American ground invasion. Skarbeck became notorious within the intelligence service for her acts of bravery and cunning, in fact, her most legendary exploit was the way in which she rescued her resistance leader chief, Francis Cammaerts. Imprisoned by the Gestapo, Skarbek was able to convince prison officers that she was Cammaert's wife and managed to make contact with him in Prison. Once inside, she made herself known to the officers as a British agent and claimed that the British General Montgomery was her uncle. She also claimed that he was on his way and a participant in the Allied Invasion. Skarbek managed to negotiate a two million francs ransom, and the following day Cammaerts was freed.

Winston Churchill famously referred to Skarbek as "his favorite spy", and it is widely believed that at least two of Ian Fleming's "bond girls" characters were inspired by Krystyna Skarbek.

After the war, her application for British Citizenship was rejected due to her "shadowy past" however, in 1951 she became stewardess on an ocean liner which is where she met George Muldowney. Muldowney became obsessed with Skarbek and in 1952, as she was preparing for a reunion with Kowerski, stabbed her to death when she informed him that she'd be away for at least two years. She was just 44 years old.

2013. Share, don't copy.


Submit a Comment
  • Jay C OBrien profile image

    Jay C OBrien 

    3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

    Some Friends (Quakers) set aside their pacifism and joined the military in combatant roles or in alternative service non-combatant roles (such as medics). (Some Friends have done the same today in Iraq.)

    However, the idea behind pacifism is *not* acceptance nor is it passive. It is an understanding that we must work actively and non-violently on both or all sides of a conflict to provide and maintain the conditions necessary for peace. That is why American Friends met with Nazi officials before the war -- to try to stop it before it started -- and why they continued to work for peace during it.

    During the war, the AFSC [American Friends Service Committee] helped refugees escape Nazi Germany, provided food and medicine to Spanish children who were victims of that country’s civil war, fed refugees in Nazi-occupied France, and provided aid to Londoners who were bombed out during the Blitz. In the United States, the AFSC worked to remove young Japanese Americans from government internment camps and place them in colleges and universities.

  • old albion profile image

    Graham Lee 

    3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Hi Hollie. A brilliantly researched hub and so well presented. It made me want to keep on reading till the very end. First class.


  • Jay C OBrien profile image

    Jay C OBrien 

    4 years ago from Houston, TX USA

    This is a good article. After review I suggest not getting involved in war or violence at all. In all the wars fought the individual who participates is the loser. Do not risk life or health for a political position.

    It is better to do something constructive with your life. also think of your children. Provide for them. You may have to move to do so. Teach your children to walk away from a fight even if provoked. Have No Enemies!

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    Thank you, Eric. These people are relatively unheard of, which is such a great shame given their bravery and the importance of the work they did. :)

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Wonderful my friend, you have brought to life the very soul of who we hope to emulate. Greatness is not an act but a sacrifice of self. Remember that each time you lay ink or character to written word that you also sacrifice your self to those of us who read it. And you are also that hero.

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    Thank you, JG11Bravo- glad you enjoyed it.

  • JG11Bravo profile image


    6 years ago

    Well done. Very deserving of attention. Thank you.

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    I absolutely did, and I'd recommend it to readers :)

  • Ralph Deeds profile image

    Ralph Deeds 

    6 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

    You might find this one of mine of interest--

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    Thank you, Ralph. I think each of these people had a pretty amazing life. I can't imagine what life was like for them behind enemy lines, or how difficult it must have been for them after the war. I know at least four of them suffered with psychological problems after their ordeal. Britain hadn't even heard of Eileen Nearne until she died. Council workers were emptying the contents of her flat after her death, when they found her medals for bravery- even her neighbours didn't know about her past.

  • Ralph Deeds profile image

    Ralph Deeds 

    6 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

    Fascinating stories. I hadn't heard of any of them.

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    Thank you, Beth. I enjoy history too- doubt that I'd have had the courage to do what these people did.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    What an amazing hub. This should surely be a hotd. Very impressive. I enjoy history quite a bit.

  • HollieT profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Manchester, United Kingdom

    Hi aviannovice,

    They were, absolutely. I can't imagine living the lives some of them led, must have been terrifying.

  • aviannovice profile image

    Deb Hirt 

    6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

    Amazing work. I heard nothing about any of these great heroes and heroines of WW II. These people were great fighters in heir own right.


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