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Women Spies in World War II

Updated on January 14, 2015
Violette Szabo, British Spy
Violette Szabo, British Spy | Source

World War II Women Spies: British Spies, American Spies, French Resistance

During World War II, when all of the able-bodied men were enlisted but more help was needed, women volunteered and were recruited to serve their country. A select few became spies.

American and British women worked in France with the Resistance as secret agents helping in numerous ways. They became radio operators and couriers, helped train new soldiers, and found safe houses for Allied supporters and spies among other tasks.

Violette Szabo, shown here, was shot at age 23 in a German concentration camp after being captured. Photo is in the public domain.

Lingo and Abbreviations Used by Spies During World War II

Here are a few of the acronyms, abbreviations, and lingo used by spies during World War II.

  • FFI: Free French Intelligence (French)
  • OSS: Office of Strategic Services (American), which preceded the CIA
  • CIA: Central Intelligence Agency (American)
  • SOE: Special Operations Executive (British)
  • Radios were called pianos, and radio operators were called pianists.
  • Maquis: rural French Resistance fighters


American Women Spies

Allied Spies: Women Spies in World War II - American Female Spies

These links provide information about women who were spies in World War II for the Allied Forces, of which the United States and Europe were a part.

The Wolves at the Door - The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy

Virginia Hall was an American who was a spy for both the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She shot herself in the leg during a hunting accident and her leg was amputated below the knee. She was fitted with a wooden leg, which caused her to limp. She named her artificial leg Cuthbert.

Despite this setback, Ms. Hall, who was studying in France when World War II broke out, volunteered first with the French Ambulance Service. When fighting stopped in Vichy France, she traveled to London and there joined the SOE and was sent back to Vichy France under the cover as a New York Times correspondent. She later worked for the American OSS undercover in Vichy France helping organize and supply French Resistance fighters.

In her time as a female spy, she helped the French Resistance with supply drops, radioed messages to London, found safe houses for fellow Allied members, and trained French soldiers in fighting tactics.

Source: CIA Web Site

Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of the War - Amy Elizabeth Thorpe's Spying Detailed | Code Name Cynthia

In Cast No Shadow, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, whose code name was Cynthia, is described as a spy who slept her way into the confidence of many German officials.

Books on Women Spies in World War II - Read about Brave Female Spies

Read about the brave women who literally risked their lives living undercover in other countries to serve their country.

Carve Her Name With Pride by R.J. Minney

The Women Who Lived for Danger by Marcus Binney

Map of Vichy France -- France Occupied by AXIS Powers 1940-1944

Occupation zones of France during the Second World War.
Occupation zones of France during the Second World War. | Source

British and French Women Spies

Carve Her Name with Pride - 1958 Movie about Violette Szabo, British Spy

This accounting of the true story of Violette Szabo, who was shown in the introduction photo, is a 1958 British film starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Schofield. This movie was very well done.

From what I've read, it stayed fairly close to the real events that took place including Szabo's husband being killed in Africa, which prompted her to volunteer to work in France because of her French language and athletic ability, as well as her intelligence.

French Maquis - Women in the French Resistance Movement

Maquis in La Tresorerie. Photo in the public domain.
Maquis in La Tresorerie. Photo in the public domain. | Source

During the occupation of France, rural groups called the Maquis, fought against the Germans and provided safe passage and aid to Allied troops.

Photo of Maquis members in La Tresorerie, France, a hamlet part of Wimille, near Boulogne-sur-Mer. Photo was taken on September 14, 1944.

Photo Credit: Donald I. Grant, Department of National Defence. Photo is in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

Nancy Wake, British Spy

Wish Me Luck - British Drama of Women Spies

I recently watched all three seasons of this British drama. Wish Me Luck is a dramatization but is based on real women spies from Britain who volunteered to work as couriers, radio operators, and soldiers for the French Resistance.

It was fascinating to see what all they had to hide about themselves:

~Dental work was redone in Britain to resemble French fillings.

~ Exchanges of British items for French items took place before the women and men were taken into France. Items included cigarettes, money, sanitary pads, and clothing.

~ They were required to be fluent in French and have some knowledge of and contacts in France.

~ Accents were polished to sound more French.

It was really amazing to see what all these women did for the cause.

Spy Lingo

Radios were called pianos, and

radio operators were called pianists.

Charlotte Gray - Starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Cruddup

Charlotte Gray is a 2001 movie starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Cruddup, and Abigail Cruttenden. This movie is based on the Sebastian Faulks novel.

Set during World War II, this movie briefly shows the circumstances of a Scottish women, Charlotte Gray, who joins the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) initially to locate her missing boyfriend in France. She then realizes the importance one person's actions can make on the lives of a few people.

Do you have some trivia to share about Women Spies in World War II?

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    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      All new info for me. Nicely done.

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 

      4 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Interesting lens about these women of valor! Thanks for sharing!

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna 

      4 years ago from UK

      A very interesting lens -so much to read and learn! Have bookmarked this and pinned it.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 

      4 years ago

      Of course Nancy Wake was Australian and she died only a few years ago with some great tributes paid to her. These women were incredible and brave. One wonders what drove them and then again why not do it if it helped win the war. Great topic and very well done.

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 

      4 years ago from Land of Aloha

      What a cool subject! All of these women were so courageous to do this. I doubt I would have had the nerve.

    • profile image

      Colin323 

      4 years ago

      Very interesting lens, particularly about the US women spies, of whom I knew nothing before.

    • esmonaco profile image

      Eugene Samuel Monaco 

      4 years ago from Lakewood New York

      Brave women for sure, dedicated their country and freedom. I always like to learn more about history, Thanks

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      5 years ago from Central Florida

      Some amazing stories here. Thanks for recommending the books and videos.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 

      5 years ago from Europe

      For the peace of my years

      In the long green grass

      Will be yours and yours and yours ... can still make me cry, every time. Violette Szabo was an amazing woman.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 

      5 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Very cool! I love that Virginia Hall named her prosthetic leg. Smart, brave and a sense of humor -- my kind of gal.

    • Legenden profile image

      Legenden 

      5 years ago

      NIce lens :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Also check this Indian lady who spied for the British: Noor Inayat Khan (she has a Wikipedia page)

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 

      5 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      This is a fascinating subject. I'd heard about these women but it was great to learn more. Thank you!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image

      hntrssthmpsn 

      5 years ago

      What a thrilling set of women! Your intro photo of Violette Szabo is downright haunting, and I suspect you've inspired a new long term subject for my late-night wikipedia binges.

    • allaneaglesham lm profile image

      allaneaglesham lm 

      5 years ago

      This a very interesting lens about some brave people who have often remained unrecognized for their incredible efforts!

    • Sweetbunny LM profile image

      Sweetbunny LM 

      5 years ago

      Great women, and brave, interesting lives they led.

    • makorip lm profile image

      makorip lm 

      5 years ago

      Fascinating revelations to adapting to a new persona.

    • PiccadillyPunkin profile image

      PiccadillyPunkin 

      5 years ago

      Such an interesting topic...I learned so much from reading this lens! Great job!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Love to read more about these women. What a life they had.

    • blue22d profile image

      blue22d 

      5 years ago

      Always interested in seeing contributions women have made to our history and our country. Great lens.

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 

      5 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Well done. Very interesting. I have always been fascinated with this period in history.

    • profile image

      bossypants 

      5 years ago

      This was such an inter sting page to read! I hadn't heard of most of these women. I'm with Nancy -- what a great source of pride!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I'm so proud of these women that they risked (and some gave) their lives for what they knew was right. It took a special breed of woman to do these daring deeds. Thanks so much for sharing these stories.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 

      5 years ago

      Back for another view of those sneaky WWII women. I'd have been a great spy

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 

      5 years ago

      You have got a great topic and presented it here very nicely :)

    • profile image

      chickie99 

      5 years ago

      great lens!

      so many don't know the role that women (good & bad) played in WWII

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      What a fascinating topic and lens. Everything you have featured here is very intriguing. Can't wait to read some of these books and rent a movie spotlighted here. I found it very interesting that radio operators were called pianists. Very cool. Had I not been a teacher, I would have been a spy. It's always been my fantasy.

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 

      5 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      Interesting look at women spies

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Stopping back to marvel at these brave women....remarkable!

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 

      5 years ago

      What an interesting article about women spies. It is fun to learn about the past and perhaps improve our lives.

    • cjbmeb14 lm profile image

      cjbmeb14 lm 

      5 years ago

      They were very brave women.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Women have always played such vital roles but often not received the credit they deserve for their contributions. Nice to see a tip of the hat given to women spies of World War 2.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 

      6 years ago

      You write the most interesting articles. And, this one follows the mark. I had no idea there were so many woman spies in ww II

    • goldenrulecomics profile image

      goldenrulecomics 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Great information! thanks.

    • profile image

      kathryn-gillespie 

      6 years ago

      Great lens! Now I want to see some of these movies! Thanks!

    • Onemargaret LM profile image

      Onemargaret LM 

      6 years ago

      Amazing! Thank you!

    • Scarlettohairy profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      @anonymous: Thanks so much, Tipi!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Oops, forgot to let you know that I have added this gem to my Veterans and Veterans of War USA lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      A very cool historical lens, the women who served as spies are amazing heroes who served their countries well with honor and unbelievable courage and often at the cost of their own lives probably more than we know.

    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 

      6 years ago

      Great lens and very interesting topic! I love stories about women in the war!

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Wow, this is so interesting. I would like to read more about these Women Spies in World War II. I didn't know much at all about them and this page really has me wanting to know more. Thank you.

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 

      6 years ago

      My mom was going to join the Waves, but then she met my dad and decided not to.

    • Mamabyrd profile image

      Mamabyrd 

      6 years ago

      Great Lens I love military history

    • Scarlettohairy profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      @Zell-Callisto: Very interesting. Thanks. I'll look into this segment as well.

    • siobhanryan profile image

      siobhanryan 

      6 years ago

      Impressed with Virginia Hall

    • profile image

      Zell-Callisto 

      6 years ago

      I wrote an article a while ago about female soviet fighter pilots, it's easy to forget sometimes that WW2 really was fought by everybody, men, women and even children.

    • peggygallyot profile image

      peggygallyot 

      6 years ago

      They Herod in their country nice reading.

    • ForEverProud profile image

      Jeanne Rene 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      I've always thought the subject of women who spy for their government a very interesting one. Some of the women that you've featured here I have never heard of before. I'm sure they will be interesting subject to learn more about. Enjoy you lens.

    • aaxiaa lm profile image

      aaxiaa lm 

      6 years ago

      Inteesting lens.

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