The real-life women who inspired WW2 screen heroines

Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was the first female wireless operator sent to occupied France

Born in Moscow on New Years Day 1914, Noor Inayat Khan was the descendant of an Indian prince. During World War II she became a secret agent for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was the first female wireless operator sent into occupied-France. She was there to assist the French Resistance and the messages she sent back to Blighty significantly aided the success of the D-day landings.

She was eventually caught by the Germans and tortured for information. She revealed nothing but a fake name. After months of solitary confinement with her hands and feet shackled together preventing her from walking upright, Noor was transferred to Dachau concentration camp. On 13 September 1944, she was executed by firing squad. Her last words were reportedly ‘Liberté’. She was posthumously awarded the British George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

In 2006, author Shrabani Basu released Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, a detailed biography of Noor’s life. It was recently announced the book would be adapted into a TV miniseries with Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame playing the title role.

It’s quite unbelievable that Noor’s story is not more widely known considering it’s filled with remarkable achievements and acts of heroism. Here, we take a look at some other WW2 heroines who have inspired characters in TV and film.

Sophie Scholl

Born in 1921 in the south of Germany, Scholl and her other siblings grew up in the world of Nazi youth groups. However, as she grew older she began to question the morals of the fascist system that ruled her beloved country. Whilst attending the University of Munich she joined a resistance group run by students of which her brother was also a member.

The group was called the White Rose and it wasn’t long before Sophie and her brother Hans became the core of the resistance movement. They published and distributed six pamphlets and used graffiti to denounce the Nazi’s, their political system and the war. It was a pacifist movement that gained such traction that its members began to distribute the flyers openly instead of secretly.

However, the Gestapo eventually caught up to them all. Sophie was tried and beheaded by guillotine in early 1943.

In the 2019 Nazi-era satire JoJo Rabbit, Scarlett Johansson plays Rosie, an anti-Nazi mother who is secretly involved in a non-violent resistance movement that distributes pamphlets and flyers emblazoned with the message of ‘free Germany’. Rosie is a nod to Sophie Scholl and all those other German pacifist resistors who tried to make a change from within the system.

Marlene Dietrich

Born in Berlin in 1901, Marlene became one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars, appearing in a multitude of Hollywood films and receiving an Academy Award nomination.

Her rise to global stardom brought the attention of Nazi Party officials, including Adolf Hitler, who wished to capitalise on her fame for their own benefit. She was approached and offered lucrative contracts if she performed in films about the Third Reich. She declined all offers, publicly renounced Nazism and applied for American citizenship just before the outbreak of WWII.

During the war she played an active role in helping German and French exiles come to America, setting up a fund to provide them with financial support. She toured the U.S. selling war bonds and performed for Allied troops fighting in Africa and Europe. She was awarded the American Medal of Freedom as well as the French Légion d'honneur.

In Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 WW2 movie Inglorious Basterds, Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a popular film star in Nazi Germany and a spy for the Allies. Her character was said to have been heavily inspired by Marlene Dietrich.

Nancy Wake

She was one of the allies’ most decorated servicewomen during the Second World War. Born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, Nancy studied journalism in London before moving to France. She married a French businessman, Henri Fiocca, and settled in Marseille when the war broke out.

When France fell she joined the French Resistance, acting as a courier and helping downed Allied airmen evade capture. In 1943, the Gestapo came to arrest her so she kissed her husband goodbye and fled, eventually ending up in Britain. Her husband was tortured and executed but he never revealed the whereabouts of his wife.

In Britain, she joined the SOE and was provided formal training before being parachuted back into occupied-France. She helped organise the reception and distribution of arms and resources for the Resistance. She also participated in raids and attacks on German bases, convoys and supplies. In one raid she claimed to have killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.

After the war she was awarded the British George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom and the French Médaille de la Résistance as well as three Croix de Guerre.

Nancy’s story inspired Sebastian Faulks to create the character Charlotte Grey, in his 1999 novel of the same name. The book tells the story of a young woman who becomes an agent for the SEO and is sent into Vichy France to aid the French Resistance. The book was adapted into a movie in 2001, with Cate Blanchett playing Charlotte Grey.

Nancy Wake, the real-life Charlotte Grey, died in 2011 at the age of 98.

Odette Sansom

The French-born Sansom would find herself in Britain with her English husband out the outbreak of WW2. She joined the SOE and after her training was deployed to occupied-France to aid the French Resistance.

In early 1943, the Gestapo captured Odette. She was brutally tortured for information but she never divulged any. Even though she had all her toenails ripped out and a red-hot poker placed on her back she never caved, saving the lives of many agents in the process.

She was eventually sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, a camp exclusively for women situated in northern Germany. Around 3,500 women served as Nazi concentration camp guards during the war and all of them started at Ravensbrück.

It’s estimated around 30,000 women prisoners lost their lives at Ravensbrück. Although Sansom endured horrific conditions in the camp, she was one of the lucky ones and made it out alive. After the war, she gave evidence against those Ravensbrück prison guards charged with war crimes, helping to influence their sentences. She was awarded the George Cross for her wartime efforts.

In 1950, her story became the focus of the British war movie Odette. Odette served as a technical advisor during filming and provided a personal written message, which the film displays at the end. She became a national heroine and gained considerable fame.

Odette lived until the age of 82, passing away in 1995.