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In 1940, Winston Churchill famously ordered the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a newly founded British espionage force, to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Throughout the Second World War, many brave female secret agents did just that. But it was the remarkable heroism of three women in particular which earnt them the highest civilian honour for gallantry: the George Cross.
Noor Inayat Khan
Remembered as the ‘spy princess’, Noor Inayat Khan was a descendant of Indian royalty who became the first female radio operator from Britain to be sent into Nazi-occupied France. Born to an Indian father and American mother, Noor spent her childhood in both London and Paris, later becoming a poet and children's author. In 1940 she fled to England along with her mother and sister.
Despite being raised as a staunch pacifist by her father, Noor was determined to play her part in the war against fascism. She joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force where she was trained as a wireless operator before joining the SOE where her fluency in both French and English made her an ideal fit for the F Section, working with the French Resistance.
Noor longed to make a real sacrifice, taking it upon herself to represent her heritage and saying: ‘I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war’. She hoped that this kind of camaraderie would ‘make a bridge between the English people and the Indians’.
Noor began her first clandestine operation in 1943, taking on what was considered to be one of the deadliest roles possible. With a fatality rate second only to the Bomber Command, the life expectancy of an agent in the field was just six weeks. Under the codename Madeleine, she was tasked with intercepting radio signals while staked out in attics, relaying messages back to London in Morse Code. Noor refused to abandon her post even when urged by her commanders to return to England after her team was captured.
Eventually arrested after being betrayed to the Nazis, she was sent to Pforzheim prison and endured ten months of torture and starvation in solitary confinement. Her loyalty and fortitude never wavered, and in September 1944, Noor was transferred to Dachau. Here, she was executed, and the final word she uttered was simply ‘liberté’. She received the George Cross posthumously in 1949, honoured for her ‘most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical’.
Odette Sansom may not have seemed a likely candidate for a life of espionage. Born in France and married to an Englishman, she was evacuated from London with her three daughters at the outbreak of the war. However, a quiet rural life was out of the question after she heard of her family's suffering in German-occupied France.
Inspired to do her part, Odette began her training with the Special Operations Executive where her superiors noted her ‘patriotism and keenness to do something for France’.
She began her service in 1942 as a courier for an espionage network circuit of the SOE under Captain Peter Churchill. Although he wasn’t related to the Prime Minister, their shared surname would later come in handy. In April 1943, Sansom and Churchill were captured by Nazi double agent and spy-hunter, Hugo Bleicher. Hoping that their captors would see more value in keeping them alive, they claimed that Peter was indeed the nephew of Winston Churchill and the husband of Odette. She bravely insisted that she was the leader of the resistance network and that her husband was just visiting her.
Despite being subjected to horrific acts of torture, including being scolded with a hot poker and having all of her toenails pulled out, Odette's response to the interrogations remained the same, repeating time and time again: ‘I have nothing to say’.
Sansom never lost her fiery spirit. When told she had been condemned to death on two counts, she retorted: ‘Then I guess you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed, because I can only die once.’
Miraculously, Odette became one of the few female SOE agents to survive her imprisonment in the female-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. She would go on to marry Peter Churchill for real, and in 1946 she was awarded the George Cross for her stoicism and loyalty to her fellow agents. She remains the most decorated spy in British history.
Violette Bushell was born in Paris and later moved to London where she met and married French Officer Etienne Szabo. After learning of her husband's death at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Violette felt compelled to fight back. She joined the SOE, where she was trained in cryptography, escape and evasion, advanced weaponry skills and parachute jumping.
Violette served as a courier with an espionage circuit in Normandy and despite early successes in the field, her second mission turned out to be her last. Parachuting into Limoges on 8th June 1944, she set off with her colleague to establish a new circuit. The pair made the fatal error of travelling by car despite the Germans forbidding French citizens to drive following D-Day.
Hitting a roadblock, they aroused the suspicions of the SS. As they rushed to escape, Violette fell and injured her ankle. She urged her colleague to go on without her and protected him with covering fire with her Sten gun, killing at least one officer and wounding several others.
Out of ammunition, she was captured and held in Fresnes prison where she was repeatedly interrogated and tortured before being moved to Ravensbrück. She remained resilient, sticking to her cover story and never once giving any information which could compromise her network.
At just 23 years of age, she was executed. In December 1946, she became the second woman to ever be awarded the George Cross. The story of Violette Szabo, whom Odette Samson herself said was ‘the bravest of us all’ was immortalised in the 1958 war film Carve Her Name with Pride.