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Women in Espionage

Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek was born in Poland in the spring of 1908. She was born to a Banking Heiress and an aristocrat. Even from her childhood, she was a very independent and adventurous young woman.

As a child, when she was bored, she would smuggle cigarettes into Poland over the high Tatra Mountains. This practice gave her extensive knowledge of the secret paths and routes in and out of the country.

When the Nazis occupied Poland in the Second World War, she went to the SIS and demanded to join: her knowledge of the country, the fact that she spoke three languages, and the anxiety that the allies felt about the unknown within Poland made her impossible to turn down.

Skarbek went on many missions in her career. She went on multiple missions into Poland to smuggle information, propaganda, and funding to the Polish Resistance. She also went on multiple missions in which she would smuggle information and even film out of Poland by hiding the information within the lining of her gloves.

Saving agents

Skarbek was arrested on a mission with another officer. According to military, “One report from the official British files simply states that she showed ‘great presence of mind’ and secured the release of both herself and the Polish officer with whom she had been arrested.” The way she did this was by faking a hacking cough and biting her tongue, giving the appearance that she was coughing up blood.

The reason this was so effective in helping their escape was that it convinced the officers that had been interrogating them that she was showing signs of Tuberculosis. This caused the officers that arrested them to release them, in the fear of spreading the disease.

After this point, Skarbek had begun to make a name for herself. She also saved her chief resistance leader Francis Cammaerts, who was arrested by the Gestapo with two others. Within that mission, she was able to track down where the men were being held and convinced them to negotiate the freedom of the three men, which was successful. When the men were released, Skarbek was there personally to bring them home.

“[S]he marched into the Gestapo headquarters alone, despite the enormous bounty on her head, and demanded the release of Francis Cammaerts and Xan Fielding who had been captured and were due to be executed that afternoon.” -Skarbek Associates.

Throughout her career, Skarbek showed many instances of bravery and was responsible for the securing of information that was instrumental in the war. She was awarded many medals and honors, the greatest being the Croix de Guerre from the French and the British George Medal.

If you would like to learn more, you can check out the links within the article or you and find more here.

Vera Atkins

Vera Maria Rosenberg (later taking her mother's maiden name Atkins) was born in Romania in 1908. She first studied language in France before attending a secretarial college in London.

Her career in espionage began when she was hired as an assistant to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. She worked under him for many years before becoming a de facto agent. She served as a civilian until 1944 when she was commissioned to be a Flight Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

As she worked in the Secret Operatives Executive (SOE), she became a bigger name, becoming responsible for recruiting and deploying agents within France and was in charge of over 37 female agents. She made sure that the agents under her care were prepared with papers and appropriate clothes for the missions, acting as a liaison between them and their families and making sure that they got paid.

After the liberation of France, she headed a task force to find out what happened to 118 unaccounted for agents. This task force did not receive support at first, but as they uncovered what happened, the support grew as people learned what happened and wanted justice for their deaths. Atkins advocated for the 12 female agents that were killed in the concentration camps to be labeled as killed in action instead of killed in prison. She found out what happened to 117 of the 118 missing agents and gave a detailed description of their bravery which led to two of the women being killed in action receiving medals for their actions.

More information about Atkins can be found here and here.

Noor Inayat Khan

Khan was born in Moscow in 1914. She lived in Moscow with her parents and two brothers until they moved to London and then Paris during the First World War.

When the Second World War began in 1839, her family fled to Britain from Paris before it became occupied by Germany. While the rest of the Khan family decided to stay out of the war, she decided to help the war effort and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Her knowledge of how to use a radio and her ability to speak fluent French caught the eye of the SOE. Khan was recruited to the SOE in 1942 and was given the codename “Madeleine.” Her work was essential during the war and allowed for the delivery of weapons to the French resistance. Unknown to the SOE and French Resistance, there were double agents within their ranks. She was betrayed and arrested in 1943 before she could destroy the files that she had in her Paris flat. This caused those who arrested her to send a fake radio call to the SOE with the wrong information. She tried to escape after her arrest, and because of this, she spent 10 months chained in solitary confinement. She was interrogated but gave no information. She was later transferred to a concentration camp and executed.

For Khan’s bravery and service, she received the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Today, there is a statue of Khan outside her childhood home in Paris commemorated with the heritage blue Plaque.

All the women in this article turned the tide of the war and allowed for information to be shared and retrieved that would not seem possible. These are only three women of the many that were involved in the war efforts.

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