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When Wartime Women Triumphed Under Cover
Britain’s key female spies portrayed in new ‘hidden history’
Women in intelligence are having their moment. Avril Haines was recently appointed as the first female head of the U.S. intelligence community; in the newly published Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA, Liza Mundy set out to document women’s contribution to America’s premier intelligence agency; Congress, at long last, is investigating the CIA’s handling of sexual assault. Now, with Women in Intelligence: The Hidden History of Two World Wars, Helen Fry adds her own data to the map, shining a light on the contributions of British women “intelligencers.” On behalf of women intelligencers past and present—yours truly was a former operations officer for the CIA— I say: thank you.
Fry’s work does justice to her subject matter: it’s prodigious—at times, dizzying. She has seemingly accomplished an impossible task: documenting every morsel of information about women working for MI5, MI6, and Britain’s various intelligence sub-agencies from WWI through WWII.
Spoiler alert: women did it all—coding and decoding, photographic interpretation, counterespionage and censorship, debriefing and turning POWs, smuggling allies and Jews to safe havens, penetrating subversive domestic groups, running agents behind enemy lines, even operating as heads of station. These women worked under cover out of passport offices, safehouses, on the home front. They traveled by train, plane, and parachute. They operated under dangerous conditions, typically with no diplomatic immunity, risking imprisonment, concentration camps, and death. And until British government files were recently declassified, this weighty female contribution was largely unacknowledged—and unknown.
Fry covers both well-trod territory and roads less traveled. She plunges into Edith Cavell’s Belgian spy network and La Dame Blanche resistance underground in World War I. She shines a light on the woman in World War Two who founded the only known intelligence network in Luxembourg, and the gals who identified the Germans’ Peenemünde V-1 site and cracked the Flordora code (for which a male colleague promptly tried to take credit).
Women, Fry notes, helped sink the Bismarck. Thousands of lives were saved when ladies in the Double Cross System misled Germans about rocket points of impact near London. There are stories of intriguing singularity—Baroness Mary Miske was the only known participant in a WWII spy swap—and staggering tragedies: 26 of the 35 members of Cavell’s network were arrested, tried, and convicted, five receiving the death sentence.
Against these impressive female heroics, Fry paints a congruously rosy, but perhaps less credible, picture of a tolerant and even progressive workplace. Stories of male leaders willing and eager to utilize women vastly outnumber her stories of discrimination. The world of British intelligence, Fry argues, was relatively liberal compared to the civilian sector: Due to a combination of necessity (men were away fighting), foresight, practicality, and strong leadership, women were given unprecedented leadership and substantive roles. (Interestingly, Ian Fleming is credited with being one of the men able to see past skirts.)
“Female spies behind enemy lines were valuable because they were inconspicuous [and] could move much more freely,” Fry notes. The “situation of wartime,” she posits, actually accelerated general societal progress for women.
Sporadically, Fry acknowledges the challenge women faced: Lower wages, fewer promotions, stereotypes (a director of Military Intelligence declared ‘[Women] are variable, easily offended, seldom sufficiently reticent and apt to be reckless.’).
For me, these are the portions that resonate most deeply. (In one of my CIA role-playing training exercises, an instructor once told me I lost my “charm” when I engaged in substantive discussion.) Even apparent compliments, as women know, can reveal underlying sexism: in an MI5 report described by Fry, “Women…[had] particular ‘feminine characteristics’ of intuition and a love of detail.” Here again, a familiar tune: a manager once insisted that a female colleague of mine would make a good case officer because she was a “dish.”
While some of Fry’s women teeter on sainthood, many are refreshingly human: they make mistakes, have less-than-altruistic motives. (A WWII spy code-named “Bronx” is spurred primarily by adventure and money; others become embroiled in double and triple crosses, complain, are unsympathetic or less-than-glamorous.) Fry resolutely dispels the tired honeytrap trope : only one spy in her pages uses her feminine wiles, attempting to seduce an Abwehr officer.
Scattered throughout the tome are interesting orthogonal facts. Initially, women were recruited largely from the upper classes; a disproportionate number came from Oxford and Cambridge, no doubt because many had the requisite language skills and experience abroad, plus, of course, the connections. But there was a notable cadre of nuns rallying to the Allied cause, Sound-of-Music style, as well. It was a woman—Mona Maund, one of MI5’s first female agents—who warned that Melita Norwood, a secretary in the top secret British-U.S. nuclear weapons program, was a Soviet spy. (Mona was duly ignored). Fry teases us with mention of other women agents working secretly for the Soviets, suggesting Britain was not unique—and maybe even a bit behind—in gender parity.
Fry, a highly regarded intelligence historian and biographer, shines brightest when she departs from numbers, names, and statistics, and ventures into more colorful, anecdotal territory: A British agent in 1917 Paris propositioning Madame Camille Rischard through a curtain during a meeting at Quai d'Orsay to spy in Luxembourg; Olga Gray, sent by MI5 to infiltrate a British pro-communist group, memorizing blueprints being smuggled to the Soviets; Mary Corrie Sherer, MI5’s first female agent handler and head of British intelligence in Washington in 1942, dressing like a general, wearing a red jacket with epaulets, walking with a long martial stride while swinging her arms, smoking unfiltered Kent cigarettes and drinking gin; Marie-Madeleine Bridou smuggling herself around Europe in a diplomatic bag in 1941.
In toto, however, Fry’s account reads like an academic work, something written for posterity rather than entertainment, a reference manual for serious scholars and historians. Not necessarily material for the next Jane Bond movie. But posterity is perhaps the more important function here. Poignantly, Fry relates how Vera Atkins, the legendary American spy for Britain, persisted in learning the fate of 117 of 118 of her officers lost during WWII. Like Atkins, Fry is committed to closing the loop, filling in the gaps.
Due to the Official Secrets Act, many women took their contributions to the grave. Now, at last, Fry is placing roses at their headstones. While there are stories of coups and game-changers, there are also acts of quiet sacrifice—sabotage, deciphers, a single soul smuggled from enemy lines—a reminder that it’s often the unsung acts, and people, that win wars.
In the end, the reader’s left wondering what more could have been achieved if women were given their due—fair pay, more freedom from family and caretaking responsibilities, equal opportunities, a louder voice. As Claude Dansey, deputy head of MI6, once told the spectacular French underground agent Marie-Madeleine Bridou, “You’re a woman and I’m ashamed of seeing you all these years doing things I couldn’t do myself."
Former CIA operations officer I.S. Berry is the author of The Peacock and the Sparrow, a much praised spy thriller based on her experiences in the Middle East.
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