D-Day Girls: The Spies who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis and Helped Win World War II is a work of non-fiction about the women who worked in secret, behind the lines in France in the years of WWII leading up to D-Day. These women were recruited, vetted and trained in England to be dropped behind enemy lines. There, they helped co-ordinate the resistance and lay the groundwork for the allied invasion. As their work was part of secret intelligence (the Special Operations Executive or SOE), much of what they accomplished remained secret until the war ended, and often even beyond. Sarah Rose, journalist and writer, focuses on a handful of these women and men, and using archival information and memoirs, pieces together the important, dangerous work that they accomplished despite the Nazi war machine and even the doubts of their own superiors officers.
In Part I, Rose introduces the reader to these extraordinary women, their backgrounds and how they became part of secret operations. All of them were native speakers of French, a requirement for the job they had to do, and would be able to blend into the background once in France. But other than that, they were a diverse crew that included a young housewife, a daughter of privilege, and an experienced underground resistor. The idea of recruiting women for war, especially for espionage purposes, was a new one and not terribly well received by many men within the intelligence community, but the French Section, under the command of Major Maurice “Buck” Buckmaster and Squadron Officer Vera Atkins were adamant that women could and should be used, that they could be an invaluable asset on the ground. Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed, and so the secret plan to train women to parachute behind enemy lines and work as radio operators, saboteurs and organizers moved forward.
Part II centers on activity in France from autumn of 1942 until 1943/44. One of the strengths of this book is that it shows that the daily work of resisting was often frustrating as well as dangerous. The hope in 1942 was that a second front could be opened in France sooner rather than later, but many formidable obstacles stood in the way. For the agents dropped into France, one problem was simply finding locals who would trust those working for England. It was not a foregone conclusion that Frenchmen and women would drop everything to support the resistance. France was a divided country, with the Germans occupying the north and Petain’s Vichy government in the south collaborating with them. Moreover, the resistance movement itself was not necessarily a monolith; DeGaulle from exile was trying to set up his own spy network separate from England’s and the two had an uneasy relationship at best. Rose also does a good job of showing how German agents on the ground in France were working to root out resistors. Radio operators were constantly on the run because it was not difficult for the Germans to track their signals and come after them. In the event that SOE spies were caught, agents were, of course, expected not to crack and give up the names of others in their network, and networks were kept small so that if a breach did occur, it would not lead to the collapse of the entire operation. Yet by the end of 1943, serious breaches had occurred and Jones’ women were either scrambling to get out of France or were in Nazi prison cells being tortured and prepared for transport to concentration camps.
In Part III, Rose details the events leading up to the D-Day invasion in 1944 and its aftermath for the agents. Some made it out alive, some did not. A number of the D-Day girls received recognition for their war efforts although in some cases not until many decades after the war.
Overall, I found the book to be quite interesting; I do enjoy reading about strong women and WWII. It is amazing to me that we still are only just finding out about some of these incredibly smart, brave, heroic women. I should note that the tone of this book is not what I would call “scholarly.” While there are notes for each chapter at the end of the book, no footnotes are in the text itself. I kind of missed them. I like to know where writers are finding their material, and Rose’s way of providing that information seemed a bit unorthodox to me. The tone of the writing is also more colloquial than a straightforward history. Rose has written for journals and magazines, and I think that style of writing is evident here, which, in my opinion, makes it more engaging and exciting than a dry history. Finally, while the focus of this book is meant to be women and the blurb inside the cover promises “The dramatic, untold story of the extraordinary women recruited by Britain’s elite private spy agency…”, Rose only really looks at five women, and the stories of the women of the SOE have been told before. Sarah Helms, another journalist, wrote an outstanding (and very readable) history called A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of World War II that actually deals with the women in this book plus many more. Still, this is an interesting book and might spark your interest in reading more on women’s contributions to fighting fascism and saving democracy.