Women’s roles in Special Operations during the Second World War

Some years ago I became interested in the history of police services in the Village of Long Branch. Long-time residents that I’ve interviewed have filled me in on this topic. I enjoy hearing and sharing stories about long-ago police officers who lived and worked in our local neighbourhoods – including one who had a blacksmith shop on a ridge close to where the Long Branch GO Station is now located.

His duties, among other tasks, included ensuring that neighbourhood kids got back home safely during the evening hours, after their wanderings about the neighbourhood.

I’ve also read accounts at the Toronto Public Library dealing with the history of police services in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and around the world.

Once I had explored that topic, I went on to read about military history.

One of the most interesting points that I’ve come across in recent years is that if there ever was a time, in the past, when the bravery of warriors was the deciding factor in military outcomes, that time is long past.

Both sides may be brave but who is braver is not the deciding factor.

What wins the day is planning, technical advances, and intelligence.

The application of instrumental reason is a key consideration, with regard to the above-noted factors affecting military outcomes.

By intelligence, I mean military intelligence.

A related area of importance in determining military outcomes is special operations.

Currently, I’ve been reading about the role that women played, with regard to special operations, during the Second World War. I became interested in this particular topic when, some many years ago, I met a woman who had been involved in special operations work during the Second World War. The topic also interests me because of my interest in several key narratives connected with the Smalls Arms Building in Lakeview:

Great day for planting perennials at Small Arms Building in Mississauga

Appearances can be deceiving

So, I will end this post with a reference to four books I am looking at today.

You can access each of the numbered links below by clicking on them

1) The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish: My Life in Churchill’s School for Spies (2014)

On p. 94 of the above-noted memoir, the author notes: “Once again I was taken by surprise, as I had often been during the debriefings at Orchard Court all those years before, when I thought I had understood once and for all that one cannot judge from appearances.”

2) SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 (2014)

The above-noted study refers (p. 56) to the recruiting techniques of the Special Operations Executive:

“Most of what is known of SOE’s recruiting techniques comes from one of the most skilled craftsmen in this field, Selwyn Jepson, the author, who was able in old age to recall some of his triumphs and disasters of over forty years ago. As the recruiting officer for F, the independent French section, he conducted hundreds of interviews.”

[End of excerpt]

After highlighting initial steps in determining the suitability of a candidate, for recruitment as a secret agent, the study refers (p. 57) to a particularly important characteristic that the recruiter was looking for:

“Once he had cleared up the problem of motive, there was one character trait in particular that he found he had to watch out for, and avoid: impulsiveness. Prudence, after courage, was probably an agent’s most useful quality. Brisk, decisive types, inclined to make up their minds promptly; were all very well in fast traffic or a destroyer action, but were not what was needed in the secret war. There, the need was for reflective men and women, people who could look several moves ahead. Cautious inquiry by Jepson gave him an idea which sort of person he had before him.”

[End of excerpt]

Agents were instructed how to smoke French cigarettes, right down to the stub

3) Behind the Lines: The Oral History of Special Operations in World War II (2002)

The above-noted study presents the following passage (p. 132):

“Claire Wrench, a clerical assistant at Orchard Court in London, where agents were fitted out before being sent into France:

“Each agent was furnished with papers to identify him with his cover story and clothing was provided to match him with his role. Meticulous care was taken that every article of clothing and all accessories should be an exact replica of items manufactured in France. The whole procedure was a model of thoroughness and every article that an agent brought back from France was studied and copied to the last detail. I remember one of the two tailors who were summoned to our flat from time to time demonstrating to me how even the buttons on the men’s suits needed to be sewn on in a special French style. I had not the slightest inkling of the source of all the phoney French equipment but it was incredibly comprehensive, even down to French matches and Gauloise cigarettes.”

[End of excerpt]

Evangeline Bell, a diplomat’s daughter, fluent in French, worked on the French desk in London, processing OSS agents for the field:

“It was our job to transform ordinary Americans into Dutch long­shoremen, French factory workers, even a member of the Nazi SS police. One mistake, and our people could be executed. Their lives depended upon what they wore or carried, either manufactured by us or collected from refugees who had fled occupied Europe. If I was outfitting a French farmer, I looked for patched blue work clothes, heavy hand-knitted socks, sabots, a beret. Even his buttons were sewn with parallel threading rather than in the American cross-stitch style . . .

“Stamps were important. People couldn’t move around occupied areas without proper identification. Stamps had to fit an agent’s cover story and his credentials. He needed permits to own a bicycle, for food rations, or travel orders. C&D [Cover and Documentation] even had a facility for dirtying up French franc notes, always in small denominations, such as a French farmer would stuff in his shoes. Sometimes, women in C&D were asked to wear the notes in their brassieres to soften them. Agents were instructed how to smoke French cigarettes, right down to the stub. One agent had been spotted by an alert Gestapo guard because he tossed away a half-smoked cigarette, something no frugal French paysan would ever do . . .”

[End of excerpt]

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective regarding the means whereby everyday situations are defined is of relevance with regard to the work of secret agents. An overview of Goffman’s analysis of everyday interactions, and the role of impression management in the maintenance of such interactions, is available at a previous post:

Erving Goffman began his graduate work in Chicago in 1945


A Nov. 20, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions.”

One can add, regarding the above-noted update, that a number of relatively recent historical accounts underline that the Nazi nuclear project never got off the ground, for reasons that have to do with Nazi planning decisions; the Allied efforts at foiling the ambitions were not, in fact, in this case the decisive factor.


2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Women of Intelligence (2012)

    Women of intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos (2012)

    A summary of the book at the Toronto Public Library website notes:

    Women of Intelligence is a fascinating exploration of the secret war work carried out by women, including Churchill’s daughter, during World War II. This book includes many previously unpublished photographs and entertaining interviews. During World War II an ornate Victorian mansion, overlooking the River Thames at Medmenham, in Buckinghamshire, was the Headquarters of the Allied Central Interpretation Unit. It was here that the air photography, obtained by reconnaissance aircraft flying over the whole of enemy and occupied Europe, was analyzed by Photographic Interpreters: the Intelligence produced from their reports influenced virtually every Allied operation planned and carried out during the war. An analytical mind, curiosity, the ability to search for clues, and recognize the unusual were essential qualities for the Interpreters and found in men and women from scientific and artistic backgrounds. Women made up half of the work force, as every aspect of enemy activity was watched and analyzed. The Women of Intelligence explores the wartime life and work of the women of Medmenham – in their own words.”

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    RAF Medmenham had features of an academic institution

    In Item No. 2 above, which refers to SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 (2014), I have posted text that deals with recruitment methods for the Special Operations Executive.

    In Women of Intelligence (2012) the topic of recruitment is also addressed (p. 92) and is of interest:

    “It has often been noted that RAF Medmenham resembled more of an academic institution than a military establishment, with men and women recruited from widely diverse civilian occupa­tions. The early, informal recruitment for the RAF of suitable, academically qualified colleagues at Wembley was successful and was formalised under Wing Commander Hamshaw Thomas at Medmenham. The WAAF selection system was also successful in picking out potential women PIs [Photographic Interpreters], and not only the obvious choices with qualifications and experience in photography, archae­ology, art and geography. Historians and English graduates were also among those recruited, as were the women who had shown at a selection board that they looked at and examined a subject in depth, seeing more than the superficial view.

    “Although the comprehensive collection of men and women working alongside each other at Medmenham were experts in the widest variety of specialist subjects, all had a common char­acteristic: none took things at their face value and all questioned whatever they saw on the photographs. Searching for clues under the stereoscope, examining something unusual and then following it up until the answer was found became second nature to them. From 1940, as soon as WAAF regulations allowed, women were employed on the same work as men and were recog­nised as being equally capable. They were given responsibility for decision making in all aspects of intelligence production at Medmenham.”


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *