By Patricia McBride
Mention spies and most people will think of James Bond or Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, but most people would struggle to name some notable female spies—apart perhaps from Mata Hari—yet they have always existed. In fact, female spies were some of the most important women during World War 2, subverting the enemy and collecting vital intelligence for Allied forces. Women like:
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1906, Virginia Hall attended schools in Germany, France and Austria, becoming multi-lingual. She planned a diplomatic career and was working in the American embassy in Warsaw when a hunting accident led to the amputation of one leg, dashing her career hopes. Undeterred, she joined the British Special Operations Executive. Her work for them in France and Spain led to her being awarded the M.B.E., or Member of the British Empire.
Early in 1944, she joined the London branch of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and was sent to France. She was urged to use facial disguises by the OSS, but had another idea: she turned herself into an old woman. With her long skirts hid her wooden leg—code name “Cuthbert”—it was the ideal disguise; no one thought twice about an elderly woman limping and using a walking stick. Eventually, the Germans got wind of her, and Virginia became a prominent member on their most wanted list. Posters showing a very accurate drawing of her face were displayed throughout German occupied Europe, but she was never recognised.
By day she was an elderly rural woman roaming about the countryside, but by night, she contacted the resistance in France and performed vital work for the war effort. She mapped drop zones for supplies, found safe houses for escaping airmen, helped train three resistance until the Allies took over her group in September 1944.
She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross a year later—the only female civilian to receive this honor. She died, aged 76, in Rockville, Maryland.
To learn more about Virginia Hall’s role in World War 2, read our full story online.
Amy Elizabeth Thorpe
If Virginia Hall’s story could fill a novel, Amy Thorpe’s would fill a trilogy (and a racy one at that).
Born in Minneapolis in 1910, Amy was reputed to be one of the most successful spies of her time. She married Joseph Pack, a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in 1934, but their marriage was always shaky, and both had extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, she followed him on his diplomatic postings, where she made useful contacts, gaining information and making links with the British Special Operations Executive and the OSS.
Before moving to Washington, she already had espionage experience in the Spanish Civil War, possibly working for both sides. She helped smuggle rebel Nationalists to safety, coordinated the evacuation of British Embassy staff, and transported Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces. Her activities stopped when she was denounced as a Republican spy, reputedly by a jealous woman.
In 1941, when living in Washington, the British asked her to access the naval codes of the collaborationist French Vichy Government. She achieved this by developing a relationship with Charles Brousse, a married man and an aide to the Vichy Ambassador. In a story worthy of Hollywood, they entered the embassy, drugged a guard and his dog, stripped naked to convince another guard they were using the embassy to conduct an affair (he backed away in embarrassment), and thus bought time to let in an OSS safecracker. He photographed the books, and returned them to the safe. The team’s success in stealing the codes is believed to have helped the Allies conquer North Africa.
Mrs. Brousse knew Amy well and treated her as a close family friend. However, when she found out about the affair, she divorced her husband. Amy married Charles Brousse after the war and they lived in a medieval French chateau. She died aged 53 at Castelnou, France.
Born in Eastern Europe in 1914, Barbara Lauwers became a junior lawyer and journalist, and moved to America with her husband in 1941. Within hours of becoming an American citizen in 1943, she joined the U.S. army and was quickly assigned to the OSS.
She was sent to Italy following the arrival of the Allied armies, and quickly became involved in Operation Sauerkraut. She interviewed prisoners to identify Czech dissidents who would be willing to cross the front line and distribute propaganda to damage troops’ morale. Using Czech and Slovak typewriters borrowed from the Vatican, she produced thousands of leaflets urging readers to ‘Shed this German yoke of shame, cross over to the partisans!’ Within a week, more than six hundred Czech soldiers crossed over to the Allies. Many carried Barbara’s leaflets.
As part of this program, she invented the ‘League of Lonely Women,’ aimed to convince German soldiers that their wives and girlfriends were being unfaithful to them. To this end, they used propaganda material to inform soldiers that if they wore a paper heart pinned to their lapel, a member of the League would offer him ‘companionship’. It was so believable that a U.S. newspaper ran a story about the scheme, believing it to be true.
On April 6, 1945, Lauwers was awarded the Bronze Star for her part in Operation Sauerkraut.
When she and her husband reunited after the war, they found they had grown apart and divorced. She later married a Polish Aristocrat, and died aged 95 in 2009.
Patricia McBride is a freelance journalist living in Cambridge, England. She is interested in social history and particularly in women’s history. She is also a travel writer and author of several self-help books and one novel.