MHM rounds up the most daring and decorated female agents in history.
5. Mata Hari
CODE NAME: H-21
ALLEGIANCE: Germany (allegedly)
The exotic pursuits of Margaretha Geertruida ‘Margreet’ Zelle MacLeod – better known by her stage-name Mata Hari – remain something of a mystery. A Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, she was accused by the French of being a spy for Germany during the First World War. She toured Europe with her acts, developing intimate relationships with high-profile politicians and military top brass. This attracted the suspicions of the French, who saw her border-hopping and promiscuity as indications of espionage. When French intelligence intercepted messages detailing the helpful activities of a German spy, codenamed H-21, France immediately identified Mata Hari as that spy. She was executed on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.
4. Belle Boyd
CODE NAME: None
Aged 17, Maria Isabella ‘Belle’ Boyd was put under house arrest after shooting an inebriated Union soldier whom she claimed had insulted her mother. It was following this event that she decided to become a spy for the Confederates. She used her charm and beauty to extract secrets even from one of the Unionist sentries under whose charge she was being imprisoned. She was arrested twice more in her career, but was later awarded the Southern Cross of Honour and the positions of captain and aide-de-camp by Stonewall Jackson.
3. Virginia Hall
CODE NAMES: Diane, Marie Monin, Germaine, Marie of Lyon, Camille, Nicolas
ALLEGIANCE: USA, UK, Free French Forces
Before joining SOE and working in occupied France, Hall had been pursuing a diplomatic career when she accidentally shot herself in the foot. Her leg had to be amputated from the knee down. The affliction would lead the French to nickname her la dame qui boite (‘the limping lady’), the name under which she was listed on the Gestapo’s mostwanted list. She was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943, before returning to France. Codenamed ‘Diane’, she eluded the Gestapo, contacted the French Resistance in central France, mapped drop zones for English commandos, and located safe houses.
2. Noor Inayat Khan
CODE NAMES: Nora Baker, Madeleine, Jeanne-Marie Rennier
ALLEGIANCE: UK, France
Khan joined SOE in 1939 to support the French Resistance. The first female radio operator Britain sent into occupied France, she was betrayed to the Germans, and arrested in 1943. During her month-long interrogation, she gave nothing away. As a result of her violent attempts to resist arrest, she was transferred to Dachau. On the morning of 11 September 1944, 30-year-old Khan was executed by a shot to the back of the head.
1. Violette Szabó
CODE NAME: Louise
ALLEGIANCE: UK, France
Szabó took part in two intelligence-gathering missions in 1944. She was fluent in French and had served in the Auxiliary Transport Service, qualities which no doubt brought her to the attention of SOE. During the second of her missions, she was captured at a roadblock after apparently putting up fierce resistance with her Sten gun. She was taken to Gestapo headquarters for interrogation and torture by the Sicherheitsdienst, who had learned of her activities as an SOE agent. After being moved around from prison camp to prison camp, boosting the morale of her fellow inmates, and enduring violence, malnutrition, and forced labour, Szabó was executed, aged 23, on 5 February 1945. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Croix de guerre avec étoile de bronze and Médaille de la Résistance.
This article appeared in issue 45 of Military History Monthly.