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Real Women Spies

The Heroines Behind The Debt’s Rachel Singer

Rachel Singer

In John Madden’s thriller THE DEBT, Jessica Chastain plays Rachel Singer, a female Mossad agent sent along with two male agents in the 1960s to bring to justice a Nazi war criminal hiding out in East Berlin. While the men (played by Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) put her to the test, Singer easily proves to be as quick-witted and fast-acting as the men. While female spies haven’t captured the popular imagination or been publicly acknowledged as much as their male counterparts, their contributions have nevertheless changed history. Here we pay tribute to the real female spies, many of whom gave their lives for their countries and causes.

Mata Hari

Arguably the most famous female spy of all time, Mata Hari has left a historical record which is as mysterious and devious as she herself was in real life. Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, Mata Hari hardly seemed destined for fame. After growing up in a middle-class family, she married a man (whom she met through a newspaper advertisement) who proved to be a violent alcoholic. After divorcing him, she moved to Paris in 1905, beginning a career (under the stage name Mata Hari) as a circus performer and exotic dancer. Within a decade, she had become notorious as an erotic fixation among the rich and famous. When World War I broke out, she moved freely through Europe, since the Netherlands remained politically neutral. But the British and French suspected of her being a German agent, and on February 3, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested at her hotel in Paris. Although authorities could never find any definitive evidence against her, her reputation condemned her. She wrote, “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else.” Nevertheless, the charges stuck and she was executed at the age of 41 on October 15, 1917. After her execution, her legend grew, as did the rumors and stories surrounding her life.

Denise Bloch

Denise Bloch; Nicole Stéphane as Denise Bloch in CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE

Sometime between January and February of 1945, Denise Bloch, along with Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo, was shot to death at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Bloch was only 29 years old, but had already played a crucial role in helping the Allied forces recapture France. Raised in Paris in a Jewish family, she began her covert life soon after the Nazis invaded France, as she was forced to move from house to house to avoid detection. Fearing the Gestapo’s increased scrutiny, Bloch’s family moved to Southern France. It was there that Denise, along with her brothers, started working with the resistance forces, eventually taking on the role of radio transmitter. Assigned to a series of rag-tag organizations, Bloch found herself sent to Spain, where the British Consul took her under his wing. Bloch was shipped to England to train with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organization formed by Churchill to conduct guerilla warfare in Europe. Bloch returned to France in 1944 to handle secret communications for the resistance in Nantes under the command of Captain Robert Benoist, a wealthy racecar driver who’d become a spy. Their most important mission was to disrupt telephone communications out of Nantes right before D-Day. On June 19, soon after the Allied forces had successfully landed in France, the Nazis captured Bloch when they raided an estate where she was holed up. It is suspected that she and her fellow resistance fighters who were captured at the same time were betrayed by someone within their organization. Bloch was sent to several forced labor camps before being dispatched to Ravensbrück, where she was killed and cremated. Denise Bloch (played by Nicole Stéphane) appeared in Lewis Gilbert’s 1958 CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE, a docudrama about Violette Szabo and the other women of the SOE.

Mathilde Carré

The story of Mathilde Carré, code-named “The Cat,” is one of the most fascinating tales of wartime espionage. A Sorbonne-educated teacher living in Algiers, Carré moved back to Paris after her husband was killed early in World War II. It was in Paris that she met the Polish agent Roman Cherniawski, who persuaded her to join his “Réseau Interallie” espionage network. Her charming manner and, some say, great legs earned her the code name “La Chatte” and helped her easily persuade German officers stationed in Paris to reveal tactical military information to her. In 1941, she was betrayed, after which she was arrested and tortured by German forces. A German intelligence agent, Hugo Bleicher, eventually turned her, using her to betray the Interaille network. Depending on whose story you believe, either Bleicher sent Carré to London to infiltrate British intelligence forces or Carré convinced the German to send her so she could escape. In any case, she was arrested by the British on July 1, 1942 and sent to prison. After the war, the French put her on trial, labeling her a “green-eyed monster.” At the trial, the prosecution turned Carré’s words against her when they read from her own diary: "What I wanted most was a good meal, a man, and, once more, Mozart's Requiem." Despite being defended by her wartime commander, Paul Archard, Carré was sentenced to death on 7 January, 1949. Three months later, the sentence was commuted to 20 years in jail.

Suzanne Spaak

René Magritte’s portrait of Suzanne Spaak

The daughter of a wealthy Belgian banking family, Suzanne Spaak married the dramatist and statesman Claude Spaak. The cultured couple moved to Paris, becoming pivotal figures in society and the arts. Indeed in 1936, Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted her portrait. But after the Nazis invaded Paris, Spaak’s life completely changed. Unable to ignore the atrocities she saw daily on the street, she decided to act. Jewish commentator B. Aronson later wrote, “Spaak belonged to the category of idealists for whom their private lives and personal needs cease to exist the moment a great idea comes to possess their soul and heart.” She first joined an underground group, the National Movement Against Racism. Although the French Resistance had few positions for women, Spaak exclaimed, “Tell me what to do so I’ll know that I am serving in the struggle against Nazism.” And she did anything and everything, from typing and distributing flyers to seeking out Parisian doctors to treat Jewish children. Later, as a member of the communist network Red Orchestra, Spaak focused on saving Jewish families, often hiding them at her own home. In 1942, German forces, after picking up radio transmissions by the Red Orchestra, arrested and tortured its members. Within a few months, they had launched a major sweep, arresting nearly 600 people, including Spaak. On August 12, 1944, just days before the Allied forces liberated Paris, Spaak was executed. In 1985, Israel commemorated her life by elevating her to one of the “Righteous among the Nations."

Nancy Wake

Perhaps no female spy was as glamorous as Nancy Wake, whose story has been recounted in books, magazine articles, TV shows and a 1987 docudrama called TRUE COLORS. Born in New Zealand and raised in Sydney, Australia, Wake was a woman out to shape her own fate from the very start. At 16, she made her way to London, then to Paris, where she worked as freelance journalist. In 1936, she met Henri Fiocca, a rich industrialist from Marseilles whom she would eventually marry. Soon after the Nazis invaded France, Wake used her journalistic credentials as a cover to serve as a courier for the French Resistance. But by 1943, the Gestapo, which had nicknamed her “The White Mouse” for her ability to elude them, put out a 5 million-franc price on her head. While she was able to escape to England, her husband was caught and executed. In London, she became part of Special Operations Executive, the special force founded by Churchill to train and assist the French Resistance. In April 1944, she was parachuted into France to help coordinate the mayhem and distraction that the Allies needed to make D-Day possible. In the resistance, Wake was soon a legend.  She was a beautiful woman who, on the one hand, arranged for the Allies to parachute in silk stockings and Elizabeth Arden face cream, and, other hand, killed a Nazi guard with her own hands. In one of her more daring exploits, Wake rode a bike for over 72 hours, covering more than 300 miles and many Nazi road blocks, in order to get new key codes to radio operators. One of her French collaborators summed her up: “She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts — then she is like five men.” On August 7, 2011, Wake died at the age of 98. She requested her ashes be scattered over central France, the place she helped liberate so many years before.

Violette Szabo

Born in France, Szabo (whose birth name was Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell) moved to London with her family as a child. In 1940, she met her husband, Etienne Szabo (a French soldier of Hungarian descent), there. But when he was killed two years later, Violette decided to use her French ancestry to help fight the Nazis. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) parachuted her into an area near Cherbourg in April 1944, organizing local fighters to bomb railways and radio back to London the locations of weapons factories. In June 1944, Szabo returned again to France, this time in the Limoges area, where she worked to disrupt German communications after the Normandy landings. It was on this mission that Nazis agents, after a fierce gun battle, captured her. After being interrogated and tortured in Limoges, she was transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was executed alongside Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, and Lilian Rolfe in February, 1945. She was only 23 years old when she died. Her daughter, Tania Szabo, kept her mother’s memory alive with her memoir, Young Brave and Beautiful. She was also remembered in R. J. Minney's Carve Her Name With Pride, which was adapted into a film in 1958 with Virginia McKenna playing Violette. In 2009, the Replay Studios’ video game Velvet Assassin included the character Violette Summers, modeled after Szabo.

Virginia Hall

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir by Jeffrey W. Bass, Oil on Canvas, 2006

At the height of her spy career, Virginia Hall, codenamed “Artemis” by the Nazis, was a major thorn in the side of the German occupational forces. On “Wanted” fliers, the Gestapo proclaimed, “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France…We must find and destroy her." Hall’s limp came from a hunting accident suffered in Turkey in 1932 when she shot herself in the leg and had to be outfitted with a wooden leg. Born in Maryland and educated at Radcliffe College, Hall planned a brilliant career for herself in the diplomatic service -- until she lost her leg, that is. But a limp barely slowed her down. With the war approaching, she remained on the front line of action, either driving ambulances or working as a correspondent for the New York Post. In 1944, after she joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), she was sent on undercover missions to France. There, in addition to providing crucial military information, she trained three battalions of resistance fighters. After the war, President Truman awarded her the Army's second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross. While she accepted the medal, she refused any further attention with the no-nonsense reply: "Still operational and most anxious to get busy." Her story was recounted in Judith L. Pearson’s The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy.

Madeleine Damerment

As a young girl in Lille, Madeleine Damerment started working with the resistance soon after the fall of France to the Nazis. The daughter of the local postmaster, she helped downed British airmen escape out of France. After the network she worked with betrayed her, she escaped to England, where she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). But her spy career proved short-lived when, after she and other agents parachuted into France close to Chartres, the Gestapos picked her up. It turned out that her team had been previously betrayed. After being tortured and interrogated by Gestapo agents in Paris, she was transferred Karlsruhe, then to Dachau, where she was executed on September 13, 1944.

Princess Stephanie Julianna von Hohenlohe

While many women spied against the Nazis, there were also a few female Nazi spies. Perhaps the most famous was Princess Stephanie Julianna von Hohenlohe, an Austrian who was ironically of Jewish descent. In her 20s, after an indiscreet affair with Emperor Franz Joseph I’s son-in-law, Stephanie was married off to a German prince from the Hohenlohe house to save the court embarrassment. Since it was a marriage of convenience, she divorced a few years later. During the 1920s, Princess Stephanie used her title to mix with the rich and powerful throughout Europe, including leading Nazi officials. Indeed, despite her Jewish heritage, she became such a close friend of Hitler that in 1938 a MI6 report claimed, "She is frequently summoned by the Führer who appreciates her intelligence and good advice. She is perhaps the only woman who can exercise any influence on him." In this unique position between high society and the German high command, Princess Stephanie was often tapped to deliver secret messages between the Nazis and British aristocrats sympathetic to their cause. She was most famous for helping pave the way for the visits between Edward, Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, and Hitler. In 1937, she moved to San Francisco to continue an affair with Fritz Wiedemann, the German Consul-General there. Even though the affair ended, Princess Stephanie stayed in the United States. American security was so fearful of her activity that after Pearl Harbor she was arrested and interned at a facility in Philadelphia until after the war. Only subsequently was it revealed that she was assisting the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) construct a psychological profile of Hitler.

Krystyna Skarbek

A few female spies have inspired books and films, but Krystyna Skarbek, a friend of Ian Fleming, is said to have inspired James Bond’s spy love interests in From Russia to Love and Casino Royale. Born into a prosperous Polish family, whose ancestors included Frédéric Chopin, Skarbek grew up as a tomboy renowned for her skill at skiing. In 1938, she married Jerzy Giżycki, who soon after took the position of Poland’s consul general in Ethiopia. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the couple escaped to England. Skarbek pushed the British to use her unique skills against the Germans. She set herself up in Hungary, where she organized secret couriers in and out of Poland, often skiing herself across the mountains. At one point when she was captured by the Gestapo, she escaped by biting her tongue till it bled, and then pretending she was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. After escaping, she was sent to Cairo and finally France, where her exploits became legendary. She gained particular renown for single-handedly masterminding the escape of a captured British operative by walking into the prison, pretending to be General Bernard Montgomery’s niece and threatening retribution if the prison guards didn’t help her. Despite such great feats of courage, Krystyna Skarbek (who was now officially going by her code name, Christine Granville) was cut loose and left to her own devices after the war, traveling the world. It was subsequently reported that she carried on a year-long affair with Ian Fleming. In 1952, she took on work on a cruise ship, where she meet the Irish steward George Muldowney. After being rejected by Granville, Muldowney tracked her down and murdered her with a knife outside of a London hotel on September 30, 1952.

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