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The Heroines of Soe: F Section: Britain's Secret Women in France Paperback – 1 Dec 2012
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"Tells the story of some women whose deeds are not usually detailed . . . an absorbing read . . . a fine book which adds much to the literature of one of the most intriguing aspects of the Second World War." --"History Times"
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The book concentrates upon the female members of F (French) Section of SOE. Each member is given her own (short) chapter providing brief antecedents, how the individual came to the notice of SOE, her training and deployment.
It's at this point in each narrative where the reader would do well to have some knowledge of SOE and F Section in particular because the story can easily become confusing. With the multiplicity of names for 'circuits' and sub-circuits, the names of individuals within them (including code-names and aliases), the way that members were swapped between circuits or they re-allocated themselves, it may become confusing to a reader who has no previous knowledge of SOE's modus operandi.
The author's style is a bit clunky at times and while this is a fine effort to draw all the female F Section members into one volume there is much necessary repetition in many chapters because few stories don't touch upon that of another, some indeed having a common tragic ending.
The content isn't without a few simple errors that wider research might have avoided. However, none of these really detract from the overall effect and nothing can undermine the respect due to these courageous women, nor their right to have their stories told without the usual romanticised nonsense that movie-makers feel unable to avoid. In that respect, the author has succeeded and I commend this effort to bring the stories of many remarkable women together in one volume - a task not made easy by the paucity of available information due to official secrecy and the modesty of the women themselves.
It is also good to see that many of the photos of the women are not the ones most often published, a detail that I found particularly welcome.
There were far fewer women than men employed by SOE and mostly as radio operators or couriers; a few rose to lead a Group of agents. Most had some familial or marital connection with France and a good command of the language. A knowledge of the country's geography and customs would be useful as was the ability not to draw undue attention to their presence. Essentially, they had to merge into the background and not all achieved it.
All agents, regardless of gender, would receive similar training which would include use of several weapons, self defense, radio technique, coding and decoding and, almost always, parachute training as most were to be dropped. Some may also receive sabotage training. Although some of the SOE men had been seconded from a military unit, all of the women were civilians although they may as a pretext be given a uniformed military rank either in FANY (nursing) or as a WAAF or WAAC (mostly as ambulance drivers).
Women were considered better for some roles than were men. They may be better able to detract undue German attention by a smile or use of their guile and there were places where women were thought to be less obvious or cause for suspicion. A job in a dress shop, hairdresser, beautician or something of that nature could be a good cover.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that, in the event of capture, a female agent would be treated as severely as would a male and their fate could be the same. Consequently, several female agents were killed in the field at their radio or in action and several more in concentration camps. The stories of Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo are probably two of the best known from this group; Odette survived the war but Violette did not.
"The Heroines of SOE: F Section: Britain's Secret Women in France" by Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott is the story of those women. Although Canadian by birth, she joined the WAAF in 1961 and rose through its ranks. She has written several books, specifically about the WAAF and through its sideways association, in this instance, also SOE. Unfortunately, she is not that good a writer and may not provide the best opportunity that her subject deserves.
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