The World War II movie is a cinema staple that isn’t going away any time soon. There’s something about the period that really resonates. Maybe it’s in seeing the extremes of humanity, the suffering, the heroism, or even just the cool airplanes. But as dope as those movies are, there are so many little-known stories and people whose lives were more fascinating than any film, and heroes who have never gotten their due, especially the women. And so, here are World War II’s most badass female spies!
1. Vera Atkins
Vera Atkins was not just a spy, but a spymaster. A Romanian Jew, she first spied for the British as a civilian, and then as a flight officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She recruited and deployed spies in occupied France and is widely regarded as the inspiration for the character of Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series. After the war, Atkins tracked down all but one of the 118 missing spies she was responsible for, found out what happened to them, and helped bring their killers to justice.
2. Krystyna Skarbek
Krystyna Skarbek was a Polish Jew living in London when the war broke out. She denied entry into the British secret service because of her gender, and so she offered British intelligence a deal that if they let her in, she would ski into Nazi-occupied Poland to deliver British propaganda. She organized a system of passing intelligence from Warsaw to Budapest while sabotaging German communication. Once, Skarbek even convinced the Gestapo to release her by biting her tongue bloody to feign the symptoms of tuberculosis. In 1944, she parachuted into France and went undercover, using her perfect French to pose as a local while organizing resistance forces.
3. Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake was a wealthy Australian woman living in France who decided at the beginning of the war that she just had to help out. She bought an ambulance (even though her driving skills were terrible) before becoming the leader of a guerrilla resistance group in southern France, a gun runner, and a resistance recruiter. One time she even killed a Nazi with her bare hands.
4. Pearl Witherington Cornioley
Pearl Witherington Cornioley was English-French and worked for the British government helping the French underground. She was the best shot to ever go through the training program and during the war, she lived in the woods, organizing drops of supplies and munitions to the Maquis resistance fighters. Witherington commanded a group of fighters that took on the Germans around the time of D-Day, killing 1,000 Nazis and pressuring 18,000 to surrender. After the war, she was offered a civil defense medal, since she was ineligible for a military medal on account of her gender. She turned it down, saying there was “nothing civil” about what she did during the war.
5. Virginia Hall
Virginia Hall was an American with one foot who worked as a spy in France under the guise of employment with the New York Post. She helped smuggle out prisoners and smuggle in supplies, in addition to training resistance forces to fight guerrilla warfare. After the war, she became one of the CIA’s first female agents.
6. Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was an Indian-American Muslim who volunteered for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was recruited for special operations thanks to her fluent French and wireless operation skills. By 1943, Khan was the last remaining wireless operator in Paris, the only person transmitting secret intel back to the British. She was the most wanted British agent in Paris and had to keep moving her location every twenty minutes while transmitting to evade capture. She was sold out by a double agent working with the Nazis, arrested, and interrogated for a month, during which time she attempted to escape twice. She refused to cooperate with the Nazis and was taken to Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed on September 13, 1944, never having given up any information.
And this is only scratching the surface — there were many more incredible female spies who helped save the world from the evils of Hitler. Which one of these women’s stories do you think should be made into a movie first? Tweet at me and let me know @erikaheidewald!