D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Crown; 1st Edition (April 23, 2019)
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
With D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose has provided us with a valuable service not only in terms of setting the historical record straight for the women of the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), but for the history of the treatment of women in general even when they gave their countries the very finest in the way of self-sacrifice, courage, and heroism.
The stories of three women saboteurs , in particular, demonstrate just what skilled and brave women contributed during the occupation of France by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945. We are told about scrappy Andrée Borrel, a demolitions expert eluding the Gestapo while blowing up the infrastructure the occupying German army relied on. The "Queen" of the S.O.E. was Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent Parisian who lost everything due to her wartime service. And there was my favorite heroine of the bunch, Odette Sansom, who saw S.O.E. service as a means to lead a more meaningful life away from an unhappy marriage. While she finds love with a fellow agent named Peter Churchill, she ended up being a two year prisoner, horribly tortured by the Germans. These women, along with their compatriots both male and female, helped lay the groundwork for D-Day by innumerable acts of sabotage, orchestrated prison breaks, and the gathering of intelligence for the allied war effort.
But D-Day Girls has a much deeper and wider canvas that three biographies. The stories of the three spies are painted against a detailed backdrop that includes the policy-making of the Allies leadership, how the chiefs of the S.O.E. came to involve women in their behind-the-lines operations, and how the changes in the war effort shaped what the various operatives were and were unable to accomplish. We learn about their training, the reactions of male superiors to the use of women at all, the bungles as well as the successes, the very human dramas the women became involved in, the competition between the various intelligence agencies, how the spy networks were unraveled by the successful Nazi infiltration, and the very vivid settings from which the women operated. We learn about the costly mistakes some operatives performed, the lack of following the procedures they were taught, and the process of getting the materials and new agents parachuted in from RAF planes.
Rose is able to avoid a dry retelling of all these events with almost a novelist's descriptive eye. For example, she doesn't merely tell us about an explosion resulting from a well-place bomb--she gives us a sensory breakdown of what happened moment by moment, second by second in color, smell, and sound. She doesn't merely tell us about the black parachute drops, but how they took place out in the quiet French countryside.
It's difficult to lay this book down as we revisit often forgotten corners of World War II history with often fresh perspectives. Many revelations are only possible now that many formerly classified documents have been brought to light and many misogynist points-of-view have been replaced by what actually happened.
In many ways, the tales of what happened to these women after the war ended are the saddest passages in the book. Because they were not part of any official military service, they were denied the full recognition and appreciation they deserved. Even though they had been indispensable during the war, after VE day they were relegated to the second-class status of women everywhere. There's more than one lesson in all that.
So readers who love spy stories, those interested in World War II, devotees of women's studies, and those focused on D-Day celebrations this year shouldn't be the only audience D-Day Girls should enjoy. It's a wonderfully vivid and descriptive multi-layered account that should engage any reader who likes well-written non-fiction.
Note: I'm aware that this year, a related book, Madame Foucade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Larges Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson was also published. It's on my summer reading list as well. Spy buffs, stay tuned--
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on July 1, 2019: