Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of

Natasha sheldon - June 1, 2017

Women are often the forgotten heroes of the 20th century’s two World Wars. Unable to fight directly, they were left to mind the home fires, going about their daily lives or involved in auxiliary work.

But it was their position at home that made them best placed to resist and sabotage enemy actions. Women were able to do many of the things men could not. They collected and passed on information as they went about their ordinary lives, largely invisible.

Some of these women trained to infiltrate society to spy and resist the enemy. Others took up the challenge by accident, from a strong desire to do their bit. All showed bravery and determination equal to any male combatant.

Many were caught, tortured and often died in horrible circumstances. But with very few exceptions, their names are not well known. Here are just ten of those names.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Louise Thuliez. Google Images

Louise Thuliez

Louise Thuliez was one of the most prominent resistance figures in France during the First World War. She worked in partnership with Edith Cavell; the British nurse executed by the German’s for spying and was arrested at the same time. Louise only escaped Cavell’s fate because she was a catholic, saved by the intervention of the Pope and King of Spain.

Thuliez was born in 1881 on the French border with Belgium. Initially, she trained as a teacher. But with the outbreak of war, she turned to nursing. When six wounded British soldiers were left behind in her village, Thuliez broke into a deserted bakery to make some bread for the men. When challenged by her neighbors, she insisted their first priority was to feed the troops that were trying to help them.

When the German’s took the village, Thuliez saved the soldiers by hanging a makeshift Red Cross flag out of her window. When no effort was made to remove the men, she moved them to the house of a local nobleman. The men were then given civilian clothes and smuggled back to the front.

So began Thuliez’s venture organizing escape routes out of France into the Netherlands and Britain. In 1915, she had made contact with Edith Cavell and began to use the British nurse’s Brussels nursing home as a waypoint for her escaping soldiers. Often she traveled to Brussels with the men-and because of this she was caught and tried at the same time as Cavell in 1915.

Like Cavell, Thuliez was sentenced to death. But on 27 October 1915, she was granted a reprieve when the Spanish Ambassador intervened on her behalf. Louise’s life was spared. She was transported to Germany where she remained for the rest of the war.

Thuliez was to resume her resistance work during the Second World War. Again she survived, dying of old age in 1966.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Louise de Bettignies. Google Images

Louise de Bettignies

Louise Marie Jeanne Henriette de Bettignies came from a privileged French background. In 1898, at the age of 18, she left home to study in England to improve her English before returning to France to graduate from the University of Lille in 1903. De Bettignies then worked as a tutor for various prominent families in Europe, only declining a position in the household of Ferdinand Joseph, the heir to the Austrian Empire because of ill health.

Her skills as a linguist were to serve her in good stead during the war, as not only was Louise fluent in English but she also spoke German. In October 1914, Lille was under bombardment and de Bettignies worked to supply food and ammunition for the defenders of the city, as well as dictating letters home from dying German soldiers to their families.

But after the German’s took Lille, de Bettignies became “the Queen of Spies“, Her frail appearance helped deflect attention from her as she began to work for both the British army and M16 under the pseudonym of ‘Alice Dubois’, providing Intel about the German occupied zones of Belgium and northern France.

During its nine months of operation in 1915, de Bettignies’ network saved the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers- and supplied vital information- such as alerting the British to the location of a train carrying the German Kaiser, which they attempted unsuccessfully to derail.

On 20 October 1915 de Bettignies was arrested near Tournai, and sentenced to death in Brussels in 1916. Her sentence was commuted to hard labor. But after 3 years incarceration, her poor health betrayed her and she died in September 1918 of pleural abscesses. She was buried in Lille and posthumously awarded the Cross-of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre and the British Military medal and made an officer of the British Empire.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Marthe Cnockaert. Google Images

Marthe Cnockaert

Marthe Cnockaert was training to be a nurse at the University of Ghent when World War One broke out. The war left her family devastated and fractured when the invading Germans destroyed their home and village. Left alone and separated from her family, Cnockaert used her medical training and ability to speak English and German to gain a job in the local German military hospital. Her work with the patients was so appreciated; the invaders awarded her the Iron Cross.

But in 1915, Cnockaert was transferred to another hospital in Roulers. Here, she was reunited with her family and friends. It was one of these friends, Lucelle Deldonck who recruited Cnockaert as a British agent.

Using her medical work as a cover, Cnockaert gathered military evidence to pass onto the British. She did this by meeting her contacts in the local church. But soon, her German lodger was trying to recruit her to spy for the Germans! To cover herself, Marthe agreed, passing on false information for a time. But eventually, she could not maintain her double life anymore and so freed herself from this obligation by organizing the death of her lodger.

She was betrayed by her own carelessness. While laying explosives in a cellar, Cnockaert left behind her watch-which was engraved with her name. She was sentenced to death in 1916-but here her iron cross saved her. Her sentence was commuted to seven years hard labor. She served two years before her premature release at the end of the war.

After the war, Cnockaert married a British army officer and became a spy novelist, as well as recording her wartime adventures in her memoir “I was a spy”.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Lise Borsum. Google Images

Lise Børsum

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Milly Elise Borsum, generally known, as ‘Lise’ was just the wife of wealthy Norwegian doctor Ragnar Borsum. But the German invasion expanded her life in a way she could never have imagined. In 1942, Lise and her husband became an active part of a network that smuggled Jews out of the Nazi-occupied Norway to the safety of Sweden.

The wealthy and influential Borsums used their home as a base for the network, often using piano concerts as a cover for their activities. But in 1943, both were arrested. Ragnar Borsum managed to escape. But Lise was held in prison for a year before being shipped off to Germany and Ravensbruck Concentration camp.

The Swedish Red Cross liberated Lise in 1945. But she had changed and could not settle back into her old life of domesticity. In 1949, she and Ragnar divorced, divided by their wartime experiences. But by this time, Lise had already established herself as a writer and activist.

She began to write about her experiences in the camps. “Prisoner in Ravensbruck” was published in 1946, followed by “Reflections” in 1947. Lise served on the National Council Fund to help victims of the war. She was also part of a commission to root out and destroy concentration camps across the globe. In 1951, she highlighted their continuation by publishing another book, this time on Soviet camps. She continued her work until her death in 1985.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Hannie Schaft. Google Images

Hannie Schaft

Born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in 1920, in Haarlem, northern Holland, from an early age, Hannie, as she was known, had a keen interest in politics and social justice.

She decided to study law at university. But then the Nazi’s invaded the Netherlands. Horrified at the treatment of Jews, Hannie began her first acts of resistance while still at university, stealing ID cards for her Jewish friends.

She was forced to abandon her studies when she refused to sign the oath of loyalty to Germany. After her expulsion from the university, she joined a communist resistance organization Raad van Verzet or “The Council of Resistance”.

Hannie became a saboteur and assassin. She killed Germans, Dutch Nazis, collaborators, and traitors. But she refused to kill indiscriminately. She declined to be involved in the kidnap of the children of a Nazi official because she knew they would have been killed if the plot failed.

Finally, she was spotted during one of her assassinations, standing out because of her flaming red hair. “The Girl with the Red Hair” as she became known was now the Nazi’s most wanted woman. When they finally found out her real name, they were able to take action.

Unable to capture Hannie, the Nazis instead arrested her parents and sent them to the Vught concentration camp in an attempt to force her to give herself up. It almost worked. Such was her distress, Hannie gave up resistance work for a time. But when her parents were released, Hannie dyed her hair black and began work again

She was arrested in March 1945, distributing illegal newspapers at a German checkpoint. Initially, the Germans did not realize who they had captured because of her dyed hair. But they realized her identity as her roots began to grow out in prison.

After torture and interrogation, Hannie was taken to the Bloemendaal dunes and shot on 17 April 1945-three weeks before the end of the war. She showed remarkable courage to the end. When the first shot merely wounded her, Hannie taunted the marksman that she was a better shot. The second shot, however, met its mark. She was reburied with honors after the end of the war.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. Google Images

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was a talented student, fond of history and literature who dreamt of studying at Leningrad University. Then the war came, or more specifically, the invasion of Russia by Germany-despite a non-aggression pact signed by Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

So, in October 1941, Zoya gave up her studies in Moscow to volunteered as a guerilla fighter in the Red Army Western Front Sabotage and Reconnaissance Force. She was trained to go behind enemy lines to cut off German supplies and set land mines.

On November 27, 1941, Zoya and her group were dispatched to the village of Petrisheva. The village was offering shelter to Nazi officers and the team’s mission was simple: burn the village down.

The reattempt failed, the team’s leader was captured and killed and so the mission was aborted. But Zoya decided to return alone, by night and complete the firing of Petrisheva. She was caught by some of the villagers and handed over to the Nazis.

All night, the Nazis tortured Zoya. She was stripped naked and made to walk for hours in the fridged winter air. At the same time, she was whipped. But she did not crack or give any information about her group.

So in the morning, she was hung, with a sign saying ‘arsonist’ hung around her neck. In her last speech, she told her executioners:

“You hang me now but I am not alone. There are 200 million of us. You won’t hang everybody. I shall be avenged. Soldiers! Surrender before it is too late. Victory will be ours.”

Her body was left in place for a month.

Zoya had just turned 18 when she died. She was posthumously declared a Hero of the Soviet Union-the first woman to receive the honor in the Second World War.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Sophie and Hans Scholl. Google Images

Sophie Scholl

Not everyone in Germany accepted Nazi rule. Sophie Scholl was one of them. Her first inklings about the injustice of the Nazi regime began after she joined the League of German Girls at age 12. Although she enjoyed the games and was quickly promoted to squad leader, Sophie complained about her Jewish friends being barred from the league.

As war broke out, Sophie left secondary school and began auxiliary war work as a nursery teacher. But in 1942, she enrolled at Munich University to study philosophy and biology. It was here her resistance activities took off.

Sophie and her brother Hans were friends with Christoph Probst, the founder of The White Rose movement, an anti-Nazis protest group. Sophie’s boyfriend was posted to the eastern front and she was shocked by his reports of the conditions of the troops as well as the war crimes being committed by the officers. So, surreptitiously she and her friends began to denounce the Nazis.

They began with a leafleting campaign that called upon the German people to rise up: “Nothing is so unworthy of a nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by a clique that has yielded to base instinct” read once of the messages “…Western civilization must defend itself against fascism and offer passive resistance, before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield.”

The message spread around Germany-the first and the only widespread act of defiance against the Nazis. Sophie, Hans, and Christoph were identified by the Gestapo, tried and executed for treason.

Sophie’s met her death bravely. Her last words were: How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if, through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Gertrude Boyarski in 1938. Google Images

Gertrude Boyarski

Born in 1922 in Derechin, Poland, Jewish teenager Gertrude Boyarski enjoyed a normal life with her family-until the German’s invaded. They were then incarcerated in the local ghetto-until on July 24, 1942, the Nazis began a massacre of 3000 Jews. Gertrude’s family, who lived close to the entrance, managed to escape and join partisans in the forest.

But the resistance took their toll and over the next few months, Gertrude watched as every member of her family died before her eyes while resisting the Nazis. Alone, Gertrude went to look for a group that would take on a female combatant. She finally met with a Russian partisan group who were willing to do so. The commanding officer was initially unwilling to take on a woman but when Gertrude told him: “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family,” he agreed to test her resolve.

Gertrude was left alone on guard duty for two weeks. Situated in the forest a mile from the partisans’ camp, she had nothing but a gun to protect her. Although afraid, she did not give in. Gertrude passed the initiation and lived and fought with the group for 3 years.

Gertrude was true to her word about her revenge. She helped burn down bridges, impeding the German movement of people and supplies. Despite being fired upon by German soldiers while firing a bridge, Gertrude and her companion helped it along by tossing pieces of the burning bridge into the river.

Gertrude married a fellow partisan after the war and moved to the United States.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Andree Borrel. Google Images

Andree Borrel

Andree Borrel was always a rebel. Born in the working-class Paris suburbs in 1919, she had enjoyed boisterous, outdoor activities. But after the German invasion of France, her courage really came into its own.

Andree initially trained as a nurse’s aid. But she used her work as a cover for transporting allied airmen, agents and escaping Jews along an underground railway to Spain. When the network was discovered in 1940, Andree fled to Portugal and then onto England where she volunteered for the SOE.

In 1942, she was one of the first female agents parachuted into France to spy. After making her way to Paris, Andree joined the local resistance network where she was tasked to deliver messages and train and organize members. So impressive was she that by March 1943, 24-year-old Andree was its second in command. In the following month, the group committed 63 acts of sabotage, derailing trains and killing 43 Germans.

Andree was caught on the June 23, 1943 when she and 3 other members were found attacking a power station. Interrogation did not break her. So, one month before D-day, Andree and three other female spies were shipped off to the Natzeiler-Struthof concentration camp.

Natzeiler-Struthof was an all male camp and the only concentration camp on French soil. Andree and her companions were sent there so they would disappear without a trace- part of the ‘Nacht und Nabel” (night and fog) directive. But some of the male prisoners witnessed their arrival. One Brian Townhouse, an artist, knew Andree personally and recognized her at once.

Andree and the other female agents were immediately given a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Andree was pronounced dead and her body stripped for cremation.

But the injection had not killed her. Just before she was placed in the oven, she regained consciousness and attempted to fight off the doctors. They eventually overpowered her-and cremated her alive.

Fearless Females: 10 Resistance Fighters from World War I & II You Might Not heard of
Krystyna Skarbek. Google Images

Krystyna Skarbek

Maria Krystyna Skarbek was born in Warsaw in 1908, the daughter of a polish count and the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Her family had a long and distinguished history of service to Poland. This was deeply instilled in Krystyna-and during the war she was able to carry on in the tradition of her aristocratic ancestors.

Krystyna and her husband were living in Africa at the outbreak of war. They swiftly decamped to Britain in an attempt to join the war effort. Krystyna was accepted as a spy for the British and sent back to Poland via neutral Hungary. This involved her crossing the freezing Tatra Mountains.

Once in Poland, Krystyna contacted important agents and resistance movements to lay the ground work for her reconnaissance work for the British. She also smuggled polish airmen to neutral Yugoslavia.

In 1941, she was captured. Quick thinking Krystyna bit her tongue to make it bleed, before coughing and pretending to bring up blood. She told her captors she had TB. They x rayed her. Scars on her lungs, the result of emissions in an auto shop she had once worked above, backed up her claim. Convinced she was too seriously ill to take part in resistance activities, Krystyna was freed. She escaped to England-but returned to southern France in 1944.

Such was Krystyna’s fame, she was apparently the inspiration for the character of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royal. Yet after the war, she sank into deliberate obscurity. Granted British Citizenship, she drifted through a series of mundane jobs- until she made the headlines again when a colleague on the cruise ship she was working on stabbed her to death in 1952.