Susan Travers was a woman born into privilege, but she did not let it define her. She grew up to wealthy but unhappy parents until she was saved by an aunt who gave her the money to become a semi-professional tennis player and travel Europe. When she was 30 years old, war broke out and she did not hesitate to join the French Red Cross as a nurse. She was given the job of being an ambulance driver in Finland as part of the French Expeditionary Force. When Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, she left Finland and made her way to England.
In England, she joined the Free French Forces. By 1941, she became the chauffeur for the medical officer of the French Foreign Legion during the Syrian campaign. The legionnaires began calling her “la Miss.” She was willing to go whenever the Free French Foreign Legion went, including North Africa and the Congo. In 1942 her unit was sent to the fort of Bir Hakeim.
In May, the situation at Bir Hakeim turned dire when the Axis powers began attacking the fort. They surrounded the entire fort with minefields and panzer forces, hoping to wait out the Allies within. When the Allies started running low on water and ammunition, it was decided by Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig to break out of the fort under the cover of darkness. Susan Travers led the escape driving Koeing’s car, not stopping even after an exploded mine revealed the escape. When they finally reached the British front line, the car was riddled with bullets but most of the convoy made it to safety by following her path through the mines.
Travers continued working as driver and nurse throughout the rest of the war. When the war ended, she decided to become an official member of the French Foreign Legion. Women had never before been allowed in the legion, but she deliberately left her sex off the form and her application was accepted, making her the first woman in the French Foreign Legion.
Nadezhda Popova was born in 1921 in Russia and she grew up in Ukraine. At a young age she became fascinated with aviation and joined a gliding school when she was 15. When she turned 16, she completed her first parachute jump and her first solo flight. Her parents were opposed to her new passion, but she continued to pursue it anyway. She went on to the Kherson flight school where she graduated at the age of 18 and then became an instructor.
Popova felt that her skills would be useful to the military, and she tried to join as a pilot but the government barred women from combat. In October of 1941, the need for pilots was great and Stalin ordered that three regiments of female pilots to be formed. Popova joined up and was trained to be a military pilot.
She was put into a night bombing regiment that only flew at night because they were only given 1920s vintage Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes which were comprised of fabric stretched over plywood frames. The planes had no guns or parachutes and only had a weight limit that allowed for two bombs at a time. This meant that the planes would go on several runs a night. One night Popova did as many as 18.
Popova and the other women became known by the Germans as “Night Witches” because they were seemingly invisible, and their planes made a whooshing sound “like a witch’s broomstick in the night.” She continued to rise through the ranks, flying 852 missions throughout the course of the war. She was shot down more than once but never suffered serious injuries. During a relief mission to drop supplies she returned with a plane that was full of bullet holes, including in her map and helmet. After the war, she returned home to a hero’s welcome, and resumed her job as a flight instructor. She lived to be 91 years old.
At the beginning of World War II, women were not allowed to join the Russian Army, but as time passed and the need for soldiers to stop the German offensive grew, women became eligible to the draft. Natalia Peshkova was one of the women who ended up drafted into the Russian Army when she was just 17. She trained with weapons that rarely worked as part of a unit that was poorly supplied. At one point a horse ate one of her boots as she slept. Her unit was so poorly equipped that she was forced to go without a boot for an entire month. Her unit was also poorly fed with little more than pea flour and a piece of horse sausage as her daily ration.
Despite this, she did everything she could to protect and help soldiers that were wounded on the front lines as a combat medic. She was trained to protect wounded soldiers from the front and get them safely to hospitals. While she was trained to apply first aid, her main duty was always to remove wounded men from the front line.
She herself was wounded three times for her efforts. But Peshkova had strength and determination that was unmatched, and she kept returning to the front. Once she found herself behind enemy lines when the Germans took over territory that had been held by the Soviets. Peshkova was completely separated from her unit, and in order to get past the German forces she had to disguise herself. Her disguise was hampered by the fact that she had to hide her gun within it because, despite the poor quality of the gun, she would have been executed for losing her weapon.
Peshkova made it back to her unit and survived three years on the front lines. She rose through the ranks to become Sergeant Major, and was then given political education duties that finally relived her from life on the front lines. She was awarded the Order of the Red Star for Bravery.
Flora Sandes was born in 1876 in Britain and grew up as a tomboy. When Word War I broke out, she immediately volunteered to be a nurse, but was rejected due to her lack of qualifications. So instead she joined a St. John Ambulance unit and left England for Serbia to provide humanitarian aid in August 1914.
She joined the Serbian Red Cross, and began working in an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment. When she became separated from her unit, she decided it would be to her benefit to join the Serbian Army. Sandes felt it offered her greater protection, and it had the added benefit of food rations. She rose through the ranks and became a Corporal.
She was involved in a Serbian advance on Bitola in 1916 and became seriously wounded by a grenade in hand-to-hand combat during the advance. For her valor and bravery, she was promoted to Sergeant Major and given the Order of the Karadorde’s Star, the highest decoration of the Serbian military. Her wounds prevented her from returning to active combat so she spent the rest of the war in charge of a hospital. That same year, 1916, she published an autobiography to try and raise money for the Serbian Army.
When the war ended, she became the first woman in the Serbian military to be commissioned as an officer, and she was demobilized in 1922. She was married and living in Serbia when World War II, broke out and she was recalled to service to protect Yugoslavia. However, the invasion was over before she even began her military duties. She was briefly imprisoned by the Germans before being released on parole. After the war, she returned to England where she lived until her death in 1956.
Krystyna Skarbek was born in Poland and managed to get to England after her country fell to the Germans in World War II. She wasted no time in volunteering to be a spy, and even offered up a plan for her first mission. She wanted to go to Hungary where she would print propaganda flyers, and then ski through the mountains into Poland to distribute the flyers. Once in Poland she planned to run intelligence missions and aid the Polish resistance in getting out their homeland.
The British Special Operations Executive approved the plan and she left for Budapest in December 1939. Her plan was successful and she managed to get into Warsaw. She followed through with her plan of aiding the resistance and conducting intelligence missions. She became so successful that there were large posters in every train station in Poland offering a reward for her capture. As her work with the SOE continued, she changed her name to Christine Granville to protect her identity. In 1941 she was captured by the Gestapo, but she convinced them she had tuberculosis by biting her tongue hard enough that she coughed up blood.
She was released and made it to SOE headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. For a period of time, she was suspected of being a double agent and was removed from duty until she was cleared by an investigation. The SOE decided that it was too dangerous to send her back to Poland or Hungary, despite her willingness to return.
In 1944 she parachuted into France to assist the French resistance. She worked with linking Italian partisans and the French resistance for joint missions. At one point, she was stopped at the Italian border by German guards. When they told her to put her hands up she did so and revealed a grenade under each arm, with the pins withdrawn. She threatened to drop the grenades, and the German guards fled. Another one of her famous exploits was to convince a Gestapo liaison to release three British prisoners who were set to be executed in exchange for 2 million francs.
Princess Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was born in 1914 and was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century leader of the Kingdom of Mysore. Her father was a noble Indian Muslim man who lived in Europe and worked as musician and teacher. Prior to World War II, she attended school and made a career for herself writing poetry and children’s stories in France. After the fall of France she fled with her family to England in June 1940.
Inayat was a pacifist and wanted to stop the Nazis, so she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in November 1940. She was trained as a wireless operator and then assigned to a bomber training school in 1941. She was eventually recruited into the F Section of the Special Operations Executive. But her training was never completed, as her superiors were unsure if she was suitable for espionage.
Inayat spoke French and was trained in wireless operation. There was a shortage of trained agents so she was flown into France in June 1943. Khan traveled to Paris and joined the Physician network. Just a month and a half after she had joined, all other radio operators in the network were arrested along with hundreds of other resistance members. With the dangers facing her, Khan was offered passage back to Britain but she refused, staying behind as the only wireless operator still working in Paris.
She managed to avoid capture even with wireless detection vans constantly following her, and she became the most wanted British agent in Paris. She was arrested in October 1943 after being betrayed by someone in the organization. She attempted to escape the next month, after which she was sent to Pforzheim, Germany, where she was kept shackled for 10 months. Despite being beaten and starved, Inayat never revealed any information, and was executed at Dachau on September 13, 1944.
Jannetje Johanna Schaft was born in 1920 in Haarlem and was a student in Amsterdam when Holland capitulated to the Germans in 1940. While still studying, she began committing little acts of resistance against the Germans. She started off going to swimming baths in order to steal identity cards which she could then distribute to her Jewish friends. Then she graduated to stealing weapons from the Germans and distributing pamphlets.
Eventually all university students were required to sign declarations of allegiance to the Germans in order to continue with their studies and Schaft refused. Unable to stay at school she moved back to live with her parents and decided to increase her involvement with the resistance. In 1943 she joined the communist resistance group Raad van Verzet. She started off gathering information and helping fugitives but soon her role within the group increased. She started going by the name of Hannie Schaft during this time.
She got a reputation for being willing to undertake missions that were considered too dangerous for women. Schaft took part in sabotage, weapon transports, and the liquidation of collaborators. She even learned German and would interact with German soldiers during her missions. Her reputation within the resistance and among the Germans grew and she found herself wanted by the Gestapo. The Germans knew her only as “the girl with the red hair” until her true name was revealed to the Germans by a captured resistance member.
To continue working with the resistance and to avoid capture, she started dying her hair black and wearing large glasses. As the war progressed her resistance efforts only grew until her capture in March 1945. The resistance made several plans to rescue her but none were successful. She was held in Amsterdam with the Germans having no clue to her identity, until her red roots began to grow out. Upon realizing they had “the girl with the red hair,” her captors executed her.
Ruby Bradley was a woman who never gave up and never stopped doing what she could to protect soldiers. She joined the United States Army Nurse Corps in 1934 and was at Camp John Hay in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked. A mere three weeks later she was captured by the Japanese Army.
In 1943 she was moved to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. She was housed with several other nurses, all of whom became known as Angels in Fatigues for the work they did to save their fellow captives. She was able to provide medical help to the prisoners in the POW camp and would even give up her meagre rations to feed starving children that she saw around the camp.
Her weight dropped drastically, which helped her to be able to smuggle medical supplies into the POW camp under her uniform. It was with this equipment that she performed 230 operations and delivered 13 children. On February 3, 1945, the camp was liberated and Bradley, weighing only 86 pounds, was rescued. Despite her ordeal, she continued her career in the army and earned her Bachelor of Science degree.
During the Korean War, she served as Chief Nurse for the 171st Evacuation Hospital. In November 1950, she refused to evacuate until every one of the sick and wounded in the hospital were on the plane to safety. She was the last person to evacuate, jumping onto the plane just before her ambulance was hit with an enemy shell. For her bravery and determination, she was made Chief Nurse for the Eighth Army. In 1958, she was made a colonel and became one of the most decorated women in the United States military earning 34 decorations, medals and awards. She retired in 1963, and died in 2002.
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was born in the Soviet Union in 1923 in the village of Osino-Gay. In 1930 her family moved to Moscow. She was known to be an avid reader with a flair for literature. She was just 18 when she joined a partisan unit in October of 1941. She was assigned to unit 9903, which operated on the Western Front.
She was one of 1,000 people who joined the 9903 that month, and only half made it home after the war. Some of her first assignments were at the village of Obukhovo, near Naro-Fominsk. It was there that she crossed the front line and officially entered territory that was occupied by the Nazis. Kosmodemyanskaya and her unit placed mines on roads and cut communication lines. But her time with the 9903 was short lived as she received her last orders on November 27, 1943.
She was assigned to burn the village of Petrischevo. A German cavalry unit was stationed there and the 9903 hoped to stop them. She succeeded in setting fire to the stables and several houses before she was noticed by a villager who alerted the Germans. She returned to her unit victorious but when she went back the next day to burn more buildings, the Germans were waiting for her. They brutally tortured her throughout the night, but she never revealed any information about her unit or their operation.
The next day the 18-year-old was marched into the town with a sign that read “Houseburner.” The Germans ordered the villagers to witness the scene and as a noose was placed around her neck. She remained defiant, telling the Germans she was not afraid to die and that 2 million Russians were ready to avenge her. Her body was left hanging for weeks and was defiled by German soldiers before she was finally buried on New Years Day in 1942.