The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business

Khalid Elhassan - October 19, 2020

History’s greatest conflict, the Second World War saw its fair share of women taking part in and participating in the shaping of events. From support roles at the home front, to serving on the front lines or even behind enemy lines, following are thirty-five things about some of the women of WWII.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Princess Noor’s father, Inayat Khan. Pintrest

35. One of WWII’s Most Interesting Women Was a Muslim Princess Who Was Secretly Inserted Into German-occupied France to Spy on the Nazis

One of the most remarkable women of WWII, Princess Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in 1914 into an unusual family. Her father Inayat Khan was a Sufi Master and Muslim noble, descended from the royal family of eighteenth-century Indian monarch Tipu Sultan. He earned his living as a musician and teacher of Sufism. Noor’s mother, Pirani Ameena Begum, was born Ora Ray Baker, an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The couple met in New York City, but when her guardian forbade her from seeing Inayat, Noor’s mother sailed to London and married him there.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Princess Noor’s mother, Pirani Ameena Begum. Sufi Movement Russia

When Noor was still an infant, her parents left Moscow for London, where they lived during WWI. After the war, they relocated to France. Growing up, Noor was described as sensitive, shy, quiet, and dreamy. Nothing about her indicated that one day she would secretly infiltrate into German-occupied France during WWII as a member of the Special Operations Executive – a clandestine organization tasked by Winston Churchill with “setting Europe ablaze!

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Princess Noor Inayat Khan with a veena. Medium

34. From Pacifist Musician and Author of Children’s Stories, to Warrior Princess

Princess Noor Inayat Khan studied music at the Paris Conservatory, becoming an accomplished harpist and pianist, as well as a virtuoso on the veena – a stringed Indian musical instrument. She also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. Noor also became an accomplished poet, wrote children’s stories, was regularly featured in children’s magazines, and was frequently heard on French radio. She did all that before she was 25-years-old.

When the Nazis overran France in 1940, Noor and her family fled to Britain. Although raised as a pacifist, she and her younger brother Vilayat decided to set their pacifism aside to fight Nazism. In November 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, and began training as a wireless operator. It was mind-numbingly tedious work, so to relieve the boredom, she applied for a commission in 1941, in the hopes of getting a more interesting assignment. She would get an extremely interesting assignment.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Noor Inayat Khan. Wales Online

33. From an Auxiliary Outfit for Women, to the Special Operations Executive

Noor Inayat Khan’s requests for a more challenging assignment did not escape the attention of British intelligence. Having grown up in France and being fluent in French, she was quite a catch. Noor was recruited by the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and in early 1943, was sent to receive special training as a wireless operator behind enemy lines.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Noor Inayat Khan in British uniform. Second World War Experience

Other SOE women had been sent to France before Noor. However, the Muslim princess was the first of the SOE’s women infiltrate into France as a wireless operator – the other women sent before she had all been couriers. Noor’s job was to maintain a link between the Resistance in France, and the Allies in London, sending and receiving messages to coordinate activities.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
A B Mk II receiver and transmitter, also known as the B2 Radio Set, of the type Noor Inayat Khan was trained to operate. Wikimedia

32. Few Men or Women Could a Handle a Job as Dangerous as That of Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan’s mission as a clandestine wireless operator in Nazi-occupied France was extremely dangerous work. It grew ever more dangerous as the war progressed and the Germans’ ability to detect transmissions rapidly improved. Clandestine wireless operators had to hide as best they could, stringing up aerials disguised as clothes drying lines in attics, and tapping out messages in Morse code. They would then have to wait, sometimes for hours, for a reply, or at least an acknowledgment that their message had been received.

German signal vans were on constant patrol, hoping to pick up and triangulate the location of clandestine transmissions. Staying on air for too long risked leading the Germans straight to the wireless operator. So operators had to constantly relocate, as inconspicuously as they could – no small feat back in the days when transmitters were bulky contraptions that filled a suitcase. In 1943, when Noor accepted her assignment, the life expectancy of a clandestine wireless operator in Nazi territory was just six weeks.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
A Westland Lysander, used to infiltrate SOE agents such as Noor Inayat Khan into German-occupied Europe at night. Wikimedia

31. Infiltrating Into Nazi-Occupied France in the Dead of Night

On the night of June 16-17, 1943, Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan, codenamed Madeline and using the fake identity Jeanne-Marie Regnier, boarded a black-painted Westland Lysander. It flew her and two other women, also SOE agents, to a clandestine airfield in German-occupied France. There, they were met by French SOE agent Henri Dericourt, who coordinated air operations between Britain and clandestine networks on the ground in France.

Dericourt’s service with the SOE was controversial. After the war, he was accused of having been a double agent working for the Sicherheitdienst (SD), the intelligence arm of the Nazi SS, and betraying SOE agents and French Resistance members to the Germans. He was tried on the charges, and was acquitted, but suspicions lingered and surrounded him to his dying day. They included suspicions of having betrayed Noor Inayat Khan.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Noor Inayat Khan. New York Times

30. Betrayed Into the Nazis’ Clutches

Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan survived for longer than the average six weeks life expectancy of clandestine wireless operators in Nazi-occupied France. She arrived in mid-June, 1943, and lasted for nearly four months, before she was arrested by the SD on October 13th, 1943. She was betrayed to the Germans either by Henri Dericourt, or a female agent named Renee Garry, driven by jealousy because her love interest was attracted to Noor.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Memorial bust of Noor Inayat Khan in Gordon Square Gardens, London. Wikimedia

Captured documents the Germans to mount a counter-intelligence operation that nabbed three more SOE agents. Noor escaped her imprisonment twice, but was recaptured. After the second attempt, she was classified as a “dangerous prisoner”, and was kept in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet in shackles. Despite harsh conditions and harsher interrogations, Noor refused to give the Nazis anything. After ten months of cruel confinement, she was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp, where she was brutally beaten by an SS officer, before she was shot to death on September 13th, 1944. Her last words according to an inmate who witnessed her death were “Liberte“. After the war, she was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Bea Arthur. People Who Served

29. The Golden Girl Who Was a WWII US Marine

Just like the men of WWII – most of whom never saw combat – most women who served in that conflict did so in ways less dramatic than those of Noor Inayat Khan. One such was Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009), the comedian, actress, and singer whose rich entertainment career spanned seven decades. During that time, she became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude. She became even more famous as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. A lesser-known fact about Bea Arthur is that she had been among the women who served in uniform during WWII. Before becoming famous, Bea Arthur had been a WWII US Marine.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Bea Arthur in a scene from The Golden Girls. The Mary Sue

Bea attended a girls’ boarding school where she was the tallest girl in school, and was also voted “wittiest girl” by her classmates. She became an avid participant in drama programs and theatrical productions. Entertaining her friends with imitations of Mae West, she dreamt of a career in show business but did not think that her parents would support her dreams.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Bea Arthur’s US Marines enlistment photo. National WWII Museum

28. Fittingly, the Tough as Nails Dorothy Zbornak Had Been a Tough as Nails WWII US Marine Sergeant

Throughout her life, Bea Arthur downplayed her WWII contributions. She denied having served, and steered questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more during the war. However, the documentary record shows that she had, indeed, been among the women who served during WWII. In 1943, aged 21, she enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. Working as a typist and truck driver, she moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant, before her honorable discharge in 1945.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Bea Arthur in the US Marine Corps. Imgur

While serving in the Marines during the war, she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur, whose last name she took. The marriage was short-lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense character would probably nod their heads at how apt it is that Maud or Dorothy Zbornak had been a US Marine sergeant.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Roza Shanina. Imgur

27. Roza Shanina Walked 120 Miles to Attend College, Before Enlisting in the Red Army

In 1924, Roza Georgiyevna Shanina, one of the Red Army’s deadliest women, was born in a Russian village near the Arctic Circle, one of half a dozen children of a milkmaid mother and a logger father. She was determined to better herself, so at age fourteen, against her parents’ wishes, the teenaged Roza walked about 120 miles through the Taiga to the nearest rail station. From there, she caught a train to the nearest city, Arkhangelsk, so she could attend college.

Roza graduated from college in 1942, as the Soviet Union was reeling from the recent Nazi onslaught. She tried to enlist, but was repeatedly rejected. In 1943, the authorities finally relented, and allowed her to join a sniper school. That was bad news for the Nazis.

You May Interested too: Legendary Snipers of World War II.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Red Army sniper Roza Shanina, left. Rare Historical Photos

26. One of the Red Army’s Deadliest Women

Roza Shanina was assigned to a sniper platoon in the spring of 1944, and by early April, she had killed her first German. That first dead Nazi unnerved her, but before long, she was knocking off Germans with as much detachment as if they had been tin cans on a fence. During a five-day stretch, Roza shot dead 13 Germans while under near-constant artillery and machinegun fire. For that feat of bravery under fire, she was decorated with the Order of Glory.

By the summer of 1944, as her body count climbed, Roza Shanina became a national heroine, with her photo featured on the front pages of Soviet newspapers. By the end of August, 1944, she had killed 42 Nazis. She was killed in East Prussia in January of 1945, while trying to shield a wounded comrade with her body. By then, she had been credited with 59 confirmed kills.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Simone Segouin. Pintrest

25. The Teenaged Resistance Fighter Who Became a Media Sensation

In August, 1944, correspondent Jack Belden of Life Magazine met an interesting character when he entered the French town of Chartres: a gun-toting teenage girl who stood out from everybody around her. She was Simone Segouin, who went by the nome de guerre Nicole Minet. Belden ended up doing a story on Simone that made her a wartime celebrity. She was about to become one of the most famous women fighters of WWII.

Simone was born in 1925 into a poor peasant family near Chartres, about 55 miles from Paris. As the only girl among three brothers, she grew up knowing how to hold her own among men. In 1943, a local French Resistance leader killed a collaborator in the center of Charters, then fled. Moving about the countryside, he came in contact with the then-17-year-old Simone. Impressed by her poise, he recruited her into the Resistance as a courier.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Simone Segouin in 1944. Rare Historical Photos

24. An Inspiration to All Women With Guns

Simone Segouin learned how to operate a submachine gun, which became her signature weapon. She was also gradually brought up to speed on the activities of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, a combat alliance of militant communists and French nationalists. As a courier, Simone needed a bicycle to get about. However, she did not have a bicycle. So her first mission was to steal one from the Germans.

She did, and the liberated bicycle was repainted and became her personal reconnaissance vehicle. The improved mobility allowed her to more easily deliver messages and stake out targets. After demonstrating that she could take care of herself and not jeopardize others in dangerous situations, Simone was allowed to take part in hazardous combat missions. They included blowing up bridges, derailing trains, and killing or capturing Germans.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Simone Segouin posing for journalists in 1944. US National Archives

23. As if to Celebrate France’s Biggest National Holiday, Simone Segouin Killed Two Nazis on Bastille Day, 1944

On July 14th, 1944, on France national holiday, Bastille Day, Simone Segouin killed her first Nazi. Around five that morning, she lay in ambush in a roadside ditch, and when two Germans pedaled by in bicycles, she fired upon them with her submachine gun, killing both. She then went on the road, searched the bodies, collected their papers and weapons, and made her way alone through the woods, to deliver the haul to her Resistance hideout.

It came as no surprise to Simone’s comrades when she confessed to having enjoyed killing the detested occupiers. She was intensely patriotic, and was inspired by her father, a decorated WWI combat veteran. When first recruited into the Resistance, Simone had been asked if she felt uneasy about killing Germans. Her reply was pretty straightforward: “No. It would please me to kill Boche“. As she put it decades later, it was simple: “The Germans were our enemies – we were French“.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Simone Segouin during the fight to liberate Paris. Rare Historical Photos

22. This Teenage Girl Was Among the Women Who Fought to Liberate Paris From the Nazis

On August 23rd, 1944, Simone Segouin was with the Resistance fighters of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans when they helped liberate Charters. She took part in capturing 25 Germans, and shepherded them to POW cages. Simone and her comrades then linked up with the French 2nd Armored Division as it headed out to liberate Paris, and she was in the thick of the fighting that freed the French capital on August 25th.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
The mayor of Courville Sur-Eure greeting Simone Segouin at a ceremony naming a street in her honor. Daily Mail

For her performance, Simone was promoted to lieutenant, and was awarded a Croix de Guerre. After the war, she became a pediatric nurse, and in 2017, a street in Courville-sur-Eure, a small town near Charters in which she now lives, was named in her honor.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Red Army women snipers. Pintrest

21. No Country Has Ever Mobilized Women for War as Much as the USSR Did During WWII

Rosie the Riveter is rightly praised in America as a symbol of the contribution of women to the war effort, and as a harbinger of the growing presence of women in the workforce. However, America’s mobilization of women for the war was far exceeded by that of the Soviet Union, which made more extensive use of women in its war effort than any other WWII combatant.

In addition to employing women in armaments factories and in other roles contributing to the wartime economy, the Soviets inducted women into the Red Army. Not in auxiliary uniformed outfits, such as America’s WAVES, but directly into the Soviet military. During the war, over a million women served in the Red Army. While most of them performed support roles, such as supply, transportation, or medical care, roughly 100,000 Red Army women fought in the main battle line as snipers, tank crews, combat pilots, or straightforward frontline infantry.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Major Marina Raskova. Flickr

20. The Soviets Were Initially Reluctant to Use Women in Combat

The Soviet Union grew increasingly desperate in the days and months following Operation Barbarossa, the sudden German onslaught in the summer of 1941 that came within a hair’s breadth of crushing the communist state. The Soviets threw all they could lay their hands on against the invaders, in a desperate attempt to stop or at least slow down the Nazis. Yet, even in those dire times, the authorities were reluctant to use women in the front lines.

Women were initially barred from combat. However, after repeated appeals, most notably from Major Marina Raskova, who made the case directly to Stalin, permission was granted to form women into combat units. On October 8th, 1941, three female aviation units were formed, commanded by Raskova. They were consolidated into the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. They were more commonly known as The Night Witches.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
A Polikarpov Po-2, the type of plane flown by the Night Witches. Imgur

19. Forming Women Pilots Into “The Night Witches”

Overcoming and ignoring the skepticism of naysayers, enthusiastic young Soviet women flocked to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Many had lost family and loved ones to the Nazi invaders, and were itching for an opportunity to exact vengeance. Until then, they had only been allowed to contribute to the war effort in support roles. However, many had wanted to be – and knew that they could be if given the chance – pilots and gunners.

The volunteers were mostly in their early twenties, but some were as young as seventeen. Not only were the pilots in these squadrons women, but so were the ground staff and ground crews. They were determined to demonstrate that female pilots and female aerial squadrons could make a valuable contribution to the defense of the Motherland. By June, 1942, training and organization had been completed, and the Soviet female aviatrixes were ready for combat.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Night Witches in front of a Po-2. Flite Test

18. The Soviet Union’s Night Witches Take to the Air

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew in slow – and by the standards of WWII, antiquated – plywood and canvass Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, originally designed in the 1920s for flight training and crop dusting. Flying such old and unmilitary machines into combat during the daytime was suicide. However, if flown at night under the cover of darkness, it was possible for the obsolescent Po-2s to sting the enemy and survive.

On the night of June 28th, 1942, the 588th flew its first combat sortie, a strike against a German headquarters facility. The flimsy Po-2s could not carry much – only two light bombs, over a short distance. However, their airfields were close to the front lines, so there was enough time to fly, bomb, return to base, reload, and repeat. Sometimes, pilots of the 588th flew up to eighteen bombing missions during a single night.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Major Marina Raskova, commander of the Night Witches. Alamy

17. The Soviet Women Pilots Left Their Mark, Despite Flying Obsolete Airplanes

Although the airplane flown by the Night Witches, the Polikarpov Po-2, was slow and obsolete, that very obsolescence came with silver linings. For one, it was highly maneuverable. In the hands of a capable pilot, a Po-2 could perform jinks and dips and turns within a small radius, that the faster and more modern German airplanes sent to shoot them down – assuming they could find them in the first place at night – could not match.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
A Night Witch. Flite Test

The Po-2’s slow speed also had its advantages: its maximum speed was less than the stall speed of the Messerschmitt Me Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters. So if one of those enemy fighters tried to slow down enough to match the Po-2’s speed, it would stall and crash. Between that, the dark cloak of night, and the aforementioned maneuverability, German fighters found it extremely difficult to shoot down the women of the 588th.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
The Night Witches’ airplanes were greatly outmatched by those of the enemy, in both speed and maximum altitude. Wikimedia

16. The Night Witches Made the Most Out of Their Obsolescent Airplanes

The Polikarpov Po-2 planes flown by the Night Witches could only carry a light bombload – just two bombs, one under each wing. So the aviatrixes of the 588th often flew in relatively thick formations in order to make a dent. A typical mission often involved up to forty Po-2 airplanes, each with a pilot in front and a navigator in the back. Because of weight constraints, they almost never had any ammunition with which to defend themselves if attacked.

Because of their wood and canvass construction, the Po-2s did not show up on radar, and the distinctive sound of their engines was often the first warning Germans had that the raiders were near. The first planes usually went in as bait to attract the attention of German spotlights, whose illumination helped the raiders. They would then release flares to further illuminate the target, drop their bombs, turn around to make the short flight back to base to rearm, and fly another sortie.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
The Night Witches in formation. Wikimedia

15. The Women of the 588th Frayed the Nazis’ Nerve by Keeping Them Up at Night

The physical harm inflicted by the 588th bomber raids was probably exceeded by the psychological damage visited upon the enemy. The incessant raids throughout the night kept exhausted Nazis from getting adequate rest, and the fear of a random bomb falling on one at any moment further frayed nerves that were often already at the snapping point.

The Germans nicknamed the Soviet aviatrixes Nachtexen, or “Night Witches”. It was reportedly because the whooshing noise of their wooden planes – whose engines the women pilots sometimes cut off so they could quietly glide to their targets and increase the chances of surprise – sounded like a sweeping broom. So feared and hated were the Night Witches, that any German who downed one was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Night Witches of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. War History Online

14. The Women of the 588th Fought the Enemy and the Elements in the Air, and Sexual Harassment and Discrimination on the Ground

Braving bullets and frostbite in the air, while battling sexual harassment and skepticism on the ground, the women of the 588th soldiered on. Their commander, Marina Raskova, bucked them up with the Twelve Commandment of the Night Witches, the first of which was: “Be proud you are a woman“. Killing Nazis was their primary goal, but in their free time, the women did needlework, patchwork, decorated their airplanes, and danced.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Irina Sebrova, who flew 1008 missions during WWII. Wikimedia

Flying up to eighteen bombing missions a night, the 588th put up quite a record. One of their pilots, Irina Sebrova, flew over a thousand sorties. Collectively, the Night Witches flew over 30,000 combat sorties, during which they dropped over 3000 tons of bombs, and 26,000 incendiary munitions. Their last flight took place on May 4th, 1945, about forty miles from Berlin. However, despite being one of the most highly decorated Soviet Air Force units, the Night Witches were not included in the Victory Day Parade at the war’s end, because their Polikarpov planes were too slow and looked too old.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Truus Oversteegen, right, during WWII. Pintrest

13. The Teenage Girl Who Joined the Dutch Resistance at Age Sixteen

Dutch Resistance icon Truus Oversteegen was born into a left-wing working-class family, and grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. Her family actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees escape Nazi Germany to the safety of the Netherlands and beyond before the war.

In her youth, Truus grew accustomed to fugitives hiding in the Oversteegen household from Dutch police, who were likely to hand them to the Gestapo at the border. She was thus antifascist long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was fifteen years old. When she was sixteen, Truss joined the Dutch Resistance.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Truus Oversteegen. Jornal de Noticias

12. Truus Oversteegen Graduated Quickly from Distributing Leaflets to Blowing up Nazis

Truus Oversteegen started off her Dutch Resistance career by distributing leaflets and illegal newspapers, and offering assistance to fugitives from the occupiers. In 1941, following a massive Dutch workers’ strike to protest the deportation of Jews, the Nazis cracked down hard. That further radicalized Truus, and spurred her to join an armed partisan fighter cell that engaged in direct action against the Germans.

After receiving military training and learning how to operate a firearm, Truus’ early assignments included flirting with and seducing German soldiers, and leading them into the woods where they would be killed by her comrades. Before long, the teenager was shooting Germans herself, and rigging up bridges and railroad tracks with explosives for destruction.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Truus Oversteegen, second from left, and her younger sister Freddie, with Dutch Resistance comrades. Dagospia

11. Surviving the Tragedies, Hardships, and Betrayals of the Resistance

Life as an armed partisan would prove a difficult row to hoe, full of dangers and marked by tragedy as often as success. Early on, Truss Oversteegen was present at a failed rescue mission of Jewish children. It ended with the little fugitives caught in searchlights in an open field, where most were riddled with machinegun bullets. Before the war was over, many of her Resistance comrades were arrested and executed. Suspicion was rife that Truus’ and other left-wing cells had been deliberately betrayed by right-wing members of the Resistance, who were backward in the actual fight, but came forward at the hour of liberation to claim the lion’s share of the credit.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Truus Oversteegen in later years. Yad Vashem

Notwithstanding the setbacks and daily dangers, she courageously soldiered on and kept up the fight, evading capture despite a sizeable reward that was placed on her head. After the war, Truus Oversteegen put down her arms, and beating swords into ploughshares, raised a family and went on to make a name for herself as a respected artist and sculptress, and as a public speaker at war memorial services.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
SOE agent Odette Sansom and her daughters. Code Name Lise

10. Few Women of WWII Took Odette Sansom’s Path From Housewife Straight to Sneaking Into Nazi-Occupied Europe as a Spy

Many women actively participated in WWII in a variety of ways. However, few women followed the strange path of British housewife Odette Sansom, who went from raising her girls in bucolic England to sneaking into German-occupied France as a spy. In 1942, Odette Sansom, a housewife and mother of three in Somerset, England, heard a broadcast from the British Admiralty, appealing for photographs of the French coast. Odette had grown up in northern France and had some photos.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
SOE insignia. Pintrest

She sent the photos, but to the wrong address: the War Office, instead of the Admiralty. What she wrote attracted the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the same clandestine organization to which Noor Inayat Khan belonged, and they swiftly recruited her. Just a few months after first hearing that Admiralty broadcast, Odette was inserted into occupied France, as a member of an SOE cell. What followed were harrowing adventures, narrow escapes, romance, capture, torture by the Gestapo, and stints in concentration camps. By the time it was all over, Odette Sansom would become WWII’s most highly decorated spy – male or female.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Occupied France. Oradour

9. Navigating Through the French Resistance’s Internal Politics Was Tricky

When Odette Sansom first arrived in France, she was a bit of an oddity, as there were not that many women serving undercover with the SOE at the time. Her first mission was to arrange room and board for her SOE network’s radio operator, who had no ration card – a necessity at the time. She managed that and other early assignments, then things got complicated just a week after her arrival. In November, 1942, the Germans, reacted to the recent Allied landings in North Africa, by invading and occupying the nominally independent rump France, in which Odette operated.

Odette’s network had plenty of internal strife, and the new conditions made things worse. She was kept busy with her secret courier work between the SOE and various Resistance groups, while the network descended into chaos. That led to sloppy security work, which almost got Odette captured by the Germans during a failed attempt to arrange a clandestine night-time airplane landing.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
German military dogs. Digital Cosmonaut

8. Odette Sansom Fled a Nazi Trap, With German Guard Dogs Snapping at Her Heels

In late 1942, Odette was almost captured when a French Resistance contact, tasked with finding an out-of-the-way landing area, screwed up. The site was supposed to be suitable for the nighttime landing of a modified Hudson bomber, that was to airlift an SOE operative and four French generals back to Britain. Ineptly, the contact selected an airfield located about a thousand yards from a German antiaircraft battery.

A new landing site was selected, this one was an abandoned airfield about 500 miles away. After dodging Germans and collaborationist Vichy police, Odette and her party made it to the airfield, only to discover that the control tower and a nearby barracks were occupied by German troops. It was a trap, and the party was forced to scatter, with Germans hot on their tail. Odette crashed into bushes, with German dogs snapping at her heels. She plunged into an icy stream, and battled the freezing current to the other side, before she finally shook off the pursuit.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Odette Sansom. Foreign Policy

7. The Intrepid Spy Who Hid From the Nazis in a Nazi Brothel

Not long thereafter, Odette Sansom was acting as a courier between the SOE and a French Resistance higher up. The mission took longer than expected, and she ended up missing the last train back home. All hotels were booked, and the last thing Odette wanted was to get arrested for violating curfew, and risk a search that might reveal incriminating documents. So she hid in a brothel that catered exclusively to German soldiers, run by a madam sympathetic to the Resistance.

It was as safe a hideout as any, because such an establishment was the last place the authorities would expect to find an anti-Nazi. However, on that particular night, the brothel was raided by German military police looking for a deserter. To keep them from entering Odette’s room, the quick-thinking madam claimed that the room housed her niece, who was infected with highly contagious smallpox.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Women inmates in Ravensbruck concentration camp. The Telegraph

6. Odette Sansom Was Tortured by the Gestapo to Tell Them What She Knew, but Gave the Nazis Nothing

Odette Sansom was eventually tracked down and arrested by the dreaded Gestapo. She refused to disclose her secrets, so she was taken to Fresnes Prison outside Paris. There, the Gestapo brutally interrogated Odette over a dozen times, torturing her with red hot irons to her back, and yanking out all of her toenails. She screamed in agony, but insisted that she knew nothing.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Odette Sansom. Wikimedia

Eventually, the Nazis gave up on trying to squeeze information out of Odette, and sent her to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women. There, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, kept her on a starvation diet, and housed her in a punishment block cell, from which she could hear other prisoners being tortured. She survived, and testified against him and other prison Ravensbruck prison guards after the war. He was convicted and executed.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Odette Sansom with her George Cross. Pintrest

5. One of WWII’s Most Heroic Women, Odette Sansom Became that Conflict’s Most Decorated Spy

Odette Sansom was personally decorated by King George VI after the war, receiving awards such as Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and the George Cross (GC) – the highest non-military decoration for gallantry. Between those and French awards, such as the Legion d’Honneur, she became WWII’s most highly decorated spy.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Odette Sansom in old age. Amazon

Her adventures were depicted in the 1950 film Odette, in which she was depicted by Anna Neagle. She married an SOE operative with whom she had become romantically involved during the war, but it ended in divorce in 1956. She remarried to another SOE agent, with whom she remained until her death, in 1995.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Stella Kubler. Landesarchiv Berlin

4. Not All Women Who Participated in WWII Were Heroic Women

Not all women who took part in WWII did so honorably or selflessly. Just like men, there was no shortage of venal women who performed evil deeds during that conflict. One of the most venal might have been Stella Kubler (1922 – 1944), nee Goldschlag. Also known as “The Blond Ghost” and “Blond Poison”, Kubler was born and raised as the only child of an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, and was treated like a princess by overprotective parents.

Her family was well off, but not as affluent as other Jewish families whose children attended her school. That ate at and filled Stella with resentment against her wealthier peers. When an opportunity to came to retaliate against those with the audacity to have been wealthier than her, Stella grasped it with both hands. During WWII, she became infamous for collaborating with the Gestapo to track down and denounce Jews hiding from the Nazis.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Stella Kubler and two other Jew Catchers. Donna Deitch

3. Volunteering to Become a “Jew Catcher”

To evade the Nazi dragnet thrown to catch Jews, Stella Kubler went into hiding, using forged IDs listing her as Aryan. She was able to pull that off because of her blue-eyed and blond-haired Aryan appearance. However, she was denounced to the Gestapo four months later by a “Jew Catcher” – a Jew working for the Gestapo to find other Jews in hiding. Her boyfriend and later husband offered the Nazis his and Stella’s services, bragging that he could “assemble an entire train” of Jewish deportees. The Nazis accepted.

Soon, the couple were working together as Catchers, collecting 300 Reichsmarks for every Jew they turned in, and a promise to spare Stella’s parents. Having themselves lived in hiding, the couple had an instinct for where to look. Stella in particular, because she knew many of Berlin’s Jews from her years in a segregated Jewish school, was highly effective.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Auschwitz, where the Nazis sent Stella Kubler’s parents and husband. History

2. Stella Kubler Went Far Beyond Simply Delivering Other Jews to the Nazis

While the decision to become a Jew Catcher might not have been of her own free will, how Stella Kubler exercised what freedom of choice she had while working as a Catcher was entirely within her control. She pursued hidden Jews with tremendous zeal and inventiveness, and even after their arrest, when her job as a Catcher was presumably over, she enthusiastically participated in the beating, torture, and humiliation of the Jewish prisoners.

Despite her services, the Nazis broke their promises, and deported Stella’s parents to their death in a camp. Soon thereafter, in 1943, her husband and his family were also sent to Auschwitz. Stella then met and married her second husband, another Jew Catcher, and kept working enthusiastically for the Gestapo. Betting on a German victory, she obtained a promise from a high-ranking Gestapo official in 1944 that she would get declared an Aryan after the war.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Stella Kubler on trial. Spiegel

1. Few Women of WWII Were as Venal as Stella Kubler, Who Was Responsible for the Murder of Hundreds or Thousands

During her career as a Jew Catcher, Stella was responsible for the arrest and subsequent murder of hundreds of Jews. The total number of her victims ranged from at least 600 to possibly as high as 3000. They included many of her personal friends, former schoolmates and their families, and even some of her own relatives.

The Hardcore Women of World War II Knew How to Take Care of Business
Stella Kubler. Free Republic

After the war, she got off light. Captured by the Soviets, she was sentenced to only 10 years imprisonment. After her release, she moved to West Berlin, where she was tried again and sentenced to 10 years, but served none of them. She then converted to Christianity and became a lifelong antisemite until her death in 1994, when she committed suicide by jumping out the window of her Berlin apartment.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Basu, Shrabani – Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006)

BBC – Spy Princess and Lady Death: Eight Women of WW2

Daily Mail, August 29th, 2015 – The Hotpants Hotshot: Formidable Derring-do of the Nazi Hunting, Gun-Toting Pin Up Teen of the French Resistance

Foot, Michael Richard Daniell – SOE in France: A Comprehensive Look at the SOE in France During WW2 (2004)

Mighty History -The Teenage Girls Who Seduced and Killed Nazis

Imperial War Museum – Odette Sansom, GC

History – Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis by Night

History Collection – Women of Peace and Those Sided the Wrong of World War II

Loftis, Larry – Code Name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy (2019)

National WWII Museum – Bea Arthur, US Marine

Tovar, Diana, UC Santa Barbara – Stella: the Story of Stella Goldschlag

Vice, May 11th, 2016 – This 90 Year Old Lady Seduced and Killed Nazis as a Teenager

History Collection – 30 Vintage Photos That Will Change Your Perception of Women Factory Workers in WWII

Washington Post, September 8th, 2014 – Meet the Muslims Who Sacrificed Themselves to Save Jews and Fight the Nazis in World War II

Wikipedia – Night Witches

Wikipedia – Noor Inayat Khan

World War II Database – Roza Shanina

Wyden, Peter – Stella: One Woman’s True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler’s Germany (1993)

History Collection – Women In The First World War