The historical roles of women in combat during the Second World War have always interested me. When I started my research into the women who served their countries for my novel, The Paris Apartment, I was introduced early to the biographies and memoirs of women in combat on the Eastern European front, where the war had come to the cities and towns with unspeakable savagery and a shocking numbers of casualties for both civilians and soldiers.
From this horror emerged lethal snipers such as Klavdiya Kalugina, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, and Roza Shanina. Sergeant Mariya Oktyabrskaya was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest award for bravery during combat at the helm of her tank, and Stalin’s female air force pilots would fly over thirty-thousand combat sorties during the course of the war and produce the world’s only two female fighter aces, Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova.
Yet on the Western Front, where The Paris Apartment is set, there were no female snipers or tank gunners or fighter pilots. From the outbreak of the war, women had been serving in a myriad of critical auxiliary capacities with duties that included ferrying planes from factories to airfields, driving ambulances, providing medical care, and assuming positions in factories, trades, and agriculture. But even in 1941, with a dire shortage of able-bodied men in Britain and women being recruited to help man anti-aircraft batteries, there were still combat restrictions. While the “Gunner Girls” excelled at their roles as Spotters, Range Finders, and Predictors, firing of the guns themselves was the responsibility of their male teammates because, even in a war, the government stubbornly maintained it was not appropriate for “life givers to be life takers.” What use could women possibly have in combat?
It wasn’t until 1942 that the first women would enter the war on the Western Front in a combat capacity. At that time, the Special Operation Executive lobbied for, and received, Winston Churchill’s endorsement to recruit and deploy female SOE agents behind enemy lines. Colonel Colin McVean Gubbins, the head of military operation in the SOE, had argued that women would have much greater freedom of movement under the Occupying Nazis, making them the perfect couriers and saboteurs. His arguments were further augmented by the twin realities that Britain was running out of men and able-bodied males had become obvious Nazi targets. At that point, irregular male combatants sent covertly into Occupied Territories had a life expectancy of less than three months.
The majority of the women recruited by the SOE went to the F (French) Section. Like my character of Sophie Kowalski, these women were identified by their ability with languages – they spoke French like a native of the country. Some were, in fact, French, others had at least one French parent, and most came from very cosmopolitan or unconventional backgrounds. And like Sophie, many expressed the desire to do more—to face the enemy and fight as their father, brothers, or husbands had.
Once in the F Section, under the guise of a First Aid Nursing Yeomanry member, these women came under the supervision of Vera Atkins. Atkins prepared them for the clandestine role that they were about to embark upon, sharing with each one why they had been chosen, how they might hide their new secret position to friends or family, and how their training would be arranged. For the first time, women would undergo the same combat training that their male counterparts completed. The first three weeks of training near Guilford was an assessment period. From there, the agents were sent to Scotland for paramilitary work that included explosives, weaponry, stalking, and killing. Those who graduated completed parachute training near Manchester. And lastly, at the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire, the agents began to learn spy craft, including Morse code, coding, resistance to interrogation and torture, and communication.
The character of Sophie Kowalski was inspired by real agents like Virginia Hall, Nancy Wake, and Pearl Witherington Cornioley. Virginia Hall, an American who had been working in embassies across Europe, was recruited by the SOE for her intelligence and impressive command of both French and German. Nancy Wake, a New Zealand-born journalist working in France, whose husband was executed by the Nazis, was recruited for her knowledge of the country and its underground networks. Pearl Witherington Cornioley, an Englishwoman who had grown up in Paris, joined the SOE with a fierce desire to fight the Nazis and posed as a cosmetics representative while couriering critical information throughout France.
Each of these women would be pursued and hunted by the Nazis but would ultimately survive to tell their tales. Reading their memoirs and stories, I came to appreciate the extent of the obstacles that they overcame to serve their countries. A total of fifty-five women were deployed, thirty-nine of those into Occupied France, and three were awarded the highest civilian gallantry honour, the George Cross.
So what use could women possibly be in combat? As it turns out, quite a lot. And while The Paris Apartment is a work of fiction, the plot and characters both products of my imagination, there is nothing fictional about the role that these brave women played in the Allied effort against the Nazis. Their courage, tenacity, and resilience will live on, in the pages of memoirs and novels, diaries and biographies. No matter how or where they served their country, they will not be forgotten.
If you’d like a front seat in the real-life experiences of the women who were there, here are some of my favorite memoirs:
Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Snipe rby Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko
Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of A WWII Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley and Kathryn Atwood
Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson
A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm
Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front by Anna Timofeeva-Yegorova
Whether I'm writing historical romance or historical fiction, one of my favourite things about writing heroines is my ability to borrow from the history books when it comes to giving them a passion. I’ve created heroines who are mathematicians, doctors, artists, soldiers, stewards, smugglers, jockeys, and staunch education advocates, all inspired by real women.
So it always surprises me when readers tell me that these passions or occupations are unrealistic or anachronistic for women ‘of that particular time’. That women ‘would never have done these things back then’. Their stories are harder to find, that is true, but they are there all the same and deserve to be shared.
I’ve listed below a collection of notable women who did exactly what no one believed that they ‘should’ or ‘could’ do. It is by no means an exhaustive list and I’ll continue to add to it. These women have not only inspired my writing and my characters, but continue to inspire me as well.
Rebecca Pennock Lukens (1794-1854)
Steel/iron magnate, Rebecca owned and managed the iron and steel mill which became the Lukens Steel Company (Pennsylvania, USA). She is widely considered America’s first CEO of an industrial company. She ran the company until 1847 and made it America’s premier manufacturer of boilerplate.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Mary was a writer, a philosopher, and an advocate for women’s rights. She rejected the idea that women were inferior to men but were portrayed as such only because of their lack of access to education. She advocated for the education of women in fields and subjects that were then restricted to men.
Ching Shih (1775-1844)
One of the most prosperous pirate captains in history who headed an armada called “The Red Fleet”. There are conflicting reports of the size of the forces she commanded (300-800 ships and 40,000-80,000 men), however, historians all agree it was substantial. Ching Shih took over command after her husband died and the fleet captain started to scatter. She is credited with one of my favourite quotes: “Under the leadership of a man you have chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourself under a woman.”
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Ada was a gifted mathematician and writer, and is widely regarded as the first person to recognize the potential of a computing machine. She published the first algorithm intended for a computer program in the mid 1800s.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
A French/Polish scientist, Marie Curie is probably best known for her research into radioactivity. At a time when the education of women in the fields of chemistry and biology was certainly not encouraged, Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel prize for her work. Further, she was the first person and only woman to win the Nobel prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Mary was a British-Jamaican business woman and nurse who cared for sick and injured soldiers during the Crimean War. The British Army refused to admit her to the war effort because of her gender but she went to the front lines anyway. The soldiers she cared for later raised money for her when she lacked funds.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Jane was a prolific writer who published her work at a time when writing was considered a ‘manly pursuit’. Many of her female contemporaries, including Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein), were forced to publish their work anonymously to hide their gender.
Anna Nzinga (1583-1663)
Anna was an early modern ruler of Africa, ruling the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in 17th century Angola. She was a gifted military tactician, politician, and worked tirelessly to restrict European intrusion into her lands.
Murasaki Shikibu (973-1031)
Novelist and poet at a time when women were traditionally barred from learning the written language. She is credited with writing the world’s first full-length novel, ‘The Tale of Genji”, written between 1000 and 1012.
Sybil Ludington (1761-1839)
While there is some disagreement from historians about the details, Sybil was an American Revolutionary War hero. As a teenager, she rode 40 miles in a single night across Connecticut to warn soldiers of an imminent attack on Danbury. Her ride was two times longer than Paul Revere’s.
Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204)
Queen of France, Queen of England and one of the most famous rulers of medieval times, Eleanor was a skilled politician and ruler. She is credited with establishing the rules of chivalry and of even greater effect, credited with inventing the fireplace.
Anne Lister (1791-1840)
Anne was a wealthy British woman known for her business savvy. She owned multiple properties and industry shares. All of which she shared with her wife, Ann Walker.
Molly Pitcher, aka Mary Ludwig (1744-1832)
I picked the tale of Molly Pitcher for this list, and while it has become somewhat of a legend, it represents the dozens and dozens of women who have stories just like this one across time and conflicts. Mary travelled with her husband to the front and cared for the wounded during the American Revolutionary war. When her husband was wounded and carried off the field, Mary joined his artillery unit loading cannon to take his place. It is reported that a British cannonball flew between her legs at some point, ripping her skirts, but not injuring her. Her response before she carried on with her duties: “Well, that could have been worse.”
Elsie Inglis (1864-1917)
Doctor, philanthropist, suffragist, healthcare reform advocate, and founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Elsie organized all-female medical units, ready to be deployed during WW1. After the British told her to ‘go home and sit still’, she deployed her units to assist the French.
Sor Juana Ines la Cruz (1648-1695)
Scholar, poet, philosopher, and composer. She was one of the earliest writers of Mexican literature, and one of the earliest voices in the Americas calling for women’s right to education and equality between genders. In 1667, she joined a nunnery and turned her nun’s quarters into a salon, visited by many of the city’s intellectually elite. She was highly critical of the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy of men and that led to her public condemnation by the Bishop of Puebla.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
Best known for her work for women’s suffrage and voting rights. She was also a staunch advocate for women’s education after being told that ‘it was useless for her to learn maths because a woman needs only to know how to read the bible and count her egg money’.
Lady of the Mercians, she was a brilliant military strategist and tactician. She is largely credited with the expulsion of the Danes from England after she assumed power upon the death of her husband.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
English fossil collector and dealer and paleontologist, Mary is best known for her discoveries and documentation of Jurassic marine fossils in Dorset, England. Her findings were key in the scientific reconciliation of prehistoric life and the history of the earth.
Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791)
Catherine is considered the world’s first female historian and was an avid advocate for the education of women. She wrote ‘The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution’ as well as a treatise titled ‘Letters on Education’. She believed that the perceived ‘weakness’ of women was due to mis-education.
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
Edmonia (pictured above) was an American artist and sculptor who worked in Rome. She achieved international recognition for her work and is known for incorporating themes related to indigenous peoples of the Americas and her black heritage.
Hannah Snell (1723-1792)
Hannah disguised herself as a man, took her brother in law’s name, and joined the British Navy in search of her husband. She served with the Marines, the Army, and upon her return, petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for a stipend (her husband had already died). She is most famous for taking on a press gang in later years, challenging the lieutenant who was attempting to press a family man into service to a fight. She is quoted as saying “If they were seamen, they ought to be on board and not sneaking about as kidnappers” and “But if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess upon your shoulder and march through Germany as I have done. Ye dogs, I have more wounds about me than you have fingers. This is no false attack. I will have my man.”
Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)
Sophie was a highly recognized mathematician. She is known for her contribution to number theory and theory of elasticity. She was able to obtain smuggled lecture notes from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (though she was not allowed to attend class). She originally submitted her work under an alias but eventually became the first woman to attend the French Academy of Sciences.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Mary was a Scottish science writer and polymath. She studied math and astronomy and was eventually nominated to become the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Elizabeth Stokes aka Lady Bare Knuckles (actively competed 1722-1728)
At a time when boxing was an entertainment sport for both men and women, Elizabeth was one of the most famous female bare-knuckle boxers of the Georgian period. She also fought with a cudgel and a short sword, and was wildly popular, achieveing great success. It is said that she inspired Lady Barrymore, ‘The Boxing Baroness’ in the 1820’s, who began boxing to keep fit and amuse her husband.
Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816)
Mary was an American publisher and postmaster. She was the second printer to print the Declaration of Independence and the first to include the names of the signatories. She continued to publish the Constitutional Post throughout the Revolutionary War until 1784.