Her Heroine Mother: Maternity and British Secret Agents in World War II
In the waning months of World War II, news began to circulate that the British had been sending operatives to German-occupied Europe to conduct clandestine warfare and that some of them had been women. These female secret agents served as couriers, radio operators, and organizers in the French (F) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the organization now famously (but likely apocryphally) charged by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” In a total war, British women were encouraged or commanded to take on forms of labor or roles in institutions like the military that read as masculine. In order to mitigate this challenge to the gender order, propaganda and other cultural products both during and after the war reinforced that these roles were only “for the duration” and that women could and should retain their femininity in performing them. In the case of the women agents, who had parachuted from airplanes, engaged in sabotage and combat, and faced the persistent threat of capture, imprisonment, and death, emphasizing their femininity was all the more crucial. This is why motherhood became such a central element in the women agents’ representation.
Much of the initial press coverage about the agents centered on women who were heralded for their wartime exploits, but who also firmly demonstrated that they had now left war behind for lives focused on home and family. An illustrative example is the January 1947 newspaper profile of Marguerite “Peggy” Knight, which mused in its opening paragraph, “You would not suspect that the prim little woman who comes out of the newly-built house… wheeling her 16-month and four-month-old babies in a second-hand pram… once blazed away with a Sten gun at Germans hunting her down as a secret agent in France.” Similar juxtapositions between Knight’s present state of domestic bliss and her former life as a resistance fighter continued throughout the article. In wartime, her bag held coded messages and a radio set but now contained a shopping list. Eyes that had once scouted military strongpoints now scoured the shops for apples for her young son. The accompanying photograph displayed Knight happily playing with her children on the floor of her new home, above a caption that contrasted her military and civilian honors against her current role in life: “Croix-de-Guerre… M.B.E…. Mother.”
Agents like Knight represented the ultimate fulfillment of feminine obligations to the war effort. Although women were called upon in both world wars to do their “bit” in the factories and fields – or as secret agents behind the lines – longstanding feminine duties and ideals, especially surrounding motherhood, remained intact or even grew in prominence. Women contended with conflicting expectations and additional practical burdens, as they were asked to meet their responsibilities to the national cause and to their homes and families. Motherhood became a form of patriotism, bolstered by propaganda, in which women were encouraged to have babies and endure the sacrifice of sending their sons off to war. In this context, women agents who had children could be celebrated as both soldiers and mothers to the nation.
This was especially the case for two women who were already mothers when they each signed up to serve as couriers for SOE: Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. Born in France, Odette Sansom married an Englishman in 1931, and had three daughters before she was recruited to F Section in 1942. Her fellow agent, Violette Szabo, married a French legionnaire in 1940, giving birth to their daughter mere months before her husband was killed at the Battle of El Alamein. She joined SOE in 1943 to avenge his death. In the course of their service, both Sansom and Szabo were arrested by the Germans, interrogated by the Gestapo, and imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Sansom survived her captivity, but was brutally tortured and endured solitary confinement. Szabo was executed in early 1945 alongside two other British women agents. With these records, both women represented the apex of wartime service and sacrifice. But they were also young, beautiful, and maternal, ideal figures through which to reinforce the idea that secret agents retained their femininity even while engaged in a masculine form of service.
Sansom and Szabo arguably became the most renowned of the women agents after the war. Each was the subject of a biography and feature film, in addition to countless press reports. Throughout these accounts, their identities as mothers were heavily emphasized: the difficult decision to leave their children for work behind the lines, how much they missed them, and how buying or making gifts for their girls helped them endure the separation or their time in prison. On one notable occasion, Sansom was photographed at the opening of a memorial to some of the women agents killed during the war holding up Szabo’s daughter so that she could see the plaque, movingly underscoring the maternity of both women.
Sansom and Szabo’s motherhood was put on particular display in the publicity and ceremony surrounding their respective receipt of the George Cross (GC), Britain’s highest honor for bravery. Sansom was the first woman ever awarded a GC, and her three daughters were front and center in the coverage of the honors ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photographs presented a happy family unit in the form of Sansom, her children, and her new fiancé (and former commanding officer in France), Peter Churchill. When Szabo was posthumously awarded the GC a few months later, King George VI poignantly bestowed it on her young orphaned daughter, Tania. The scene also closed the 1958 film about Szabo, Carve Her Name with Pride. There, the audience sees Tania’s grandparents dress her in the white dress Violette bought in Paris during her first mission. She is then presented to the King, who pins a medal on the young girl, chucks her on the chin, and tells her (according to a narrator): “It is for your mother. Take great care of it.”
Around the time of this film’s release, SOE and its wartime record had become the subject of controversy. Debates about the organization’s effectiveness and whether its level of success justified the high death toll among its agents raged intermittently across the ensuing decades everywhere from the press to Parliament. Szabo featured prominently in these discussions, which included a campaign spearheaded by a female Member of Parliament to see her be the first woman bestowed with a Victoria Cross. At the same time, an official history of the SOE in France was commissioned by the government that challenged the idea that women agents had been tortured. As events unfolded, Tania Szabo was routinely turned to for comment, serving as a reminder to the public that despite Violette’s combat record and violent death, and the quest to bestow her with an honor heretofore reserved for men, she had been first and forever a mother.
Sansom became a more contested figure. A memoir by Hugo Bleicher, the German officer who had arrested Sansom and Peter Churchill in 1943, detailed their adultery and described her as “a voluptuous Mata Hari, using sex appeal to carry out her work.” The official history also challenged her credibility over her torture claims and accused her and Churchill of enjoying a life of leisure on the French Riviera rather than focusing on their mission (for which they sued for libel). The contents and press coverage of these and other accounts, combined with the Churchills’ divorce in 1955, contravened the predominant post-war vision of Sansom as a demure wife and mother.
Up until that point, the emphasis on maternity and traditional femininity in representations of Sansom and other women agents had served to insulate them from associations with the cultural image of the female spy as femme fatale that had been pervasive since at least the First World War. The fact of Sansom’s marital history and her foreignness as a French-born woman now exposed her in some quarters to gendered and sexualized criticisms of her character. For her part, Sansom seemed to resist both characterizations. She publicly rejected the accusations made in both the Bleicher memoir and the official history, but she had never endorsed the heroic yet domesticated portrayal of her story either.
Still, motherhood remained at the center of Sansom’s own memory and understanding of her experiences during the war in important ways. In an oral history she did with the Imperial War Museum in 1986, Sansom downplayed the physical trauma of what she had endured in German captivity – torture, starvation, illness, and solitary confinement – saying “it didn’t really matter.” Because, she elaborated, nothing could be more painful than the separation from her children: “I left England with a broken heart. So nothing after that could break it ever again… the rest was physical.” Sansom’s remembrances showed that love for her daughters and the pain and grief of being parted from them throughout her service and imprisonment profoundly shaped her personal history of war-making.
As historians become increasingly attentive to the role of emotion and interpersonal relationships in military and other histories, the women of the SOE can offer us important insights. The intense public interest in Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo and the particular emphasis on their maternity must be understood in terms of the cultural work it did to ease social anxieties about their wartime activities and to restabilize the gender order. However, for a more holistic and nuanced understanding of this history, we should also acknowledge that motherhood was a central part of their own lived and emotional experiences as secret agents.
- Juliette Pattinson, Behind Enemy Lines: Gender, Passing, and the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War, (Manchester University Press, 2011), 4 ↑
- Unknown press clipping, January 19, 1947. TNA HS 9/849/7, Marguerite Knight Personnel File. ↑
- Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities At War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War, (University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945, (Oxford University Press, 2003). ↑
- Unknown press clipping, February 12, 1956. TNA: T 350/13, George Cross (civil): Violette Szabo. ↑
- Tammy M. Proctor, Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, (NYU Press, 2006). ↑
- See, for example, Lucy Noakes, Claire Langhamer, and Claudia Siebrecht, eds., Total War: An Emotional History, (Oxford University Press, 2020). ↑
Allison Abra is the Warden and Vice-Chancellor of St John’s College and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba. Her research focuses on gender, war, popular culture, and emotion in modern Britain. She is the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 (Manchester University Press, 2017).