Mission France

Kate Vigurs
(Yale University Press) 2021; 301 pages 

In 1940 Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, approved the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its job was to coordinate the infiltration of secret agents to assist local clandestine activity against the Axis powers in territories across Europe and beyond. Different sections looked after different areas. F section handled the 480 agents sent into France; thirty-nine were women. Twenty-five survived the war. 

Mission France tells the stories of the thirty-nine women: their recruitment; their training; their work in the field; and what happened to the twelve who went missing presumed dead. 

Part of the potential agents’ training was done in requisitioned manor houses with extensive grounds. It became a standing joke amongst the trainees that SOE actually stood for Stately ‘Omes of England. 

All the women dropped behind enemy lines were extraordinary. At least two were pregnant when they left England and gave birth in France. Agents captured were considered spies by the enemy … imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and invariably executed. They showed enormous courage. Three women received the George Cross, two the George Medal. 

After 8th May 1945 (Victory in Europe Day), SOE personnel still in the field or liberated from imprisonment began to make their way home. Just as the transition to becoming skilled SOE agents had taken time and patience, so did the reverse process. Many just wanted to disappear to lead a quieter life. Others agreed that a film could be made of their exploits and some allowed books to be published. One died of cancer two years after the war ended; another was murdered; and a third was killed in a scuba diving accident.

The research undertaken by the author is commendable. She deals compassionately with each of the thirty-nine women and many of those working behind the scenes. Kate Vigurs has written a book that’s compelling, enlightening, and readable.

Five Stars From Me – Reviewed by Clive Hodges