April 2022 Featured Article
Women in Espionage
My World War II romance Spies & Sweethearts is two years old this month! Book one in my Sisters in Service series, the story follows the exploits of high school French teacher, Emily Strealer, who joins the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) then parachutes into France to serve as a radio operator.
During my research I read numerous autobiographies and memoirs as well as the book Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth McIntosh. Additionally, I watched several YouTube interviews with former WWII operatives. My favorite bit of research was to get my hands on the manual for Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) which was the basis for much of the OSS’s policies, procedures, and training.
The original mindset in the OSS was that women weren’t “suited to traditional spycraft,” and their “best assets” were limited to using their physical attractiveness. William Donovan, director of the organization, realized that women were more inconspicuous as spies, especially in occupied areas where men of combat age would stand out.
He was able to convince his superiors to change their philosophy and quickly began to hire women from all walks of life – a tricky process because the applicants couldn’t be told what they’d be doing during the interview. Sent abroad from London to Chunking these women performed tasks such as contacting, manipulating, and organizing resistance groups, acting as couriers, smuggling Jews, downed airmen, and other “wanted” individuals out of occupied countries, engaging in espionage, obtaining enemy codes and information, initiating rumors, forging documents, dynamiting bridges, fuel depots, and other important locations, and infiltrating enemy lines.
The work was often grueling and always dangerous. It is unknown how many women (and men) were stationed overseas because the information is still classified. As a result, the number who lost their lives during this crucial service is also a mystery. It is my hope that Spies & Sweethearts honors these brave people.