by Ashleigh Percival-Borley
I was a twenty-two-year-old combat medic, conducting pre-deployment training before being sent to Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK. The day’s training had come to an end, so I returned to my accommodation to change into running kit. Absent-minded, I put the television on and was greeted by a black and white film about a young woman working undercover in occupied France during the Second World War. Intrigued, I began to pay attention. The woman cycled her way past German guards, dodging checkpoints and delivering secret messages. She was organised and intelligent, unfazed by the dangerous role she was undertaking, gaining the respect of the resistance circuit leader and the grumpy but lovable wireless operator Arnaud. The film was called Odette and I was filled with questions! Who was this woman? Were there more like her? Why did I not know about this? Safe to say, my run never happened. I had inadvertently stumbled upon Odette Sansom, an agent who worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). A quick google showed me that another film was made in 1950’s Britain; Carve Her Name With Pride, about Violette Szabo, only a year older than me at the time, and is now my go-to rainy day film. From this happy accident, my fascination with these extraordinary women began.
The SOE was an organisation whose sole purpose was, in Churchill’s words, to ‘set Europe ablaze!’ by sabotage and subversion. It was founded in 1940 and began officially recruiting its first women agents in 1941. The training was intensive, and both male and female agents undertook the same training regime; physical training, hand to hand combat, weapons and explosive training, guerrilla warfare, codes and deciphering, parachuting, interrogation and learnt how to kill silently with their bare hands. It was a dangerous wartime role, with an active agent’s life given a 50% survival rate, and only six weeks if they were a wireless operator. It must be said, these were women were extraordinary.
Indeed, it is the idea that these women were ‘out of the ordinary’ that seemed to capture post-war Britain’s imagination. The British public seemed fascinated by the ‘secret war’ and marvelled that women had taken such an active part in it. Following the release of several SOE agents’ memoirs (prompting a worried government to commission an official history of the SOE!) Odette was released in 1950 and Carve Her Name With Pride in 1958.
Both Odette and Violette are at first characterised as mothers and housewives, knitting by the fire, looking after their children and doing various tasks associated with the Home Front. This is important to ascertain to the audience, as the women have achieved what Penny Summerfield termed as being the cornerstone of the home and hence the nation, having achieved the desired expectation placed upon them as women in 1950’s Britain. However, the characters evolve throughout the films, Odette is portrayed as an agent who is cool-headed, quick thinking and organised able to act rationally even when she realises the Gestapo are tightening the net. Her quiet heroism is projected throughout the film but is significant when being tortured by the Gestapo. The camera work is clever here as her head is backlit, producing martyred undertones as she struggles but successfully resists the interrogation, therefore, a selfless heroic image of Odette has been immortalised through the film.
Virginia Mckenna takes on the role of the remarkably brave Violet Szabo. Carve Her Name With Pride sees a more physical rendering of a female agent. The characteristics of capability and quiet heroism immortalised by Odette are evident, but the action scenes see Violette take on SOE training and using her Sten gun on the move (my favourite scene!) she fires on the German patrol chasing her and a fellow agent, before ultimately, she is captured. The film shows Violette, bruised and thin in Ravensbruck, being told of her imminent execution. Again, it evokes religious undertones as she stares at the sky, her expression stoic, her face is discreetly backlit while the camera pans away to the sky, as if it can’t bear to watch what is about to unfold. The audience then hears a machine gun, it is remarkably poignant.
Both women are persistently depicted as quietly courageous, ‘exceptional even for a woman’ and capable, with a key theme of sacrifice evident. Such early representations of female agents perpetuated what Juliette Pattinson termed the ‘Odette legend’ whereby Odette’s self-assurance and capability as an agent, grounded in her maternal femininity mobilises a specific construction of agents, that was then upheld by Virginia McKenna’s character as Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride.
The films helped to wow an audience that was still immersed by the effects of war; telling stories of how Britain won through courage and sacrifice. It also helped to create, uniquely, a remarkably feminised understanding of the SOE that still captures the imagination of historians and the public alike. The bravery and self-sacrifice depicted in the films are just a glimmer of the true qualities of the agents themselves, indeed, ‘ordinary women’ that took on remarkably dangerous but truly extraordinary roles.
Both Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo were recognised for their bravery and awarded the George Cross. Violette’s was posthumously presented to her five-year-old daughter Tania.
Behind Enemy Lines by Juliette Pattinson
The Heroines of SOE by Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott
Odette by Jerrard Tickell
Carve her name with Pride by R.J Minney
About the Author:
Ashleigh Percival-Borley is a military and gender historian with an MA in War, Culture and Society and is currently studying an MA in Military History. Her current research focuses on women’s history in a military context, examining discourses of gender and how it interconnects with cultural representations of war in the twentieth century. She has researched widely on the SOE and the women who worked for F Section as secret agents during the Second World War. Discussing how these remarkable women have been represented in popular history since 1945. Her work on the SOE has led her to recently contribute to local museum exhibits.
Ashleigh’s passion for military history derives from her 12-year service in the Royal Army Medical Corp in the British Army, of which she served overseas on conflict and humanitarian operations. Her military service allows her to take a unique perspective on less known topics of women’s history and its intersection with military history which she writes about in her blog The Soldier-Historian.
When not studying history, Ashleigh likes to take her daughter out walking, to read with a cup of tea and go rock climbing!