Women Heroes of World War Two: review

No one knows how they will react in a situation of utmost peril. Fortunately, for most of us, we will never have to face that ultimate test of one’s deepest resolve. None of the 26 heroines in Kathryn Attwood’s new book, Women Heroes of World War Two, thought of themselves as heroes but their actions beggar belief. For the greater good they defied or tried to defy the evils of Nazism, each trying in her own, individual way to throw a small spanner into the giant machine that was Hitler’s Germany.

Atwood has done a sterling job of pulling together the stories of 26 women, young and old, who acted with breathtaking heroism without due regard for their personal safety.

Most of these 26 women lived to tell their tale but four of them did not. Sophie Scholl, member of the anti-Nazi group, The White Rose, was arrested and had to endure the mockery of a kangaroo court which ended inevitably with her execution. Three of the 26 were famous – actress and German exile Marlene Dietrich, opera singer Josephine Baker, and journalist, Martha Gellhorn.

Famous or otherwise, all 26 stories are inspiring. Take Irene Gut, only 19 years old, she was asked “What can you do? You’re only a young girl.” But Irene did much – hiding Jews under the very noses of the Germans and living on her nerves to keep them undetected. When her antics were discovered by a Nazi officer, she was forced to become his mistress merely to protect her Jewish hideaways.

Aimed primarily at the young adult reader, the book will appeal to any age, such are the stories told within. Atwood is tasked with a big responsibility – to do justice to the telling of these remarkable tales, and she does so with aplomb. The choice of photographs is excellent in bringing these women alive – lovely black and white shots of smiling, carefree girls. The photo of Scholl relaxing with her student friends could have been taken on any campus at any time if it were not for the Nazi uniforms. There is no hint of the responsibility of the task they have brought to bear upon themselves – the undermining by leaflet of Germany’s blind belief in their Leader.

The chapters are divided by country – Germany, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and the US. The stories of the five American women, including Dietrich and Gellhorn, are all based in Europe. Atwood provides a fine context – a general introduction that gives a brief overview of the war in Europe and the work of the resistance across the continent, and an introduction for each country. The story of each woman finishes with a ‘Find Out More’ section, referring the reader to both printed and online material. Plus a glossary, a fuller bibliography and an index.

The Soviet Union is an unfortunate omission, which given the ferocity of the Eastern Front and the work of the Soviet partisans, would deserve a book in its own right.

That apart this is a wonderful piece of work that Atwood has produced and it deserves a wide audience.

Rupert Colley.

Women Heroes of WWIIRead how Kathryn researched the book.

You can read excerpts from the book at: http://womenheroesofwwii.blogspot.com/
Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue is available from Amazon, as is Kathryn’s book, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, both published by Chicago Review Press.

See also Kathryn’s article on Nancy Wake, one of her 26 WW2 heroines.