Women of the SOE

In my last piece for History In An Hour, writes Hilary Green, I wrote about the work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during the First World War. When the conflict was over the FANY did not disband, although there was some difficulty in keeping membership buoyant in the inter-war years.

Nevertheless, a loyal core continued to train, although now the emphasis was not so much on nursing as on transport. It was clear that there was no longer any need for mounted nurses, the function for which they had been founded in 1907, but their ability to drive and maintain motor vehicles had been crucial during the 1914-18 period. So now they concentrated on this aspect of the training and shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War it was suggested that they should come under the aegis of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS) as the Women’s Motor Transport Company. And it was in this capacity that many of them did sterling work driving ambulances and chauffeuring high-ranking officers during the war. (It was into this corps that Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, was recruited in order to ‘do her bit’.)

Some long-standing FANYs, however, refused to be subsumed into the ATS. Their independence from other authority had always been a matter of pride and they insisted on maintaining it, becoming known as the ‘Free FANY.’ It was this independence that made them ideally suited to working with the SOE.

Special Operations Executive

When the Special Operations Executive was first set up at the behest of Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by dropping secret agents behind enemy lines, its existence was so secret that not even the army high command was allowed to know about it. So when a need arose for help on ‘the home front’ with such activities as radio communications and coding and decoding messages to and from agents in the field it was impossible for them to turn to the ATS or any other recognised women’s service. Fortunately Colin Gubbins, who was in charge of operations, knew that a neighbour of his, a Mrs Phyllis Bingham, belonged to the FANY and he turned to her for help. So was born ‘Bingham’s Unit’, a branch of the FANY whose function was known only to a few.

In order to fulfil their new tasks it was imperative to recruit extra personnel. What was required were young women with experience of wireless telegraphy, perhaps those who had worked for the Post Office, or who had a mathematical background or an aptitude for crossword puzzles. These last, it was felt, would have the right kind of brains for dealing with codes and cyphers. Girls with the right attributes found themselves being referred to a vicarage in Wilton Place, in London, where they encountered the redoubtable Marion Gamwell. (Marion and her sister Hope were long-standing members of the FANY, having volunteered in the First World War, when they provided, from their own funds, a mobile bathhouse in a converted lorry where troops could bathe and get their clothes washed.) Other young women who applied to the Women’s War Work Bureau in Oxford Street were sent to Bingham’s office in Baker Street. None of them knew what they were being recruited for, but if they were considered suitable after an induction course at Overthorpe Manor, they were then asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not even their parents knew what they were doing. They were told that their daughters were being trained as drivers

Radio Operators

Potential radio operators were sent to Fawley Court, near Henley, for four months intensive training. If they passed they then went to SOE’s communications centre at Grendon Underwood, one of the many country houses taken over for the duration of the war. Conditions were grim. They lived in Nissan huts in the grounds and were often cold and hungry. They worked six-hour ‘skeds’ or schedules in shifts round the clock and each girl was allotted her own agent (or Joe as they were fondly called). In this way, she would get to know his ‘fist’ – his unique touch on the Morse key – so that she could detect if someone else was impersonating him. Messages were in code and sent in groups of five letters which did not make words, so if one letter was missed it was impossible to guess what it should have been, and they were often sent in haste and in poor atmospheric conditions. It was intensive and demanding work.

Once the message had been received it was handed over to the coding section to be rendered into plain English. Codes were based on poems. Each agent was asked to memorise two or three lines of verse and each message was based on one or two words from those lines, the letters of which were then transposed by using a cypher on a silk sheet which could be folded very small and concealed. The process is described by Leo Marks, a brilliant young man who was SOE’s Head of Coding in his book ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’. (Those who have read or seen ’84 Charing Cross Road’ will be interested to learn that Leo was the son of the man who owned the eponymous bookshop.) Many agents maintained that they were unable to remember even short pieces of poetry, so Leo suggested that the girls at Grendon might make up verses that would be easier for them to learn. Some of the results were scatological in the extreme -but presumably all the more memorable for that!

Because the messages were sent under very dangerous and difficult conditions they often arrived garbled, making the decoding almost impossible. Marks describes how, on his first visit to Grendon, he told the girls the story of a young Belgian radio operator who was caught while transmitting by the Nazis and suffered terrible tortures in an effort to make him reveal his associates. He pointed out that the longer an operator was at his set, the greater the chances that the enemy detector vans would be able to pinpoint his location. It was vital, therefore, that no operator should be asked to send a message twice. After that, it became a point of honour among the decoders that, no matter how garbled, every message was decoded – even if they had to sit up all night to solve it.

The dangers ahead of them

Radio communications was not the only area where the FANYs gave invaluable help. Agents in training or those waiting to be sent into the field, were housed in more great mansions taken over by SOE. In fact, there was a standing joke among them that the letters stood not for Special Operations Executive but for Stately ‘Omes of England. While there, they had to be looked after, fed and above all entertained to keep their minds off the dangers ahead of them. Here the more traditional FANY personnel were ideally suited. Many of them had come from backgrounds where social life was at the hub of their existence, but this did not mean they were not prepared to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work. But at the end of a long day cooking and cleaning they would change into evening dress and after dinner the carpet would be rolled back and they and the agents would dance till midnight to the music of a gramophone.

It was not long, of course, before some of them developed the urge to become agents themselves. Once SOE became convinced that women could play a useful role they began to train with the men, and many of them who were not already members of the FANY were enrolled into their ranks to give a cover to their real purpose.

Upper Crust Girls

One aspect of this change in the role of the FANY that particularly interested me was the social implications. When they were founded the FANY was unashamedly elitist. It was a Yeomanry, an organisation for the daughters of the land-owning classes. To a great extent it had preserved that ethos up to the beginning of the Second World War. Many of the young women had been ‘debs’, had been presented at court and ‘done the season’; some even had titles. But the expansion of the work had required the influx of a large number of girls from very different backgrounds. In view of the rigid social divisions that existed at the time I wondered how the two groups rubbed along. It was for that reason that I chose as the heroine of my book ‘We’ll Meet Again’ Frankie, a working class girl from Liverpool who, through a chance encounter with an officer in an air raid shelter, is recruited into Binghams Unit and becomes a coder for SOE, ultimately finding herself parachuting into enemy occupied Italy.

But, in the interests of balance, the second book in the pair, ‘Never Say Goodbye’, takes as its heroine Frankie’s best friend, Diana Escott Stevens, a girl from the opposite social background, who volunteers to be dropped into France as an agent. Both stories are based on extensive research and, while they might be categorised as historical romance, they do not shirk the gritty reality of life as a secret agent.

Hilary Green
Hilary is the author of several books based during the two world wars.
See also Hilary’s articles on women medics during World War One and entertainers during World War Two.