The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose spies were trained in everything from demolition to sharpshooting, was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.
In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflappable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.
First, a note about the title. There have been a great plethora of books lately that call grown women girls: Radium Girls, Code Girls, The Girls of Atomic City, etc. And yet the men, get to be called men, not boys: The Monuments Men, Men of World War II, etc. So often the world belittles the contributions of women by refusing to call them women, but instead “girls,” like their contributions didn’t matter much more than that of small children. It’s belittling and degrading. And now that that’s off my chest, on to the actual review!
I love a good nonfiction book about women in WWII. My sister wrote her masters thesis on the women who served in the British auxiliary forces and we’ve both written papers and pieces on our grandmothers’ experiences in Philadelphia and Nürnberg during the war. It’s been a fascinating topic to us for quite some time. After reading The Woman Who Smashed Codes (a book with an appropriate title), I really wanted another great, sweeping biography.
D-Day Girls doesn’t actually have much to do with D-Day and more with the missions of the French-speaking British women who went to the continent before the invasion in an effort to gather information to help the SOE and the invasion force. It’s a bit of a mishmash of their stories, the author jumps around between each of the women without fully fleshing-out any of their stories. And while it could use a bit more cohesive organization, I found myself turning the pages quite quickly to find out what happened to each woman profiled.
At times I had to actively remind myself that I was reading a work of nonfiction as the author takes to the novelistic aspect of “novelistic nonfiction” with a little too much fervor. There’s a bit more colorful descriptive language than I usually like to see in my nonfiction selections and makes it feel more like historical fiction. However, this does lead me to mention that, for those who are avid historical fiction readers who haven’t read much nonfiction, this book would be a great entry point to the genre.
Rating: 7 out of 10