The best books on female spies and special agents

Who am I?

Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of three books re-examining the history of the First and Second World War through the lives of remarkable women. The Woman Who Saved the Children, about child rights pioneer Eglantyne Jebb, won the Daily Mail Biographers' Club Prize, and is now under option. Polish-born Second World War special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, is the subject ofThe Spy Who Loved, a book which led to Clare being decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito. Clare's third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, long-listed for the Historical Writers Association prize, tells the extraordinary story of Nazi Germany’s only two female test pilots, whose choices and actions put them on opposite sides of history. Clare reviews for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. A popular public speaker, she has given a TEDx talk at Stormont, and recent TV includes news appearances for the BBC, Sky and Channel 5 as well as various Second World War history series. 

I wrote...

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

By Clare Mulley,

Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

What is my book about?

Christine Granville, aka Krystyna Skarbek, loved adrenalin, men and, above all, freedom - both for her country and for herself personally. This Polish-born Countess with Jewish heritage, was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and her achievements prompted Churchill to call her his ‘favourite spy.’ Christine served in three different theatres of the war, initially skiing into Nazi-occupied Poland, then serving in Egypt and the Middle East, before being parachuted behind enemy lines in France in 1944 where her service made her legendary among the special forces. Not only did she make the first contact between the French resistance and the Italian partisans across the Alps, she also secured the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass in the mountains. Despite being arrested more than once, she used her wits to save not only her own skin but also the lives of many of her male comrades-in-arms. Awarded the George Medal, OBE, and French Croix-de-Guerre, her early tragic death made headlines around the world, yet her true story was kept hidden. Clare was decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito, for this inspiring biography. 

The books I picked & why

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Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain

By Nadine Akkerman,

Book cover of Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain

Why this book?

A few years ago I spoke at the London History Festival alongside Nadine Akkerman, and we realised how much the female spies of 17c Britain and the Second World War had in common, not only conveniently overlooked in their own day, but also disregarded subsequently. This brilliant study explores the gendered dimension of early modern spycraft.


Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

By Sophie de Schaepdrijver,

Book cover of Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

Why this book?

'There are graves that are alive’, the President of the Belgian League of Remembrance pronounced at Gabrielle Petit’s state funeral in 1919, three years after her execution for espionage. Petit, a young shop-girl, served her country both during the First World War, and as a national legend after her death. Yet a century later, she was all but forgotten. Sophie De Schaepdrijver’s fascinating study not only helps to restore Petit's memory, but also asks important questions about why we should remember, and how such commemoration serves us.


A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By Sonia Purnell,

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Why this book?

Over the last few years the female special agents of the Second World War have finally been receiving better attention, with important books on, among others, Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu, Violette Szabo by Susan Ottaway, and my book on Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville. Purnell's is one of the best, a well-researched look at the life of Virginia Hall, the only agent, male or female, to serve the British SOE, its American counterpart the OSS, and later the CIA. Did I mention that she was a woman and that she had a prosthetic leg?


A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

By Sarah Helm,

Book cover of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

Why this book?

Excellent book that gets to the fascinating truth of Vera Atkins, the tough and dedicated Romanian born Jewish refugee who became the lynchpin in SOE’s French Section based in London, and led the post-war investigation into what happened to all the female SOE agents who failed to return from service behind enemy lines.


Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson,

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why this book?

45 years after the publication of Marie Madeleine Fourcade’s fabulous memoir, Noah’s Ark, Lynne Olson has filled in the gaps in the remarkable story of the female head of one of France’s most important clandestine war-time intelligence networks. Both books are well worth reading.


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