The best books about the real-life, kick-ass female agents of WW2

The Books I Picked & Why

Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

By Kate Vigurs

Book cover of Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

Why this book?

Special Operations Executive had the directive to “Set Europe ablaze” and from 1942 began recruiting women as field operatives. 39 were sent into France (of which 26 returned), and Kate Vigurs tells their stories in Mission France. Superbly researched and well written, this book is a really good all-rounder. Broken into 3 sections (Foundations, War, and Death & Deliverance), it tells each woman’s story, from their recruitment to either their death or demob. I loved the fact that she covered the lesser-known agents as well as the big names. Be prepared to be moved – these women’s exploits are more amazing than a lot of fiction I’ve read!


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Spy Who Loved

By Clare Mulley

Book cover of Spy Who Loved

Why this book?

You might think that a daughter of a count and a runner-up for Miss Poland might not have what it takes to be a spy. You’d be wrong. Krystyna Skarbek was Britain’s first and longest-serving female special agent during World War II.  

When her native Poland was overrun, Krystyna and her husband sailed for London. She wasted no time in offering her services to the British against the Nazis, and the Secret Intelligence Service was happy to recruit this “flaming Polish patriot, expert skier, and great adventuress" who proved her intelligence, daring, and resourcefulness again and again.  Inspiring Winston Churchill to claim that she was his favourite agent.


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Liberation

By Imogen Kealey

Book cover of Liberation

Why this book?

Want to read a thriller that will keep you turning the pages late into the night? Liberation is for you. And – here’s the kicker – it’s based on the real-life deeds of Nancy Wake. When her husband was snatched by the Gestapo, she joined SOE, trained as an agent, and parachuted into France. Nicknamed “The White Mouse” by the Germans for her ability to evade capture, she led a battalion of 7000 Resistance fighters, killed a man with her bare hands and defeated 22000 Germans (losing only 100 men). Even with a 5-million-franc bounty on her head (the largest bounty of the war), the Germans still couldn’t get their hands on her.

After the war, she sold her medals to fund herself. When asked about it, she blithely commented: "There was no point in keeping them, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway."

Nancy Wake was seriously badass. 


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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?

The Germans called Virginia Hall “the Limping Lady,” as she required the use of a prosthetic leg (“Cuthbert”). They also considered her the most dangerous of all Allied spies – male or female. The second female SOE agent sent into France, Virginia set up an effective network that (amongst other things) was instrumental in helping British airmen, shot down over Europe, escape and return to England.  

But what I found the most astonishing when I read Virginia’s biography, was how she didn’t let anything stop her. Not her disability. Not the Nazis. Not the Pyrenees Mountains, which she hiked over in the middle of the winter when her network was infiltrated. And not The Patriarchy. The title of the book is A Woman of No Importance, and when you read it, you’ll understand that it couldn’t describe her less. 


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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?

Sarah Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins is perfectly titled. On one level, Vera was the 2nd in command of SOE’s French Section, responsible for recruiting, training, and deploying SOE operatives into France. On another level, there were the closely guarded secrets of her own life.

Sarah Helm’s biography revealed a workaholic, an immigrant who became more English than the English, and whose loyalty to her charges, and the Allied cause, was unswerving. After the war, when 118 SOE agent didn’t make it home, Vera launched a personal crusade to find out what happened to them – a mission that took her across Allied-Occupied Germany to the concentration camps. (She found all but one.)

On a side note, Vera Atkins has been fictionalised on both big and small screens, from Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny to Foyle’s War Hilda Pierce. Her legacy remains an inspiration.


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