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

Who am I?

My mother instilled a love of books in me, and my father fostered my fascination with history – which meant that a good part of my formative years involved books, writing, and watching WW2 films. Years later, when a BBC documentary captured my imagination, I delved into the world of SOE’s female spies, binge-reading biographies and autobiographies. I was struck by their determination, dedication, resourcefulness – and in awe of their exploits. These women were heroes. When an idea for a story took hold, I followed one "what if..." after another until my first novel emerged. While City of Spies is fiction, I tried to stay as faithful as possible to history.

I wrote...

City of Spies

By Mara Timon,

Book cover of City of Spies

What is my book about?

Lisbon, 1942. When her cover is blown, Special Operations Executive agent Elisabeth de Mornay must flee Paris. Pursued by the Gestapo, she makes her way to neutral Portugal. In Lisbon, where Europe’s exiled aristocrats rub shoulders with diplomats, businessmen, smugglers, and spies, she receives new orders: to infiltrate a German espionage ring that is targeting Allied ships, before more British servicemen are killed.

The closer Elisabeth comes to discovering the truth, the greater the risk grows. With a German officer watching her every step, it will take all of Elisabeth’s resourcefulness and determination to survive, because who can she trust, in a city where no one is who they claim to be?

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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!

By Kate Vigurs,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mission France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Formed in 1940, Special Operations Executive was to coordinate Resistance work overseas. The organization's F section sent more than four hundred agents into France, thirty-nine of whom were women. But while some are widely known-Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom, Noor Inayat Khan-others have had their stories largely overlooked.

Kate Vigurs interweaves for the first time the stories of all thirty-nine female agents. Tracing their journeys from early recruitment to work undertaken in the field, to evasion from, or capture by, the Gestapo, Vigurs shows just how greatly missions varied. Some agents were more adept at parachuting. Some agents' missions lasted for…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Clare Mulley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Spy Who Loved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In June 1952, a woman was murdered by an obsessed colleague in a hotel in South Kensington. Her name was Christine Granville. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising, but that she had survived the Second World War was remarkable. The daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his wealthy Jewish wife, she would become one of Britain's most daring and highly decorated special agents. Having fled to Britain on the outbreak of war, she was recruited by the intelligence services long before the establishment of the SOE, and took on mission after mission. She skied into occupied Poland, served…


By Imogen Kealey,

Book cover of Liberation

Why did I love 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. 

By Imogen Kealey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Liberation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The must-read thriller inspired by the true story of Nancy Wake, whose husband was kidnapped by the Nazis and became the most decorated servicewoman of the Second World War - soon to be a major blockbuster film.

To the Allies she was a fearless freedom fighter, special operations super spy, a woman ahead of her time. To the Gestapo she was a ghost, a shadow, the most wanted person in the world with a five-million-Franc bounty on her head.

Her name was Nancy Wake.

Now, for the first time, the roots of her legend are told in a thriller about…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Sonia Purnell,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked A Woman of No Importance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London

Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

"Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a little resistance." - NPR


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

Why did I love 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.

By Sarah Helm,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Life in Secrets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During World War Two the Special Operation Executive's French Section sent more than 400 agents into Occupied France -- at least 100 never returned and were reported 'Missing Believed Dead' after the war. Twelve of these were women who died in German concentration camps -- some were tortured, some were shot, and some died in the gas chambers. Vera Atkins had helped prepare these women for their missions, and when the war was over she went out to Germany to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines. But while the woman who carried…

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Interested in France, World War 2, and intelligence agency?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, World War 2, and intelligence agency.

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