The best books on secret agents and espionage in WW2

Who am I?

I am a writer of Indian origin and have always been passionate about telling the story of the involvement of Indians in both World Wars. Very few people know that 2.5 million Indian volunteered for the Second World War, the largest volunteer force in history. I have always enjoyed reading stories of intelligence operations in wartime, the role of the Resistance in occupied countries and particularly the role of women in the Second World War. I was drawn to the story of Noor Inayat Khan from all these perspectives.

I wrote...

Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan

By Shrabani Basu,

Book cover of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan

What is my book about?

This is the riveting story of Noor Inayat Khan, the descendant of an Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who became a British secret agent for SOE during World War II. Shrabani Basu tells the moving story of Noor's life from her birth in Moscow - where her father was a Sufi preacher - to her capture by the Germans. Noor was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France, and worked in one of the most dangerous areas in the field. She was betrayed, captured, tortured, but revealed nothing, not even her name. Kept in solitary confinement, chained between hand and feet and unable to walk upright, Noor existed on bowls of soup made from potato peelings. Ten months after she was captured, she was taken to Dachau Concentration Camp and, on 13 September 1944, she was shot. Her last word was 'Liberte'. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Why did I love this book?

The story of the double-agent Eddie Chapman – a flamboyant conman, crook, and womaniser – who gets recruited by MI5 and turns into a courageous wartime hero, reads like a thriller. It has all the elements of a great story, combining tales of daring adventure and espionage, and feels almost like the pages of a Le Carre novel, but is in fact a true story, meticulously researched and well presented.

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Agent Zigzag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of Operation Mincemeat, now a major film SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD 'Engrossing as any thriller' Daily Telegraph 'Superb. Meticulously researched, splendidly told, immensely entertaining' John le Carre 'This is the most amazing book, full of fascinating and hair-raising true life adventures ... It would be impossible to recommend it too highly' Mail on Sunday _______ One December night in 1942, a Nazi parachutist landed in a Cambridgeshire field. His mission: to sabotage the British war effort. His name was Eddie Chapman, but he would shortly become MI5's Agent Zigzag. Dashing and suave, courageous and…

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

Why did I love this book?

While women agents of the SOE have had biographies written about them for years, few knew about the woman who sent them in the field. The story of Vera Atkins, the steely SOE officer from F-section who sent the women agents to France during WWII, filled this much-needed gap. After the war, it was her dogged search for the missing women that uncovered their tragic fate in the concentration camps.

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…

Book cover of Flames in the Field: The Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France

Why did I love this book?

The story of four women agents from the SOE’s French section and their journey to a death camp in France is movingly told. They travel from different directions and come from different backgrounds but meet their tragic fate together. The book captures the spirit of resistance and their heroism.

By Rita Kramer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flames in the Field as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the true story of four women, members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who were sent into Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and then caught up in a web of deception which resulted in their deaths at the hands of the Gestapo. In this book, Rita Kramer pieces together the women's stories, how they came to be involved in such a dangerous operation as well as their experiences in France, and also analyzes the controversial methods of SOE at a crucial period in the war.

Book cover of Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945

Why did I love this book?

A thrilling personal account by the brilliant cryptographer, Leo Marks, who was only 22 when employed by the SOE. It was Marks who gave the special codes to famous SOE agents like Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Khan, and Nancy Wake before they left for the field. An insight into how the code war between Germany and England played out, often with disastrous consequences.

Book cover of Carve Her Name with Pride: The Story of Violette Szabo

Why did I love this book?

Originally published in 1956, this book is still worth a read, even though more material on the SOE agents is now available. Violette Szabo’s bravery, her death in Ravensbruck Concentration camp at the age of 23 and her posthumous George Cross collected by her daughter Tania, continues to move and inspire.

By R.J. Minney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Carve Her Name with Pride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Carve Her Name With Pride is the inspiring story of the half-French Violette Szabo who was born in Paris Iin 1921 to an English motor-car dealer, and a French Mother. She met and married Etienne Szabo, a Captain in the French Foreign Legion in 1940. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Tania, her husband died at El Alamein. She became a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and was recruited into the SOE and underwent secret agent training. Her first trip to France was completed successfully even though she was arrested and then released by the French Police. On June…

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