Oct 2008 Journal
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Wartime heroines and celluloid heroines
Les Femmes de l’ombre, the original French title of the film Female Agents currently showing in London, invites comparison with Jean-Paul Melville’s 1969 classic L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), one of the finest films about the French Resistance, with a superb performance by Lino Ventura as the principal character and a supporting cast including Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel. But where Melville’s film is a gripping, realistic portrayal of the underground struggle of the Resistance against the Gestapo and its accomplices, Female Agents is an implausible piece of hokum in which a team of suitably gorgeous Frenchwomen is recruited in Britain by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to carry out a mission in France on which the success of the D-Day landings may depend. Actually, the film reminded me of the Hollywood war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967, with Lee Marvin), a rousing piece of box-office escapism in which a team of suitably villainous American soldier-convicts is recruited in Britain to carry out a mission on which etc etc.
Female Agents struck me as an example of the reluctance of the French to acknowledge properly the vital contribution made by British forces to the liberation of France. Like other nations, the French prefer to dwell on the heroic role of their own forces, the Free French and the Resistance, and they freely recognise the part played by the Americans in 1944 – there’s no shame in being liberated by a transatlantic superpower. But the contrast between the humiliated France which was defeated in 1940 and occupied until 1944 and the victorious Britain which defied Hitler in 1940 and liberated much of North-Western Europe in 1944-45 is evidently too much for Gallic pride to bear.
So the British contribution to the Normandy campaign is often minimised in French films and documentaries. The female agents in this film, though SOE operatives and therefore under British command, are improbably transported to France from a US Air Force base on an American plane, not on the usual RAF Lysander. The film’s plot revolves around the Mulberry Harbours, the floating harbours that were towed across the Channel to the Normandy beachheads, where they were used to land the supplies without which the soldiers could not fight. The name Mulberry Harbour is never mentioned in the film, though it is obvious to anyone familiar with the D-Day landings what the mysterious constructions are.
Instead, the film refers to ‘Phoenixes’, the name for the harbours’ concrete caissons, which it claims to have been constructed by Americans for the ‘American invasion’. But as the naval side of the D-Day landings was a British responsibility, the two Mulberry Harbours were conceived and constructed in Britain; credit for this extraordinary feat of engineering inventiveness must go to the British. It is true that an American naval officer, Edward Ellsberg, played a key part in ensuring that the Phoenixes functioned properly, but he was operating under British command and was effectively ignored by his countrymen. Indeed, so careless were the Americans of the Mulberry Harbour that serviced their beaches that they allowed it to sink in the great storm of 19 June 1944, only days after it had been set up. The harbour on the British beaches continued to function for eight months, and four million tons of supplies, 500,000 vehicles and over 2.5 million men landed through it.
The real stories of SOE’s female operatives are in any case more dramatic, more heroic and more heartrending than the lip-gloss theatricals of Female Agents. One of the most moving is that of Noor Inayat Khan (Nora Baker), born in Russia of Indian Muslim princely descent in 1914 and educated in France, who was parachuted into France in June 1943 as a wireless operator and was captured by the Germans. When the head of F (for France) Section of SOE, Vera Atkins, went to Europe after the war to search for her missing agents, she assumed that Noor had shared the fate of Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh and Andrée Borel, agents who after their capture were taken to Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace, where they were drugged and shoved, still alive, into a furnace. Only later did Atkins discover that Noor had survived, revealing nothing to her captors, until September 1944, when she was taken to Dachau concentration camp and murdered.
The heroic stories of the women agents of SOE make compelling reading. The most famous was Odette Hallowes (Odette Churchill), a Frenchwoman married to an Englishman, who worked as a wireless operator with Captain Peter Churchill, was arrested near Annecy in April 1943, withstood Gestapo torture and survived Ravensbrück concentration camp; her story was told in the film Odette (1950, with Anna Neagle). The exploits of Violette Szabo, born in Paris to a British father, who was twice sent on missions to France in 1944 at the age of 23 and helped organise and lead French resistance networks, were commemorated in the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1953, with Virginia McKenna); after her capture in June 1944, Szabo withstood appalling treatment by the Gestapo without talking. She was shot at Ravensbrück concentration camp in February 1945, leaving a small daughter by her French husband, Etienne Szabo, who had himself fallen in North Africa in 1942.
Pearl Witherington, another apparently ordinary woman from an Anglo-French background who proved capable of remarkable courage and initiative, died only last year. Parachuted into France in 1943 as a courier aged 27, she took charge of a thousand Maquisards when her organiser was captured in May 1944, cutting railway lines to assist the D-Day landings and inflicting losses on the Germans that exceeded 1,000 dead. As so often, the story of resistance to Nazism has a Jewish dimension. Amazingly, Vera Atkins, as revealed in Sarah Helm’s engrossing study A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, was born Vera Rosenberg, a Romanian Jew, and Jean-Paul Melville was born in 1917 as Jean-Paul Grumbach, a Jew of Alsatian descent.
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