Hornchurch exhibition on women who spied in Nazi-occupied France

Twelve of the 39 women working for Winston Churchill’s secret Special Operations Executive were shot or died in Nazi concentration camps.

They had volunteered and trained in espionage to work with the French Resistance in Churchill’s campaign “to set Europe ablaze”.

The exhibition was put on at the weekend (July 22-23) by Havering military women’s historian Kim Smith at the Ingrebourne Valley nature centre on the former wartime RAF site.

“These women trained to use mobile radios to send coded messages back to London,” Kim explained. “They were instructed in firearms, self-defence and explosives, to play a vital role in liaising with the French Resistance.”

But many were caught by the Germans or betrayed by Nazi sympathisers.

Yet most managed to survive the war, like Odette Hallowes, also known as Odette Churchill, who was later awarded the George Cross and the Légion d’Honneur.

She arrived in France in 1942 as a courier but was captured in 1943 and spent the rest of the war in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Her wartime experiences were told in books and a film. She died in 1995 aged 83.

Yvonne Burney was a clandestine wireless operator who played a key role in the first daylight parachute drop of supplies over France in June 1944, helping the French Resistance prepare for the Allied D-day invasion. She was captured and sent to Ravensbrück, but survived and was later awarded the MBE. Yvonne died in 2017 aged 95.

But Noor Khan, codename Madeleine, the first woman wireless operator sent into occupied France, didn’t survive. She was betrayed and captured, then executed at Dachau concentration camp aged 29. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Violette Szabo was captured on her second mission in occupied France and deported to Ravensbrück, where she was executed aged 24. She was also posthumously awarded the George Cross.

The exhibition at the Ingrebourne centre displayed some of the of the secret “spy gadgets” and weapons these women used, as well as the secret German Enigma coding machine that was breached by the genius university mathematician Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

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