History Book Reviews

Churchill’s Angels: How Britain’s Women Secret Agents Changed the Course of the Second World War – Bernard O’Connor

It is hard to quantify the effectiveness of the Special Operations Executive in the overall military effort undertaken by Britain and her allies in the Second World War. The commanders of the regular services, particularly Bomber Harris, had little interest in this clandestine force and opposed the diversion of scarce resources to supporting SOE operations.

Such opposition came about through a misunderstanding of the role of SOE. The main objective of the SOE was to organise and arm the Resistance movements in occupied territory in anticipation of the Allied invasion of France and the Low Countries in the summer of 1944. Until D-Day no real appreciation of what the various Resistance groups could achieve was possible. After D-Day there was no doubt.

It was in the SOE’s early months, as it was slowly building up its contacts and its circuits, that most of the failures, the betrayals and the arrests of SOE officers took place. It is the stories around these failures that are usually seen in print, especially with regards to the female agents.

This is, to some degree, the case with Churchill’s Angels, though refreshingly there is also a chapter in the book which examines the operations to support D-Day and the liberation of France and the Low Countries. Bernard O’Conner does this by detailing the activities of individual agents. One of these is Elaine Madden.

Born in Poperinge near Ypres, Elaine dressed up as a soldier when the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940 and was evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain. It was in March 1944 that she was recruited by SOE.

In August 1944 she was dropped by parachute into Belgium. She was provided with 5,000 Belgian francs to carry about her person, 50,000 francs for her mission and a further 10,000 Francs which was to be used in her escape back through France after she had carried out her three-month mission. This was to act as the go-between for the principal SOE organiser in Belgium and the various Resistance groups, to which she would communicate the instructions of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).

Elaine was also told to advise the Resistance groups that complicated or heavy installations which would require more than a week to repair should not be destroyed, but should be sabotaged by having their essential parts removed. These parts should then be carefully hidden and handed over to the Allied forces when they liberated that particular area. The groups were told that the repetition of small acts of sabotage would generally cause more disruption to German communications and transport systems.

To stop the Germans from sending reinforcements and equipment to the front by road, the Resistance groups were also instructed to block roads, remove traffic signs, set booby traps and place mines. Likewise, to prevent transportation by water, canal lock gates were to be destroyed and to cause difficulties to the Luftwaffe, enemy aircraft and installations, such as fuel dumps, should be sabotaged.

Another area which could seriously hinder and frustrate the Germans was telecommunications. The groups were told to cut telephone and telegraph wires and, again, to remove parts from radio and associated installations. All such actions, the groups were warned, should be conducted clandestinely. No risks should be undertaken which might involve them in pitched battles with the Germans. The only exception to direct action against Germans was in the case of Luftwaffe personnel. These men, stated SHAEF, could be “sniped at where occasion presents”.

Amongst her various tasks, Elaine was the liaison between a very important person and the UK. She coded and decoded his messages and helped find a suitable landing spot for this VIP to be transported to Britain. Elaine assumed this person was a key Resistance leader and it was only after the war that she found out that it was Prince Charles, Count of Flanders, the Prince of Belgium.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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