Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions by Women of the OSS & SOE

shadow-warriors-uk-editionWorld War Two was the war in which old gender rules changed, as intelligence agencies created specific training and roles for women.

SHADOW WARRIORS is the story of women as undercover combatants: armed with Sten guns and grenades; cutting telecommunication wires, laying mines in roadways; organizing bombing raids; preparing the way for the D-Day invasion and harassing enemy forces as the Allies moved inland.

It begins by telling the story of how US and British intelligence agencies decided to use women as spies in a way they never had before; and of how they then recruited and trained them, as couriers, wireless operators, saboteurs and even resistance leaders.

These agents ranged from girls barely out of high school to mature mothers, from working class women to the daughters of aristocrats, from the prim and proper to wild high-livers.

They were taught how to send coded messages; how to lay explosive charges; and how to kill with knives, guns and their bare hands.

Sometimes they faced sexism and even derision from their trainers. Yolande Beekman, an efficient and courageous agent who was executed by the Germans, had been dismissed by one SOE instructor as, “A nice girl, darned the men’s socks, would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that.”

Their actions behind enemy lines were to change for ever the views of the US and UK intelligence communities on using women as agents.

Some, such as New Zealander Nancy Wake and Polish-born Christine Granville led men in battle. Granville masterminded the escape of a fellow SOE agent. Nancy led a gun and grenade attack on a Gestapo headquarters in France. American Virginia Hall became the Gestapo’s most wanted agent.

Others, such as the American Betty Pack, used their beauty and sexual allure to capture enemy secrets which would change the course of the war.

All these agents knew that torture and death were the price of failure. Some had to leave babies and children at home. Many paid the ultimate price for their bravery.

As Nancy Wake said: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

The clandestine war, and therefore the war itself, would not have been won without the courage and contribution of these Shadow Warriors.

UK edition now available; US edition to be published by Chicago Review Press in January 2017.



The heroes of the raid on St Nazaire

Raid on St Nazaire
Raid on St Nazaire

A ceremony has been held to remember the heroes of the raid on St Nazaire.

In March 1942, more than 600 men left Falmouth in Cornwall in a flotilla of three destroyers and 16 smaller boats.

The special fleet included HMS Campbeltown, which was packed with explosives and was used to to ram into the gates of the docks in the French port.

HMS Campbeltown being converted for the raid
HMS Campbeltown being converted for the raid

St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, such as the Tirpitz, to return to home waters rather than having a safe haven available on the Atlantic coast.

HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates
HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates

The raid put the dry dock out of commission until the end of the war – but success came at a cost. Of the 622 men of the Royal Navy and Commandos who took part in the raid, only 228 men returned to England.

Heroes as prisoners
Heroes as prisoners

One hundred and sixty-nine men were killed and another 215 became prisoners of war. The fallen British raiders were buried at the Escoublac-la-Baule cemetery, near St Nazaire, with military honors.

Commandos under prison escort
Commandos under prison escort

Five of the raiders escaped overland via Spain.

Eighty-nine awards and medals were bestowed for the raid, including five Victoria Crosses.

The organiser of this weekend’s event in Falmouth, Eric Dawkins, stated:  “The destruction of the dock meant those facilities were no longer able to be used. Falmouth played a major part.

“I’ve known these veterans [who took part], including those few who are still remaining, for 30-odd years and know their tales.”


Two to remember from the Somme

A brief story of two Royal Welch Fusiliers who were wounded at battles for woods on the Somme.

Their graves are located in the cemetery at Abbeville, which was some way from the front.

Abbeville cemetery
Abbeville cemetery

I took these photos some years ago and now the wonderful Anne Pedley, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum in Caernarfon, has helped me piece together parts of the stories of Ceredig Ellis and Edward Roberts.

Ceredig Ellis
Ceredig Ellis

Second Lieutenant Ellis, whose parents were from Aberystwyth, was married to Mildred and lived 61 Oxton Road, Wallasey, Cheshire.

He was educated at Bangor University where he was a member of the OTC.

He was commissioned on February 1, 1915. He was transferred to 15th RWF (the London Welsh) and joined the battalion in France.

He saw action with D Company and was wounded at Mametz Wood on July 11, 1916.

He was to die of these wounds, most likely at Abbeville where there was a large military hospital.

Ceredig's grave - detail
Ceredig’s grave – detail

As the inscription on the grave indicates Mildred had recently given birth to their first child.

The second fusilier, CSM Roberts, enlisted with 10th RWF and embarked to France on September 27, 1915.

He received the Military Medal for bravery while in trenches in the Kemmel area, where the Fusiliers defended themselves against a German gas and an infantry attack.

Edward Roberts
Edward Roberts

He also fought at High Wood and it was during fighting there that he was first reported missing and then wounded.

He died of his wounds at Abbeville ten days later.

The cemetery contains around 3,000 graves
The cemetery contains around 3,000 graves

The three nights Blitz, February 1941

In February 1941, Swansea became the first place outside London to suffer three consecutive nights of bombing.


During the dark nights of February 19, 20 and 21 the bombers came back almost constantly, killing 230 people and injuring more than 400 more.D 235-1-7 Ben Evans

Ports like Swansea had become priority targets for the Luftwaffe.

On duty in the city that February 1941 was Elaine Kidwell, a 17-year-old who had lied about her age to become one of the youngest air raid wardens in Britain.

D 235-1-33 Castle Street-College Street

During one of the raids she almost lost her life when a parachute mine exploded.

“Everybody was blown, and I was blown right across the road, crashed into a wall, and I didn’t have any breath in me,” she told me a few years ago. “Anyway I was coming around and I went into my pocket, and I wish I hadn’t it, because I’ve had my leg pulled about it ever since, I took my lipstick out and I put it on.

“I got my breath back, and he said to me – one of the wardens did – ‘That’s your armour, isn’t it?’. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘As long as I’ve got my lipstick on I can face anything!’

P-PR 95-4-3a Blitz from Milton Terrace



A most special moment at Menin Gate (WW1)

Harry Patch never spoke publicly about his experiences on the frontline of the First World War until he had turned 100.

From then on he was to become an eloquent ambassador for those who had lost their lives on both sides.

He returned to Passchendaele in 2007 for the 90th anniversary of the battle, laying a wreath, not only on a memorial for the British dead, but also at a cemetery for the German victims of the offensive.

He also went to the Menin Gate where he made this speech.

He died in July 2009, aged 111. He was the last of the British veterans of the Western Front.

A D-Day Veteran’s Return to Normandy

Bayeux War Cemetery
Bayeux War Cemetery

A year ago today I was fortunate to be in France with Ted Owens, a veteran of 41 Commando who landed on Sword Beach on D-Day.

Ted, aged 88 and from Pembroke Dock, Wales, returned to the spot at which he had been wounded during the landings.

Ted was badly injured on the beach within a few minutes of the landing and was sent back home. He returned to his unit in August and later fought in Belgium and the Netherlands.

On June 6, we headed to Bayeux War Cemetery. Ted was keen to find the grave of a fallen comrade from 41 Commando.

Ted Owens at Bayeux War Cemetery
Ted Owens at Bayeux War Cemetery

He found the grave of Marine Ernest Spence, from Royton, Lancashire, and laid a small wooden cross.

Ernest Spence, killed on D-Day.
Ernest Spence, killed on D-Day.

Ted’s trip was filmed for a television programme called ‘Welsh Heroes of World War 2: D-Day Commando’, which is available to watch online here.