The role of women in World War II was huge, from the Bletchley Park codebreakers to the brave nurses that took to the battlefield and saved lives by the thousands. Yet it’s only now that we’re discovering many of these stories. That includes the lives of four women we’ll be looking at today. Women who overcame the odds thanks to their bravery, smarts, and a unending determination. Seriously, these women’s stories are inspirational badassery on steroids that will have you shouting, “Why isn’t this a movie!?!”
SO, LET’S GET STARTED!!
*warning: This does get pretty intense and bleak in place…because.. well, it’s war.
1. FAYE SCHULMAN: THE GIRL WHO WOULD NOT BE SILENCED
When Faye Schulman was 22, her entire family was murdered in a liquidation of a Polish ghetto. Faye alone was spared, thanks to her skills as a photographer, which the Nazis took advantage of, forcing her to develop pictures of their atrocities—including the murder of her own family. Determined to make sure people knew what happened to her family, Faye secretly kept copies of the pictures. She then resolved to escape and do everything she could to fight the Nazi regime.
Miraculously, Faye managed to escape and joined a band of partisan fighters, made up of escaped prisoners of war. But the group wasn’t convinced they wanted Faye’s company, partly because she was the only woman, and also because she had no military experience—in addition to a fear of blood and guns. She was not exactly the ideal rebel fighter, but Faye refused to give in. She worked her ass off overcoming her fears, as she learned to shoot and train in combat, all in addition to becoming a self-trained nurse after realizing that the nobody in the group had medical training.
Throughout her time with the partisans, Faye saved countless civilian and military lives thanks to her new medical skills. She also took part in dozens of missions and raids to slow down the Nazis progress and rescue Jewish people. However, Faye’s greatest accomplishment was her photography. Over the course of two years, Faye took hundreds of pictures, developing them under blankets, and even burying her camera and film in the woods to keep them out of enemy hands. She was determined that people see the the atrocities being carried out and the resistance fighting back, saying:
“I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT THERE WAS RESISTANCE. JEWS DID NOT GO LIKE SHEEP TO THE SLAUGHTER. I WAS A PHOTOGRAPHER. I HAVE PICTURES. I HAVE PROOF.”
After the war, her photographs helped the world understand the horrors of the Nazi regime and the unsung efforts of the resistance. She continued working as a photographer and speaking out about her war experiences.
2. NOOR INAYAT KHAN: THE SPY PRINCESS
In 1943, Noor Inyat Khan became the first female secret radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France. It was an incredible achievement, which was somewhat lessened by two things: the average survival rate for the job was six weeks, and gentle, emotional children’s author Noor was the last person you’d expect to take on such a deadly role…and survive.
Noor had a lot of things going for her that made her the perfect spy. She was ridiculously smart, bilingual, and easily adaptable, but she was also sensitive and emotional, scatterbrained, and a literal princess, thus making her a visible target to enemies. Furthermore, as a firm pacifist, Noor refused to lie or use any form of violence: two pretty fundamental skills for being a spy. So, it’s not surprising that British Intelligence wasn’t desperate to get her out on the field. Then the Nazis occupied France, and everything changed.
Having spent her childhood in the France, Noor was determined to do everything she could to protect its citizens. She did a complete 180, training hard and building her skillset. Soon, she proved to be one of the most whip-smart and focused people in the history of British Intelligence.
In 1943, Noor arrived in Paris, but within days of her arrival, every other radio operator was captured by the Nazis, leaving her alone on enemy soil.
But Noor stuck it out, knuckled down, and to everyone’s surprise, she fucking nailed it! She ran an entire radio network solo, intercepting messages and passing along vital intel, all while constantly on the run from the Nazis. When the British offered to evacuate Noor, she refused. Twice. Despite the danger, she wouldn’t leave her post unprotected. The sweet, gentle princess that nobody thought would last a week had proved herself to be a badass with bravery and intelligence beyond comparison.
Five months after Noor started her work, someone blew her cover and she was imprisoned by the Nazis. But in typical Noor fashion, she wouldn’t let that stop her doing her work. Within hours of her capture, she snuck out her cell and leapt across rooftops to freedom.
Sadly, the escape attempt didn’t work. Noor was caught and dragged back to her cell where she underwent intense interrogation, which turned into merciless beating. Still, she said nothing. Noor was kept shackled and starved in solitary confinement, her only contact being the soldiers who beat her on a daily basis. This was Noor’s life for 10 months.
Eventually, Noor and three other agents were transferred to Dachau, where they were to be executed. While the other agents were quickly beheaded, Noor was kept alive for one more day of torture in a final attempt at collecting information. She refused to give up any information, so on the 13th September 1944, Noor was executed.
The last words of the woman that defied so many and saved even more:
3. SUZANNE SPAAK: MOTHER OF THE RESISTANCE
Suzanne was one of those women who was born to be a mom. As a proud mother of two, she lived for her children and filled their Paris home with laughter and love. And then World War II hit. Suddenly, the world wasn’t so bright. Suzanne’s home had been invaded and all around her, families were being torn apart by the Nazi regime.
Finding it increasingly difficult to do nothing, this housewife and mother joined the French Resistance in 1942. Other members of the resistance weren’t thrilled by the addition of a housewife and mother with no military experience. At best, she would be a failure. At worst, another body to them to clean up. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Suzanne was fearless. She refused to back down from any assignment, and when operations went tits up, it was Suzanne coming up with intelligence solutions to save the day. And she never stop proving the resistance wrong. Determined to get as many Jewish people to safety as possible, Suzanne risked everything to get ration cards and fake IDs for families. Using her motherly influence, she firmly reminded Paris’s religious elite and hospitals that they were morally bound to protect and house those in need. In other words, could they please get their shit together, do their damn job, and start housing Jewish refugees?! (Basically “do your homework” on a whole new level!)
Suzanne wasn’t done, though. She helped lead an operation to save more than 60 Jewish children who had been marked for deportation. Hiding several children in her own home, Suzanne risked her own family’s lives. Not only that, but she convinced others to do the same until all 60 children were saved.
In 1943, Suzanne sensed that her arrest was imminent. She stayed calm (again, mom skills!) and passed along names of all the children and families she had yet to save, ensuring her work could continue. Suzanne was arrested and in 1944, she was executed. Her legacy lives on, and thanks to her, countless Jewish children and families escaped Paris alive.
4. NANCY WAKE: THE FEARLESS MOUSE
Nancy was a constant thorn in Hitler’s side. A glamorous, gun-toting spy with buckets of smarts and sass, she was soon number one on the Gestapo’s most wanted list.
Born into poverty in New Zealand, Nancy showed her steely determination from a young age. She stubbornly worked to make something of herself, training as a journalist and eventually marrying a Frenchman and moving to Paris. There, Nancy was forced to watch in horror as her newfound home was taken by the Nazis. She immediately moved into action. Working as a journalist, she’d witnessed Hitler’s rise firsthand. Once, on a trip to Vienna, Nancy had seen Hitler’s Brownshirts mercilessly beat men and women in the streets.
Nancy knew one thing—she sure as fuck wasn’t letting that shit happen—not in her home! So she risked it all and joined the French Resistance, working as a courier and also rescuing RAF pilots. She sheltered them and at night got them across the border and the fuck out of dodge.
Nancy was nicknamed “the White Mouse” for her ability to run rings around the Gestapo, but unfortunately, they soon caught up with her. The game of cat and mouse was over, and the Gestapo were all set to capture Nancy…but then she got word of the imminent arrest. She kissed her husband goodbye and went on the run, never seeing him again. The Nazis raided their home and tortured her husband, eventually killing him after he refused to disclose her whereabouts.This infuriated Nancy, and made her more determined. She later said:
“IN MY OPINION, THE ONLY GOOD GERMAN WAS A DEAD GERMAN, AND THE DEADER, THE BETTER. I KILLED A LOT OF GERMANS, AND I AM ONLY SORRY I DIDN’T KILL MORE.”
Nancy traveled to Britain, where she became a Special Operations Executive. She trained in guerrilla warfare and eventually returned to France. In Englad, she lead thousands of Resistance fighters in successful battles to reclaim occupied towns. She raided supply lines, cut train lines, and once cycled over 300 miles in 70 hours to replace lost wireless codes! Basically, Nancy did everything she could to piss off the Nazis and stop their progress. She even claimed to have killed an SS with her bare hands!
By the end of the war, Nancy was the most decorated Allied woman, dripping in medals from multiple countries. But she shrugged it off, sold the medals, and lived comfortably off the cash for the rest of her life, saying:
“There’s no point in keeping them… I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”
This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? Well, let’s break it down for each of the ladies:
Faye Schulman: Faye has continued to talk about her experiences during WWII, and you can find an amazing video of Faye doing just that HERE!
Noor Inayat Khan: There a few really great books on Noor, one of these is Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu. I think it does a really good job of showing Noor as a full person.
Suzanne Spaak: We haven’t read it yet, but Suzanne’s Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson came out recently. So fingers crossed, guys!
Nancy Wake: You are really spoiled for choice here! Russell Braddons’ Nancy Wake is an easy popcorn read on her (in fact several people in the Amazon comments initially thought it was a novel…). There’s also a docu-drama on Nancy (the whole thing may currently be on YouTube…just saying)
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
Top photo: Faye Schulman
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