In "Unsung Heroes of World War II" (The Great Courses Plus), Lynne Olson introduces us to three women who played pivotal roles in the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. Olson, a bestselling author of eight books, is the historian whom former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "our era's foremost chronicler of World War II politics and diplomacy."
Here are three women who made Professor Olson's list:
Andree de Jongh
Known as Dedee, Andree de Jongh founded the Comet Line, the largest and most important escape line smuggling airman from behind enemy lines.
Dedee "worked as a nurse for British troops wounded in the fighting. Along with a group of friends and acquaintances, she began to smuggle injured British soldiers out of German-controlled hospitals and take them to nearby safe houses that she had set up. Not long afterward, she traveled secretly to Spain, which, during World War II, was a neutral country" and struck a deal to smuggle fighters through Spain to the coast where they would be flown back to England.
"The majority of Comet Line workers were women," Olson says. "Being part of an escape network was probably the most dangerous form of resistance work in Europe. German officials were keenly aware of the value of these airmen to the Allied bombing effort. If escaped line members were caught, they faced torture, the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and/or execution. It was particularly dangerous for the couriers—most of them young women, many of them still in their teens—who escorted the servicemen hundreds of miles across enemy territory.
"The Comet Line would be the largest and most important escape line in occupied Europe. It would be credited with rescuing more than 800 British and American servicemen, getting them out of enemy territory and back to freedom.
"...By the end of the war, the rescue of downed Allied airmen had become a commonplace event. In all, some 7,000 British, American, and other Allied servicemen were spirited out of occupied Europe during the war. The number of those who helped them escape has been estimated at more than 12,000 people. ... Following the war, [Dedee] was awarded the US Medal of Freedom and the British George Medal, both of them high civilian honors. For most of the rest of her life, she devoted herself once again to saving the lives of others, working as a nurse in a leper hospital in Ethiopia."
Fourcade was the head of a hugely important intelligence network, Alliance, that "at its height, operated throughout all of France and numbered more than 3,000 agents. These were ordinary French citizens who came from all classes of society—workers and businessmen, policemen, soldiers and sailors, government clerks, students, shopkeepers, housewives, and the most famous child actor in France, just to name a few. Thanks to Marie-Madeleine's determined efforts, almost 20% were women—the highest number of any resistance organization in France. Alliance worked closely with MI6, the British intelligence agency. No other Allied spy network in France lasted as long or supplied as much crucial intelligence over the course of the conflict."
(Fourcade is such a fascinating character that Olson wrote a full-length biography of her, which is great reading. I'm such a fan that I also read Citizens of London which is thoroughly engrossing and lively, as well.)
"Immediately after the German occupation of France, [Fourcade] joined the resistance—the handful of French men and women who rose up in 1940 to defy the Nazis. ... Marie-Madeleine became deputy to the founder of a new anti-German spy network in Vichy. The founder of the network was a former French army intelligence officer named Georges Loustaunau-Lacau. This kind of resistance activity was very rare in France so early in the war. When Loustaunau-Lacau was captured in July 1941, Marie-Madeleine became leader of the group, which was called Alliance. At first, she was worried about whether her male agents would accept a woman as their chief. Some were indeed hesitant at first, but most of them were not. One of Marie-Madeleine's top agents said after the war, "She was young and very beautiful, but there was an unmistakable aura of authority around her."
"She married... her first husband, a young French military intelligence officer...when she was 18 and had two children with him. But then in her mid-20s, she left him in Morocco, where he was based, took her children to Paris, and established a life of her own, which included flying a plane, taking part in car races, and getting a job."
"At the time of the French capitulation to Hitler in 1940, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade embodied everything about women that the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain detested. She was separated from her husband, had a mind of her own and ambitions that stretched far beyond housekeeping, and had given up taking care of her children to resist the Germans."
"One of Marie-Madeleine's agents was a brilliant young woman in her early 20s named Jeannie Rousseau. She was very good at concealing how smart she was, and she took full advantage of the fact that most men did not take her seriously. In 1941, she became an interpreter in Paris for a syndicate of French businessmen who met with German military officials to discuss commercial issues like Germany's seizure of French business assets. She used playful skepticism to prod a German officer into sharing secrets about Germany's V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket.
"After each evening with the officers, Rousseau, who had a photographic memory, went to an Alliance safe house and wrote down what she had heard, word for word. She didn't understand most of what she was told, but she suspected it might be one of the top secrets of the war. Within a few weeks, Rousseau had acquired a huge amount of information about both the V-1 and V-2, all of which Alliance dispatched to London. The day after her report arrived, it was on Winston Churchill's desk. Having been alerted by Rousseau and other spies, the British confirmed the existence of the secret weapons through a series of reconnaissance flights over the testing site. On the night of August 17, 1943, more than 500 RAF bombers pounded the complex, heavily damaging its research center and production facilities and destroying all blueprints of the V-2s."
Olson "earned degrees in Political Science and Journalism at the University of Arizona (with Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude honors), followed by a master's degree in Literature at American University. After graduation, Professor Olson worked as a journalist for 10 years. She worked with the Associated Press as a national feature writer in New York, a foreign correspondent in the Moscow bureau, and a political reporter in Washington DC. She then joined the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun, where she covered national politics and eventually the White House. She later taught for six years at American University. Her books include Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network against Hitler; Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War; Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939–1941; and Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour.
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