The history of the Second World War is full of heroic actions carried out by men and women, often little known but whose work was indispensable in the discourse of war.
Women were actively involved in virtually every aspect of the conflict, both military and civilian. For example, the British intelligence service (SOE) had 55 female members, of whom 13 died in action.
There were also women soldiers and pilots who took part in military actions and bombardments. And more than 59,000 nurses participated in World War II, of which more than 200 died. In the Pacific alone, 70 were captured by the Japanese in 1942 and held prisoner for three and a half years.
For Operation Overlord, the nurses received military training. They were taught how to get on a boat with a rope, how to jump on boats, how to parade, how to cross fences and barricades, and how to defend themselves. On D-Day they got rid of their traditional headdresses and wore military uniforms and boots.
It does not seem that any nurse participated in the operation the D day, but they would arrive four days later, disembarking under the fire of the German snipers.
These are some of those women who became heroines.
1. Virginia Hall
Virginia Hall was, according to the Gestapo itself, the most dangerous of allied spies. American, she worked for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive), becoming the first operational allied spy in occupied France. She hid in Lyon for two years as a correspondent for the New York Post. Once the Allies landed in North Africa she crossed the Pyrenees on foot across to Spain, where she was imprisoned in Figueres. Once released, she moved to Madrid, where she continued her work.
Once the United States enters the war, she joins the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor of the CIA, and is sent back to France aboard a submarine. There she arms and trains three resistance battalions, which manage to destroy four bridges, sabotage railway and telephone lines and capture more than 500 German soldiers.
She was never captured by the Nazis. Oh, and several years before becoming a spy she had lost a leg in a traffic accident, so she wore an artificial one.
2. Lillian Gutteridge
Lillian Gutteridge was a British nurse who participated in the evacuation of the Allied armies in Dunkirk. She was one of the last nurses to leave France. Her ambulance was stopped by an SS officer who ordered her to deliver the wounded she was transporting. Lillian slapped the officer, who responded by stabbing her in the thigh with a knife. Before things got worse, the officer was shot down by soldiers of the retreating Scottish Black Watch regiment. Despite her injury, Lillian drove the ambulance to the French railroad bound for Cherbourg. On the way she picked up another 600 wounded French and British soldiers. Days later she managed to reach England with her patients.
3. Susan Travers
The only woman in the French Foreign Legion at the time of the outbreak of war, Travers was in Bir Hakeim, Libya, when the forces of Free France were surrounded by the Germans. She refused to be evacuated with the rest of the women and remained under siege for 15 days, until the situation became untenable. Getting behind the wheel of a truck, she managed to cross the German fence and lead the 2,500 French surrounded soldiers to the allied lines, acting as a shield.
4. The Czech nurse who poisoned the Nazis
A few years ago the Czech town of Trebon unveiled a commemorative plaque of a nurse (whose name is unknown), who after the German annexation of Czechoslovakia poisoned several German soldiers. She became her lover, and according to the stories that have been transmitted orally, after being with her they used to die or disappear. In the end she was executed by a Gestapo agent sent to investigate the matter.
5. Violette Szabo
When her husband Etienne Szabo, officer of the French Foreign Legion died in combat, Violette was recruited by the British SOE and sent to France as a spy in April 1944. There she organized a resistance unit, sabotaged bridges and roads, and sent reports to London. She was arrested twice, but on both occasions she managed to escape.
Sent back to France a few days after the Normandy landing, she was intercepted at a roadblock along with her partisan companion. Leaving the car Violette opened fire on the German soldiers, and continued firing until her companion managed to escape.
Interrogated and tortured, they couldn’t get her to talk. She was transferred to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in August 1944, where she made several unsuccessful escape attempts. In January 1945 she was executed by an SS officer. Her story is told in the 1958 film Secret Agent SZ.
6. Augusta Chiwy
Augusta Chiwy was a Belgian-Congolese nurse who volunteered to serve at the field hospital in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. At that time there was only one doctor treating the wounded Americans. Augusta went around the battlefield picking up the wounded under enemy fire. In 2011, at the age of 93, the American army paid her a tribute.
7. Felice Schragenheim
Although Felice Schragenheim tried to flee Germany several times before the war, the fact is that she remained working for a Nazi newspaper, hiding her Jewish status. There she had access to secret information and at the same time could hide in plain sight, helping other Jews to leave the country.
In 1942 she falls in love with Lilly Wust, the wife of a German officer, with whose family she lives until August 21, 1943, when she is arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Wust tries to visit her in the camp, but is refused. Felice dies on 1 January 1944, probably of tuberculosis. Wust then abandons her husband and devotes herself to protecting Jews for the rest of the war.
All this wasn’t known until it was revealed by Lilly Wust in 1995. The 1999 film Aimée and Jaguar tells the story.
8. Elsie Ott
Elsie Ott was a nurse and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In 1943 she was sent to India on board an airplane with the mission of evacuating wounded soldiers without ever having been trained or flown. The apparatus had no medical equipment, only a small first aid kit and a doctor. A few months later she returned to India with a new evacuation unit and was promoted to captain.
9. Lise Borsum
Lise Borsum was a housewife, a member of the Norwegian resistance, who throughout the war helped Jews escape from Nazi-occupied countries, leading them to Sweden. Their house was used as a transit shelter. In 1943 she is arrested together with her husband. The husband was released, but she is sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she remains until she is released by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945.
10. Reba Whittle
Reba Whittle, an air nurse from the United States, became the first female prisoner of war on the western front during World War II. The plane in which she was traveling was shot down over Aachen and the survivors taken prisoner. She was taken to a hospital near Frankfurt to care for British prisoners of war. She was finally liberated along with 109 of her companions thanks to the intercession of Switzerland, on January 25, 1945.