Our latest co-production, The Beauty Parade looks at a unique operation from the Second World War, where ordinary women were plucked from obscurity and parachuted behind enemy lines.
In 1940, the British Government formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its role? Espionage in occupied territories and, for the first time, women could serve.
Female agents undertook the same training as men. After an initial character-based selection process, recruits undertook a series of gruelling training regimes – covering physical training, silent killing, weapons handling, demolition, map reading, compass work, field craft, basic Morse Code and raid tactics.
These brave women came from all walks of life – from the working classes to the aristocracy – and they all had one thing in common; they could speak French.
We’ve delved into this hidden history to bring you these fascinating facts…
- Many women joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) to hide their double lives as spies.
- Women joining the SOE were the only women permitted to have active combat roles during the Second World War.
- The average life expectancy of an SOE wireless operator in occupied France was just six weeks.
- All operatives were trained in sabotage, firearms, explosives, communications, unarmed combat, organising supply drops, evading capture and resisting interrogation.
- All agents carried suicide pills and were aware that they'd probably never see their loved ones again.
- Captured spies rarely survived. Most were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and shot.
- Nancy Wake nicknamed 'The White Mouse' by the Gestapo evaded capture many times and survived the war. She saved the lives of hundreds of airmen, taking them from France into Spain.
- Women made excellent agents as they weren't perceived as a threat, could move around easily in the daytime and blended in better.
- Special equipment was created for agents including guns disguised, radio transmitter suitcases, exploding rats and folding motorbikes.
- Violette Szabo once fought off German soldiers in a gun fight at a roadblock, allowing a local resistance leader to escape. She was captured and executed in a concentration camp in 1945.
Find out more at The Beauty Parade 5 – 14 March 2020.
Accessible for D/deaf audiences with visual language and captioning throughout.