Women in Intelligence: The hidden history of two World Wars


Mata Hari was the ultimate femme fatale. The Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan was famously beautiful and enigmatic, and equally notorious for her many affairs – often with military officers. But Mata Hari led a double life, spying for the French in the early part of the First World War before later being ‘turned’ by the Germans. She was eventually tried for espionage and executed by firing squad in Paris in October 1917, aged just 41, despite questionable evidence for her guilt. In the century since, Mata Hari has been portrayed countless times on stage and in film. And it’s not difficult to understand why: as a tale of glamour and intrigue, her life makes quite a story.

For Helen Fry, the popular image of Mata Hari as a delectable, dangerous female agent has done immense disservice to the wider history of women in intelligence. In this, her latest book, she sets out to challenge the lazy tradition of ‘assessing women operatives primarily on their presumed seductive qualities’ to argue instead that their work required patience and determination – and a lot of plain old hard graft.

Fry’s book is a comprehensive account of the many hundreds of women who worked in espionage and intelligence-gathering in Britain and abroad over a 30-year period, as ‘intelligencers, codebreakers, spies, secret operatives, handlers, and double agents.’ These women clearly had important responsibilities and were frequently exposed to extremely dangerous situations. But, equally, the work was often boring, repetitive, and exhausting.

Their history has been obscured, however, not because of an undue focus on their male counterparts, but because of what Fry calls a ‘culture of official secrecy’. Britain’s intelligence agencies, particularly MI6, are very protective about their files, she tells us, even those that relate to agents who were operative more than 80 years ago and are now long dead. This slightly baffling and (for Fry) clearly frustrating silence means that many of the women she profiles are discussed only briefly. Some are referred to only by their codenames.

Bletchley and Trent Park

Although the subtitle of this book claims to be a history of two world wars, the section on the First World War is in fact relatively brief, taking up only the first 60 or pages or so. This is probably a consequence of the dearth of archival records. The rest of the book focuses on intelligence-gathering and espionage operations in the Second World War, although not before a brief and fascinating interlude on the women in departments such as ‘M Section’, a branch of MI5 that infiltrated fascist organisations in Britain in the run-up to September 1939.

Once war had broken out, it proved very difficult to land spies in Nazi-controlled Europe. Much of the intelligence-gathering therefore took place remotely, on home soil, at sites such as Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, the achievements of which have been very well documented already. Fry nonetheless spends a good chunk of her time on Bletchley, partly because it is such a good example of a vital organisation that would not have functioned, or even existed, without women. In January 1945, she reports, women made up 76% of its workforce.

Although Bletchley was ahead of its time in terms of gender balance – something that was also true of other institutions such as MI5 – it is clear that intelligence remained a cliquey world. Many of the staff at Bletchley were hired because of their Oxbridge education or because of who they knew (Edward Travis, boss there from 1942, hired two of his own daughters). As Fry explains, it was felt that ‘high society, privileged and well-educated women’ – ‘the Debutantes’, as they were known – would be better at keeping secrets than those from more modest backgrounds. A clear class prejudice remained at ‘The Park’, then, if not a gender one.

Yet the many ex-Bletchley staff Fry quotes spoke fondly of their time there, even if the work was dull or seemingly irrelevant to the war effort. Some individual results really stand out: Jane Hughes’ reading of a May 1941 Luftwaffe message led directly to the sinking of Bismarck, while similar work by Mavis Batey prevented a huge attack on British ships en route from Egypt to Greece. The Italian navy became the target instead.

Other chapters focus on the bugging of POW camps in the UK, such as at former stately homes like Trent Park (previously explored by Fry in her 2019 book The Walls Have Ears). Here imprisoned Nazis spoke aloud to one another about military secrets, not realising that their British hosts would be so rude as to listen in on their conversations. Later on, in a section on the closing stages of the Second World War, Fry discusses the many female agents dropped into occupied France, Holland, Switzerland, and elsewhere, many of whom were in fact émigrées from these countries who wanted to help the Allies. The work – in supporting resistance networks and running escape lines for prisoners of war into neutral countries – was always dangerous, with many unfortunate agents meeting the same fate as Mata Hari.

Codename ‘Amniarix’

A recurring theme of this book is how sexism worked both for and against women in intelligence. Predictably, women often had to accept lower pay, work in unpleasant conditions, and no doubt take a great deal of condescension from their male colleagues. But in other ways their gender was an advantage. The now-defunct MI9, for instance, found that German POWs imprisoned in places such as Trent Park were more likely to be intimidated into giving up secrets by female interrogators. And while it was common for Gestapo agents in occupied Europe to stop and search men in their hunt for spies, they rarely if ever bothered to approach women.

Even more astonishingly, women operatives were sometimes gifted sensitive information without even trying, by men who were clearly keen to impress them. This seems to have happened with one Jeannie Rousseau (codename ‘Amniarix’), a member of a network called the Druids, which infiltrated senior Nazi circles. One on occasion in 1943 a German officer boasted to her about the V-rocket testing site at Peenemünde, even showing off the maps and diagrams he had of the site in his briefcase. A no-doubt astonished Rousseau committed it all to memory and promptly reported the information back to her superiors.

Described by a colleague as ‘the most remarkable girl of her generation’, Rousseau was ultimately imprisoned by the Gestapo three times over the course of the war, although she survived to see its end and only died in 2017. She is just one of the many courageous and resilient women profiled in the book, some of whom have been named for the first time. As I said before, the book is comprehensive – and in places close to encyclopaedic. Some readers may have issues with this approach, as Fry introduces new figures and new organisations every couple of pages, often never mentioning them again.

But this is not the author’s fault. Her subject is broad and complex, and the detail of this book only goes to demonstrate how thorough her research has been. It also shows that, without the contribution of women in intelligence – be it as agents, codebreakers, or secretaries – the outcome of both world wars would have been very different.

Helen Fry
Yale Books, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-300260779