History is full of important figures, people who changed the world, heroes even. The 20th century knew a lot of struggle and during those extraordinary times, Britain needed extraordinary people. We all know the names of those in the spotlight, such as Winston Churchill, but who was fighting behind the scenes? Spies played a vital role in the Allied war effort, so let’s remember some of the most extraordinary female spies from the 20th century.
“Mata Hari” sounds quite exotic, doesn’t it? Of course, that was exactly the point it was chosen by Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She was as much a “femme fatale”, as she was a woman living in a time when choices for a woman were limited. After marrying young and struggling with married life, she had to leave her daughter behind with her ex-husband because she was unable to provide for her. She moved to Paris in 1902 for a better life and took several odd jobs to support herself. This is where she first took to the stage as an exotic dancer and quickly made a name for herself.
She performed under the name Mata Hari, meaning “eye of the day” in Malay and danced nearly nude, with only a decorated breastplate and jewellery. As she spun stories about being a Javanese princess and performed draped in gauzy shawls, her fame grew. When the war started, her career was already in decline, but since she was still beautiful and well-known, she became a courtesan and took rich and powerful lovers of all nationalities.
As she continued travelling, she caught the eye of the Germans, who offered her 20.000 francs to become a spy. She accepted, but there’s little evidence she actually passed them any information. She was also approached by the French secret service and agreed to spy for them but was soon after suspected to be a double agent working for the Germans. Her trial took place in 1917 and she was found guilty, though no real evidence that she had passed any information was provided.
So was she really a spy? Did she seduce men left and right to pass on information to the other side? Or was she just a woman trying to survive in difficult times? It’s hard to say who Margaretha really was, as history looks back on her as the ultimate femme fatale, though she herself claimed she’d never been a spy.”
Her legacy, however, is undeniable. French investigator Captain Pierre Bouchardon called her “a born spy”, though she herself claimed “I have always lived for love and pleasure.” She was killed by a firing squad, but showed grace and courage until her final moments, as she refused to wear a blindfold and reportedly blew the soldiers one last kiss before they opened fire.
The first time I went into the Stafford Hotel, I was made aware of a lady sitting by the bar in the American Bar. It wasn’t until she left that the bartender asked me whether I knew who she was. I didn’t so he told me she was Nancy Wake and went on to regale the story of her time as a spy during WWII.
Now every time I walk past the Stafford Hotel or I’m lucky enough to have a drink at the bar, I think of her and what she did for the Allied war effort. In her honour, I drink either a gin and tonic or the specially devised cocktail called the White Mouse that is on the Stafford cocktail list and created in her honour. The only way Nancy Wake and I differ in our enjoyment of G&T is that she was able to have one in the morning - I take mine a little later!
Even though we’re not sitting at the bar in the Stafford Hotel, let me be your storytelling bartender
Nancy Wake was an exceptional woman in our history. She was born in New Zealand in 1912, moved
to Australia where she became a nurse and then decided to train as a journalist in London. On
completion of her studies, she met and married Henry Fiocca and moved to his native France in 1939.
From here, she watched the increasing aggression of Hitler and became determined to work against
the Nazis. When Germany invaded France in 1940, she joined the French Resistance working as a
messenger and a smuggler, carrying messages and food to underground groups and even buying an
ambulance to smuggle refugees. During this time, she took on many identities and used falsified
papers that allowed her to go into occupied zones. Nancy Wake was an extraordinary woman,
managing to escape the Nazis so many times, it earned her the nickname “The White Mouse.” By
1943, she was on the Nazi’s most wanted list with a five million Franc price on her head. One of her
most remarkable accomplishments was her 500km long cycle ride through several German
checkpoints to deliver codes to an operator. It took her 71 hours, cycling almost non-stop through
the French countryside and mountains. In the face of impossible odds, Nancy Wake managed to
evade the Germans time and time again. She was captured once, but was able to trick her captors
into releasing her after four days.
She was honoured for all her heroic deeds and ended up living in London’s Stafford Hotel for the last
ten years of her life paid for by grateful supporters.
Noor Inayat Khan
Noor has fascinated me for a while as she did so much to help this country as an immigrant. She was
born in Moscow in 1914 but was not Russian. In fact, she was an Indian princess, descended from the
18th century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. Despite being a firm believer in the principle of nonviolence,
she joined the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II and became a British
spy. In June 1943, she was sent on a mission to Paris as a secret wireless radio operator. However,
within a week of her arrival, nearly all SOE operators in Paris were arrested by the Gestapo, leaving
her as the only undercover radio operator in the region. Her superiors offered to bring her home, but
she refused to cut the mission short.
Carrying on with extraordinary bravery, Noor managed to stay undiscovered for nearly four months
before her capture. In an attempt to stay under the radar, she was given various changes of clothes
and hairstyles. However, every outfit she chose was blue which was her favourite colour and the
Gestapo was aware of this. This was a factor in her discovery.
She was taken to Germany, where she was placed into solitary confinement for 10 months. Despite
everything she went through, she never gave up any information and her bravery and dedication
saved many lives.
An amazing woman who did so much for so many and gave up her life without even divulging her
name to her captors.
To hear more about these and other spies, join our “London Spy Walk.” Details here:
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.