Mission France, Kate Vigurs
In Mission France, Kate Vigurs takes the reader on a journey through the lives of the women working for Special Operations Executive in France during the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945., from their selection and training to the eventual completion or failure of their missions. It is a thrilling narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis., full of daring and danger, determination and desperation, deliverance and death. But far more so than similar books, it addresses the subject as a whole, focusing not just on the James Bond-like aspects of popular imagination, but also on the periods of isolation, the constant threat of exposure and resultant mental and physical strain, the sacrifice not just of lives but also the temporary foregoing of those things that make life worth living. Above all, Kate Vigurs tells the story of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances, whose courage contributed in real and significant ways to the liberation of France.
Unlike other works, Vigurs takes a new – and much-needed – approach, attempting to put equal emphasis on all 39 women recruited to SOEThe Special Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War., regardless of how famous they became after the war.Officially, there were 38 female operatives, plus Sonia Olschanesky, who was never trained in Britain. So, as well as revisiting the experiences of agents like Noor Inayat Khan, who became something of a folk hero post-bellum, Vigurs also considers the little-known operatives such as Yvonne Baseden, who received one of the biggest daylight supply drops of the war, or Pearl Witherington, who trained, armed, and commanded 1,500 men of the Resistance. These equally inspiring, brave women deserve no less attention than their more famous counterparts. As the author rightly states, just because some women chose to remain quiet after the war, to return as much as possible to normal life rather than step into the limelight, does not mean that they should be forgotten by posterity.
To Vigurs, each agent should be taken holistically, appreciated for their courage, determination, and their willingness to take the very unusual and dangerous step of actively participating, and bearing arms, in the war behind enemy lines. Yet each woman should also be understood as human, not the glamourized, semi-divine creatures portrayed in so many films and hagiographies. They were not all young, and they were not all beautiful. Nor were they all martyrs. They had foibles, and they made mistakes – sometimes very costly ones. They each did their best in exceptionally difficult circumstances, and Vigurs proves that it is possible to acknowledge this while at the same time taking a critical approach to their methods and success.
The author’s unwillingness to create another book of flattery will, I'm sure, cause some outrage in particular circles. In sticking with honesty, Vigurs has participated in her own form of iconoclasm. Some agents who were hailed posthumously for their bravery should never have been recruited in the first place; others endangered the lives of their colleagues, and thus the success of the overall mission. In quoting the official historian of SOE, M.R.D. Foot, Vigurs points out that for some women ‘There is a large amount of popular literature, almost all of it worthless and much of it about the wrong people.’P. 257. Mission France is the corrective. It is a complete, and thorough, reappraisal of the women of the SOE, and pedestals have no place within it.
This thorough analysis makes Mission France an incredibly detailed book. The amount of information could in other hands overwhelm the reader, but Vigurs has done well to weave a narrative thread through the mountains of data available to her – using everything from what remains of the original SOE archives held at Kew, to memoirs, audio recordings taken in the years following the war, war crimes trial records, and interviews with the few remaining survivors and their families and friends. The depth of detail does mean that Vigurs occasionally strays into the realms of monograph, but her written style is strong and can be extremely emotive. The women, their motivations and thoughts, their relationships and as well as their actions, spring to life and become three-dimensional. The reader encounters the full range of experience through the eyes of the subjects: sometimes tedium, sometimes elation, sometimes horror. The audience is not spared, and this can make Mission France tough to read: within its pages is possibly the most harrowing scene I've ever read. Yet in refusing to shy away from the difficult topics, and in addressing them with tact, Vigurs encourages us to appreciate these women’s sacrifices all the more.
As such, Mission France is not only an essential book to read, addressing the imbalance and myths of previous studies, but it is also a gripping, astonishing account of all 39 female trailblazers who gave so much to fight for the liberation of France during the Second World War. It has been a mammoth undertaking, but it has been done with style, sensitivity, and an intellectual rigour that makes a refreshing change.