Women in Intelligence by Helen Fry – 50 Years in 50 Books

Women in Intelligence: The Hidden History of Two World Wars by Helen Fry is due to be published on 26th September 2023. In this major, panoramic history, Helen Fry looks at the rich and varied work women undertook as civilians and in uniform. From spies in the Belgian network “La Dame Blanche,” knitting coded messages into jumpers, to those who interpreted aerial images and even ran entire sections, Fry shows just how crucial women were in the intelligence mission. Filled with hitherto unknown stories, Women in Intelligence places new research on record for the first time and showcases the inspirational contributions of these remarkable women.

In this blogpost, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Helen explores how she came to write about the role of women in intelligence for her new book.

Article by Helen Fry

It is nearly a decade since a really fruitful and dynamic partnership began between myself and Yale University Press that has led to the publication of Women in Intelligence in September 2023. Whilst researching for previous intelligence and espionage titles – The Walls Have Ears, MI9, The London Cage and Spymaster – the extraordinary roles of women in intelligence started to emerge. The discoveries were largely accidental, which in itself says much about the invisibility of these women in our narratives, especially in military intelligence and espionage. To date their stories have been largely missing from the wider narratives of World War One and World War Two, as well as women’s history. There are exceptions – like the glamorous femme fatale Mata Hari, whose fame as a spy exploded in films and the media after her death. She came to define the image of the female spy as an exotic seductress, an image that has been hard to shift in popular perceptions of female spies.

Histories of intelligence, spies and espionage have contained few women in their storylines and even less of their names in the index. In some cases, the women are missing completely from an index. Their absence has been driven by two main factors; firstly, historians’ unconscious bias in excluding them from their research and an assumption that if women’s roles were not evidenced, they must not have been of importance. Secondly, official secrecy which has kept – and in many cases continues to keep – their roles hidden (as in the case of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6).

Over the last decade or so, there has been an increasing focus on the female agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), F Section in France; and the female codebreakers and cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. With the exception of SOE and Bletchley Park, there has been an unchallenged assumption that women in intelligence fundamentally conducted routine desk jobs. Photographs of uniformed women, sitting at a desk with a pencil and paper have done little to dispel this image. While much secret work was routine and boring – something that was true for both male and female intelligencers – what emerged in my research was a very different picture. One that was far more engaging and exciting, and full of surprises.

Women in Bletchley Park” by UK Government is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

It has led to the discovery of the unusual and central roles of women within military intelligence, across all three services of Army, Navy and Air force, as well as in agencies like MI5 and MI6 and operating clandestine networks behind enemy lines. Women were carrying out intelligence work not usually believed to be within their sphere of operations. A good example of this were the first female interrogators of Naval intelligence from 1941, who worked at three clandestine sites outside London (Latimer House, Trent Park and Wilton Park), where the conversations of captured German officers as well as all rank POWs were secretly recorded for intelligence purposes. It was believed within MI9 – the branch of military intelligence to which they were attached – that using women as interrogators would disarm and disorientate the prisoners who were accustomed to being interrogated by a man.

Another example was the SIS ‘secretaries’ working undercover in MI6 stations abroad who, on closer examination, were not conducting secretarial duties but running spy networks across Europe, the Middle East and in other countries in the inter-war period. They communicated with agents in invisible ink and undertook intelligence gathering, as well as gaining expertise in particular countries that would prove useful and indispensable to SOE, MI5 and MI6 in wartime.

For uniformed intelligencers, women became experts in their field within the departments they were working in. For example, Constance Babington Smith (WAAF) worked as a photographic interpreter at the aerial intelligence site, RAF Medmenham, at Danesfield House near Marlow. Her commanding officer tasked her with forming a new section called the Aircraft Interpretation Section, which she headed. In late 1943, she identified the German V-weapons from aerial photography. The need for intelligence on Hitler’s secret weapons (V-1 and V-2) would be an urgent priority for the duration of the war. Her work, along with her colleagues, provided the interpretation of images which gave the Allies the intelligence they needed, especially on enemy targets and installations.

Across two world wars, women living in occupied countries displayed extraordinary bravery and resilience in gaining intelligence for the Allies, often at great risk to themselves. They moved invisibly across occupied territories, lived and died for the cause of freedom. But their stories have been largely hidden and unknown, too. Women worked for a network called La Dame Blanche (‘White Lady’) which operated in Belgium in the First World War. The network had over 2,000 agents, at least a third of whom were women. Aged between 16 and 80, the women sat outside their cottages and houses, simply knitting, but in reality, were observing the troop movements by train as the trains passed by their doors. They knitted coded messages into jumpers and scarves, in which certain stitches represented particular German troops and regiments and how many. The knitted items were sent over the lines to the headquarters of British intelligence in France, where an intelligence officer decoded them. Others cycled around occupied countries as couriers, delivering messages and helpers who smuggled agents out of the country.

The jacket cover depicts the dynamic research discoveries so well. There is ‘movement’ as the women step forward in action – whether in military or civilian roles. The decision by Yale to engage an illustrator to ‘hand draw’ the jacket cover demonstrates a care to reflect the content of the book and create a branding across all of my books. It captures some of the exciting and unexpected stories which have emerged in Women In Intelligence.

The women in intelligence have been invisible for far too long. There is much progress still to be made by historians in telling their stories, but this book is a good grounding. And yes, it has led to further research for a new book to be published by Yale in 2025.  

About the author:

Helen Fry is a specialist in the history of British Intelligence. She is the author of The Walls Have EarsThe London Cage, and over twenty books focusing on intelligence and POWs in World War II.

About the book:

Women in Intelligence
The Hidden History of Two World Wars

Helen Fry

A groundbreaking history of women in British intelligence, revealing their pivotal role across the first half of the twentieth century.

Find out more

Also by Helen Fry:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts. Read the other posts in the series here:

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