Historians may share their work via academic papers, books and lectures. But when it comes to the Special Operations Executive, one expert finds it especially effective to get hands on with Sten guns and detonators while passing on tips that elderly ladies who were once SOE agents gave her for the perfect silent kill.
Dr Kate Vigurs, a historian, historical interpreter and author, was one of the biggest draws at the recent Chalke Valley History Festival and brings immersive storytelling to events and schools around the country. Having met and befriended former agents of SOE, the British force formed during the Second World War to conduct sabotage and assist resistance behind enemy lines, she feels duty-bound to share their stories and correct common misconceptions.
Her next appearance will be at the three-day We Have Ways Fest Second World War history festival from Friday (July 22), to which she will bring her tried-and-tested setup, along with new stories.
She explained: “I have a stall with the equipment that SOE agents would have trained with before going out into occupied territory. I show a variety of firearms, and covert weapons such as hatpin daggers and a sleeve knife. One of the main remits of SOE was sabotage, so I have a wide range of ways of blowing things up: pressure switches, time pencils and so on. I’ve even got a piece of rail line to show how they would have laid explosives to hamper German movements. And there’s a wireless set, which has a Morse coder that beeps so people can have a go on that.
“It’s a way for people to get hands on and to see objects they’ve heard about or seen in books. And they have conversations with me — I’ve studied SOE for over 20 years.”
The work of SOE was very wide-ranging and Vigurs specialises. “I focus on the women, (a) for being a woman and (b) because my book, Mission France, is about the women. I tend to talk about how women were recruited and trained using anecdotes from firsthand accounts. I focus on women that I personally find interesting and inspirational, or women I’ve met, because I was very fortunate to meet a few SOE agents while I was studying.”
“My dear, it’s not how hard you hit them, but it’s where you hit them”SOE agent Pearl Witherington
What is it about the women of SOE that captivated her? “It was the first time that women had been used undercover and behind enemy lines in numbers,” she said. “And for me, it was the fact that these women were ordinary, they were housewives, they were shop assistants — they were ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Their backgrounds may have been ordinary, but they could be formidable. Vigurs said: “One of the women I met was Pearl Witherington. She was in the air attaché in Paris when war broke out. She escaped and made it back to the UK. SOE were looking for people with a knowledge of France. She was noticed, put forward for interview, did her training and went into occupied territory. What I love about Pearl is that she was very strict about a woman’s place — a woman’s place is to give life, not take it, and a woman should be working for a man, especially in the patriarchal society of France. She didn’t think women would be respected as leaders. And then when her leader was arrested, she had to take over. And she found that the French actually started to respect her.
She continued: “She led fighters of the Maquis, a subset of the Resistance who were living out in the mountains and the forests. She kept radioing back to England saying, ‘Please send a male leader,’ but they never did. And she sorted out all the infighting within her Maquis and got them regulated and under control. She got them through D-Day, got them through a massive ambush a few days afterwards. And then, when a bloke did finally land and say, ‘I’m here to take control’, she said, ‘I’ve done it all, I’ve managed on my own’. She was awarded the MBE, civil division, and she sent it back saying, ‘I did nothing civil’. And they eventually gave her the military one.”
“She was brilliant. She was really warm, really chatty, and still really of an opinion. We were talking about the silent killing training. And she said, ‘My dear, it’s not how hard you hit them, but it’s where you hit them.’ And I truly believed that she could have you if she wanted to.”
One of Vigurs’ motives is to set the record straight. “There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about SOE and I find it my duty to correct people. The term ‘spies’, for example. To me they weren’t spies because they weren’t particularly intelligence-gathering. I prefer to call them secret agents. A lot of people talk about ‘the real Charlotte Gray’ [referring to Sebastian Faulks’ 1999 novel and its film adaptation]. I find that the facts of these women’s lives are so fascinating that we don’t need a fiction behind it as well.
There’s also a misconception that they were all captured and brutalised and suffered. Some of them actually had very high success rate. Yvonne Cormeau sent 400 flawless messages and was never captured. I think because of the famous cases, we always think that capture was part of it. We should be allowed to celebrate the successes as well.”
Even so, the risks were enormous. Vigurs said agents were given an operating life expectancy of about six weeks and their chances of survival were rated as 50:50. In fact, of 39 female agents operating behind enemy lines, 13 didn’t come home.
She stresses that the motives of the women, and the specifics of their duties, varied considerably. Nevertheless the main roles for women agents were as wireless operators and couriers alongside the Resistance. She added: “They were living on their nerves. Obviously there was a lot of time alone and you never knew who was going to knock on the door next. There was a terror about it, but I do think some of them revelled in that.”
According to Vigurs, her demonstrations help to bring out the women’s humanity. “You can talk about an agent training with guns, for example, and say they used the Colt .45 or a Sten gun. But it’s different to see me holding the Colt .45 and saying, ‘Look, it’s quite big in my hand and some agents preferred to use the Colt .32,’ or ‘Look at the Sten gun, the spring is exposed, you can see how it jams, you can see how people would lose their fingers in it.’ Because you can see it in front of you, it makes it far more lifelike. My main aim is to say these people were just like you and me — they were human.”
While she demonstrates at events using replica or deactivated guns, she had the rare opportunity to fire the real thing when she worked at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. That included firing a Sten gun, the low-cost, mass-produced submachine gun, and the Welrod pistol — a gun with a built-in suppressor designed for use by irregular and covert forces.
She said: “Everybody asks what it’s like to shoot the Welrod. Is it really silent? And the answer is yes. I didn’t really hear any noise from that. It was mainly the bullet hitting the target. The Sten does have a bit of recoil. The issue I found with it was it climbs. Because it’s short-barrelled, the weapon starts to climb. I ended up shooting five bullets into the roof because I was so excited I didn’t even notice it climbing.”