‘This student, though a woman,’ wrote an officer assessing Pearl Witherington’s application to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943, ‘possesses a strong and rather dominating personality. Very capable, completely brave.’ She needed all the toughness she could muster. Women were not generally regarded as suitable by SOE’s largely Oxbridge recruiters, whose view of the female sex remained mired in Victorian niceties. What was more remarkable than her eventual appointment as agent was the fact that she survived: of the 39 women who infiltrated France between 1941 and 1944, 13 did not return.
SOE, set up by Churchill and responsible directly to him, had three departments: Western Europe, Germany and Asia.
F Section, for France, was famously run by Maurice Buckmaster, a former manager for Ford in France, and Vera Atkins, a formidable Sobranie-smoking Jewish-Romanian refugee who wore perfectly tailored suits. Between them, they