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Women of World War II: Behind the frontline

When discussing the feats of bravery of the frontline warriors and soldiers in World War II, one tends to overlook the people behind the scenes. There are countless women who helped shape the Second World War with their myriad skills, and it is important to acknowledge their contributions in making the world what it is today. This article takes a peek at the marvelous operations of Rose Valland, an art historian and Virginia Hall, an American espionage agent. Who were these women? And what legacy did they leave behind? To answer these questions, and dive into the lives of these figures, is Perspectoverse’s Priyal Binani.

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Rose Valland, Assistant curator turned Art Spy

Born in France, Rose Valland achieved a degree in art history in 1925 from École du Louvre. Soon, she started working as an assistant curator in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Even with her remarkable academic endeavors, she worked as an unpaid volunteer.

Under Hitler’s dictatorship, Nazi plundering involved the looting of art pieces and compositions from European countries. This, started as early as 1933, continued until the end of the Second World War. Hitler’s ambitions lay in establishing his own museum, the Führermuseum, consisting of acclaimed masterpieces and antiques. Another interesting aspect of the heist included ‘Degenerate Art,’ as termed by the Nazis, which was a political stunt to destroy art pieces curated by Jews, as a propogation of anti-semitism.

As the Nazis arrived in Paris, they confiscated the Jeu de Paume Museum in 1940. Reportedly, all French officials were evacuated as they were not to witness the secret operations being carried on. Expect, of course, the unremarkable and seemingly harmless assistant curator, Rose Valland, who was allowed to stay. The director of the Louvre at the time, Jacques Jaujard, ordered Valland to keep a close eye on all that was happening, and report to him with the details.

The premise was that the French curators were first stripped of their nationalities and rights, driven to being Jews, and as such, their art collections were considered ‘abandoned.’ These pieces would then be stored safely in the Jeu de Paume Museum before being shipped to Germany. The only person who could access the logistical reports with details of the stolen art was Rose Valland, and for a period of four years, she kept records of the information. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Valland was well versed in German, an advantage she used to aid her in maintaining an unassuming and unsuspecting demeanour.

The Monuments Men, a group of art curators, painters, and historians majorly from Britain and USA, helped in the restoration of art compositions in Europe from the Nazis. Valland allied with this group, and after months of building trust between James Rorimer of the Monuments Men, she disclosed the ‘treasure map.’ With the extent of information Valland was able to supply, the Monuments Men were able to discover countless repositories with looted art, and more.

After her work with the Monuments Men, Valland became a captain in the French Army in 1945, acquired the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army, and became known as a Monument Women. With the U.S. Medal of Freedom, she remains one of the most decorated French women in history. James Rorimer wrote, in a draft of his memoir Survival: the salvage and protection of art in war-

“the one person who above all others enabled us to track down the official Nazi art looters and to engage intelligently in that aspect of the whole picture was Mademoiselle Rose Valland, a rugged, painstaking and deliberate scholar. Her blind devotion to French art made no allowance for any thoughts of personal danger.”

Whoever said art history was boring?

Virginia Hall, American spy

During World War II, Virginia Hall served both the British Special Operations Executive as well as the American Office of Strategic Services. After college, Hall always wanted to pursue a job as a diplomat. Soon, she started working in the U.S. Consulate in Turkey. However, when she was twenty-seven year old, she lost the bottom half of her left leg in an unfortunate shooting accident.

For her, recovery was painful, and extremely long, as she got accustomed to her prosthetic leg, which interestingly had its own codename: Cuthbert. According to author Craig Gralley, who wrote a biographical book titled Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America's Greatest Spy of WWII:

"She had been given a second chance at life and wasn't going to waste it. And her injury, in fact, might have kind of bolstered her or reawakened her resilience so that she was in fact able to do great things"

As World War II began, she reportedly volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French. After France was captured however, she was forced to flee to Britain. A fortunate meeting with a spy got her in contact with British intelligence, helping her chart her path as a world-famous spy. After some training, she was among the first British spies sent to Nazi occupied France in 1941, posing as a New York Post reporter.

Hall, a natural spy, was almost always one step ahead of the Gestapo (Nazi police). While there were failures in the beginning, as members of her spy network were arrested, she managed to stay hidden. According to Gralley, “Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible.” Hall played on the rampant gender discrimination present, as none of the Nazis anticipated a woman being a spy in those times.

Operating in the French city of Leon, she stayed at a convent, gathering information and organizing French resistance fights, giving fighters information about safe houses and more. These never went unnoticed, and soon the Gestapo realized they were chasing a one-legged American spy. According to reports, they said “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."

Around 1942, the Nazis were gradually closing in on her, and she made a close escape to Spain, a trip which including walking for at least three days, for 50 miles in extreme weather conditions, over the harrowing Pyrenees Mountains. When she arrived in Spain, she was arrested due to the lack of the entrance stamp in her passport. She returned to Britain after six weeks.

She slowly recovered, wanting to go back to France. According to Sonia Purnell, the writer of the book A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of Virginia Hall, WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy:

"She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face. She also got a fierce, a rather sort of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid."

After her return to France, she helped organize airdrops for resistance fighters, helped them reclaim villages before the Allies arrived, and much more. Reportedly, the peak of her network consisted of fifteen-hundred people.

When she returned after the war, President Harry Truman wanted to honor her contributions at the White House in a public ceremony, but she declined, mentioning her need to remain undercover. She was given the Distinguished Service Cross, making her the first and only female civilian to receive it during WWII. Then, she joined the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where she worked for fifteen years, retiring in 1966.

Today, despite her wishes to remain unknown and her disinterest in recognition, her stories are written in at least seven books, depicted in a film (A Call to Spy), and a building in the CIA where recruits train has been named The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center after her.

Lorna Catling, her niece, told the Cable News Network (CNN) in an interview in 2019, "I think it's great that she is finally being found, so to speak, and accredited for her work,” continuing, “Because she was pretty darn fabulous."

Noor Inayat Khan, British espionage agent

Noor Inayat Khan, a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan (Ruler of Mysore in the 18th century), was an Indian British secret wartime agent. She was born in Russia, after which her father, Inayat Khan, a musician, moved their family to London. Under scrutiny for his ‘Pro-Indian’ views, Inayat Khan relocated his family to Paris in 1926, where Noor stayed till the age of twenty-age.

She grew up to be a proficient musician, dabbling in the harp and the piano. She was also known for her short stories and poems. Amongst her most famous works is Twenty Jataka Tales, which is a collection of translated fables from the Jataka Tales, published in 1939.

However, after Nazi occupation of France, she escaped to England in 1940, where her relatively complacent life was completely overturned. She soon joined the war effort, signing up for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), as a wireless operator, under the name Nora Inayat Khan. Shrabani Basu, the author of the book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan:

“To Noor, the ideology of the Nazis and their pogrom against the Jews was fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she been brought up with by her father”

Towards the end of 1941, Khan was recruited by a secret British spy organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which helped local resistance movements in a Nazi-occupied Europe. According to Basu, Khan was perfect for the job, as she was fluent in French, and “she was a brilliant radio operator.” She proceeded to work undercover in France for three years, where she consistently sent important and crucial information back to London.

She worked under the codename, “Madeleine,” and she became the first female wireless operator to be deployed to France by the United Kingdom. Soon after her arrival in France, almost all of the high-ranking agents in her spy network were caught and arrested by the Gestapo, leaving her to operate alone for a few months. Reportedly, she was asked to return to the U.K., but she refused.

In October 1943, as she was about to return home, she was captured by the Gestapo, seemingly betrayed by one of her colleagues. In an interview with the Guardian, Arthur Magida, the author of the book Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris, discussed how he received an account of a personal memoir of a resistance fighter, Pierre Viénot. In the account, he discussed:

“I learned from it that, in the autumn of 1943, with the Gestapo closing in on her, they do everything they can to save her. They take her to a hair salon and get her a whole new wardrobe – except that everything she’s chosen is blue, just like before, and the Gestapo knows that Noor’s really fond of blue. That was a key factor that helped give her away.”

After her capture by the Gestapo, she was sent to a prison in Germany, in solitary confinement. According to Gestapo records, Khan was considered to be a dangerous prisoner, and she had tried to escape twice under their watch, never betraying anyone to the Nazis. A year later, she was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, and she was executed in September 1944, aged 30 years.

In 1949, Khan was posthumously given the George Cross, the second highest award in the United Kingdom, for her service in the Second World War. In 2020, she became the first Indian woman to be given the prestigious memorial Blue Plaque in Bloomsbury, her family home.

Noor Inayat Khan’s last word was “Liberté,” translating to “Freedom.”

Written by Priyal Binani

Illustrated by Rishita Banerjee












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