The Women of SOE
Female Agents and the French Resistance
- Discover the former SOE headquarters in Bloomsbury and learn about its history
- Tour a variety of significant sites connected to the stories of the brave women of SOE
- Travel alongside award-winning author, Clare Mulley, an expert on this tour’s subject
Churchill famously launched SOE, the secretive Special Operations Executive, in June 1940, with his rousing injunction to ‘set Europe ablaze’. The first agent was dropped into France the next year and over 400 would follow, 39 of whom were women. Their role was to support local resistance with the supply of arms and explosives, expertise and radio communications, and prepare for the Allied liberation. 91 of the men, and 13 women, would not return. From 1943, there was increasing demand for female agents to act as couriers and wireless transmitters in France, where their movements were less conspicuous. Three would be awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration. One was Noor Inayat Khan, a Sufi Princess, who, for a while in 1944, provided the only wireless communications with Paris. We will discover where she was arrested, before visiting the infamous Avenue Foch - Gestapo HQ - where she was interrogated, before being sent to her death. Pearl Witherington initially served as a courier in Valencay, our last destination. When her circuit leader was captured, Pearl stepped up to command over 2,000 men. When, as a woman, she was offered civil rather than military honours, Pearl commented there had been nothing remotely ‘civil’ about her work. The dramatic and often tragic stories of female agents in France have attracted huge interest and this tour tells their brave story.
We meet in central London and begin our tour by visiting Kensal Green’s Roman Catholic cemetery, where we see Krystyna Skarbek’s grave and memorial plaque. We then travel to Baker Street to see the former SOE Headquarters. In Bloomsbury, we visit Noor Inayat Khan’s former home and Gordon Square Gardens, where there is a memorial statue. After lunch, we visit the South Bank and see the SOE memorial, topped by a bust of Violette Szabo. We then travel on to Stockwell to see Szabo’s old house, now proudly sporting a blue plaque. We end the day visiting sites associated with Krystyna Skarbek in South Kensington, including the Polish Hearth Club, the Polish Museum that houses her medals and the hotel where she was mysteriously murdered. In the evening, we hear an introductory lecture on the Women of SOE by Clare.
In the morning, we travel to Paris by Eurostar and have lunch on board the train. In the afternoon, we visit the Rue Erlanger, near the Bois du Boulogne, which was the base of the Cinema SOE network. We visit Grignon, where the radio transmitter for the Bricklayer circuit was based and where Noor Inayat Khan narrowly escaped capture. We go to the Rue de Faisanderie and see the apartment above the bakery where Noor Inayat Khan was arrested after betrayal. Our final stop of the day is the Avenue Foch, the location of the infamous Gestapo Headquarters, where many female agents were interrogated before their subsequent deportation to concentration camps. We stay overnight in Paris.
Today, we travel to Pont Neuf, where Eileen Nearne met her contact at the King Henri IV statue. We go to the Boulevard St Michel, her first Paris radio transmitter base, and 11 Rue de Saussaies - the former Gestapo headquarters that has original cells. Eileen Nearne was interrogated and tortured here, before being sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. In the late afternoon, we make our way to Valençay and enjoy a captivating evening lecture. We stay here overnight.
A visit to the Valençay SOE Memorial to the 104 SOE F Sections agents who died in France is first up on today’s itinerary, and here we can pay our respects. We drive on to Tendu, near Chateauroux, to see the parachute site where Pearl Witherington was dropped in September 1943, to serve as a courier for Maurice Southgate, leader of the Stationer network. We hear how she served as the Wrestler network leader from May 1944 onwards and we also visit the site of Château de Souches, the network Headquarters, east of Valençay.
Today, we visit sites associated with the Maquis as, commanded by Pearl Witherington, they fought large pitched battles against the Germans in the aftermath of D-Day. After lunch, we return to Paris and then in the late afternoon, we catch our Eurostar train back to London.
- Tour Manager & Guide Lecturer
- Meals - 4 breakfasts, 5 lunches and 5 dinners
- Transport - All local travel and return Eurostar
- Hand-picked hotels throughout the tour
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