Curious about the women who spied for the U.S. during World War II, I recently read Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS, by Elizabeth P. McIntosh (1998) and Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE, by Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis (2016). Both nonfiction, they describe many fascinating women who were part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) of the United States, an organization formed by President FDR that turned out to be a precursor to our modern CIA, and the U.K.’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), an intelligence agency established by Winston Churchill, also during World War II.
Working for these secret agencies, women not only collected information, spread propaganda and provided radio transmission services from enemy territory, but they also undertook dangerous on-the-ground missions, involving physically-demanding actions like parachuting into Occupied France, cracking safes, stealing documents, setting explosives and conducting other types of sabotage, and even leading Resistance operations.
Both these books are well-researched and dense, coming across at times like a catalog of spy missions. Thus, neither is for the reader who is seeking a compelling narrative of one particular individual, or even a small group. Both offer many specific anecdotes, which all-told paint a certain picture, but the reader gains an impression rather than a specific take. Some of these impressions pertain to the role of women, and others to the war in general. For example, many of the spies, male or female, got caught, tortured and killed. Also, their spy missions were key to the overall win. For example, in June of 1944, “Within twenty-four hours the French railway network had been paralyzed by up to one thousand acts of sabotage,” which significantly maimed the German effort to defend its occupation of France. Perhaps because the Nazi enemy is so obviously horrible, neither of the books gets much into the related civilian casualties—what we often now call "collateral damage." Ultimately, after the war, the surviving women weren't hailed, properly compensated or even well-employed upon return.
If I had to choose between, I’d pick Sisterhood of Spies, because it was written by a woman who was herself in the OSS and also worked as a journalist. She knew the experience intimately and she was friends with many of the relevant individuals. Shadow Warriors told the story of women of the SOE as well, and explained how the SOE and OSS were related, so readers who are after the English side of the story may want to start there. Another difference was that Shadow Warriors also covered more about William Donovan, who set up the OSS, and the other men who were instrumental in establishing the spy agencies of both countries at the time. To my mind, there was too much focus on these men, since the book was supposedly about the women involved. My theory is that the two men who wrote the book felt they couldn’t tell the story without these pieces, but in my view, they should have been edited down or out.
Both books left me realizing anew how sweeping the war effort was—how many individuals undertook tiny pieces, in many cases giving their lives and thus never knowing the outcome. In movies and books, we tend to see a lot of depictions of the fighting that took place during World War II—the battles, tanks, ships, guns, explosions—but these two books make clear that these actions could never have been successful, if it weren’t for the information that allowed them to be planned and timed correctly in the first place, and in many cases, the key figures who obtained the intel were women.