In 1942, an Allied victory was far from certain. Britain was barely holding its own after a battering in the Blitz and America was only just agreeing to enter the war. Russia held Germany to a stalemate and North African deserts were full of Nazi tanks. The Vichy government was a joke and France was all but a Nazi territory.
Using recently declassified files, diaries, interviews and more, Sarah Rose tells the stories of a handful of unlikely spies who paved the way for the Allied invasion.
Odette Samsom, Lise de Baissac and Andrée Borrel are the central characters. Each were recruited for various talents and each completed rigorous training before dropping in behind enemy lines. Their mission was to prop up the French Resistance and keep the Germans busy before D-Day. Blowing up train tracks and electrical wires, receiving and distributing gun drops, passing messages to Resistance organizers were all crucial to Churchill’s plans for liberating France, a move slated for summer 1943. He was one of the few who saw the value in women recruits — because it was the last thing the Nazis would expect. He called it the Bureau of Ungentlemanly Warfare.
Between December 1942 and January 1943, some 282 German officers were killed by partisan activity, 14 trains were wrecked, 94 locomotives and 436 coaches were destroyed, 4 bridges went down, 26 trucks were destroyed, there were 12 major strategic fires, and 1,000 tons of food stores and fuel were destroyed. … By April, the Paris-linked networks would commit sixty-three acts of sabotage. ~Pg. 148-9
In addition to shedding light on a little-known aspect of espionage during WWII, D-Day Girls reminds the reader just how important the small things are. In history books, wars are described from a bird’s-eye view. Arrows on maps, dates of major battles, statistics. By following the efforts of the Resistance and these spies who sought to buffer it, the reader can see how important small actions were.
Waiting in the woods with a lantern or allowing a rebel to sleep in your barn was a simple task but one that could endanger your life. And when half the world is at war, it seems insignificant. But these efforts compounded made the D-Day invasion possible.
Sarah Rose is also careful to show their failures as well as their successes. They were heroes, but they were far from perfect. They made mistakes and missed clues. They had failed missions and many were captured. Despite their extraordinary efforts, they were still human after all.
And like Erik Larson’s nonfiction works (he also shared praise for this book), D-Day Girls reads like a tense novel. Though one knows the outcome of the war, there are dozens of these small battles that the reader is unfamiliar with. It’s nerve-wracking. An amazing amount of research went into the book — I highly recommend reading the end notes — and the reader will find themselves reading faster and faster as the tension increases.
As the timeline stretches out — this June marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion — more files are being declassified and more stories of bravery in dark days are being discovered. By necessity, those tales were kept secret, but as they become unsealed I hope to read more books like this.
My thanks to Penny and Crown Publishing for the review copy.
Read For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose.
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Crown (April 23, 2019)
Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches