Today marks the 76th Anniversary of the start of D-Day and Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. On this special occasion, we have a very special guest today on this blog. Sarah Rose is an alumnus of Harvard College and the University of Chicago. Ms. Rose is a journalist and bestselling author of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis and Helped Win World War II, and For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History.
She was a news columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and her features have appeared in Outside, Departures, The New York Post, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, The Saturday Evening Post, and Men’s Journal. For more details about Ms. Rose and her book, check out her website.
We had the honor to speak with Ms. Rose on June 4 about D-Day and about her book, D-Day Girls. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with her:
Question) World War II involved many countries, each with a specific reason for entering the war. What were some of the reasons and events in the Second World War that led to D-Day, the largest military endeavor in history?
After the Dunkirk evacuation (which ended on June 4 (1940), the day we were talking!) there were no Allied forces in Europe. There was Germany’s dominance with Hitler’s forces in Europe and not a single democracy existed in the entire continent. It had been three years since the war started, and the Axis powers were winning.
An attack on German-occupied France was imminent, but it was unclear when and where. So, this invasion was planned and led by General Dwight Eisenhower. In the early few hours of June 6, D-Day was initiated.
Fun Fact: The 'D' in D-Day stands simply for 'day’.
Question) So, you’ve written the best selling novel, D Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II. Can you tell us what this book is about and give a little insight into the stories that it covers?
With all of the men already in the war, they had run out of male recruits, hence, 39 women aging between 22 and 55 were chosen by a government secret agency, and sent to France to arm the resistance.
There was a very specific need, whoever goes to France, must know how to speak French. They have to be habituated French, blend in, and deceive not just the Germans who were easy to, since they couldn’t speak French to begin with, but also the French.
They had to be fluent enough to teach the locals in France how to use guns. Since no men were available and even if they were, they would've easily been caught in France - since every abled man was fighting the war - women were chosen to blend in with the French for this operation.
Question) Can you tell us in a bit more detail about the work that these women spies were involved in?
Their work involved arming the French resistance. They trained the local Frenchmen on how to use guns, provided armed supplies to them, and provided intelligence to the British before the forces arrived.
These women blew up bridges, train lines, dropped trees across roads, took down power lines, and when the allied troops arrived at 6 am in Normandy, the place was completely isolated, it was impossible to get there. Even if Hitler wanted his troops to get there, they couldn’t.
The time taken for the German troops to reach Normandy should’ve been three days, but instead, it took them 3 weeks. Due to the efforts of the French resistance, armed by the allied forces and these spies, they finally had a stronghold in Europe to fight the Nazis.
Question) Odette Sansom is one of the most prominent female spies whom you’ve covered in detail in your book. A lot of people, including myself, had never heard of her before we read your book. Can you tell us about her life and involvement in this operation?
Odette was one of the reasons why I was fascinated to write about this story. She was a mother of three young girls under the age of 6, the youngest still in diapers. Odette was born in France, married to an Englishman, and lived in London.
Her husband was in the war when she was approached by the government to engage in this operation where she might not return. Thus, she was given an opportunity wherein her children might potentially be parentless.
Despite all these challenges, Odette agreed to be a part of this operation. This really fascinated me.
She saw this from a mother’s perspective- What happens to my little children if Britain loses this war? What if Hitler also gets hold of the last democracy in Europe? This prompted her to go to France and help her country.
She was the second-ever female paratrooper and was one of 39 women who went to France. She learned morse code, encryption, self-defense, hand to hand combat - including 100 ways to kill a man silently-, and how to resist interrogation.
On 31 October 1942, under her codename, 'Lise', she arrived in Cannes.
On 16 April 1943, 'Lise' (Odette Sansom) and 'Raoul' (Peter Churchill, a fellow agent) were betrayed by a member of their network and arrested.
Sansom told the Germans that Churchill was in the country on her insistence. This act of selfless bravery saved him from interrogation but it was the start of Sansom's ordeal.
She was brutally tortured by the Gestapo for information on her fellow agents but she told them nothing. Her brave endurance saved the lives of many agents.
Sansom was sent to a concentration camp, Germany, in July 1944. In 1946, after the Allied forces rescued her, Odette Sansom was awarded the George Cross (GC) for refusing to betray her fellow secret agents under torture. She became a national hero and in 1950, a film was made about her.
Despite all this, Sansom didn't want fame. She told her story and accepted her GC on behalf of all her comrades who did not survive. She died in 1995, aged 82.
Question) This is all very intriguing, how did you come across this story and decided to write this book. What was the inspiration behind this project?
The idea really came to me while I was in Hawaii, where I move every winter. I had been working as a journalist and had my pieces submitted in the newspaper once in a while, but I wanted to work on a long project now.
A lot of my female friends were in the military, and they defied my preconceived notions of how women in male spaces were. I thought females in the army would be masculine and like other males, but that was so not true.
These women are incredibly feminine, incredibly flirty, and incredibly credentialed- like, I go hiking with these women, and I’m the only one who doesn’t have a doctorate. So, they were very interesting to me.
I thought of the question- who was the first woman in war? I thought, maybe, I was going to find a great Vietnam story, but it was probably later in Afghanistan or Iraq.
After a few google searches later and digging in the library, I found out that it wasn’t recent at all. It was actually 75 years ago in World War 2, and I had never heard of them.
I did a little bit of research, gave the story to my editor, and sometime later, I was in a French class and was moving to France for a year to cover this story.
Question) Now, I read in an article that you personally moved to France, built radios, attended boot camps, and even took a parachuting lesson. Could you tell me how these things impact your experience while writing the book?
I’ve always found a lot of war books kind of boring and not very interesting, I wanted to write differently. Since these women were not athletes or trained professionals, just normal women who spoke French, I thought about putting myself to test and tried experiencing all that they had gone through.
If these ordinary women who were near my age did all of that, I thought why shouldn’t I? So, I did all of that training which they went through.
I learned French from scratch, morse code, built radios, attended army boot camps, learned how to shoot a gun, and jumped off an airplane. I experienced all these things to feel what these women went through and tried to incorporate that in my writing.
All of this would not have been possible if I weren’t writing this book, hence I’m very thankful for this opportunity to write this book.
Question) Lastly, we have an audience of readers, primarily youngsters in school and college; is there any advice that you’d like to give them?
The story of these young women is an inspiring story about how the anger of politically motivated women and men can move the world. Let’s never forget how powerful that is and use it to change the world for the better.