Secret agents: The brave women of the world wars

Memorial to women fighters of WW2 in London

The bravery of the young men who battled on the fields of France during two terrible world wars has been well-documented. Only recently, though, have the brave roles of women in the two wars been revealed–on the ground of battle, behind the lines, secret agents in crucial roles.

One of the most intriguing stories is that of Vera Atkins, who recruited and trained young women to conduct espionage and provide intelligence to support the Allied forces and the French Resistance. A dozen of these women were captured, tortured, and killed by the Nazis. Their story is told in three of the books below, in fiction and nonfiction.

The lives of British and French women—and girls—supporting the Resistance has been imagined in two lovely and lyrical novels. All the Light We Cannot See may be one of the top 10 books we’ve read in years.

The last book on our list tells the story of Edith Cavell, one of the first women of the Great War era to provide intelligence to the Allies and smuggle prisoners to England.

A fitting list for International Women’s Day which, in our book, is every day.

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A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWIIA life in secrets

As the head of the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, Vera Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Atkins courageously committed herself to a dangerous search for twelve of her most cherished women spies who had gone missing in action. Drawing on previously unavailable sources, author Sarah Helm chronicles Atkins’s extraordinary life and her singular journey through the chaos of post-war Europe.  “A tour de force of investigative journalism.$13.76 on

The Nightingale

The Nightingale

With courage, grace, and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France. This is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. $8.29 on

The Lost Girls of Paris: A Novel

The Lost Girls

This is a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female secret agents during World War II. Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances.

Grace Healy opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman.

Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery $7.73 on

The Alice Network: A Novel The Alice Network

In this work of historical fiction author Kate Quinn weaves a complex story and engaging characters about a British spy network operating in German-occupied northwestern France.

A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner gets her chance to join the fight when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in and launches them both on a mission to find the truth . . . no matter where it leads. $12.75 on

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

All the Light we Cannot SeeFrom the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning writer Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times). $10.05 on

Fatal Decision: Edith Cavell, World War I NurseFatal Decision Edith Cavell

Patriotism is not enough. –Edith Cavell

An inspiring story everyone should know…and will never forget. Based on historical fact, author Terri Arthur’s captivating novel tells the story of the legendary Edith Cavell, a British nurse whose duties as a healer clashed with the demands of a ruthless occupying regime during World War I.

At the request of a brilliant, hot-headed surgeon, Edith went from London to Brussels to create Belgium’s first school of nursing. At the height of her success, the German army marched into neutral Belgium and took over her hospital and school.

Edith joined the Resistance movement and plunged into the dangerous and clandestine world of the Belgian Underground. She became a key link in the rescues of Allied soldiers separated from their units. For nine months, this quiet, religious nurse went about saving over a thousand soldiers under the very noses of the German command.

Winner of the 2015 Midwest Book Award for Historical Fiction; Eric Hoffer Award finalist in Historic Fiction $18.67 on Amazon. com.

About the top photo:  The Monument to the Women of World War II is a  British national war memorial situated on Whitehall in London. It is dedicated to all the women who served their country and the cause of freedom, in uniform and on the home front.

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