8 Female Fighters of World War II
March is Women’s History Month, so it’s a good time for the overdue followup to the previous post 11 Women Warriors of World War II. Here are eight more women who bravely contributed to the Allied victory in World War II.
1. Lise Børsum: Refugee Smuggler
Lise Børsum was a Norwegian housewife married to an Oslo physician. During World War II she became active in smuggling Jews out of Nazi-occupied nations into Sweden, often through her own home. She and her husband both were arrested in 1943. The doctor was soon released, but Lise Børsum was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany where she stayed until liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. Børsum’s time in captivity politicized her, and she wrote a book about her arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment that became a best seller. She also served on the National Council Fund to help victims of the war and on a commission to detect and end concentration camps in nations the world over. Børsum kept up her writing and humanitarian work until shortly before her death in 1985. Her daughter Bente became an actress and wrote and performed a stage show about her mother in Norway.
2. Barbara Lauwers: Propaganda Warrior
Barbara Lauwers was born in Czechoslovakia, earned a law degree, and moved to the U.S. with her husband in 1941. She became an American citizen in 1943 and then immediately joined the Women’s Army Corps. Lauwers was assigned to the OSS, the precursor of the CIA. In 1944, she was involved in Operation Sauerkraut, which was a propaganda assault to demoralize German soldiers. Fluent in five languages, Lauwers worked to turn German POWs into operatives, and trained them to disseminate rumors among the German Army after their release from Allied custody. Operation Saurkraut was quite successful, and Lauwers continued to design and supervise propaganda operations in the the European theater. She trained POWs to gather intelligence and report back to the Allies. Lauwers earned a Bronze Star for convincing six hundred Czech soldiers to turn to the Allies by her propaganda efforts.
3. Annie Fox: Pearl Harbor Nurse
Lt. Annie G. Fox was the chief nurse on duty at Hickam Air Field in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Fox went into action as the Japanese attack sent wounded soldiers into the hospital while shells continued to fall. For her tireless efforts during and after the attack, Fox became the first woman ever to receive a Purple Heart. The citation read, in part:
“outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity. . . During the attack, Lieutenant Fox, in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head Nurse of the Station Hospital. . . in addition she administered anaesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency, and her fine example of calmness, courage and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact…”
In 1944, when the requirements for the Purple Heart were changed to require battle wounds, the medal was rescinded and Fox was awarded the Bronze Star in its place. Because of Fox’s precedent as the first women to receive the Purple Heart, some sources say that she was wounded at Pearl Harbor, but she was not.
4. Violette Szabo: Fearless Spy
Violette Bushell Szabo was raised in England in a British-French family. In 1940, she married French Foreign Legion officer Etienne Szabo. Two years and one daughter later, Etienne was killed in action, and Violette was determined to avenge his death. In 1943, Violette Szabo was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and trained as a courier. Her first mission to France was in April of 1944, during which she reorganized a resistance unit, sabotaged roads and bridges, and sent back reports by radio. Szabo was arrested twice, and talked her way out both times. Her second mission in June was just after the D-Day invasion. Szabo parachuted into France, led a local resistance unit in sabotaging German communications, and then encountered a roadblock. She was arrested and interrogated under torture, but gave up no damaging information. Szabo was transferred several time, ultimately to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in August 1944. Even in captivity, Szabo managed to serve other prisoners, saved at least one spy’s life, and planned an escape that was uncovered at the last minute. In January of 1945, she and two other SOE agents were executed by an SS officer. Szabo was posthumously awarded the George Cross and an MBE from Britain, and the Croix de Guerre and Médaille de la Résistance from France. Sazbo’s exploits are recorded in several biographies and at least one film, Carve Her Name With Pride.
5. Hannie Schaft: Dutch Resistance Fighter
Hannie Schaft was a Dutch resistance fighter. Born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in 1920, she had to drop out of her university studies because she refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the Nazis. She joined a resistance organization called the Raad van Verzet, which leaned toward a communist philosophy. Schaft spied on German soldiers, aided refugees, and committed sabotage. She became known as “the girl with the red hair,” although she later colored it after her identity was disclosed. In March of 1945, Schaft was arrested at a German checkpoint. They didn’t know they had arrested the infamous girl with the red hair until later when her roots began to grow out. That identification led to her execution on April 17. The story goes that the first soldier who shot merely wounded her in the head, and Schaft cried that she could shoot better than that. Then a shot from a second soldier silenced her forever. After the war, Schaft was reburied with honors in a funeral attended by Queen Wilhelmina and the royal family of the Netherlands.
6. Felice Schragenheim: Underground Operative
Felice Schragenheim spent years trying to leave Germany as the Nazis took power, but every effort to emigrate was blocked for one reason or another. Schragenheim then worked for a Nazi newspaper where she collected intelligence for the underground. She also went on operations to smuggle Jews out of Germany, but details of her underground activities are few and far between. What we know of Schragenheim is the evidence that Lilly Wust kept secret for decades after the war. Wust was the wife of a German officer and a mother of four; both she and her husband were members of the Nazi party. Wust and Schragenheim fell in love in 1942, but Wust did not learn that Schragenheim was Jewish until after their affair commenced. Schragenheim was hiding in plain sight -only her Jewish status was a secret. Schragenheim lived with the Wust family for a time, but on August 21, 1943, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Schragenheim and Wust still managed to send letters to each other. Wust went to Theresienstadt concentration camp in September of 1944 and asked to see Schragenheim. She was refused, and the visit may have accelerated the process that led to Schragenheim’s death. She reportedly died on New Year’s Eve 1944, possibly from tuberculosis. Wust, heartbroken, left her husband and worked to protect Jews for the remainder of the war. She kept all of Schragenheim’s correspondence, in secret until 1995, when they became the subject of a book and then a film, Aimee & Jaguar, in 1999. The love story is told from the view of the survivor, of course. Wust was not privy to Schragenheim’s Jewish resistance activities, so most of those details died with her.
7. Queen Wilhelmina: Dutch Inspiration
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina was evacuated to Britain against her wishes when the planned government refuge of Zeeland was overrun by Germans. From Britain, she presided over the government in exile and broadcast information and encouragement to the Dutch resistance over Radio Oranje. Winston Churchill called the queen “the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London.”
8. Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya: Soviet Martyr
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was barely 18 years old when she was executed for her guerilla activities in World War II. She was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the first woman to be named so in World War II. In October of 1941, she volunteered for a class of guerrilla fighters known as the Red Army Western Front sabotage and reconnaissance force. Her unit was sent behind enemy lines, near Moscow at the time, to set land mines and to cut off German supply lines. Ordered to burn the village of Petrischevo, Kosmodemyanskaya set fire to a stable and a couple other buildings and was caught by locals. Some accounts say she was betrayed by one of her compatriots, Vasily Klubkov, after he was captured and interrogated. Germans forces tortured Kosmodemyanskaya by stripping and whipping her and marched her around naked in the cold. Still, she gave no information on her unit. The next day, she was hanged in a public ceremony, a sign on her chest reading “arsonist.” Her body was left hanging, displayed for a month before burial. A Pravda article about Kosmodemyanskaya published in 1942 says she died still pledging her loyalty to the Soviet Union. Be warned that if you search for photographs of Kosmodemyanskaya, there are graphic pictures of her dead body.
See also: 11 Women Warriors of World War II