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Seven of the bravest female secret agents


Forget the abundant spy fiction, espionage is not just a boys’ game. In occupied Belgium and northern France 1914-18 there were several thousand women actively working against the Kaiser’s troops. In the Second World War, women of many nations fought the Nazis, risking the firing squad or decapitation by axe in a German prison. Yet, none of them had the right to vote for a government or open a bank account. So why did they do it?

Women spies run all the risks of male agents, plus sexual violence. Usually male, their spymasters have double standards: a woman who sleeps with the enemy is labelled a whore, whereas James Bond in fiction or Sidney Reilly in real life used women’s bodies as toys or tools and were heroes. 

As Mathilde Carré, who betrayed her Resistance comrades to the Gestapo, said at her postwar trial, ‘It is different for the women. They have other choices.’

Here are seven female secret agents who risked torture, rape and death in order to carry out their missions in the name of patriotism, ideology, love and revenge:

No known relative of the author, Belle Boyd spied for the Confederacy during the American civil war, riding her horse at breakneck speed between the lines to deliver her despatches.

Vienna-born photographer Edith Taylor-Hart talent-spotted British traitors for Stalin in the 1930s – among them, Kim Philby.

A secret agent, this lady? Yes! Aged forty-eight, Corrie Ten Boon saved 800 men, woman and children from the Nazis during the German occupation of Holland in World War II.

Polish Countess Krystina Skarbek spied for Britain in German-occupied Europe and survived – only to be abandoned by Britain and stabbed to death by a jealous admirer in a London hotel.

Hannah Szebes left the safety of her kibbutz in Israel to be parachuted by the RAF into occupied Hungary. Caught at the border, she was savagely tortured and shot.

Sonja Hamburger, seen here with her British Communist husband Len Buerton, used many names spying for the USSR. She also used nappies on the washing line and a pram in the garden to put MI5 officers off her scent while sending thousands of coded transmissions to Moscow.

Anna Chapman, born Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko, looked cute and innocent even in her FBI mugshot. Expelled from the US in 2010, she went on to host her own chatshow on Russian TV.

By Douglas Boyd

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