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Heroic Women of World War 2

Chris has an MA in English Lit and has worked as an editor for numerous publications. He writes primarily on literary and historical topics.

Introduction

Innumerable soldiers from every military branch went above and beyond the call of duty in World War 2. Many civilians participated in the war efforts as well; some of the most daring worked with various Allied resistance groups across Europe. Many of these heroes, however, have not received the acknowledgement they deserve for their acts of bravery.

The first six articles returned from a Google search of "heroes of World War 2" list a total of 92 heroes. Only four of them, however, are women. In this article, I'll discuss the stunning acts of courage that some heroic women of World War 2 committed themselves to:

  • Andrée de Jongh, a Belgian civilian who created the Comet Line, an escape route through occupied France that shuttled over 700 persons to safety.
  • Eileen Nearne, a British Spy who kept communications open between the French Resistance and the British government.
  • Hannie Schaft, a Dutch freedom fighter who assassinated numerous Nazi collaborators in the Netherlands.
  • Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet infantry woman who became the most successful female sniper in history.

Andrée de Jongh

At the age of 24, Andrée de Jongh played a key role in organizing the Comet Line, the largest escape and evasion route active during World War 2. The Comet Line also doubled as an information channel, allowing the passage of vital intelligence to Allied command. This secret 1,000-mile route ran from Belgium across occupied France, over the Pyrenees mountain range, and south through Spain to Gibraltar.

Andrée de Jongh receives the George Medal in February 1946 at Buckingham Palace.

Andrée de Jongh receives the George Medal in February 1946 at Buckingham Palace.

Braving the Comet Line was incredibly dangerous: not only was the path long and hazardous, smuggled persons and volunteers also had to keep an extremely low profile at all times. Civilian clothing and fake identity papers were not always enough. One of de Jongh’s original collaborators, Henri de Bliqui, was arrested less than two months after the Comet Line’s inception. He was later executed. Another key associate of de Jongh's, Arnold Deppé, was arrested within six months of the operation’s launch and imprisoned for the rest of the war. De Jongh’s own father, who volunteered on the Comet Line, was captured and killed, along with 22 others.

After the arrest and imprisonment of Deppé, de Jongh smuggled James Cromar, a British soldier, from Brussels to the British consulate in Bilbao, Spain. Once there, she disclosed her development of and participation in the Comet Line to British diplomats. She appealed to them to convince British authorities to cover the Comet Line’s expenses in exchange for extraction of British soldiers and airmen.

Even with the testimony of Cromar, she met with extreme skepticism. The British authorities found it hard to believe that a young woman had devised and executed such a harrowing enterprise. They also considered the possibility that de Jongh might be a German spy. Eventually, however, the British agreed to her terms. With the financial backing of the British authorities, de Jongh spent 22 months personally escorting more than 100 persons, many of them Allied airmen, out of occupied Belgium and France.

A map of various World War 2 escape lines used to sneak Allied airmen out of occupied Europe. The Comet Line is in red.

A map of various World War 2 escape lines used to sneak Allied airmen out of occupied Europe. The Comet Line is in red.

On the morning of January 15, 1943, de Jongh was arrested by German soldiers while preparing to cross the Bidasoa River on her way into northern Spain. She was taken to Ravensbrück and Mauthausen concentration camps, where she endured over twenty interrogations. In an attempt to protect her father (who was being investigated), she admitted to being the leader of the Comet Line. However, she was not taken seriously by German intelligence, an error in judgement which saved her life. The Gestapo later realized who she was, but she was able to escape identification while still imprisoned. In April 1945 her concentration camp was liberated by Allied forces.

While imprisoned, the Comet Line continued to operate, and de Jongh's accomplices transported more than 700 persons to safety before the end of the war. De Jongh received the George Medal from the United Kingdom, the Medal of Freedom with golden palms from the United States, and was awarded the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Belgian army. She spent much of the rest of her life treating lepers in Africa, and was appointed a countess by the King of Belgium in 1985.

Eileen Nearne

In 1940, Eileen Nearne was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British, World-War-II era special forces organization. Originally enrolled as a signals-operator, Nearne spent her early days in the SOE collecting secret messages from field agents.

SOE plaque outside of the organization's headquarters in Marylebone, London, England. Photograph by Jamie Barras.

SOE plaque outside of the organization's headquarters in Marylebone, London, England. Photograph by Jamie Barras.

On March 2, 1944, just two weeks before her 23rd birthday, Nearne parachuted into France with French commander Jean Savy on a mission to set up a network known as the “Wizard.” The “Wizard” was created to help locate and gather funding for the French Resistance. Nearne would spend the next five months maintaining a wireless link to the SOE from Paris, changing location frequently to avoid capture by hyper-vigilant German forces. She succeeded in transmitting over 100 messages to London while working from Paris.

A recreation of an SOE radio suitcase.

A recreation of an SOE radio suitcase.

In late July of 1944, Nearne was discovered while operating in an abandoned house in a Paris suburb. Although she was able to burn her notebooks and hide most of her equipment before being arrested, her radio was seized. Over the next few weeks, Nearne was subjected to interrogations and torture, but she never broke. She gave false names and addresses, and stuck to a story that she was a Frenchwoman who had been employed by an English businessman to send messages to London.

Nearne was transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany, where she was further threatened and tortured. Still, she never strayed from her cover story, protecting her colleagues at the SOE, her French counterparts, and the “Wizard" at all costs. As Allied forces approached Ravensbrück, Nearne was able to escape and find refuge in a church in Leipzig where she was later rescued by American troops.

After the war, Nearne received the Croix de Guerre from the French government and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire. She lived the rest of her life quietly in London and Torquay.

Hannie Schaft

After refusing to sign paperwork declaring allegiance to German occupying forces in the Netherlands in 1943, Jannetje Johanna “Hannie” Schaft, was forced to leave her law studies at the University of Amsterdam. Upon expulsion, Schaft joined a Dutch resistance group known as the Raad van Verzet, or “Council of Resistance." She had been performing small acts of opposition against the Nazi regime for years: ignoring German officers who asked for directions, sending packages to captured Polish officers through the Red Cross, setting up various safehouses, and faking identity cards for Jews in hiding. Things had now come to a head, and she bravely decided on becoming a full-fledged freedom fighter.

Dutch resistance fighter Hannie Schaft. This photograph is from her college years in Amsterdam, taken sometime between 1938 and 1943.

Dutch resistance fighter Hannie Schaft. This photograph is from her college years in Amsterdam, taken sometime between 1938 and 1943.

One of Schaft’s first assignments with the Council of Resistance was to make contact with the sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen. The three young women would work together consistently in the resistance from then on. They trafficked illegal newspapers and weapons, helped create fake identity cards, transported persons in hiding between safehouses, and performed reconnaissance on German defenses along the Atlantic Wall. In addition, Schaft and Truus would seduce German soldiers and officers at swimming pools to coerce information from them. They also stole two pistols, and Schaft was taught to shoot by Jan Bonekamp, another resistance fighter. She and Bonekamp then began carrying out assassinations of Dutch authorities who collaborated with Nazis.

The most famous killing Schaft and Bonekamp carried out was the assassination of Zaandam police chief Willem Ragut. Ragut had been promoted to police chief after serving as the leader of a service which inventoried and managed the handling of deported Jews. On the morning of June 21, 1944, Schaft shot Ragut on the street as she cycled by. Ragut fell, injured but not dead. Bonekamp moved in and made the finishing shot, but not before Ragut was able to discharge a bullet into his stomach. Bonekamp succumbed to his injuries later that same day.

Schaft's accomplice, Dutch resistance fighter Jan Bonekamp.

Schaft's accomplice, Dutch resistance fighter Jan Bonekamp.

While passing through a checkpoint in Haarlem-Noord the following spring, resistance newspapers and a 9mm pistol were found in Schaft’s bag. Soldiers at the checkpoint held her for a short time without realizing who she was (it was widely known that she had participated in the assassination of Ragut and others). She had dyed her hair to black from its natural red, and the disguise was working. Unfortunately, just before being released, German intelligence agent Emil Rühl recognized her and took her to Amsterdam for interrogation. She endured torture and solitary confinement, and her identity was eventually confirmed by a former colleague broken by torture.

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Despite an agreement between occupying German forces and the Dutch resistance to no longer carry out executions, Hannie Schaft was executed on April 17, 1945, a mere three weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender in the west. She was taken from her cell by a German intelligence agent and a Dutch collaborator named Maarten Kuijper, a man later convicted and executed for war crimes in 1948. They drove Schaft to the dunes of Bloemendaal. One man shot her at close range, but only wounded her. She reportedly said, “I shoot better!” before being fatally shot by the other man.

The re-burial of Hannie Schaft at the Cemetery of Honor at the Zeeweg in Overveen, November 1945.

The re-burial of Hannie Schaft at the Cemetery of Honor at the Zeeweg in Overveen, November 1945.

She posthumously received the Dutch Cross of Resistance and was decorated by General Eisenhower, possibly with the Medal of Freedom. Additionally, the National Hannie Schaft Foundation was created in her honor, and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences annually decorates outstanding research with the Hannie Schaft Award.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

On June 22, 1941, Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s major offensive against the Soviet Union. Although she was nearly finished with her history studies, 24-year-old Lyudmila Pavlichenko felt compelled to leave Kyiv University and join the Soviet infantry. She had been training for this moment for years — she already held an official certificate in marksmanship and was enrolled in ongoing courses at a Kyiv sniper school.

Sharpshooter Lyudmila Pavlichenko in a trench. Photo taken by Israel Abramovich Ozersky (1904 - 1971).

Sharpshooter Lyudmila Pavlichenko in a trench. Photo taken by Israel Abramovich Ozersky (1904 - 1971).

Pavlichenko spent two and a half months on the frontlines at the Siege of Odessa. She would often leave camp before daybreak and not return until it was dark, spending up to fifteen hours in advanced positions close to enemy encampments, waiting for perfect moments to discharge her rifle. She wrote that one needs “great self-control, will-power, and endurance to lie fifteen hours at a stretch without moving.” And further, that the “slightest twitch may mean death.” At Odessa, Pavlichenko recorded 187 kills, which earned her a promotion to Senior Sergeant.

When Odessa fell to the Romanian Army in October 1941, Pavlichenko and her unit moved to Sevastopol, where they would be stationed for the next eight months. In Sevastopol, Pavlichenko began training new snipers in addition to defending the city from siege. Her kill count rose steadily over the course of the siege, and by May 1942, she had amassed an incredible 257 recorded kills, a feat that earned her a promotion to Lieutenant.

Pavlichenko’s missions became increasingly dangerous with the rise of her confirmed kills. She began undertaking counter sniping missions, or “duels.” She won every duel she entered, including a famous three-day engagement with a German sniper, which she described as “one of the tensest experiences of [her] life.” While fighting at Sevastopol in June 1942, Pavlichenko was wounded by mortar shrapnel and Soviet high command withdrew her from battle.

By this time, Pavlichenko’s reputation was massive. Her confirmed kill count had reached a staggering 309 kills, and she was referred to as “Lady Death” by Soviets and Germans. Soviet command recognized that she had become a symbol of Soviet perseverance, and decided that she was an asset they could use to rally public support for a second front in Europe. They sent her off to Washington, D.C. in a diplomatic capacity, where she became the first Soviet citizen welcomed to the White House. While there, she met and befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited her to join her in a tour of the United States so Pavlichenko could relay her experience as a woman in combat. She made a lasting impression on Americans, as evidenced by Woody Guthrie’s 1942 song “Miss Pavlichenko.”

Her return to the Soviet Union in 1943 was met with a promotion to Major. She was also decorated with the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and two Orders of Lenin. She spent the remainder of the war training Soviet snipers. When the war ended, she finished her history studies at Kyiv University and began a career as a historian. Later, she sat on the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War. On October 10, 1974, Lyudmila Pavlichenko died from a stroke at the age of 58.

Liudmila Pavlichenko with Mrs. Roosevelt and Justice Robert Jackson

Liudmila Pavlichenko with Mrs. Roosevelt and Justice Robert Jackson

References

Andrée de Jongh

Eileen Nearne

Hannie Schaft

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Chris Gorrie (author) from San Diego, CA on April 09, 2021:

Thank you, Olivia. It is really amazing to think how young these women were when they were doing these things. I appreciate you reading!

Olivia Ware from Portland, OR on April 09, 2021:

Thanks for such a well-researched (and written) article. To think that most of these women were in their early twenties is unbelievable! It is good to see them get their due.

Chris Gorrie (author) from San Diego, CA on April 08, 2021:

Thanks, Jasmine! I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Hannie is one of my favorites as well. When her reputation was growing, the Germans also referred to her as "the girl with the red hair." And thus she dyed her hair black.

Jasmine Hanner from Maui, Hawai'i on April 08, 2021:

So fascinating, I especially loved learning about Hannie. Thank you!

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