Posts Tagged ‘Spying’

Revealed: New evidence that executed wartime nurse Edith Cavell’s network was spying

September 13th, 2015

The daughter of a Norfolk vicar, Cavell was invited to set up a nurses’ training school in Brussels in 1907.

When war broke out, she was visiting family in England but insisted on returning to Belgium.

Edith Cavell and probationers at the Brussels Nursing School, Belgium

It is well documented that she and her associates aided soldiers cut off behind enemy lines after the Battle of Mons, arranging for them to be smuggled back to Britain via Holland.

But Dame Stella said her evidence showed “that the Cavell organisation was a two-pronged affair” and that espionage was the other part of its clandestine mission.

The Belgian archives contain reports and first-hand testimonies collected at the end of the First World War.

They include an account by Herman Capiau, a young Belgian mining engineer who had brought the first British soldiers to Cavell in 1914 and was an important member of her network. He was arrested alongside her but escaped the firing squad, instead being sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in a German labour camp.

He wrote: “Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”

Capiau referred to information about a German trench system, the location of munitions dumps and the whereabouts of aircraft.

Details were written in ink on strips of fabric and sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes and boots.

There are also notes in the archive linking Cavell to a character called ‘Dr Bull’. He was Dr Tollemache Bull, an Englishman who had lived in Brussels for many years and later admitted to working for the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI6.

Dame Stella Rimington, DCB, the British author and former Director General of MI5

In the Radio 4 programme to be broadcast on Wednesday, Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell, historian Dr Jim Beach said military espionage was in its infancy at the beginning of the First World War, and Cavell’s associates were amateurs.

“They are learning as they go,” he said of Cavell’s network. “The boundaries between different kinds of clandestine activity were a little bit more blurred.”

Dame Stella added: “We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.

“Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies.”

A year into the war, Cavell was arrested, interrogated and put through a show trial. She was shot at dawn by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915.

Her death provoked international condemnation, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing: “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.”

Funeral cortege of Edith Cavell

The German military governor of Belgium who signed the warrant for Cavell’s execution, General Moritz Von Bissing, maintained that she had knowledge of the espionage operation.

“This Cavell woman… had guilty knowledge of much of their work. Such a system of spying assails our very safety and we proceeded to stamp it out,” he said when asked to justify Cavell’s death.

According to Julian Hendy, producer of the documentary, circumstantial evidence points to Cavell being aware of the espionage, even if not directly involved.

He said: “Cavell was certainly not a naive woman – her shrewd testimony before her German interrogators proved that.

“As so many leading members of the network were involved in espionage, it would have been truly extraordinary for her to have been completely unaware of the intelligence-gathering.

“The story we have always been led to believe – of a simple nurse just doing her duty helping soldiers – turns out to have been a lot more complicated, nuanced, and dangerous than we had ever previously thought.”

Cavell’s name lives on in the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which provides financial support for nurses in need.

A spokesman said: “We’re looking forward to the BBC’s radio programme but what’s clear is, even without Edith’s courage during the war, she was a remarkable nurse and we’re proud to be here for nurses as her lasting legacy.”


World War Two

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Spying has been an old boys’ club for too long

March 6th, 2015

The devastating failures of MI6 in the run-up to the Iraq war brought about a new recruitment crisis. Whether women officers would have been better equipped to ask the right questions about Iraq, or to spot that Saddam was duping them, is impossible to say. But as we watch the spread of Islamic State and the recruitment of young women as jihadist fighters, the case for bringing women into the intelligence services is more overwhelming than ever. The radicalised young people who endanger us today live among us, are taught in our schools, and grow up in our communities, where the Mumsnet crowd with their baggy jumpers and shopping bags so often hang out.

Hazel Blears and her committee are certainly not the first to understand the value of women as intelligence officers. When in 1940 Winston Churchill was looking for ways to help the French resistance, he created the Special Operation Executive, and authorised the recruitment of women to drop behind enemy lines. A woman riding around occupied France on a bicycle, he thought, would attract less attention than a man.

Jessica Chastain plays an elite CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty

The male officers who trained these young women were often sceptical about their abilities. They were too “innocent” or “girlish” to be of use. But it soon emerged that many of the SOE women were as resourceful and courageous as any man and resilient under fire and under torture, too. The senior SOE woman staff officer, Vera Atkins, who helped recruit these SOE women, never had any doubts that they would be as successful secret agents as men. Atkins also took on women with children. Violette Szabo left behind a young daughter when she dropped by parachute into France. Women worked instinctively, were steely, and the best judges of human nature, Atkins believed, herself becoming one of the most influential staff officers in SOE.

She would certainly have agreed with Maurice Oldfield, director of MI6 in the Seventies, who once said “intelligence is about people and the study of people” – study in which women so often excel. Yet, as the ISC report rightly acknowledges, it is not enough to recognise the value of women as intelligence officers. The challenge is how to make the job attractive to them.

Female spies such as Nancy Wake proved their worth in World War Two

The very culture of the intelligence world immediately alienates most women. Even Mrs Thatcher had a healthy scepticism of “the service”, keeping it at arms length. The report describes a culture that “rewards those who speak the loudest or are aggressive in pursuing their career” and adds that women who have children are quickly sidelined. Instead the service should support such women and promote their talent. The idea of recruiting mums as spies is easily ridiculed. But successful companies worldwide are increasingly turning to mothers with young children, offering them attractive contracts with flexible hours. We also know the “enemy” is using more women. It is time our intelligence services did the same.

Sarah Helm is the author of ‘A Life in Secrets’ and ‘If this is a Woman’, about female spies and prisoners in World War 2


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