Women stepped up during World War II to work in factories and as paramedics, tram drivers and air-raid wardens.
For decades after the war ended, thousands of women who had worked in espionage kept their war service to themselves. Only when information was finally declassified were they able to talk about their past, and many a family was stunned to discover that 90 year old gran spent the war codebreaking or working with the resistance.
A Call To Spy is a new film about three of the better-known female espionage agents in World War II: Vera Atkins, Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan. The three women were all part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a group organized by Winston Churchill for the purposes of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.
Of the thousands recruited to the SOE, which began in 1940, 3,200 were women.
According to Sarah Megan Thomas, who wrote and stars in A Call To Spy, the hard part about making the movie was deciding what to leave out. Each of the women in the movie undertook perilous assignments and managed heroic deeds, some so gobsmacking it’s hard to believe they’re not fiction.
But all the incidents in A Call To Spy (directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher) are based on actual events. The film is completely engaging and manages to be educational as well as entertaining, detailing a lesser-known chapter in war activity.
As Thomas said in a recent interview, “These were ordinary women who led extraordinary lives.”
A Call To Spy first introduces Vera Atkins as an SOE recruiter; even before the war began, Atkins — who was Romanian by birth — had supplied Churchill with information on the Nazis while she was still working in Bucharest.
At SOE, she recruited British agents who were trained and sent into occupied France, among them three dozen women who worked as organizers, couriers and wireless operators. Atkins (played in the film by Canadian actor Stana Katic) had a few secrets of her own, including the fact that she was Jewish and her surname was actually Rosenberg.
Among the women Atkins recruited was the legendary Virginia Hall.
Hall’s ambition was to be an ambassador, but she was rejected for having a disability — she had a wooden leg as the result of a hunting accident. She went to France with the SOE, where she passed herself off as a newspaper reporter in Lyon and worked with the Resistance. Over time her responsibilities expanded to daring rescue and sabotage work.
Hall (played by Sarah Megan Thomas) was very good at what she did, so much so that the Nazis — and specifically Klaus Barbie — were desperate to capture her.
“She escaped from Klaus Barbie by hiking through the Pyrenees in winter, wooden leg and all — you can’t make this stuff up!” said Thomas.
The third main character, Noor Inayat Khan, was a soft-spoken Muslim pacifist determined to contribute to the war effort. Khan (played by Radhika Apte) was the first female wireless operator sent into occupied France; hers was a particularly dangerous job and in Nazi-occupied Paris most radio operators were discovered by the enemy within six weeks.
“I knew these stories had to be told,” said Thomas. She decided to focus on the beginning of these women’s lives in espionage, “Because they volunteered to serve before there even was an established spy circuit.
“They knew they could fail — but they signed up when they didn’t even know if it would work. They were that dedicated. They knew they had to do something, even though they were given only a 50-50 chance of survival.”
A Call To Spy, which also stars Linus Roach and Canadian Rossif Sutherland, has won several awards including the Audience Choice Award at the Whistler Film Festival.
The movie is available everywhere on demand Oct. 2 and on IFC Unlimited in early 2021.