Sisterhood of the Second World War: On Writing Female Spies’ Classified Adventures
CJ Wray Shares What a Pair of Veteran Sisters Taught Her About Espionage and Postwar Life
Right before the pandemic hit, I was commissioned—under my real name, Chris Manby—to help write the memoirs of sisters Patricia and Jean Owtram, WWII veterans who signed up to the British women’s services as teenagers. Pat joined the Women’s Royal Navy and became a Special Duties Linguist in the Y service, intercepting signals from the German Kriegsmarine which were sent to Bletchley Park to be decoded.
Her younger sister Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (the FANY) and was posted to Egypt and Italy, where she coded and decoded messages to and from Allied agents imbedded with partisans in the Balkans. Before she was sent to Egypt, Jean was seconded to the Special Operations Executive—the SOE—the British wartime intelligence agency that ran agents in occupied Europe, including women such as Odette Hallowes, Violette Szabo, and Noor Inayat Khan.
In the course of writing Pat and Jean’s memoir, Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War (Mirror Books), I read a great many accounts of the SOE’s WWII missions and what struck me was how modest many of the SOE’s female agents were when it came to talking about their difficult and daring work. Postwar many of them went back to very ordinary lives.
Polish-born agent Christine Granville, who is rumored to have been the model for Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale, delivered intelligence by skiing across Eastern Europe’s mountains in the dead of winter. Granville was legendary for her bravery and chutzpah, dropping not one secret when she was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo. She took part in many missions and saved many lives. However in 1947, Churchill’s “favorite spy” could be found working as a shop assistant in Harrods.
Tragically, having survived the war despite the odds, in 1952 Granville was murdered by an obsessed admirer. Her story made me wonder what sort of nonagenarian she might have become had fate taken another turn. Would she have been living in a British seaside town, dressed head-to-toe by Marks and Spencer, with her neighbors having no idea of her extraordinary past?
Because of the nature of their wartime roles, both Pat and Jean Owtram were required to sign the Official Secrets Act. The act forbade signatories from talking about their work on pain of death. Both sisters told me that they took the strictures of the act very seriously, to the extent that they didn’t even speak about their work with each other until the 1960s, when a senior British intelligence officer published his wartime memoir and they decided it was probably safe to share their own experiences within the security of their sisterly bond.
As often happens when one is helping someone to write their life story, I quickly came to count Pat and Jean as friends. Days spent working on the book were followed by jolly evenings in Jean’s local pub in her Lancashire village. It was on such an evening that one of Jean’s neighbors sidled up to me at the bar and said, “Never mind the war years. Make sure you ask Jean about Philby.”
He meant Kim Philby, the WWII British intelligence officer who became a spy for the Soviet Union, one of the notorious “Cambridge Five.” Back at Jean’s house, sipping whisky in front of the fire, I raised the question—”Did you know Philby, Jean?”—at which point Jean claimed that her hearing aids, which had been fine all day, were suddenly “on the blink.” By the time we had hunted out new batteries, the moment for revelations had passed and I had the feeling I might have been played.
It became our little joke. On each of our subsequent meetings, I would say to Jean, “You were going to tell me about your career as a spy, Jean,” and she would respond, “Good luck with that, dear.” She maintained, “My life hasn’t been that exciting.’”
But there was something about the way she teased me that made me wonder “what if?” What if Jean had only told me half the story of her years in the FANY? What if she had been an SOE agent? There were moments during the course of our work together when I felt that the Official Secrets Act still held sway.
I was fascinated by both Jean and Pat’s wartime stories but equally interesting to me were the lives they’d led since 1945. I lost my grandparents at an early age and thus didn’t have much contact with people of Pat and Jean’s generation. I had the sense that people born in the 1920s were stuffy and lived according to a very different set of social mores to my own. I was guilty, as many of us are, of dismissing my elders and imagining that they would be stuck in a time warp.
My deepening friendship with Pat and Jean proved me wrong, showing me that we had more in common than I thought and that I was foolish to dismiss their experiences and wisdom as being irrelevant in the modern world. I was also wrong to think that they’d find anything about twenty-first century life in the least bit shocking.
“Seen it all before,” as Pat often said.
Jean shared one piece of wisdom with me in particular that I think needs spreading far and wide. In the 1960s, having travelled the world as a charity worker, Jean returned to the UK to set up the careers department at the new University of Lancaster. Jean told me that she met many students who were tying themselves in knots as they chased down traditional graduate jobs which didn’t really interest them but which they thought they “ought” to want.I knew by the time I finished writing Codebreaking Sisters that I wanted to honor the women of the Greatest Generation in my own way by showing them as the young servicewomen they were and the inspiring, ground-breaking dames they became.
She told me that she advised those students, unhappy with their career choices but worried that they would be judged as failures if they didn’t follow the corporate path, to “Forget failure. There’s no such thing. There’s only deciding not to waste any more of your time.”
It seems to me that Jean’s advice works equally well when weighing up a creative endeavor and I applied her wisdom when deciding to abandon my career as a chick lit novelist to write The Excitements instead. I knew by the time I finished writing Codebreaking Sisters that I wanted to honor the women of the Greatest Generation in my own way by showing them as the young servicewomen they were and the inspiring, ground-breaking dames they became. It also gave me the opportunity to write about the female agents of the SOE and imagine an alternate universe in which my suspicions about Jean’s career in wartime intelligence were true.
When I told Jean I was writing a novel in which one of the heroines was a woman not unlike her, who had trained to be an Allied agent, she told me she thought it would be “fantastic fun” to read about such a life. Her interest in and enthusiasm for my project encouraged me greatly, as did the kindness of her sister, Pat, who generously agreed to be interviewed for The Excitements’ audiobook.
The last time Jean and I went to the pub together, shortly before she died, we I shared our little joke one more time.
“You were going to tell me about your years as a spy, Jean,” I said, expecting her usual response.
But this time, she answered me differently. What she said that day is for another story.
The Excitements by CJ Wray is available via William Morrow.