Sarah Rose is a journalist and author of the new book D Day Girls (Crown), the untold story of the extraordinary women recruited by Britain’s elite spy agency to help pave the way for Allied victory. The book has received rave reviews, including by best-selling author Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City, who called the book “gripping, queasily so: Spies, romance, Gestapo thugs, blown-up trains, courage, and treachery (lots of treachery)—and all of it true, all precisely documented.” As a reporter in New York, Miami and Hong Kong, she has covered a range of beats – cops, courts, schools, diplomacy, food, travel, celebrities, equities and labor. Rose also writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Dynasties” column, profiling New York’s real estate billionaires, and is the dating columnist for Men’s Fitness. In 2015, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded her First Place in Reporting for her feature on the last roundup of wild cattle in Hawaii.
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Q&A with Sarah Rose
What gave you the idea for D Day Girls?
Sarah: I wanted to know about the lives of the first women in combat. Focusing on the earliest class of women sent to France was a way to shine a light on the pioneers. Andree Borrel, Lise de Baissac, and Odette Sansom were each, in their own way, instrumental in laying the groundwork for an Allied victory. Andree helped raise up the Resistance on the Channel coast; Lise was in Normandy in June 1944 to lead it. Odette escaped from Ravensbruck and the evidence she collected helped convict the leader of the largest women’s prison in history.
How long did it take to research/ write? And what was it like to be in UK and France to interview, meet families and see where things actually happened?
Sarah: I spent two years writing. As a starting point, I moved to France to immerse myself in the world of Vichy and to learn French. I wanted to understand the training these women had gone through, so I went parachuting, took a boot camp, practiced shooting, assembled a radio and attempted to learn Morse code. I would make a terrible spy, but I wanted to create a lived-in feel. I visited the known addresses and walked every step. I interviewed veterans, families and scholars, who were so welcoming and gracious with their memories, but by and large, my research took place in the archives. I found an embarrassment of riches in diaries, oral histories, letters, war crimes testimonies and declassified military files.
What was the hardest part?
Sarah: I needed to recreate clandestine work in France for readers but had to dig deep for information. A good agent leaves no trace, so operational details are invisible by design. Missions were classified for two generations, until the end of the Cold War. By that time, few agents were still alive. Files were selectively weeded long before declassification, particularly when details were embarrassing to the Allies. Some first-person accounts are grandiose and demand being taken with a great deal of salt; clandestine work attract kooks, smugglers and fantasists, in addition to heroes. Commanders had the paternalistic idea that what happened to women behind the lines was either unseemly for posterity, or grotesque. When agents got raped, records are silent. When Odette spoke about her torture she was called a hysteric, despite her scars. Odette’s recruiter even spread the false rumor that she survived only because she was the Ravensbruck commandant’s mistress.
Why don’t people know this story already?
Sarah: Sending women to war was brand new. When one third of the recruits didn’t return it horrified Britain, and was seen as a betrayal of her most vulnerable citizens. Baseline sexism also distorts the record: Women’s missions were dismissed as “secretarial,” though they were telegraph operators, couriers, and circuit leaders: the same work performed by men. Sexual relationships blossomed behind the lines, producing a few marriages, but historians disdain this very human part of war as “romantic twaddle” and go back to counting bullets and bodies. To be very honest, the overwhelming reason we don’t hear about women in global conflicts is that until now war stories have been written by men.
Why should readers buy this book now?
Sarah: The 75th Anniversary of D-Day will be celebrated this year on June 6. I want the world to remember that the hidden figures of D-Day are women. We don’t know enough about the female leaders in Normandy and Brittany, or about the mothers and daughters who died receiving arms dumps, hiding contraband and forging documents, who were publishing manifestoes, conducting underground railroads, and defying Nazi torture. They are every bit the heroes men were, and, after 75 years, deserve to be honored.
What do you hope readers get out of this book?
Sarah: Andree, Lise and Odette are inspiring. In a moment of global upheaval, their stories demonstrate what the anger and energy of politically-minded women can accomplish. With authoritarian, ethno-nationalist regimes on the rise, the world of D-Day Girls doesn’t seem so far away. But as in France in 1940-1944, women are now stepping up, taking to the streets, organizing opposition, putting their bodies on the line, and proclaiming their right to #RESIST. The work of our matriarchs reminds us that activism is a potent weapon and can change the fate of nations.
What is your next project?
Sarah: I have no idea what’s next!