There’s increasingly a great range of entries encompassing all kinds of painting styles, interests, genres and figure manufacturers, so why not pop over and take a look at the kind of female characters being painted in the hobby nowadays?
Oh, and my humble offering of five female SOE agents brought home the “Most Thought-Provoking Entry” category – my first success in the FEMbruary challenge! Click below to read more about these phenomenally brave agents from WWII:
“I would give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian (sic) bitch.“
Reputedly Klaus Barbie, Lyon’s Gestapo chief.
Born: Baltimore, United States, 1906.
SOE Rank: Second Lieutenant.
AKA: ‘Artemis’, The Limping Lady’, ‘Marie of Lyon’, ‘Cuthbert’ (her leg’s pseudonym).
Died: Rockville, United States, 1982.
The most highly decorated female civilian during World War II, Virginia Hall was born in 1906 to a wealthy family in Baltimore. As so often with these female SOE agents, Hall was not in any way an average person. She wanted adventure, recognising herself as a “capricious and cantankerous” personality. She once went to school wearing a bracelet made of live snakes. She also enjoyed hunting, and it was while hunting birds that she accidentally shot herself in the foot. Her left leg was amputated below the knee after gangrene set in. Hall’s resilience and determination was forged in her painful recovery and in her learning to use a wooden leg.
Hall was living in Europe when war broke out and she drove ambulances for the French until the country was overrun. She then went on to become one of the first British SOE agents sent to France in 1941. It became apparent that she was a natural at the art of spying and subterfuge. Her caution was a great asset. She declined to attend a meeting of SOE agents in Marseille, sensing some danger. The French police raided the meeting and captured a dozen agents.
“Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible… she was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. None of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy…“The Germans came to realize that they were after a limping lady,” said her biographer Sonia Purnell. Hall constantly changed her appearance. “She could be four different women in the space of an afternoon, with four different code names,” said Purnell. The man in hot pursuit was none other than the Gestapo’s infamous Klaus Barbie, known as “the Butcher of Lyon” for the thousands in France tortured and killed by his forces. Barbie ordered “wanted” posters of Hall that featured a drawing of her above the words “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy — We Must Find And Destroy Her!”‘A Woman Of No Importance’ Finally Gets Her Due by Greg Myre, NPR.
As the net closed in, Virginia Hall escaped to Spain by crossing the Pyrenees which was an incredibly arduous journey for anybody (over 50 mountainous miles in the heavy snows of winter), never mind someone dragging a wooden leg. The British SOE refused to sanction a return to France, fearing it would be fatal for her, such was her reputation with the Nazis. Hall was nonetheless determined to return and instead went to the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for a role with them and was sent back to France. She went to extraordinary lengths to remain undetected, knowing the risks her return entailed.
“She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face,” she said. “She also got a fierce, a rather sort of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid.”
Her tour of duty in France in 1944 and 1945 was a great success in which she avoided detection and established a thriving network of up to 1,500 members of the Maquis in three battalions, one of whom, a French-American soldier, she went on to marry. After the war, she worked for the CIA but was apparently unhappy at what were effectively senior bureaucratic desk jobs. Furthermore, as a disabled woman, it is unlikely that she received the same treatment as male colleagues would have been at that time.
The US President Harry Truman was unable to get her to agree to a public ceremony to receive her US Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) honour. She was also awarded the British MBE and the French Croix de Guerre. Hall was implacably against any exposure or public recognition and slipped into obscurity after retirement. Belatedly, 40 years after her death in 1982 in Maryland, she is finally being recognised with a number of books and movies being made about her life. In 2016, a CIA field agent training facility was named the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.
That’s my final figure for the month of FEMbruary – an idea by Alex at Lead Balloony’s blog. You can check out other submissions for this challenge by going to the comments section of his original post and keeping an eye out for his final round up post due at the end of the challenge.
And a final reminder of my five female SOE agents…
Continuing Leadballoony’s fabulous Fembruary challenge, Number 4 in my SOE spy series is Noor Inayat Khan. With this Bad Squiddo Games figure, we have a lady trying to get somewhere in a hurry with a suspiciously heavy-looking briefcase…
Noor Inayat Khan’s musician father was a teacher of Sufism and came from a family of Indian Muslims with hereditary nobility (his great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore). Her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American. Noor studied music at the Paris Conservatory but went on to became a writer being a regular contributor to children’s magazines and to French radio. In 1939, her book, Twenty Jataka Tales was published, inspired by traditional Buddhist tales. At the outbreak of war, Noor escaped from Paris and on arriving in the UK joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wireless operator. Seeking a greater challenge she secured a commission and was later recruited to the Special Operations Executive in 1943.
Some of those who trained her had doubts about her suitability for what was undoubtedly a very dangerous task ahead. Her finishing training report read:
“Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of the security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.” Next to this comment, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section, had written in the margin “Nonsense” and that “We don’t want them overburdened with brains.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noor_Inayat_Khan
It’s a little difficult over 70 years on not to wonder whether a degree of scorn for her gender, if not her race (“physically unsuited… she would not easily disappear into a crowd”), may have influenced some of that opinion. That Noor was a trained harpist who studied at the Paris conservatory, was a published writer and won a commission as an officer seems to contradict the ‘no brains’ assessment. There was another aspect may have also compromised her assessor’s faith in her ability to do the job. Noor’s upbringing made her committed to non-violence and she was apparently distinctly uncomfortable with weapon training (“Pretty scared of weapons but tries hard to get over it.”).
Her brother Vilayat recalled attempting to stop his sister going on this hazardous mission:
“You see, Nora and I had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi’s nonviolence, and at the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do”, said Vilayat, who had followed his father and become a Sufi mystic. “She said, ‘Well, I must do something, but I don’t want to kill anyone.’ So I said, ‘Well, if we are going to join the war, we have to involve ourselves in the most dangerous positions, which would mean no killing.’ Then, when we eventually go to England, I volunteered for minesweeping and she volunteered for SOE, and so I have always had a feeling of guilt because of what I said that day.“
Questioned closely by a sceptical SOE as to whether she had the confidence to go ahead with this incredibly dangerous assignment, Noor was apparently shocked that there was any doubt and insisted adamantly that she wanted to go, being fully competent for the work.
In June 1943, Noor (working under the codename of ‘Madeleine’) was flown to France to become the first female radio operator for a resistance network in Paris called ‘Prosper’. Members of the network were arrested shortly after she arrived but she insisted on staying on to remain in France and spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture. In 1943, an operator’s life expectancy was six weeks. She had to move location very frequently to avoid detection and would have carried her bulky transmitter in a suitcase, as we can see with Bad Squiddo’s figure here.
Noor was betrayed to the Germans by the sister of another French agent and arrested by the Gestapo. Interrogated at their HQ in Paris, she attempted escape twice with other agents but was recaptured in the vicinity. After refusing to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, she was taken to Germany. Hans Kieffer, the former head of the SS in Paris, testified after the war that she did not give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently. She was held at the same location for ten months, classified as “highly dangerous” and kept in appalling circumstances (shackled in chains most of the time) until she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp with three other captured female agents. There they were all executed.
Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross and by the French with a Croix de Guerre with silver star. Noor is the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque honouring her in London. The plaque was unveiled at a virtual ceremony on the 28th August 2020.
Noor Inayat Khan might not have had the bravado of Nancy Wake, or the recklessness of Krystyna Skarbek, but in my opinion she was nonetheless possessed of a rare implacable bravery that led her to ultimately sacrifice herself in the most lonely and terrifying circumstances for a cause she believed in.
One more SOE lady to go in this FEMbruary series which I’ll hopefully share soon.
The third of my SOE FEMbruary female figures is a Polish agent by the name of Krystyna Skarbek. Krystyna Skarbek was said to be Churchill’s favourite spy and to have inspired an Ian (James Bond) Fleming character. My first two SOE figures in this Fembruary challenge was Nancy Wake and Annie Norman.
Krystyna, a Polish Countess, arrived in Britain in 1939 from Poland where, after being initially overlooked, she was eventually accepted as an agent into the SOE. After being sent to occupied Poland, she soon organised a system of couriers between Poland and Hungary, skiing into her Nazi-occupied homeland across the Carpathian Mountains in winter. A report from this time described her as “absolutely fearless”. Though shot at, chased, captured and escaped she succeeded in creating an escape line across the mountains through which she aided the passage of several hundred Polish pilots who would later go on to play a decisive role in the Battle of Britain.
She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in Budapest, but by faking tuberculosis (by biting her tongue to simulate coughing up blood) she escaped and was taken to Romania in the boot of a diplomatic car, later to serve in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1944, she was dropped in France under the name Pauline Armand to be a courier for the Southern France resistance. She then made her way to the Italian border where groups of Poles reluctantly pressed into German service were garrisoned at frontier posts overlooking the winding Alpine passes. Her job was to persuade them to change sides and hand over their arms. In late 1944, she personally negotiated the release of three SOE officers with the Gestapo, even though there was a price on her head too. A clever mixture of bribery and threats of post-war retribution secured their release hours before their execution was due.
Skarbek, living in London, was in reduced circumstances after the war despite her wartime achievements. She had to scrape a living as a shop assistant, a hat-check girl in Harrods, a waitress and a toilet cleaner on passenger ships. Tragically, in 1952 she was stabbed to death at the hands of a jealous man whose attentions she had spurned. The murderer confessed and was hanged later that year.
The idea of the figure of Krystyna appearing in skiing gear is an appropriate choice by Bad Squiddo, given her exploits in the Carpathian mountains! Keeping things appropriately low key for someone avoiding attention and detection, I’ve given her a simple blue scarf and plain white pullover.
My Fembruary SOE Agent number 2 is Annie Norman, the lady behind Bad Squiddo Games and producer of these fab little WWII agents. Of course, it’s another nicely sculpted figure by Rob Macfarlane.
The blue spotty dress design was borrowed directly from the figure painted by John Morris on the website which looked really nice but which was horrible to reproduce. Full respect to John Morris, and his fine job with the polka dots! Mine are a little more unevenly spaced, and it won’t win any print design competitions, but for my first polka dot dress paint job – well, it’ll do!
Painting Annie Agent’s glasses was interesting. The last pair I had to paint was at 20mm scale where a couple dots for eyes was about sufficient.
So, at 28mm I had to reveal a little more behind the lenses.
Finally, any good SOE agent is well-trained with a firearm for any high-tension moment when self-preservation becomes paramount.
It’s Fembruary and my first SOE agent is now operating under cover in France! One of five female WWII agents courtesy of Bad Squiddo Games, Nancy Wake was once described as;
“…a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.” Training reports record that she was “a very good and fast shot” and possessed excellent fieldcraft. She was noted to “put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character.”
Something of her independent spirit can be gleaned from how she ran away from home at the age of only 16. Living in France at the outset of WWII, she and her husband aided allied airmen to escape from France after 1940 until she eventually had to escape herself (something she was very good at – the Germans calling her ‘the white mouse’ because she kept slipping out of sight). Sadly, her French husband was captured, tortured and executed, a fact she only discovered at the end of the war. Her survival technique included her natural brazen self-confidence, Nancy later saying;
“A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”
The sculptor seems to have captured that nerve and poise with this pose. Nancy is attractively dressed and nonchalantly strolling on her way while casually examining her fingernails, but her hidden steel and deadliness is nicely represented by a dagger tucked away just out of sight by her side.
Alongside the Maquis, she certainly took part in a number of firefights and battles with the Germans, later confessing to reluctantly having to kill a sentry with her bare hands, in a manner she’d been trained repeatedly to use by the SOE.
Nancy survived the war and was decorated lavishly by a grateful UK, France, New Zealand, Australia and USA. She emigrated to Australia with her next husband, an RAF officer, where she unsuccessfully stood as a Liberal candidate in elections there. After her 2nd husband died in 1997, Nancy returned to the UK where she lived at the Stafford Hotel in Piccadilly, London. Here she ‘would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day and telling war stories‘. She ended her days living at a home for disabled ex-servicemen and women until she passed away at the ripe old age of 98 in 2011.
So ends my humble salute to Nancy Wake of the Special Operations Executive. I have purchased some cheap plinths for my ladies which I will probably pop them on to them for a final post. In the meantime, my next instalment of these SOE sisters is hopefully coming soon!
It’s that time of the year again that many of us figure painters, makers and bloggers look forward to. Fembruary has been declared by Alex at Lead Balloony blog. I’ve not missed a Fembruary yet and there’s no way I want to miss out this year.
My previous Fembruary submissions:
So I’ve been taking a look at my figures as usual to find something which could satisfy the core aims of Alex’s great idea which is namely to paint and post some female miniatures in the ‘name of fair representation in the hobby’. In his blog post, he goes on to say “Given that this is intended as an encouragement to think about inclusion in the hobby then it makes sense if your entries are kick-ass ladies, and not the product of some socially awkward mini-sculptor’s sexy fantasies…” A final round-up is in early March (in time for International Women’s Day, on the 8th March).
For more details on Fembruary, see the Lead Balloony post and you could do a lot worse than check out his son’s very impressive Amazon quartet while your at it.
If it’s kick-ass ladies that Alex wants to see, then my selection should more than fit the bill. This year I couldn’t resist Bad Squiddo’s wonderful new range of WWII female SOE agents. All of them, with one exception, are based on real life heroic agents who served the cryptically named Special Operations Executive. The characters include:
Noor Inayat Khan
The first four are based on real WWII SOE agents, the last one is Bad Squiddo supremo herself, Annie Norman, aka “Gestapo’s Most Wanted”. Annie might, of course, even be a genuine agent too but I’m not allowed to talk about that…
I’ve also had my eye on another female figure from Bad Squiddo but it’s doubtful I will get time to paint that before Fembruary’s deadline, so (like a good SOE agent) I’m keeping that very ‘hush-hush’ for now.
Man of Tin blog has submitted some lovely Fembruary work in recent years – are you in again this year, Mark?
I’ve been painting figures again this week, so more news on that to follow.