Sabotage and Secrets - Remembering the female agents of World War Two

Watch: ITV News Meridian's Derek Johnson reports.

The women who made up the uniformed ranks of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry were originally volunteer nurses on the front line.

By the time of World War Two they were also drivers, mechanics and wireless operators.

Unknown to all but a few though some became undercover agents dispatched to occupied countries as part of the effort to free them from the Nazi yoke.

The Special Operations Executive - or SOE - was the brainchild of Winston Churchill whose plan was to ‘set Europe ablaze’ via acts of subversion and sabotage that would divert much-needed Axis troops and resources away from the battlefields.

Joyce Wilding and Mildred Schutz both worked for SOE in wartime Credit: ITV Meridian

Many of SOE's administrative staff were members of FANY as well. Joyce Wilding from Sussex worked as a wireless hut operator in Oxfordshire and later as a driver - delivering in secret clothes and forged papers destined for agents.

''We were told we were going to a special training school for overseas forces,'' she said. ''We were given a pass and we were going to Thame Park which was Station 52 and I was going to be a transmitter hut attendant, which sounded dubious.

''But it was a wireless training school. There were instructors for the agents being taught to use morse code which was vital. We were on a hut on a hill where there were transmitters that had to be tuned whenever there was a message coming in from abroad.''

''Messages that were going through the hut into the signal office in the house were in morse code and then decoded and then eventually sent on to headquarters in London.''

Watch: Clare Mulley, author of The Spy Who Loved, talks about the wartime women of SOE. Carve Her Name With Pride from ITV Archive/ Rank Organisation

SOE had a roster of thousands of agents across Europe and Asia. Almost 500 were in France and all had close ties to the countries they worked in. Mainly men, they liaised with resistance forces and partisan groups to form a guerilla army.

Clare Mulley - an award-winning author whose books include The Spy Who Loved - said it took a while for authorities to appreciate the value of female agents.

''At first SOE was very reluctant to put women in the front line of fire in combat or behind enemy lines'' she said. ''But in the end they had 75 women recruited to serve as agents. Mainly recruited to serve as couriers and wireless transmitters. The women had a special skill and it wasn't their allure as is often said. It was actually because women were overlooked and underestimated. They had much more ability to move around.''

Beaulieu in Hampshire was a finishing school for the agents who learnt how to parachute and given instruction in firearms, unarmed combat and ciphers.

Beaulieu was a training centre for the Special Operations Executive Credit: ITV Meridian

Mildred Shultz worked for SOE in London before undergoing training. She remembers the air of secrecy and the fact that everyone seemed to be under surveillance.

She said: ''I think if your every move was watched because although we'd be working in the office two of us went out for lunch and sat in a churchyard eating our sandwiches. And then later somebody played back what we'd been talking about so that we were being watched continuously to see that you were genuine and on the right side of course.

''Then I think they came out of the office one day and said, Would you like to jump with a parachute? And I said, Oh, yes, that would be great fun. So they said right can you can joun and go overseas.''

Despite German spies discovering and broadcasting her identity, Mildred went with FANY to Italy. She went behind enemy lines at that time, helping to train the many disparate groups of partisans and bring them together.

She has nothing but praise for SOE's female agents.

''I think they were exceptionally brave. That was really nasty because you knew if you were caught you went to a concentration camp.

''And they were trying to organise people in lots of ways to prevent war because if they got word for instance that there was a trainload of ammunition to go to the front they would get ahead of the train and blow the line up so the train couldn't go through - espionage.''

Although is work was not widely known at the time, SOE's part in winning the war is now well understood. And the role of female agents has also been widely publicised.

This statue of SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan is in a park in London Credit: ITV Meridian

Clare Mulley said : ''The women made a very significant contribution in the run-up to D-Day in particular. When the message came out to do the work ninety factories were blown up within 24 hours, they took down power lines and communication points. They closed particular roads to prevent re-enforcements going up to Normandy. And women are doing a lot of this work.''

It was of course incredibly dangerous. More than a dozen female agents died, some of them captured and executed. And most started their training with FANY.

The courage of the women of SOE is exemplified by wireless operator Noor Inayat Khan who was captured and sent to a concentration camp. Her last word before she was shot was "Liberte"... Freedom.