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Exhibit Highlights Women's Role In D-Day Operation


This week, we've been hearing many tributes to the men, the boys who fought and sacrificed on D-Day 75 years ago. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, women also played a crucial role in the invasion as spies and resistance fighters.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Nine days before D-Day, 20-year-old British spy Sonya d'Artois parachuted into Normandy. She spoke fluent French and had done four practice jumps. In a 2002 documentary, d'Artois said she knew the risk.


SONYA D'ARTOIS: We always did hear the rumors. So-and-so jumped in two days ago, and he was shot upon landing. And we'd hear it. We weren't supposed to, but we would.

BEARDSLEY: D'Artois was a courier and explosives expert working for the special operations executive or SOE. Winston Churchill created the spy agency to infiltrate the continent and set Europe ablaze. By 1944, some 3,000 women were with the SOE, many behind enemy lines working with the French resistance to blow up bridges and rail lines.

JENNIFER RYAN: The German troops that were all amassed around the Calais area - none of them could go and help out at Normandy.

BEARDSLEY: That's Jennifer Ryan, whose new novel, "The Spies Of Shilling Lane," is based on the lives of real, female spies.

RYAN: There were more and more women being sent out because it was actually realized that they were really very good at blending in. They were good at recruiting local people for French resistance work, to be couriers, etc. They were very good at running safe houses. They made very good wireless operators.

BEARDSLEY: Historian Ellen Hampton, author of a book called "Women Of Valor," says French female resistance fighters were key in getting downed Allied pilots out of France.

ELLEN HAMPTON: They had to move these British men who were, you know, 10-feet-tall, and they smoke their cigarettes differently. And they jingled change in their pockets, which French people never did. And so they had to disguise them as their boyfriends or their cousins or something and get them to the train station, on the train. And the women were absolutely key to that.


SEAN CONNERY: (As Private Flanagan) Come on, you bums. Come out, you dirty slobs.

BEARDSLEY: 1962 classic "The Longest Day" portrays one of these women, resistance fighter Louise Boitard, who exfiltrated 68 Allied pilots. Here she is in a 1962 French TV interview.


LOUISE BOITARD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Boitard says she was often very scared, especially once when she had four pilots to get out, and then someone brought three more to her house. Women like Boitard risked torture or deportation if caught. Author Jennifer Ryan says their punishments were often harsher than men's. As most were civilians, female spies were not covered by the Geneva Convention.

At Juno Beach in Normandy, where the Canadians landed on D-Day, there's an exhibit called "Great Women During The War." Nathalie Worthington is the curator. She stands in front of a photo of Sonya d'Artois, the 20-year-old who parachuted in ahead of D-Day. She was married to a Canadian spy.

NATHALIE WORTHINGTON: Just after the war, she went to live in Montreal, and they had six children. And you never heard about her again. She used to say that she got from mixing explosives to mixing milk bottles.

BEARDSLEY: D'Artois died in 2014. Her daughter Nadya Murdoch visited the exhibit this week. She spoke to the CBC.

NADYA MURDOCH: It's very touching. And it's - you know, we all feel so much pride. And it's emotional.

BEARDSLEY: D'Artois's children and grandchildren were among the tens of thousands of people who came to Normandy to honor the heroes of D-Day. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Normandy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.