When remembering the history of WWII, the important role of women is often lost. In reality, there were hundreds of thousands of women who contributed every day, in every way they could, to win the conflict. They fought, they spied, they sabotaged. They cooked cakes sent overseas, they built bombs, they nursed the wounded, they drove supplies, they typed. They provided refuge, food, and political vision. Many of them risked their lives and lost it.
In celebration of Liberation Day, April 25, the day Italy was liberated from Nazism and Fascism, we selected three remarkable European women who, in our opinion, changed the course of WWII.
A fierce member of the ‘Resistenza’, the partisan organization that fought for Italy’s freedom from Mussolini’s and Hitler’s grip, the Roman born Capponi was called to action after the bombings of 1943. As a member of the armed partisan cell called the Patriotic Action Group (Gruppi d’Azione Patriottica, or GAP) she was heavily involved in the efforts to help the cause, including shooting at German tanks and launching bombs at Nazi convoys. When Allied troops landed in Anzio, she delivered communications during partisan military operations. Carla participated in the front line to many bold attacks – the biggest one on March 23, 1944 against the German Police Regiment ‘Bozen’ that was marching down Via Rasella. Thirty-three policemen died, and Wehrmacht authorities immediately organized their retaliation, with Hitler’s approval. Ten Italian civilians were to be shot for each killed policeman. In their zeal to comply with orders, German officers slaughtered 335 Italians, aged fifteen to seventy, in the Ardeatine caves, an episode that still resounds profoundly in the Italian culture. During only a year of activity, Carla gained the title of deputy commander, and then captain. Her contribution to the cause was so impressive that immediately following the war the Italian government bestowed upon her the highest military honor – the Golden Medal for Military Valor.
Partisan movements were very strong throughout Europe and produced many female heroes. In France, for example, we can look up to Germaine Tillion. She was an ethnologist specialized in berber culture, but with the outbreak of the war she became part of the so-called Group of the Museum of Men. This group was involved in many dangerous activities, such as the dissemination of Allied propaganda, the manufacture of false papers, and intelligence missions. Most of all, Germaine and her group hid Jews and helped many Allied soldiers escape from prison and concentration camps. She came to occupy a key position in her network, an event that was very rare in the male-dominated French resistance movement. After being denounced by a traitor companion, Germaine ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp herself. There, she lost her beloved mother but she kept her spirit sharp by writing a diary, documenting the extremely harsh conditions of prisoners’ lives. She turned her humorous observations into an operetta called Le Verfügbar aux Enfers (The Campworker goes to Hell), which was published only in 2007 because Germaine did not want the public to be mislead by her sarcasm. After the war, she wrote many more books, where she described the crimes against humanity witnessed in Germany and the Soviet gulags – the most famous is ‘Ravensbrück‘, published in 1958. She never abandoned her studies on Northern African cultures, and she actively supported the Algerian Liberation War while advocating for women’s rights in the Mediterranean basin. Her last battle was against torture in Iraq during the second Gulf War. Her life-long fight made Germaine one of the very few women to be bestowed on the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest French military medal, and one of the only two female patriots buried at the Panthéon in Paris.
Our heroines weren’t only partisans; females agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) helped forge the ‘secret army’ of resistance fighters that would prepare the way for the Allied invasion. Excellent at blending in, they could travel on public transportation without raising suspicions, hiding explosives in their baskets full of flowers or groceries, and they were not the Nazi’s first choice when rounding up locals for forced labour. Many, including Nancy Wake, were parachuted behind enemy lines. Originally from New Zealand, she was married to Henri Fiocca, a wealthy businessman. At the beginning of the war, with the establishment of a collaborationist government in the southern part of France, Nancy and her husband were among the first resistance leaders, and helped many Jews and prisoners of war escape from France through Spain. Nancy (code named ‘The White Mouse‘) had as mission the disruption of the German Army through sabotage by organizing the French Resistance and sending strategic intel to the British. Her network soon became a target of Gestapo’s investigations, and she was arrested during one of her many attempts at fleeing the country through the Pyrenees. At that time, she was the most wanted woman by the Germans and had the highest prize on her head (5million francs). Even when brutally questioned, she held out and refused to give any information. When she succeeded in making her way back to Britain again, she received supplementary military training, was parachuted back to France, and helped land preparations for the D-Day invasion. French guerrilla fighters didn’t consider her fit enough, but she soon proved them wrong. Her missions and accomplishments damaged the Germans so much that they sensibly slowed down the counteroffensive of the Nazis after the Allied landing in Normandy. Nancy was the most decorated woman of WWII, with honors bestowed by the British, French and US governments.
Those are the women that we remember and celebrate today, along with the sacrifice of all those who, in bigger or smaller scale, decided to go further.