THE HARSH REALITIES BEHIND THE INNOCENCE:
I was so excited to see this picture of my father in his youth. The baby in this photo is my sister. And while this picture presumes a happy couple adoring their firstborn daughter is partly true, the rest of the story is anything but that.
This couple married a year before the photo. January 1944, to be exact. The service was in the little town of Leighton, just north of London. Most new marriages start with a quiet honeymoon and the gentle beginnings of a new life, but not this one. In barely five months, the greatest sea to land invasion, Operation Overlord, would take place. Most of us know of the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, when the allies turned the tied against the National Socialists of Germany, aka the Nazis. D-Day was when the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy. My father would be the skipper one of the Royal Navy’s Landing Craft Tanks – #940 Group 213, to be exact.
Maybe it was love that brought them together, and perhaps it wasn’t. The truth is, Jenny, my father’s first wife, had been called into the SOE or Strategic Operations Executive. She was to become a spy for the allies. Her role would be to radio troop movement, formulate Uboat reports, plant bombs, seduce enemies, extract secrets, and exchange intelligence with our temporary frenemies, the Communist Russian military. Rita was only 21 years old.
There was a small group of young women who would be made with that stronger stuff and were able to go on to perform some of the most challenging, dangerous, and heroic, secret operations for the SOE. Some of those women were captured, tortured, and executed. Russia was the bastion of communism, which was no comfort to the allies as we formed an uneasy alliance to face down the Nazis. What young girl could trust that moment she handed off her own country’s greatest secrets to a Russian military officer? It was indeed the first time in modern history that women had so equal a role in the war as men.
Imagine the terror many of the girls, like Jenny, must have felt as they faced the enormous dangers of becoming a WW2 spy. By this stage of the war, the success and challenges of the DDay girls of Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” were well known. Women were tortured, maimed, raped, poisoned, shot, or sent to concentration camps. During those months before DDay, Rita realized she could not go through with her part of the mission as an SOE agent. Again, she was only 21 years old.
Our father, as skipper of a Landing Craft Tank, was responsible for transporting troops, tanks, and supplies on D-Day. He was also only 21 years old. The mission was initially for May of 1944, but the weather and seas forced a delay. By this time, most of Britain’s military knew and had prepared well for Operation Overlord. Our father and his friend, Jenny, could only imagine and dread what was ahead.
But unlike men and war, women have a not so secret “out” when it comes to their role in the military: pregnancy. The truth is, Rita, became so terrified about her future role as an SOE spy, she convinced our father to marry her so she could get pregnant. You see, pregnancy created an automatic elimination from the spy program. My sister was the child who decommissioned this future spy.
Perhaps this was a coward’s way out. It seems unlikely that Rita would be the only female operative to use pregnancy to ripcord out of an almost dire military situation. How many others did the same, we will never know. I do know how she conducted herself as a mother and wife long after the war, which could provide some clues. But I do not think; however, we will ever be able to understand her state of mind at the time completely.
So there it is. We will never truly know the secrets and complications of people’s lives – especially in wartime. Europe experienced great devastation since the turn of the century with WW2 following not too long after the Great War. People, by that time, were well aware of the darkness and consequences of war. They had become experts in survival. They went forward with their plan, and only a few years later, my brother was born.
I do not write their story to judge one way or the other. It happened. Both my half-brother and half-sister continue to live their lives in the shadow of this war. They live good and full-filling lives and now enjoy their retirement, children, and grandchildren. Whatever we may think of this family or their choices, they did survive.