British Agents and Women Warriors of WWII – Story Writing and Research

I’m in the research stage of putting together an archaeological action/adventure novella series with a lesfic and paranormal twist. Research is my favourite part of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy creating characters and bringing them to life; indeed, the characters for this series came to me years ago. But a large part of writing is knowing the context of the time, place, and circumstance in which your characters live. 

I’d like to share with you a brief main character outline, plot discussion, and some of the books I’ve been reading to help me better know my story. This is also an excuse to post something from my new hobby – book photography.

Character: ALEXANDRA COLERIDGE

Alex is a dual national of Britain and Switzerland (Swiss father, British mother). She was born in Switzerland in 1907, but grew up mostly in England. Her parents changed her surname to her mother’s maiden name during WWI so their daughter would not suffer discrimination for her German sounding surname – Schwegler. 

Alex is an archaeologist/antiquarian, and one of the few women to be awarded a full degree in Language and Ancient History at the age of 22, in 1929 at Oxford University. She earned her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1934, after which she lived in France before returning to England in 1938 at the urging of her father.

When we first meet her, she is living near her parents in York, England, expanding her research in the hope it will point the way to evidence she needs to prove her theory of the existence of a hitherto unknown ancient civilisation with advanced technology. The majority of academia think she is a nut job. 

To afford to live, she works independently as an antiquities valuer and tries to drum up business by gate crashing opulent funerals and handing out her business card to mourners in the hope that some of them may have inherited something of value and are interested in finding out how much it is worth.

Alex’s business card

On the 29th April 1942, Alex’s parents are killed in a German air raid on York that left 92 people dead and hundreds of injured – the Baedeker raids. Stricken, Alex throws herself into her work with greater fervour in an effort to escape her grief. 

In late 1942, Alex finally pieces together her research and realises the possible location of definitive proof of her theory lies in German occupied France. Not only this, but the Nazis have learned of her research through the Ahnenerbe (the SS archaeological/scholarly think tank), and believe Alex’s “evidence”, is what they need to prove the superiority of the Aryan race – something with which both Hitler and Himmler are obsessed. 

Things are scaled up when Alex is approached by the Special Operations Executive; a clandestine section of the British War Office assigned the task directly from Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’. 

The SOE often head hunts individuals who could be of use to them. Alex speaks both French and German, lived in France during the 1930s, and has a Swiss passport (in her birth name – Schwegler). They want her to legitimately work for the Germans and spy for the SOE. 

Alex hates the idea, but realises it is a way of helping avenge the death of her parents. Most importantly, she could be responsible for causing the diversion of huge amounts of Nazi funds and resources, which could ultimately help bring down the regime.

But what Alex discovers, is far darker and more terrifying than even Himmler could have imagined.

To write parts of this story effectively, I needed to research as much as I could about the SOE and female operatives during WWII.

Here are a few of the books I read as a starter to my research. I’ll include bibliographical references below the images. If you need to learn about the SOE, and female operatives in particular, these books are a good start. I was particularly impressed with the two hard covers in the second photo as they are reproductions of the original training manuals given to agents.


References for Books Pictured

Braddon, R. (2009). SOE’s Greatest Heroine. Stroud: History.

Escott, B. E. (2012). The Heroines of SOE: F section: Britain’s secret women in France. Stroud: The History Press.

Fairbarn, W. E. (2017). All-In Fighting. Eastbourne: NAVAL & MILITARY Press.

Helm, S., & Jeater, F. (2009). A Life in Secrets the story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE. Place of publication not identified: Oakhill Pub.

Jones, L. (1991). A Quiet Courage. London: Corgi.

McKay, S. (2014). The British Spy Manual: The Authentic Special Operations Executive (SOE) Guide for WWII: The War Office. London: Aurum Press.

SOE  Manual: How To Be An Agent In Occupied Europe. (2014). London: William Collins / National Archives.


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