Women Warriors From The Sky
After the first World War and prior to the second, many countries organized airborne troopers, entirely men. Soon after the invasions of Belgium, France and Poland, women joined their brothers of the silk to aid in the survival of their way of life.
Lise de Baissac
Along with Andree Borrel, Lise de Baissac became the first two women agents to be parachuted into France.
Lise de Baissac was born in Mauritius on May 11, 1905. During the Second World War,she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Given the code name “Marguerite”, Baissac and Andrée Borrel, became the first women agents to be was parachuted into France on 24th September 1942. They landed in the village of Boisrenard close to the town of Mer.
After staying with the French Resistance for a couple of days Lise moved to Poiters. Over the next few months Lise acted as liaison officer between the Prosper, Scientist and Bricklayer networks.As she did not have a wireless she had to travel to Paris to send and receive messages and collect funds, or to Bordeaux where Claude de Baissac was building up the large circuit, organizing sabotage and providing reports on submarines and shipping.In June 1943, the Gestapo arrested several agents involved with the Prosper network including Andrée Borrel, Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman, but Baissac managed to escape back to England. Lise was dropped back into France in April 1944, to work with the Pimento Circuit run by the SOE agent Anthony Brooks and joined her brother Claude de Baissac, who had gone to Normandy to reconnoitre large landing grounds that could be held for 48 hours while airborne troops established themselves. A British army officer later claimed: “The part she played in aiding the Maquis and the British underground movement in France cannot be too highly stressed and did much to facilitate the Maquis preparations and resistance prior to the American breakthrough in Mayenne.” According to her Special Operations Executive file: “She was the inspiration of groups on the Orne and by her initiative caused heavy losses to the Germans with tyre bursters on the roads near St Aubin-le-Desert, St Mars, and as far as Laval, Le Mans and Rennes. She also took part in several armed attacks on enemy columns.“
Lise de Baissac was awarded the MBE in September, 1945. After the war she married Henri Villameur, an artist and interior decorator living in Marseilles.
“Bewitching, beautiful with brilliant, brown, arresting eyes, and crackling vitality”, had “a positive nostalgie for danger” and “was miserable without a chance to meet it.” Under the nom de guerre “Madame Pauline”, Krystyna Skarbek parachuted into France carrying a map printed on silk and cyanide pills; her fearless bombast, resourcefulness and undeniable charm would be legendary. She became Winston Churchhill’s favorite spy and is rumored to be model for Vesper Lynd, Ian Fleming’s first Bond girl. She was said to be deadly with her pistol but preferred silent killing with her ever-present knife, or even her bare hands. That impish grin belied a woman capable of anything.
Born Maria Krystyna Janina on May 1, in Warsaw to Count Jerzy Skarbek, and Stefania (Goldfeder) as their second child. Called Vesper (star) by her father and taking after her father’s side of the family, the Skarbeks had saved Poland from medieval invaders and served its royal courts, she inherited the self‐assuredness, patriotism and fearlessness of her ancestors, she could be extremely persuasive, selfless and fiercely loyal, but was equally capable of cold ruthlessness. Krystyna’s love for the outdoors, skiing and horses would serve her well later in life. A “tom-boy”, she rode astride rather than side-saddle and was an expert skier with regular visits to Zakopane in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. Another trait that put her in good stead for her future clandestine work was her ability to keep secrets; throughout her life she was careful what she divulged, even to her closest friends. Physically stunning from the very start, in 1930, Krystyna Skarbek competed in the Miss Polonia contest, placing sixth; her father died the same year. She married and divorced Karol Getlich when she was young, and married Jerzy Gizycki, an adventurer and diplomat, at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Warsaw on November 2, 1938. After marriage the couple left for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Jerzy took up the post of Polish consul.They were in Ethiopia when German forces invaded Poland the following September. Krystyna and her husband went to London, where she volunteered to work for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); she had a plan: she would go to Budapest, print propaganda leaflets, and ski across the Tatra mountains into Poland to undertake intelligence missions and assist Polish resistance fighters. Reluctantly, MI6 approved the plan. Given the name Christine Granville, she departed for Budapest on December 21, 1939. She met the one-legged Polish war hero Andrzej Kowerski, and the two fell in love; he became Andrew Kennedy. With the help of a member of Poland’s Olympic ski team, she was able to cross the mountains into her native country. The Nazis considering the Tatra mountains too treacherous to cross did not guard that part of the frontier. In Warsaw, Krystyna located her mother but was unable to convince her to give up her work in the underground; she was later taken away by Gestapo and she died at Warsaw’s Pawiak prison. Helping organize a system of Polish couriers to smuggle intelligence from Warsaw to Budapest, Krystyna Skarbek’s intelligence activities were so successful that large posters with a reward for her capture were put up in every railroad station in Poland. She procured photos of German troops massing on the borders of the Soviet Union, alerting England of Germany’s upcoming invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa. (Her prediction that Germany would invade the Soviet Union came true on June 22, 1941. British prime minister Winston Churchill,who had heard Soviet leader Josef Stalin dismiss the possibility, dubbed Skarbek his favorite spy.) SOE was founded in July 1940 and Granville, her official name upon naturalization as a British subject, began her career as one of the longest serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents. She and her husband were arrested early in 1941 by the Gestapo. During her interrogation, Christine bit her own tongue hard enough to draw blood, coughed hard, and succeeded in convincing a Hungarian doctor that she was suffering from tuberculosis.
Kowerski (Kennedy) and Christine, as a result of her “illness”, were released. She was then smuggled out of Hungary in the trunk of a car belonging to British ambassador Sir Owen O’Malley, crossing successfully into Yugoslavia. O’Malley, called her”the bravest person I ever knew. She could do anything with dynamite—except eat it.” Her husband followed in an Opel he claimed to have sold to someone across the border, and the two made their way through hundreds of miles of Nazi-occupied territory to SOE headquarters in Cairo.
On July 6, 1944, she parachuted into southern France under the code-name “Pauline Armand”. Her mission was to aid the French resistance in advance of the Allied ground advance in France.
Described by the legendary intelligence officer Vera Atkins as a “beautiful animal with a great appetite for love and laughter,” her daring exploits are stuff of legend. She masterminded the escape of senior SOE agent Francis Cammaerts. Gaining the agent’s release by threatening to turn a mob loose, after the Allies liberated the region, an officer of the French collaborationist Milice, handed Cammaerts over to Granville; Cammaerts had been due to be executed on the morning of his escape. In early August 1944, after a two-day hike through the mountains she persuaded Polish conscripts in the German garrison at Col de Larche, to desert and then managed to convince the resident German troops to surrender also. Arrested and detained by enemy authorities on numerous occasions, lies, threats, bribery and even sexual coercion were all tools of the trade craft for Agent Pauline; once she and Kennedy were stopped near the Italian border by two German soldiers. Told to put her hands in the air she did so, revealing a grenade under each arm, pin withdrawn. When she threatened to drop them, killing all the group, the German soldiers fled.
After the war Christine discovered that her mother had died in prison. She returned to Cairo where she took a job at Middle East headquarters, SOE agreed to continue paying her until December 1945, Christine also gained her parachute “wings” at the RAF base in Haifa and she became a British citizen in December 1946. In May 1947 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). French recognition of Christine’s contribution to the liberation of France came with the award of the Croix de Guerre.
On June 15, 1952. Christine Granville was stabbed to death in the Shelbourne Hotel, in London, by Dennis George Muldowney, whose advances Christine had spurned; Muldowney was hanged at HMP Pentonville on September 30, 1952. Following Andrzej Kowerski (Andrew Kennedy)’s death in December 1988, his ashes were interred at the foot of Christine’s grave.
Her Fairbairn Sykes dagger, medals and some of her papers are now in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum Kensington, London. In May 2017, a bronze bust, by Ian Wolter, was unveiled at the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington, London.
“Great energy and very quick thinking and very helpful and very kind, a true, real person.” Iza Muszkowska, 94 at the funeral.
Lilian and her twin sister Helen Fedora Rolfe were the daughters of George Rolfe, in Paris. She and Helen came to England for summer school to learn English and spoke French at home. When the twins were 17 in 1930, the family moved to Brazil with Lilian and Helen “finishing school” there.[She worked for the Canadian Embassy but when the war started she changed to the British Embassy. She completed courses in first aid and Morse code. At the onset of World War II, Lilian worked at the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro;before going to London, England in 1943 to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Because of her fluency in French, she was recruited into the Special Operations Executive(SOE),where she was trained as a wireless operator.
Following the D-Day landings, an increasingly aggressive manhunt by the Gestapo led to the arrest of her superior officer. Nonetheless, Rolfe continued to work until her arrest at a transmitting house in Nargis on 31 July 1944. Transported to Fresnes Prison in Paris, she was interrogated repeatedly and tortured until August 1944, when she was shipped to Ravensbrück concentration camp. According to an admission made by a German officer after the war’s end, she was so ill that she could not walk. On 5 February 1945, 30-year-old Rolfe was executed by the Germans and her body disposed of in the crematorium.The name of Lilian Rolfe is engraved on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England. The “Lilian Rolfe House” at the Vincennes Estate, Lambeth was dedicated to her memory. In her honor, the government of France posthumously awarded her the Croix de Guerre.[
Three other female members of the SOE were also executed at Ravensbrück: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, and Violette Szabo.
“Agent “Wrestler” was a secret agent of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Dropped in by parachute in 1943, she organized 1,500 Resistance fighters against the Nazis.
Cecile Pearl Witherington was born in France on June 24th, to English parents. Pearl’s childhood was hard; her alcoholic father died when she was 15, forcing her to begin working at an early age to support her mother and three younger sisters.She had been engaged before the war but he was captured while fighting in the French Army.
In December 1940, as the Nazis were invading Western Europe, Pearl managed her family’s escape to England. Working for the Air Ministry, because of her fluent French, she was accepted into the SOE training. At age 29, on the night of September 22-23, 1943, after three weeks of training, Pearl parachuted in near Châteauroux, France. “Agent Wrestler,” and her 1,500 Resistance fighters blew up 800 stretches of railway lines and supply routes. The Nazis put a price on Witherington’s head of one million francs. On June 11, they attacked her headquarters, casualties among her force were horrifically high but Pearl narrowly escaped.
When the fighting was over, she reunited with Henri Cornioley, her fiancé from before the war. They went to London in October 1944 and were married. In 1945, the new Mrs Cornioley was appointed a military MBE for her wartime work. With the war over, the couple settled in France. Pearl raised funds for the SOE memorial at Valençay, inaugurated in 1991.
In 2004, Pearl Cornioley was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, receiving the insignia from Queen Elizabeth during a state visit to France. In April of 2006, at age 91, Pearl was awarded her RAF Parachute Wings in recognition of her wartime jumps and night-time drop into occupied France.
Pearl Cornioley died in Châteauvieux, France on February 24, 2008.”Deep down inside me I’m a very shy person but I’ve always had a lot of responsibilities ever since I was quite small. So I thought, ‘Well, this is something I feel I can do’ . . . And anyway I didn’t like the Germans. Never did. I’m a baby of the 1914-18 war.” – Cecile Pearl Witherington Cornioley
On September 2, 2010, police were called to a tiny, seaside flat in Torquay, England and discovered the body of local ‘cat lady’ and eccentric recluse Eileen Nearne. They also discovered medals, papers and……an amazing story of two girls.
Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne was a member of the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. She parachuted into occupied France as a radio operator under the codename “Rose”.
Didi was not the only special agent in the family – her sister Jacqueline was also SOE.
In January 1943, Jacqueline — codename “Designer” parachuted into Occupied France. Before leaving, she had made Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French section of SOE, promise that Didi would never be sent on a mission to France, but fourteen months later on March 2, Eileen “Didi” Nearne — codename “Rose” was also dropped into occupied France. On landing she was greeted by two Frenchmen, who exclaimed: “Oh, a young girl. Go back, it’s too dangerous!”
Given the mission of helping set up a network in Paris called “Wizard”, over the course of the next five months she transmitted 105 messages to London.
All the while, Jacqueline became the courier for the Resistance, delivering messages and weapons across France, organizing sabotage operations, blowing up a Luftwaffe aircraft engine factory, setting fire to Nazi equipment, damaging railway lines and stealing 30,000 liters of German fuel; nearly a year-and-a-half of constant operations. In April 1944, despite her protests, Jacqueline was returned to Britain.
On July 25, 1944, “Didi” was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo before being incarcerated at Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was only 23. On August 15, just ten days before the Allies liberated Paris, “Didi” was put on a train crammed with hundreds of others into cattle trucks. After nine months of Hell, with the Allies advancing through Germany, “Didi” and two other women made for their escape; appalled at the state of the women, a priest hid them in a bell tower. When U.S. troops arrived in Leipzig, Didi and her friends gave themselves up to them.
“Didi” Nearne was one of only a handful of British agents to survive Ravensbrück. When Didi arrived back in Britain, Jacqueline was appalled at her emaciated, confused state.
After the war “Didi” and Jacqueline lived together in London. After Jacqueline died from cancer on August 15, 1982, “Didi” moved to Torquay and lived there, unnoticed, until her death. She was 89 years. No one in Torquay had any inkling about Didi’s wartime adventures!
Originially to be a modest funeral, until it emerged she was a member of the UK’s Special Operations Executive, Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne’ s funeral was provided free of charge by the Torbay & District Funeral Service of Torquay,and held on September 21, at Our Lady Help of Christians and St Denis Roman Catholic Church; the eulogy was made by Special Forces Club Chairman Adrian Stones. Her ashes scattered at sea,
Rarely had two members of the same family sacrificed so much to such dangerous work.
Along with Lise de Baissac, Andrée Borrel became one the first women agents to be was parachuted into France on September 24, 1942.
After the fall of France during the Second World War – Andree Borrel joined the resistance and helped British Airman who had been shot down over France to return to England. Andrée came to England via Lisbon to avoid arrest by the Gestapo her activities had become known to the Germans.
Once in England she joined the French section of the Special Operations Executive.After training, Andree was parachuted into France and carried out clandestine operations. She also acted as a courier for the Prosper Network because of her knowledge of Paris.
Andree Borrel was arrested on the June 23, 1943 – probably because of a traitor in the group. She was taken to Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch, Paris and interrogated with brute force. She was then sent to Fresnes Prison until May 1944.
Andrée was then sent to Natzweiler Concentration Camp, where on the July 6 1944 she was executed by a lethal phenol injection and then incinerated in the Camp Crematorium.
Andree Borrel was posthumously Awarded The Croix de Guerre, Medaille de la Resistance, by the French Government for her sacrifice for France. Also Awarded the..KCBC (King’s Commendation For Brave Conduct) by the British Government.
Phyllis “Pippa” Latour Doyle
As one of very few female agents working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), in preparation for D-day, Pippa was dropped by parachute into Normandy on May 1 1944, to spy upon and sabotage Nazi-occupied Europe. Under the code name Paulette, at age 23, to trick the Nazis, she posed as a poor 14-year-old French girl, using a bicycle to sell soap, schmooze enemy soldiers and gather intelligence; she relayed 135 secret messages back to England. She had joined the Royal Air force in 1941 to train as a flight mechanic until the clandestine services spotted her potential. Growing up in French Equatorial Africa, Pippa was fluent in the french language; instead of repairing aircraft, she was earmarked for training in espionage.
“It wasn’t until after my first round of training that they told me they wanted me to become a member of the SOE. They said I could have three days to think about it. I told them I didn’t need three days to make a decision; I’d take the job now.”
Born on April 8 in South Africa to Philippe, a French doctor and Louise, a British citizen; her father died just three months later and when she was three, her mother who remarried a racing driver, was killed when the race car she was driving crashed into a barrier; Phyllis then went to live with her father’s cousin in the AEF(French Equatorial Africa); later returning to South Africa. She moved from South Africa to England and joined the WAAF in November 1941 as an air frame mechanic but was immediately asked to become a spy. “I did it for revenge.” Her godmother had committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the Nazis and her godmother’s father had been shot by the Germans.
Trained by a cat burglar, “We learnt how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught.” Given three separate code names – Genevieve, Plus Fours and Lampooner – she was first deployed in Aquitaine in Vichy France in 1942. Any intelligence that she gathered, she would encode for transmitting with codes that were hidden on a piece of silk she used to tie up her hair. She was once brought in for questioning, but the Nazis did not examine her hair tie, and she was released. She would sleep in forests, forced to forage for food, or stay with Allied sympathizers. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel,” she told the Army News, “I found out later it was rat. I was half starved so I didn’t care.”
Pippa was awarded the Croix de Guerre on January 16, 1946 and the Member of the British Empire (MBE Military) on September 4, 1954.
At 93 and living in a rest home in New Zealand, 70 years after parachuting behind enemy lines, Phyllis Latour Doyle was presented with France’s highest decoration. “I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honour that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur”–French ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini.
As of February 2018,Pippa resides in Auckland, New Zealand.
A poet and Special Operations Executive (SOE) paratrooper, Hannah Senesh was one of 37 parachutists on the only rescue mission by the Jewish people during the Holocaust. She was dropped by the British Army during the Second World War to rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz.
Hannah was arrested at the Hungarian border, imprisoned and tortured; refusing to reveal details of her mission, he was tried and executed by firing squad. She is hailed as a national heroine in Israel, where her poetry is widely known and the headquarters of the Zionist youth movements Israel Hatzeira, a kibbutz and several streets are named after her.Born July 17, 1921 in Budapest, Hungary to Katalin and author/ journalist Béla, Hannah kept a diary from age 13 until shortly before her death. She enrolled in a Protestant private school for girls that accepted Catholic and Jewish student; considered a gifted pupil, she joined Maccabea, a Hungarian Zionist students organization. She left Hungary for Eretz Yisrael, British Mandate of Palestine in 1939 and she studied in the Girls’ Agricultural School at Nahalal, writing poetry, as well as a play about kibbutz life.
In 1941, she moved to Kibbutz Sdot Yam and joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group predating the Israel Defense Forces. In 1943, she enlisted in the British Army Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, began her training in Egypt as a paratrooper for the British SOE and volunteered to be parachuted into Europe.
Hannah Senesh trained in Egypt and was one of the thirty-three people chosen to parachute behind enemy lines. With the goal of reaching her native Budapest, Hannah parachuted into Yugoslavia along with fellow SOE Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstei on March 14, 1944 and spent three months with Tito’s partisans. She wrote her poem “Blessed is the Match,” during this time.
On June 7, 1944, at the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, Agent Senesh crossed the border into Hungary and was arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, who found her British military transmitter, She was taken to a prison, stripped, tied to a chair, whipped and beatenfor three days; she lost several teeth. The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter so they could find out who the parachutists were and trap others. Transferred to a Budapest prison, Hannah was repeatedly interrogated and tortured, but only revealed her name and refused to provide the transmitter code, even when her mother was also arrested. They threatened to kill her mother if she did not cooperate, but she refused. While in prison, Hannah used a mirror to flash signals out of the window to prisoners in other cells and communicated using large cut-out letters that she placed in her cell window.
She was tried for treason on October 28, 1944. Throughout her ordeal her courage never waivered; refusing the blindfold and staring squarely at her executioners, Hannah Senesh was executed by a firing squad on November 7. She was 23 years old.
Her diary was published in Hebrew in 1946. Her remains were brought to Israel in 1950 and re-interred at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. She had one brother György.Found in Hannah’s cell after her execution:
One – two – three… eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark…
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three… maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.
At the age of 22, on the night of March 18/19, 1944, paired with Gonzagues de Saint-Geniès (“Lucien”), Yvonne Baseden parachuted into France, near Mont-de-Marsan, as a British SOE operative. They worked alongside the local Resistance helping to prepare for the (D-Day) invasion.She played a key role in the first daylight parachute drop of weapons and supplies over France(Operation Zebra). Later captured and imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp; “Lucien” was fatally wounded.
Yvonne survived that pit of Hell; traded by the Swedish Red Cross for Nazi prisoners and released,spending her first nights of freedom, sleeping under the skeletons of dinosaurs on the floor of the Malmö Museum of Prehistory.
The final surviving female British spy of WWII and heroine of the SOE, “Plucky” Sonia Butt was parachuted under the codename “Blanche” into the city of Sarthe, France, only nine days before D-Day. Coordinating ambushes and sabotage; she delayed the progress of the 2nd SS Panzer Division on its way to Normandy. Sonya put on such a convincing act that on France’s liberation, a local mob labeled her a Nazi collaborator and she narrowly escaped being beaten, tied to a lamp post and having her head shaved.
Sonya Esmée Florence Butt was was born in Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey, England on May 14, to a RAF officer, and grew up in the south of France. After her parent’s divorce, her mother took her and her brother abroad. She returned to Britain and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the very day she became eligible: November 14, 1941(age 17 1/2). She “got into hot water” doing tasks such as peeling potatoes; she advertised her fluency in French in an attempt to get attached to the Free French squadrons and escape her dreary routine. This did bring her to the attention of SOE, and she was soon accepted for training on December 11, 1943.
On May 28 1944, only nine days before D-Day, Sonya was parachuted into the department of the Sarthe in the area of Le Mans to work as a courier, under the nom de guerre Suzanne Bonvie –codename “Blanche”. She was one of the last WAAFs to land in France before the Allied invasion. As a courier, her primary responsibilities were to carry money, pass messages and maintain contact with the SOE agents, Maquis and local operatives working with the Resistance. After one of the other agents dropped with her was shot during a battle between the Maquis and the Nazis, Sonya took on the additional role of weapons instructor. “I filled in wherever the need arose.” In June 1944, she was stopped by two Germans and detained for questioning, thrown in solitary. Four hours later they came back, her cover story and false papers held; she was released.
The Americans took Le Mans on August 8. Accused of being a Nazi collaborator, her fellow resisters explained to French mob that she was no traitor. General Eisenhower asked that she pass through enemy’s lines and relay intelligence about enemy positions and supplies to General Patton’s army? Sonya bicycling through battlefields, her jacket peppered with bullets. Once being knocked her off her bicycle by Nazi soldiers, beaten and raped. Left in rags, she took refuge in a farmhouse; the next day she delivered the information and returned the way she came.
In October 1944, on the successful completion of her mission, she returned to England. She had fallen in love, while making her second training parachute jump, with Canadian SOE agent Guy d’Artois; he was decorated for assisting the Maquis in Burgundy. She became Mrs. Soniad’Artois, moved to Canada and quietly disappeared from public view to become a wife and mother of three sons and three daughters. On March 15, 1999, Major Lyle Guy d’Artois died in the Veterans Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec. Sonia Esmée Florence “Toni” Buttd’Artois passeed away at the Lakeshore General Hospital in Pointe-Claire, Quebec on December 21, 2014. She was honored on January 10, 2015 at Saint-Thomas d’Aquin Church in Hudson, QC. She was 90.
Sonia and Guy were buried together in National Field of Honour Cemetery Pointe-Claire, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
“What little I was able to do was motivated by my love for France.“
Born in war, on August 27, 1944 in the suburbs of Paris during the city’s liberation by the Allies. She was a multi-award honored war photographer, the first news-person, male or female, to parachute into combat with US forces, and the first to photograph the Vietcong behind their own lines, one of only two women photojournalists during the early years of the Vietnam conflict.
She attended a Catholic boarding school and in 1963, at the age of 18, to impress her boyfriend, she earned a parachutist’s license and had logged 84 jumps by 1966.
With no contracts and very few of published photos, she purchased a
one-way ticket from her native France to Laos in 1966. With just her
Leica M2 and $200 in her pocket, she decided to travel to Vietnam to “give war a human face.”
At first impression, she was an un-intimidating, five-foot-tall, pig-tailed girl, but when fully loaded with pack, boots, cameras, and close to her bodyweight of 85lbs of gear, she proved that women could tough it out in the field and spew notorious obscenities with the toughest Marine. In 1967, she was hit by a mortar burst, her chest was ripped open; the shrapnel that would have killed her, was only stopped by her Nikon F-2. During the Tet offensive, in early 1968, she was captured by the North Vietnamese Army. Explaining that she was a journalist, the soldiers were charmed into letting her go, and were persuaded to let her take photos, saying that it was important because only one side of the story was being seen. The photos ran in Life magazine; she wrote the cover story herself.
In 1975, with America leaving Indochina, Leroy moved on to Lebanon, where the civil war was just beginning, to continue her work. During the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, her stunning pictures began to change, less of battle dead and dying and more were of the living, such as a father with his one-legged daughter; her leg has been blown off in the siege, a young warrior cradling a kitten and crippled and demented patients abandoned in a bombed-out mental hospital. Beirut was considered the high watermark of her career as a combat photographer: “I was there for Newsweek magazine and we documented our experiences in the book God Cried (1983).”
Leroy never promoted herself or her work but still won numerous honors, including in 1967 George Polk Award for the Picture of the Year. She was the first woman to receive the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award – “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise” – for her coverage of the civil war in Lebanon, in 1976. In 1997, she was the recipient of an Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri. “I’ve always found that it was very exhilarating to be shot at without result.” “It’s the biggest high of all, a massive rush of adrenaline. The high you experience in times of great danger is a high that you cannot experience anywhere else.”
By the 1980’s, the physical and psychological traumatic stress of combat photography had begun to change Leroy; she grew sick of war and the job of photographing it. She turned to fashion photography in Japan, looking like a tiny and very lethal Ninja, clad entirely in a black Yoji Yamamoto creation, wearing black wrap-round sunglasses.
After hanging up her camera, she moved to Los Angeles and opened Piece Unique, selling used haute couture.
Catherine Leroy died July 8 2006 in Santa Monica, California, just a week after her lung cancer was diagnosed.