The Top 10 Most Powerful Women Of World War II

During World War II, women were free to be men; they were even encouraged to be men. In the face of the fervent demands of wartime production, the social and ideological barriers that had kept women off the factory floor gave way. Women took on jobs as riveters, assemblers, and machinists, building bombers and tanks by day and tended their victory gardens by night.

Top 10 Most Powerful Women Of World War II

There are more stories of heroism out of World War II than can ever fit in a school textbook, but hundreds of those stories are written down somewhere for those who want to find them. Over 100 million military personnel participated in the war, including many women. Here are the stories of ten of these brave women. They are from many countries, and they all did their part and more for the Allied effort.

The Top 10 Most Powerful Women Of World War II

1. Elsie Ott

Elsie Ott

Born: 1913
Died: 2006 age 93
Occupation: Nurse, Air Force Officer (Rank of Second Lieutenant)

Second Lieutenant Elsie Ott was the first woman to receive the United States Air Medal. She was awarded this medal in recognition of her heroism in determining a way to evacuate the wounded from the front line.

2. Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake

Born: 30 August 1912
Died: 7 August 2011 (aged 98)

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was a New Zealand-born nurse and journalist who joined the French Resistance and later the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II, and briefly pursued a post-war career as an intelligence officer in the Air Ministry. The official historian of the SOE, M.R.D. Foot, said that "her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her".

Wake was living in Marseille with her French industrialist husband, Henri Fiocca, when the war broke out. After the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, Wake became a courier for the Pat O'Leary escape network led by Ian Garrow and, later, Albert Guérisse. As a member of the escape network, she helped Allied airmen evade capture by the Germans and escape to neutral Spain. In 1943, when the Germans became aware of her, she escaped to Spain and continued on to the United Kingdom. Her husband was captured and executed.

After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under the code name "Hélène". On 29–30 April 1944 as a member of a three-person SOE team code-named "Freelance", Wake parachuted into the Allier department of occupied France to liaise between the SOE and several Maquis groups in the Auvergne region, which were loosely overseen by Emile Coulaudon (code name "Gaspard"). She participated in a battle between the Maquis and a large German force in June 1944. In the aftermath of the battle, she claimed to have bicycled 500 kilometers to send a situation report to SOE in London.

Wake was a recipient of the George Medal from the United Kingdom, the Medal of Freedom from the United States, the Légion d'honneur from France, and medals from Australia and New Zealand. In 1985, she published her autobiography, The White Mouse, the title derived from what the Germans called her.

3. Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan

Born: 1 January 1914
Died: 13 September 1944 (aged 30)

Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan also known as Nora Inayat-Khan and Nora Baker, was a British spy in World War II who served in the Special Operations Executive. As an SOE agent she became the first female wireless operator to be sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance during World War II. She was captured after being betrayed, and executed at Dachau concentration camp. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her service in the SOE, the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom.

4. Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Born: 12 July
Died: 10 October 1974
Nickname: Lady Death
Awards: Hero of the Soviet Union

Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko was a Soviet sniper in the Red Army during World War II, credited with 309 confirmed kills, making her the most successful female sniper in recorded history.

Lyudmila was nicknamed "Lady Death" due to her incredible ability with a sniper rifle. She served in the Red Army during the Siege of Odessa and the Siege of Sevastopol, during the early stages of the Eastern Front in WWII.

After she was injured in battle by a mortar shell, she was evacuated to Moscow. After Pavlichenko recovered from her injuries she trained other Red Army snipers, and was a public spokesperson for the Red Army. In 1942, she toured the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. After the war ended in 1945, she was reassigned as a Senior Researcher for the Soviet Navy. Lyudmilla Pavichenko died due to a stroke on 10 October 1974, at the age of 58.

5. Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek

Born: 1 May 1908
Died: 15 June 1952 (aged 44)
Occupation: Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent

Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, also known as Christine Granville, was a Polish agent of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. She became celebrated for her daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France. Journalist Alistair Horne, who described himself in 2012 as one of the few people still alive who had known Skarbek, described her as the "bravest of the brave." Spymaster Vera Atkins of the SOE described Skarbek as "very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself."

She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded in July 1940. She was the first female agent of the British to serve in the field and the longest-serving of all Britain's wartime women agents. Her resourcefulness and success have been credited with influencing the organisation's decision to recruit more women as agents in Nazi-occupied countries. In 1941 she began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville, a name she legally adopted upon naturalisation as a British subject in December 1946.

Skarbek's most famous exploit was securing the release of SOE agents Francis Cammaerts and Xan Fielding from a German prison hours before they were to be executed. She did so by meeting (at great personal risk) with the Gestapo commander in Digne-les-Bains, France, telling him she was a British agent, and persuading him with threats, lies, and a two million franc bribe to release the SOE agents. The event is fictionalized in the last episode of the British television show Wish Me Luck.

Skarbek is often characterized in terms such as Britain's "most glamorous spy." She was stabbed to death in 1952 in London by an obsessed and spurned suitor who was subsequently hanged.

6. Susan Travers

Susan Travers

Born: September 23, 1909
Died: December 18, 2003 (94 years of age)
Rank: Adjudant-chef (Ambulance Driver)

Susan Mary Gillian Travers was an Englishwoman who served in the French Red Cross as a nurse and ambulance driver during the Second World War. She later became the only woman to be matriculated in the French Foreign Legion, having also served in Vietnam, during the First Indochina War.

7. Ruby Bradley

Ruby Bradley

Born: December 19, 1907
Died: May 28, 2002 (aged 94)
Rank: Colonel
Awards: Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star (2), Army Commendation Medal (2), Florence Nightingale Medal

Bradley entered the United States Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse in 1934. She was serving at Camp John Hay in the Philippines when she was captured by the Japanese army three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

In 1943, she was moved to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. It was there that she and several other imprisoned nurses earned the title "Angels in Fatigues" from fellow captives. For the next several months, she provided medical help to the prisoners and sought to feed starving children by shoving food into her pockets whenever she could, often going hungry herself. As she lost weight, she used the room in her uniform for smuggling surgical equipment into the prisoner-of-war camp. At the camp she assisted in 230 operations and helped to deliver 13 children.

When U.S. troops captured the camp on February 3, 1945, Bradley weighed only 86 pounds (39 kg). She was then returned to the United States where she continued her career in the Army. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California in 1949.

Bradley served in the Korean War as Chief Nurse for the 171st Evacuation Hospital. In November 1950, during the Chinese counter-offensive, she refused to leave until she had loaded the sick and wounded onto a plane in Pyongyang while surrounded by 100,000 advancing Chinese soldiers. She was able to jump aboard the plane just as her ambulance exploded from an enemy shell. In 1951, she was named Chief Nurse for the Eighth Army, where she supervised over 500 Army nurses throughout Korea.

8. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade

Born: 11 August 1909, Marseille, France
Died: 20 July 1989, Paris, France

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the leader of the French Resistance network "Alliance", under the code name "Hérisson" ("Hedgehog") after the arrest of its former leader, Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, during the occupation of France in the Second World War. 

Fourcade took care of 3,000 resistance agents and survivors, as well as social works and the publication of Mémorial de l'Alliance, dedicated to the resistance group's 429 dead. Despite her high profile position in the French resistance, being the leader of the longest-running spy network, Charles de Gaulle did not include her among the 1,038 people he designated resistance heroes (which included only 6 women altogether). Strangely she was not given the Order of the Liberation, though her husband Édouard Méric was.

From 1962, Fourcade chaired the Committee of Resistance Action, as well as the jury of honour of Maurice Papon in 1981. She remarried, was a mother of five children, a commander of the Légion d'honneur, vice president of the International Union of Resistance and Deportation from 1960 and the National Association of Medal-holders from 1947, and a member of the L.I.C.R.A.. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was represented at the assembly of the European Communities and in 1982 chaired the Defence of Interests in France and Europe. Her last fights were for the end of the Lebanese conflict and the Klaus Barbie lawsuit in Lyon. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the mother of five children.

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade died at age 80, on 20 July 1989 at the military hospital of Val-de-Grâce; the government and the few survivors of the resistance group paid an exceptional homage to her on 26 July at the time of her funeral in the Saint-Louis Church of the Invalids, the first woman to have her funeral there, and her burial in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris.

9. Eileen Nearne

Eileen Nearne

Born: 16 March 1921, London, United Kingdom
Died: 2 September 2010, Torquay, United Kingdom

Eileen Mary  was a member of the UK's Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. She served in occupied France as a radio operator under the codename "Rose".

In July 1944 her transmitter was detected and she was arrested. Nearne "survived, in silence, the full revolting treatment of the baignoire" in the torture chamber of the Paris headquarters of the Gestapo on the Rue des Saussaies.

She reportedly managed to convince her captors, under torture, that she had been sending messages for a businessman, unaware that he was British. On 15 August 1944, she was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she refused to do prison work. Her head was shaved and she was told she would be shot if she continued to refuse. She was then transferred to a forced labour camp in Silesia. While in one of these prisons she was reportedly tortured.

On 13 April 1945 she escaped with two French girls from a work gang by hiding in the forest, later travelling through Markkleeberg, where they were arrested by the S.S. but released after fooling their captors and reportedly hidden by a priest in Leipzig until the arrival of United States troops.

10. Naomi Parker Fraley

Naomi Parker Fraley

Born: August 26, 1921
Died: January 20, 2018 (aged 96)
Occupation: War worker & waitress

Naomi Parker Fraley was an American war worker who is now considered the most likely model for the iconic "We Can Do It!" poster. During World War II, she worked on aircraft assembly at the Naval Air Station Alameda. She was photographed operating a machine tool and this widely used photograph was thought to be an inspiration for the poster. Geraldine Hoff Doyle was initially credited as the subject but research by a professor at Seton Hall University set the record straight.

After the war, she worked as a waitress in Palm Springs and married three times. When she died, aged 96 in 2018, she was survived by her son and six step-children.


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