During wartime women were a valuable source of intelligence-gathering because they could move much more freely in occupied countries than men. They used their “invisibility” to gather and deliver sensitive and valuable military information for the Allies. They learned the various trades within spycraft, including the use of invisible ink, setting up safe houses, dead letter boxes, and operating in codes. Their secret reports could be hidden inside ordinary objects, such as packing paper, box covers, and bookplates, then smuggled to the head of an intelligence network. Women were highly effective in being able to observe the situation behind enemy lines, most especially to pass back eye-witness information on enemy troop movements and defenses. They were also vital in the search for Hitler’s deadly secret weapons—the V-1 (“doodlebug”) and V-2 rocket, which from the summer of 1944 were being used with deadly effect in London and other parts of England.
The women operating behind enemy lines as agents and couriers were tasked with collecting the highest priority intelligence on the V-weapons and flying bombs to send back to London. Detailed instructions were given to agents in Holland, Belgium, and France on what to identify and the kind of information needed that could indicate that the Germans were manufacturing parts for the V-weapons at secret locations in those countries, or moving V-weapons to a launch site. During the writing of my book Women in Intelligence, I stumbled across a fascinating artifact in the Walter Pforzheimer Collection in the Beinecke Archives at Yale University, New Haven. The collection holds a plain blue linen-covered cookery book, written in Dutch. A handwritten label simply reads in translation, “Recipes, Domestic Science School.” The cookbook can be rolled up and tucked under an arm or hidden in a bag, making it virtually inconspicuous. But it has no recipes in it.
The first page contains a warning about its secret nature. The table of contents deals with spycraft and provides a series of instructions on how to identify key military targets in enemy country, including Hitler’s V-weapons and naval units. It gives detailed instructions on how to identify V-1 and V-2 installations and their apparatus.
The “cookery book” belonged to an unnamed female agent, almost certainly working for IS9/Room 900, a top-secret department of British intelligence (MI9) in Holland and reporting to British intelligence officer Airey Neave (who had escaped from Colditz Castle two years earlier) in the months immediately after Arnhem, between October 1944 and May 1945. The book was given to Pforzheimer by his second cousin, Jack Charles Bottenheim, an MI9 officer who was dropped behind enemy lines into southern Netherlands in autumn 1944, and then assigned as Neave’s Dutch liaison officer to the IS9 station in Wassenaar. The cookery book offers a rare insight into spycraft and how women might have operated clandestinely behind the lines to gain intelligence.
Women behind enemy lines did make a difference to the endgame, fighting back with the only invisible weapon they had—intelligence-gathering. It was a slow game and one with high stakes for them personally, because if caught carrying the cookbook it would have been clear that they were spies. They would have been tortured and brutally murdered in a concentration camp or shot for aiding the Allies; nevertheless, they took the risks because they knew that they were making a difference. They became indispensable as sources of high-level intelligence upon which the Allies came to rely. They contributed in no small way to the overall intelligence picture that shortened the war in favor of the Allies and saved lives.
Next time you open a recipe book, or read a recipe online, perhaps pause to remember the wartime “cookbook” and the risks taken by these women who can now be remembered for their courage and heroism.
Historian and biographer Helen Fry is the author of The Walls Have Ears, Spymaster, MI9, and more than twenty books on intelligence, prisoners of war, and the social history of World War II. She appears regularly in media interviews and podcasts and has been involved in numerous documentaries. Helen Fry works in London, UK.