By the full moon they flew: Irishwomen in the second World War
Secret flights, parachute jumps, Gestapo interrogations – the Irish women who risked their lives in the second World War, writes Mark Hennessy
Seventy years ago, the barn was home for a few hours for Special Operations Executive agents before they flew on nights with a full moon into Nazi-occupied Europe.
Inside, men and women, including some Irish, made last-minute checks of maps, weapons and caches of money for the Resistance before climbing onboard aircraft that took some to their deaths.
One of those who left from the barn – which still stands today in a field in Gibraltar Farm, near Tempsford in Bedfordshire – was Patricia Maureen O’Sullivan from Charleville Road, Rathmines, the daughter of a journalist, John and his wife, Adelaide.
“Her prime motive appears to be sheer love of adventure,” wrote one of her senior officers on her return from a mission in France, “She has self-confidence which could carry her through a lot.”
In the beginning, the Special Operations Executive – created by Winston Churchill “to set Europe ablaze” – had not been quite so impressed by the wilful Dubliner, who was better known as “Paddy”.
Though intelligent, purposeful and determined, she “requires a lot of attention from others”, but was “not sufficiently level-headed to warrant any undue confidence”, officers noted – an opinion that changed in time.
If keen on adventure, O’Sullivan was not keen on weapons, “does not show any enthusiasm for firing” and while she showed a “moderate” interest in the theory behind bomb-making “the noise upsets her”.
However, courage she had aplenty. In March 1944, she was one of a number flown from Tempsford – which is soon to honour the women of SOE with a memorial – parachuting into Occupied France, near Limoges.
Weighed down with a large sum of French francs, O’Sullivan hit the ground hard, believing for a moment that she had broken her back before she passed out.
“She awoke with something breathing on her face and was terribly scared until she realised it was a friendly French cow,” she told a reporter in Calcutta a year later – in an interview that infuriated some senior officers.
She had come bearing gifts: 22 containers of weapons and equipment for a Resistance unit that then had nothing more than two pistols and a couple of torches.
However, she first had to overcome misogyny from a British officer, who “was furious because London had sent him a girl”, though he later refused to send her back when a man became available.
For seven months, she served as a wireless operator for the Resistance, along with delivering and collecting messages from colleagues for 50km around Limoges.
“Though handicapped through imperfect technical knowledge and the consequence of a serious illness, she nevertheless by patience, perseverance and devotion to duty, made a success of her work: in two months she became a first-class and fully reliable operator,” according to a citation later when she was awarded an MBE.
“She lived most of the time in conditions of unusual squalor, without complaining and it was due in large measure to her persistent efforts and untiring devotion that the [Resistance unit] achieved its success,” it went on.
Danger lurked everywhere. Cycling one day with her radio-set covered in a basket, she was stopped by a German check-point, unable to turn around to escape them.
Approaching the soldiers confidently, she chatted animatedly with one, who quickly asked her on a date – to which she agreed if he could find a place where she would not be recognised by locals.
Intending to open the suitcase containing the radio set, he was stopped only by the arrival of an officer, who said jokingly: “Ah, Mlle, vous ressemblez a une Fraulein”, according to a debriefing record now held by the National Archives in Kew.
“She replied that her mother was German (which was not true) and had died when she was a baby. So, he in German and she in a mixture of Flemish and German conversed for half-an-hour, during which time he made a date with her for the next day, and they forgot to look in her suitcase.”