My photo today shows a Rose Valois brown wool felt hat with feather and wood ornament trims, c. 1940. Parisian millinery Rose Valois founded in 1927 had as a designer Vera Leigh who when the Germans invaded France in 1940 joined the resistance.
Vera Leigh was (born Vera Glass) here in Leeds on this day the 17th March 1903, abandoned by her parents as a baby she was adopted by American Eugene Leigh who trained horses in France. After training in the fashion industry Vera worked as a designer at Rose Valois.
After helping allied servicemen escape from France, in 1942 Vera too escaped and found her way to England. Vera volunteered her services to the war effort and I guess because she spoke French like and native and had lived and worked in France she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for dangerous work in France.
Given the codename Simone, Vera was flown back to France on 13 May 1943 as a courier and was arrested by the Gestapo in October the same year in Paris. Secret agents like Vera Leigh were subject to the Nacht und Nebel (German for “Night and Fog”) order that effectively meant that captured agents would disappear.
Along with fellow SOE agents Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky, Vera was taken to the Concentration Camp at Natzweiler on 6th July 1944. Later that same day (one month after the D Day landings in Normandy) the four women were injected with phenol and pushed into the furnace.
Vera Leigh was 41 years old at the time of her death in the only concentration camp run by the Germans in France (the French ran one at Drancy). Vera was nominated for the George Cross for her work in occupied France, but after the war the powers that be wanted to forget all about SOE so nothing came of it.
In France the SOE Memorial is a monument to the members of the Special Operations Executive F Section who lost their lives for the liberation of France. The memorial was unveiled in the town of Valençay in the Indre département of France on May 6, 1991. The memorial lists the names of the 91 men and 13 women members of the SOE who gave their lives for France’s freedom.
Vera Eugenie Leigh was one of 39 women agents sent to France from F section of SOE and you do not have to be good at maths to work out the odds. On this her birthday I thought it would be nice to dedicate this little post to Vera, a brave and resourceful woman.
This photograph is courtesy of Jonathan Walford at Kickshaw Productions and the Fashion History Museum.
Anyone wishing to know more of the women of SOE, I can recommend the following:
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE written by Sarah Helm, I have almost finished reading this book and it is well written and full of detail.
Les femmes de l’ombre (2008) AKA Female Agents, available on DVD, I saw this at the cinema and also have the DVD. Lest we forget says it all, this film is not for the squemish and like the book I think this film is well worth watching.