War is often seen as something that women should be protected from. Men are often portrayed as stronger, braver, or more prepared to face the horrors of battle. And yet, when given the chance, women have shown time and time again that they can brave those dangers just as well as their male counterparts.
These are the women who have become war heroes in their respective countries and around the world for their exploits during 20th century wars. Some became famous as martyrs to a cause, others for surviving impossible conditions, and still others for their complete selflessness in the face of death.
There are millions who have served. This list of women war heroes sheds a little light on a few.
War roles: General in the French Foreign Legionnaire
English socialite Susan Travers was in France when World War II started. Initially, she trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and later became an ambulance driver. Travers escaped to London when France fell to the Nazis. There, she joined the Free French Forces. She was sent to Syria and later North Africa to serve with the French Foreign legion as a driver assigned to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig. Travers soon fell in love with him. Her dedication to the married Koenig was fierce.
Even as Rommel’s Afrika Corps attacked Libya, Travers wouldn’t evacuate with female personnel. She and members of Koenig’s unit hid from the invaders for 15 days in sand pits. She drove Koenig through enemy lines under heavy fire, heading up 2,500 troops. They made it safely to the allied camp. After this act of bravery, Travers was promoted to general. She served in Italy, Germany, and France for the rest of the war, sustaining injuries when she drove over a land mine.
After the war, Travers joined the French Foreign Legion. Her request was approved by a fellow officer who knew her reputation and disregarded her gender. She was the only woman to ever serve officially with the French Foreign Legion. She went on to serve in Vietnam. She waited until her husband and Colonel Koenig to pass before publishing her memoir, Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion, in 2000 at the age of 91.
War role: Guerrilla fighter, spy
Nancy Wake was a world traveler before the Second World War began. She was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, and then lived in New York and London working as a journalist. She was living in Marseille with her French husband when Germany invaded the country. Wake didn’t hesitate to work for the French resistance. She hid and smuggled men out of France, transported supplies, and falsified documents.
The Germans captured Wake and interrogated her for days, but she gave up nothing. After her release, she escaped to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). With the SOE, Wake received weapons and paratrooper training. She dropped back into France as a spy. She blew up buildings, engaged in combat with the enemy, and killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.
The Gestapo tortured Wake’s husband when he refused to give up any information about his wife. He died as a result of the torture. Wake would discover this after the war. She ran for office in Australia and published her biography, The White Mouse (the Germans’ nickname for her), in 1988. She died in 2011 at the age of 98.
War role: Guerilla fighter
At just 18, Kosmodemyanskaya was the first women to be named Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II. She volunteered for the Red Army Western Front as a saboteur and part of the reconnaissance group. The unit went behind enemy lines near Moscow to set land mines and to cut off German supply lines.
Under orders, Kosmodemyanskaya set fire to a stable and a few public buildings in the town of Petrischevo. She was captured by locals, possibly ratted out by one of her fellow resistance fighters. She was tortured by the Germans, forced to strip in the cold and march in the snow, and then beaten and whipped. She did not give up any information and was hanged the next day in the town center. A sign reading “arsonist” hung around her neck. Her body was left hanging for a month with visiting soldiers desecrating her body.
War role: Flight instructor, Senior Lieutenant, fighter pilot
Besides The Night Witches, the Soviet Air Force had other female units. Chief among them were the female-led bomber, ground-attack, and fighter squadrons. Litvyak was already a seasoned flyer, having been a member of flying clubs since 14. She joined the 586th Fighter Regiment and was an intense and effective instructor. She and a few other pilots were transferred to the all-male 437th Fighter Regiment. On her third combat mission, and after just three days with the squadron, Litvyak shot down Messerschmitt Me-109G and a Junkers Ju-88 bomber that were pursuing her commander. She was the first woman in military history to ever score a solo aerial victory in combat.
The pilot of the 109 survived the dogfight and couldn’t believe he was shot down by a woman. Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, went on to shoot down many more enemy aircraft until she disappeared over the Donbass. The last time she was seen, she was being pursued by around eight 109s. Her body has never been recovered.
War role: Polish spy
Skarbeck, who would later change her name to Christine Granville, was a wealthy woman of Jewish heritage. She and her second husband were in Ethiopia when World War II began. She signed up with Britain’s Section D and went to Poland via Hungary to launch her resistance work. Her main role was to pass communications between allies. Skarbeck became known as the “flaming Polish patriot.” Under the guidance of the British, she organized Polish resistance groups and smuggled Polish pilots out of the country.
The Gestapo arrested Skarbeck in 1941, but she was released when she faked having TB by biting her tongue so hard it bled. She and partner Andrzej Kowerski changed their names to Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy to escape detection. The pair were smuggled out of Poland to Turkey through Yugoslavia. Skarbeck, then Granville, wouldn’t return to Poland because her operative group had been compromised.
After being trained as a radio operator and paratrooper, she dropped into France on D-Day only to find that her resistance area had been infiltrated by the Germans. She hiked 70 miles to escape. Then Skarbeck turned Axis fighters in the Alps. She outed herself to the French who were working for the Gestapo and then orchestrated prisoner releases.
She survived the war and was rumored to be the inspiration for two of Ian Fleming’s Bond girls. Despite having survived the Gestapo, imprisonment, and many other dangers, Skarbeck’s life came to a violent end when she was murdered by a stalker, Dennis Muldowney, in 1952.
War role: British spy
Nearne and two of her siblings served in the SOE. At 23, she parachuted into occupied France as a resistance message courier. Her communications centered mainly on the arrangement of weapons drops. A smooth talker, she escaped capture several times, but was eventually arrested and tortured by the Nazis. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and later transferred to a labor camp where she escaped during a transfer to another camp. When she came across the Gestapo, she talked her way out of identification and arrest. Nearne hid in a church until the town was liberated by the Americans.
After the war, Nearne battled psychological issues and lived a quiet life with fellow SOE spy and sister Jacqueline until the latter’s death in 1982. Nearne died in 2010 and her body wasn’t discovered for several days. A search of her apartment revealed her war time resistance and spy role. She received a decorated hero’s funeral.
War role: Nurse
Lt. Annie G. Fox just happened to be on duty at Hickam Air Field in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. As the chief nurse on duty, Fox swung into action to tend to the injured and dying service personnel on the base. She initially received the Purple Heart, but when the requirements changed in 1944 (the recipient needed to have sustained battle wounds), Fox’s medal was rescinded. She received the Bronze Star instead.
War role: Refugee smuggler
Børsum was the wife of a physician in Oslo. She and her husband, Ragnar, smuggled Jews out of Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. They were arrested in 1943, and her husband was later released. She was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. She wrote a bestselling book about her war experiences and dedicated her life to ending concentration camps all over the world. Børsum was an activist and humanitarian right up until her death in 1985. Her daughter, actress Bente Børsum, honored her mother with a stage play she wrote and performed.
War role: POW nurse, Colonel
As a career Army nurse prior to World War II, Colonel Ruby Bradley served as the hospital administrator in Luzon in the Philippines. When the Japanese invaded, she and a doctor and fellow nurse hid in the hills. Eventually, they were turned in by locals and taken to the base, now a prison camp. Bradley and her staff spent threes years treating fellow POWs, delivering babies, and performing surgery. They also smuggled supplies to keep the POWs healthy, although Bradley herself weighed a mere 84 pounds when the Americans liberated the camp in 1945.
After the war, Bradley served as the 8th Army’s chief nurse on the front lines of the Korean war in 1950. She managed to evacuate all of the wounded soldiers in her care under heavy fire. She was the last to jump aboard the plane just as her ambulance was shelled. She was promoted to Colonel. She retired in 1963, but worked as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. She received a hero’s funeral with full honors in 2002 at Arlington National Cemetery. She was 94.
War role: Russian sniper, major
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was already a celebrated sharpshooter before joining the Soviet Army. She was a student at Kiev University when World War II started and was part of 2,000 female snipers sent to the front. Only 500 survived. Older and more skilled than her fellow snipers, Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. Her male counterpart, Ivan Sidorenko, had 500 confirmed kills after six years of combat.
After being wounded by mortar fire, she went on a public relations and recruiting tour in the U.S. and Canada, dealing with sexist questions about her weight and skirt length from reporters. She would also become a sniper trainer. After her war time service, Pavlichenko became a historian at Kiev University. She also served on the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.
War role: Flight nurse
Lutz volunteered with the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad. Their missions were to rapidly remove injured soldiers from the front as fresh soldiers came in. She flew 196 evac missions that brought back 3,500 men, logging more hours than any other flight nurse. In December of 1944, the C47 carrying Lutz and injured soldiers from Lyon crashed. The Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was renamed in her honor in 1990.
Noor Inayat Khan
War role: Princess, spy
Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’s father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan, and her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Her paternal great great grandfather ruled the Kingdom of Mysore. Although she was born in Russia, Khan held a British passport. She was living in France when Germany invaded. Khan and her family managed to escape to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She also worked for the British spy agency, SOE, as a wireless operator. The SOE sent her back to France in June of 1943, where she transmitted information back by Morse code. Even as other radio operators were discovered and arrested, Khan was determined to continue her work.
She was arrested by the SD (German intelligence) in October of 1943 and aggressively fought back. She refused to give up information under interrogation and sent a coded message to the SOE, which they ignored for some reason. When the Germans discovered her coded messages and notebooks, they used it to lure other British spies to France for arrest. Khan escaped briefly and was held in shackles for ten months after being caught. She was sent to Dachau concentration camp in September of 1944 and immediately executed.
War role: Combat medic
Peshkova was swept up along with a lot of young Russian girls in the country’s rush to pull together forces to fight the Germans. She was recruited right out of school at the age of 17 to be a combat medic. Peshkova found herself in such a poorly equipped unit that the weapons continuously malfunctioned. Disease, starvation, and the loss of a boot to a hungry horse was part of Pehkova’s tough stint in the Russian army.
At one point, she was separated from her unit and managed disguised herself while also hiding her weapon. If she discarded it, she would have been executed by her own military. She finally made it back and went on to become Sergeant Major, and was allowed to finish her education.
Reba Z. Whittle
War role: POW Nurse, lieutenant
Flight nurse Whittle is the only U.S. female solder to be a POW in the European theater of World War II. Whittle served in the 813th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron and her plane was shot down over Aachen, Germany in September of 1944. Whittle was one of only a few survivors and the Germans didn’t know what to do with her. The Swiss discovered her among the POWs and arranged for her release, along with another 109 male POWs, on Jan. 25th, 1945. Surprisingly, Whittle’s POW experience went undocumented and she was denied POW retirement benefits. This was unfortunate, as her war injuries prevented her from flying. She worked in an Army hospital in California until 1946.
After years of being denied benefits, Whittle received a settlement in 1955. She died of breast cancer in 1981. Her POW status was confirmed in 1983.
War role: Propaganda master
Czech born Lauwers had a law degree when she she moved with her husband to the United States in 1941. After she became a U.S. citizen in 1943, she joined the Women’s Army Corps and was assigned to the OSS, America’s precursor to the CIA. Lauwers was involved in a propaganda mission called Operation Sauerkraut in 1944. The goal was to demoralize German soldiers. Because Lauwers was fluent in five languages, she was a essential in turning German POWs into counter operatives.
The mission was quite successful and Lauwers and her counterparts were adept at convincing the Germans to turn. Lauwers continued to design, and then run, other propaganda operations across Europe. She also trained the POWs in intelligence gathering. Her propaganda tactics convinced 600 Czech soldiers to turn to the Allied side.
War role: Spy
Szabo was married to a French Foreign Legion officer Etienne Szabo. He was killed in action in 1942 and Szabo joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943, vowing to do as much damage to the enemy as possible. She trained as a courier for missions in occupied France. She reorganized a resistance unit, damaged roads and bridges, and sent back regular reports.
She talked herself out of trouble a couple of times, but her luck ran out after she parachuted into France and sabotaged German communications. Under arrest by the German, Szabo was tortured and eventually transferred to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She and two other SOE agents were executed by an SS officer at the camp.
War role: Resistance fighter
Jannetie “Hannie” Schaft was a Dutch resistance fighter who refused to swear an oath to the Nazis. She joined Raad van Verzet, a resistance group with a communist ideology. She spied on soldier activity, aided refuges, and sabotaged targets. Her reputation as “the girl with the red hair” would eventually lead to her downfall. She colored her hair to cover up the red but after she was captured by the Nazis, her hair began to grow out.
The Germans then discovered that they had the legendary spy and resistance fighter in captivity. She was executed on April 17th, 1945. She was defiant up until the end, taunting the soldier who shot in the head and merely grazing her. She said, “I can shoot better than that.” The second shot killed her but not before leaving an ever lasting impression on her captors and witnesses. Schaft was 24. She received a state funeral after the war, attended by Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch royal family.
War role: Underground operative
What we know of Schragenheim has been preserved through her lover Lilly Wust, the former wife of a Nazi officer, and a survivor of World War II. What is known is that Schragenheim hid her identity as a Jew while working for a Nazi newspaper. She passed information for the underground resistance and smuggled Jews out of Germany. She operated in plain sight and maintained the appearance of someone well-connected to Nazis.
Wust and Schragenheim met in a cafe and instantly had feelings for one another. Wust was unaware of Schragengeim’s Jewish ethnicity, but wasn’t upset when she eventually found out. Wust and Schragengeim kept their relationship secret while the latter continued to operate for the resistance. After a day at the lake together, the Gestapo showed up at Wust’s home and arrested Schragenheim. Wust kept track of Schragenheim’s transfers from one concentration camp to the next and regularly corresponded with her, signing her letters as Aimee. Schragenheim managed to smuggle letters back to Wust, signed “your caged Jaguar.”
It was Wusts’s visit to Theresienstadt that sealed the fate of Schragenheim. Wust was thrown out by the camp director, and Schragenheim’s subsequent “death march” may have hastened her death. She succumbed to TB. Heartbroken, Wust divorced her husband and hid Jewish women in her basement to evade capture.
Wust held onto Schragenheim’s letters right up until her death in 2006. They were donated to the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute in Jerusalem. Wust dreamed of being reunited with a woman she considered reflection of herself and her spouse. “Twice since she left, I’ve felt her breath, and a warm presence next to me. I dream that we will meet again – I live in hope.” Wust received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
War role: Dutch resistance inspiration
Queen Wilhelmina was removed from the Netherlands against her wishes when the Nazis invaded. She foiled a plot to be kidnapped by the Nazis on the way to exile. From Britain, she broadcast messages of encouragement and hope to the Dutch resistance via Radio Oranie. Winston Churchill was a fan, calling the queen “the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London.”
War role: Flight nurse, lieutenant
Ott was a trained nurse who joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. She was sent to Karachi India where she was part of a mission that would evacuate injured soldiers as fresh troops were brought in. The plane didn’t have medical equipment sufficient to handle the serious injuries and disease of the troops. Ott’s only help was an army medic. The plane made several stops across the six-day flight after leaving India. She continued on with these kinds of flights for the rest of her career and was promoted to captain in 1946. She was also instrumental in outfitting the flights for optimum care of patients.