11 best books about female heroes of the First and Second World Wars

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Sarah Shaffi
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Best war books about female heroes

On this Remembrance Sunday, we remember the stories of women including Noor Inayat Khan and Martha Gellhorn.

The First and Second World Wars changed the lives of millions of people, from those who lost loved ones to those who were forced to move to new countries in fear of their lives, to those who saw horrors they will never forget.

Although many of those who fought in the Great War of 1914-1918 and the Second World War of 1939-1945 were men, they were supported by women who took on new roles, from those who were on the Home Front to those who went out onto the field of battle.

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Women’s contribution to the war effort was extraordinary, whether they were working in crucial roles left empty when men enlisted in the army, reporting on the horrors of the conflicts, or putting on a uniform and fighting for the Allied Forces.

The stories of many of the women who were responsible for the success of Britain and its allies in the war have been forgotten, but there are books that remind us that without women, the war would not have been won.

From nurses to spies to reporters, here are 11 books about the female heroes of the First and Second World Wars. 

  • Spy Princess: The Life Of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Bas

    Spy Princess by Shrabani Bas.
    Noor Inayat Khan's story in Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu is being adapted for the screen.

    Noor Inayat Khan was a descendent of the Indian prince Tipu Sultan, and was for in Moscow. She and her family lived in London and then France, where Noor studied music and began writing poetry and children’s stories.

    But when the Second World War broke out and Noor’s family moved back to England, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, before being recruited to the Special Operations Executive. While working as a spy in France, Noor was captured by the Germans and tortured. She was kept imprisoned for 10 months, never once betraying the British, before she was taken to Dachau concentration camp, where she was shot on September 13 1944.

    Noor became one of only three women SOE agents awarded the George Cross, posthumously in 1949. In Spy Princess, Bas tells the story of Noor’s extraordinary life, courage and spirit.

    The History Press, £9.99

  • Female Tommies: The Frontline Women Of The First World War by Elisabeth Shipton

    Female Tommies by Elisabeth Shipton.
    Best first world war books: Female Tommies by Elisabeth Shipton.

    Women have only been able to serve in combat roles alongside male colleagues in the British Army since 2018, but during the First World War thousands of women donned uniforms and played crucial roles in the conflict.

    Among them was Flora Sandes, who served as an officer in the Royal Serbian Army. She was the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in the First World War, after starting out as a St John Ambulance volunteer. She travelled to Serbia in August 1914 with the ambulance unit, and then worked for the Serbian Red Cross.

    Noticing her talent, Snades was quickly enrolled in the Serbian army as a private, before being promoted, ending the war as a commissioned officer. She was decorated with seven medals.

    Her story is among those told in Female Tommies, which uses diaries, letters and memoirs to paint a picture of the women across the world who fought in the Great War.

    The History Press, £12.99

  • The Face Of War by Martha Gellhorn

    The Face Of War by Martha Gellhorn.
    Best war books: The Face Of War by Martha Gellhorn.

    American novelist Martha Gellhorn reported on almost every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. She reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler from Germany, and in the spring of 1938 was in Czechoslovakia. She spent the Second World War reporting from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore and England.

    Gellhorn was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day on 6 June 1944, and also among the first journalists to report from Dachau after it was liberated by US troops in April 1945.

    The Face Of War collects some of Gellhorn’s reports from the Second World War, as well as conflicts in Spain, China and Vietnam, and paints a portrait of a brave woman who is often only spoken about as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.

    Granta Books, £9.99

  • Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

    Sophia by Anita Anand.
    Best war books: Sophia by Anita Anand.

    Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who was heir to a kingdom that stretched from the Kashmir Valley to the cities of Lahore and Peshawar (now in Pakistan). That land was plundered by the British, and the Maharajah was exiled to Britain, where he became a favourite of Queen Victoria.

    His daughter Sophia was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, and was raised as an aristocratic Englishwoman. But Sophia travelled to India in defiance of the British government, refused to pay taxes until women were given the vote, and volunteered as a Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the First World War.

    Sophia often tended to Sikh soldiers who were fighting for the British Army, who were unable to believe the daughter of one of their greatest royal families was sat by their bedsides.

    Anita Anand’s Sophia is an account of the life of the princess, and her story is truly one that no novelist could have imagined for fear it seemed unrealistic.

    Bloomsbury, £10.99

  • Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine by Diana Souhami

    Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine by Diana Souhami.
    Best war books: Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine by Diana Souhami.

    Born in Norfolk, Edith Cavell worked as a governess in the UK and abroad before training as a nurse in London in 1895. By 1907 she was working as the matron in Belgium where she turned a ramshackle hospital into a model nursing school.

    When the First World War broke out, Edith helped British and French soldiers to escape by giving them jobs in her hospital, and organising safe passage for them into Holland. In total, she assisted 200 men before her work was discovered and she was put on trial. She was sentenced to death by firing squad, and was shot dead in Brussels on 12 October 1915 by the Germans.

    Diana Souhami’s biography brings the courageous and selfless Edith Cavell to life.

    Quercus, £12.99

  • The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

    The White Mouse by Nancy Wake.
    Best war books: The White Mouse by Nancy Wake.

    Nancy Wake had a comfortable life before the Second World War; after living and working in Paris in the 1930s, she married a wealth Frenchman and had settled in Marseilles.

    When the war began, Nancy joined the French resistance and later began work on an escape-route network for Allied soldiers. She eventually had to escape France herself to avoid being captured by the Gestapo.

    In London, Nancy trained with the Special Operations Executive as a secret agent and saboteur, and was then parachuted back to France to work. She was one of the Gestapo’s most wanted people and one of the most highly decorated servicewomen of the war.

    The White Mouse — the title refers to the nickname she was given due to her ability to evade capture — is Nancy’s own account of her wartime experiences. Nancy’s story will also be told in 2020 in Liberation by Imogen Kealy.

    Macmillan Australia, £8.89

  • Sisters In Arms by Nicola Tyrer

    Sisters In Arms by Nicola Tyrer.
    Best war books: Sisters In Arms by Nicola Tyrer.

    During the Second World War thousands of middle-class girls, straight out of school and from sheltered backgrounds, joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. The Queen Alexandra nurses were subjected to tough training regimes before being sent across the world to share the same conditions as frontline soldiers.

    They served across the world, and more than 200 nurses died, torpedoed in hospital ships, bombed in field hospitals or as prisoners of war in Japan.

    In Sisters In Arms, Nicola Tyrer tells the largely untold story of the women first hand the damage inflicted on individuals during the Second World War.

    Orion, £9.99

  • Lady Death: The Memoirs Of Stalin’s Sniper by Lyudmila Pavlichenko

    Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper by Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
    Best war books: Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper by Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

    Anyone who is nicknamed Lady Death is bound to be a badass, and that’s exactly what Lyudmila Pavlichenko was.

    Pavlichenko left her university studies in June 1941, and became one of Soviet Russia’s 2,000 female snipers. Within a year she had 309 recorded kills, included 29 enemy sniper skills, and is said to be the Second World War’s best-scoring sniper.

    She was withdrawn from active duty after sustaining an injury, but was still regarded as a key figure in the war effort, speaking at rallies in Canada and the US; her trip to the US included a tour of the White House with then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    Pavlichenko died in 1974, but her memoirs have survived, and tell her amazing story.

    Greenhill Books, £19.99

  • Tomorrow To Be Brave by Susan Travers with Wendy Holden

    Tomorrow To Be Brave by Susan Travers with Wendy Holden.
    Best war books: Tomorrow To Be Brave by Susan Travers with Wendy Holden.

    Susan Travers was born to a life of privilege. After being expelled from finishing school for being too interested in men, she signed up with Free French in 1940, a movement which continued to fight after the fall of France in summer 1940. She travelled to Africa, where she eventually became a driver to General Koenig of the Foreign Legion.

    Susan became the General’s lover, and during a 15-day siege refused to leave his side. At the wheel of his car, she led a convoy of vehicles and men across minefields as part of a breakout, earning her the loyalty of the French Foreign Legion. She became the only official member to serve with the French Legion.

    Her story was told for the first time in her memoir, Tomorrow To Be Brave.

    Simon & Schuster, £16.99

  • A Thousand Sisters by Elizabeth Wein

    A Thousand Sisters by Elizabeth Wein.
    Best war books: A Thousand Sisters by Elizabeth Wein.

    In the early years of the Second World War, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to allow female pilots to fly in combat.

    The three regiments, led by Marina Raskova, faced obstacles on the land and in the air, but fought valiantly to defend their country. Many of those who joined the regiments, one of which was nicknamed the “night witches”, were just teenagers.

    Elizabeth Wein, award-winning author of Code Name Verity, tells the true and gripping story of the thousand women who served as navigators, pilots and mechanics.

    HarperCollins, £14.99

  • Fighting On The Home Front by Kate Adie

    Fighting On The Home Front by Kate Adie.
    Best war books: Fighting On The Home Front by Kate Adie.

    When the First World War began, women’s lives changed completely. Previously confined largely to domestic life, women became a visible force in public life, taking on roles vacated by men who were fighting on the frontlines.

    Women began to work in sectors including policing, transport, sport, entertainment and munitions, and became a recognised part of the war machine.

    Journalist Kate Adie charts the seismic change in women’s roles during the First World War, examines just how momentous their achievements were, and reminds us that not all those who helped win the war did so with weapons.

    Hodder, £12.99

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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