Shaped by War: A female SOE agent’s diary finds humanity in destruction

Anne Powys-Lybbe died peacefully in 2015. She was a loving mother, wife, daughter, novelist and throughout the Second World War, she was a deadly spy with Churchill’s secret army. 

Anne was 18-years-old when British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany. After joining the Army, Anne diarised her experiences and 82 years later her experience reads just as powerfully today, as it did then. 

“I don’t want to fight. I would prefer to fight with words, but if the people are not prepared to do that, and insist on imposing their system on me, I will have to fight them. Trying all the time to keep the clear distinction in my mind that I have nothing against the people, only what they represent. And if what they represent is to my mind evil, I will fight it until I die.

War is bloody in every sense of the word. They say it brings out the best or the worse in human beings – if it takes something as bloody as a war to bring out the best in humans, I pity the human race.”

After passing out as an officer, Anne was sent to London’s War Rooms to work in Public Relations. Her job involved recruiting civilian women to the war effort and vetting War Correspondents – Alan Moorehead being one of them. It was not long before her colleagues discovered that she could speak French and with that, started a very different life. 

 After the fall of France in 1940, a fighting force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was hastily drafted by Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton to wage a secret war against the enemy and “set Europe ablaze”. Its purpose was to conduct sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance in occupied territories while providing aid to local resistance movements in a fight against the Axis Powers. The SOE operated across Europe and into Southeast Asia and the force employed over 13,000 people, 3,200 of them being women. The character of an SOE agent was daring and the agents were trained to use deadly force, how to survive torture and how to parachute out of aircraft.

Without a second thought, Anne signed the Official Secrets Act and took the job almost immediately.

I put my real self aside and I became a French student called Jannine Duvivier.” 

Anne was drafted as a Courier and her mission was to teach the French Resistance ‘Maquis’ how to destroy enemy ammunition transport trains using homemade explosives.  

Anne parachuted into France eleven times, each during the dead of night. The Bible-black sky was lit up by the warm glow of fires that the Resistance had lit for her safe arrival. With the strength from a black coffee, a Gauloises cigarette, she hit the ground. It was only when she got to the safe house that the realisation of being in German-occupied France kicked in.

“I still think of the number of people I helped to kill. You had to close your mind at the time. We were at war and the Nazis were evil but not all Germans were of that ilk.”

During her double life in France, Anne witnessed some terrible things and on one occasion, she was caught by the formidable Gestapo when sabotaging a railway line. She was marched into a nearby forest, where she was forced to stand in line to be shot. Luckily for her, she was able to escape death while RAF bombs flattened the forest. While laying low, she discovered that a fellow fighter had captured an enemy officer. Being the highest-ranking officer, Anne shot him dead with her revolver. 

As a 24-year-old woman, Anne thought she had witnessed every possible horror during her years in the Army – but she was wrong. While in northern Germany with War Correspondent Richard Dimbleby, she received orders to go to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to gain information. The prison was yet to be liberated by the British forces, so the prisoners’ survival hung in the balance. 

“We saw thousands upon thousands of human beings, living skeletons, lying on the ground, unable to move, starved and beaten. 

Behind the wires of Belsen concentration camp credit: Holocaust Learning Centre

There were massive ditches, filled with rotting corpses, some not quite dead: I can still see it, and I can still smell it. They were fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, wives and daughters – all blessed with life until a higher power decided otherwise. Simply because they were Jews, Gypsies or disabled. When I hear people talking about dying with dignity, I think of them. They died with enormous dignity.”

As they watched from afar, Richard and Anne saw the SS guards circling the camp with whips – laughing as they slashed the naked backs of the prisoners. 

“I could see the Camp Commander and his lady, Irma Grese walking around in thigh high boots with her whip and I have hated boots ever since.”

By April 1945, Soviet forces had decimated Berlin’s defences and over the next week, Anne witnessed the Red Army invade the rest of the city. According to her diaries, Berlin was divided into two zones for the British and the Russians. Both civilians and soldiers were discouraged to enter the opposite zone – especially women. 

One day, my driver – a delicious Corporal from Glasgow and I drove by mistake into the Russian zone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman in civilian dress getting gang-raped by soldiers. It was horrific but it was not uncommon to see such perverse behaviour.”

ADN-ZB / Archive World War II 1939-45 After one of the Battle of Berlin in 1945, the residents laboriously search for a way through the destruction in Stallschreiberstrasse., 1945. Photo credit: Berlin Experiences

Just before the final declaration to signal the end of the war, Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun committed suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin. Soon after, the Nuremberg trials started and along with her colleagues, Anne visited the courtroom every day to watch the sentencing of war criminals. 

Former Nazi leader Hermann Göring standing in the prisoner’s box during the Nuremberg trials.
Credit: AP Images

“Göring was incredibly impressive. A huge man, dressed immaculately, very plain but always spotless. Always with his hair well brushed, and if I had been able to look, I’m sure his fingernails were well-scrubbed. Here was the man who ordered the deaths of countless ordinary citizens, bombing the hell out of them, for he was in charge of the Luftwaffe. As I listened, pictures flowed through my eyes and I remembered that we did the same when the RAF bombed Dresden and Cologne.

No one is innocent in war.”

 “I watched as he was sentenced to death. He never once flinched nor moved. He just clicked his heels and marched out of the dock. He had a strange dignity which seemed to raise the courtroom to some unknown height of humanity.”

After victory in Europe, Anne’s stoicism had been internationally recognised and when she left her role in PR and Journalism, various tributes were published about her, including a comment that she sunk through bureaucracy like a hot knife through butter. 

Anne’s SOE experience left her resilient for the rest of her life. It gave her the strength to push through her son’s difficult birth and a leg amputation. She never once cried out or registered any pain. According to her husband Martin, she never liked talking about herself nor her life experiences but it was clear that she had a rich inner life. He explained: “Her wit, her warmth, her style, were all unequalled in this irresistible come-hither-ness.” 

Anne Powys-Lybbe on a beach holiday, credit Martin Powys-Lybbe

Martin went on to show me what Anne had written in the years following Germany’s defeat and it was clear that Anne never wanted to fight. Instead and like so many others, she wanted to be free.

It’s a queer business of odd things being part of you. I love to go to strange places and make my own world with my own laws and conform to no one because I am nothing and yet, I remain wholly myself.” – Anne Powys-Lybbe

2 thoughts on “Shaped by War: A female SOE agent’s diary finds humanity in destruction

  1. What an incredible, courageous woman. A beautifully written testament of her extraordinary life. It was fascinating to read about her experience in the court room and sickening to read about what she witnessed at Belsen.

    Like

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