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Response to Review no. 729

I am grateful to Helen Jones for her review of my book Behind Enemy Lines which she regarded as ‘meticulously researched and fascinating’. It provides a good overview of some of its key arguments and themes, but I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a couple of points made by her.

Jones mentions that ‘Pattinson does not engage with the debate over the effectiveness of F section’. This was a conscious decision as I felt that this was beyond the scope of the book which was a study rooted in personal testimonies. I was interested in exploring the memories of F section veterans, with particular reference to the ways in which interviewees reconstructed their wartime experiences of recruitment, training, operational missions and, for some, their captivity and their return to civilian work after the war. My analysis focused upon the ways in which their experiences of passing as French nationals were gendered. I also traced some of the ways in which their experiences have been represented in film, in particular the erasure of anxiety and the portrayal of heroism. I wasn’t, to be brutally honest, that interested in engaging in discussions about whether the Special Operations Executive (SOE) did or did not shorten the war by six or nine months or whether resources might have been better spent if allocated to Bomber Command. Economic historian Alan Milward and official SOE historian MRD Foot have debated this issue. Such speculation (it can never be ‘proved’ after all) would have extended the research beyond an analysis of F section veterans’ memories into a much broader study of SOE as a whole (in Europe, as well as the Far East). ‘Effectiveness’ would have had to have been defined in terms of ‘value for money’, casualty rates, impact on the German war effort, effect on the French population… This assessment of SOE’s merit would have necessitated another book-length study in itself (which I leave to an economic or military historian to undertake). My study was located in the field of socio-cultural history and gender studies and aimed to explore how those in the organisation reconstruct their memories.

Jones notes that in contrast to other authors (of popular history books who are preoccupied with providing biographical information about the female agents), I write about men as well as women and provide a gendered analysis, examining femininities and masculinities. She rightly notes that I ‘devote far less attention to class’. Gender clearly intersected with class (and ethnicity) on various occasions and I do draw this out where relevant. For example, the female agents’ strategies for passing often necessitated choosing a particular mode of femininity which was class- and region-specific. This extended to clothes, hats and jewellery, as well as to behaviour such as smoking and knitting. Signifiers of class were often important in presenting themselves in a particular way.

In a paragraph on my discussion of why women have generated so much attention in the media, Jones asserts that ‘Pattinson’s suggestions that women were seen as passive and non-combatant in war, are not wholly convincing, given the role that that many women had played in uniform and war work, even if they did not carry firearms.’ My argument centred more on official discourses and widely-held perceptions of women’s innate attachment to the home and their peace-loving natures in the early 1940s, rather than ‘reality’. It was not my intention to assert that women were passive. Rather, they were seen in such a way that precluded them from undertaking a more active role in wartime. This is why F section was so progressive in recognising that women could undertake a more active role and trained them in armed and unarmed combat and silent killing techniques and infiltrated them, often by parachute, into Nazi-occupied France.

Jones recognises that some interviewees are ‘a gift’, while others are ‘far quieter, gracious and refined … One cannot assume that colourful language is closer to original experiences.’ I don’t think I give that impression. What is interesting is how interviewees reconstruct their experiences and why they present themselves in particular ways. Jones goes on to say that in quoting one interviewee’s recollection of her recruitment interview, I use oral testimony ‘uncritically’: ‘It is hardly credible that anyone would remember a conversation word-for-word 50 years later.’ Of course not. What is significant here is the enthusiasm that her recollection of the recruitment interview generates which is recreated in my interview with her.

Jones concludes her review by noting that I mention the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and that they deserve similar treatment. It is this organisation that my current project focuses upon in order to remedy this omission in the literature.