BACKSTORY: A female spy helped change the course of WWII

Discerning minds toiling in the subterranean labyrinths of espionage have known that women are by nature endowed with a wide range of creative, emotional, spiritual and dissimulative qualities that make them perfect spies. 

There is a well-entrenched inclination to see the spying business as a male prerogative. This view is anchored in “snoopy” thrillers where male secret agents display amazing skills in chasing bad guys on the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul with motorcycles, helicopters, vertical and horizontal propulsion devices, jumping, nay, flying from one cupola to another with undiminished enthusiasm but uncertain results. 

The de rigueur “beautiful Mossad girl” or Bond women doing their mermaid imitations or a villainess implausibly named “Pussy Galore” are often portrayed in supporting or destined to fail roles. But this presents a distorted view, as women have demonstrated the strength of their allegiances with courage, determination and cunning matching their male counterparts. 

Writing in Forbes, Maseena Ziegler quotes Mossad’s head, Tamir Prodo, praising female spies for their “distinct advantage in secret warfare  because of their ability to multitask.” He also said women are “better at playing a role” and superior to men when it comes to “suppressing their ego in order to attain their goals.” And these feline qualities were in full display during World War II on the Allied side.

An Indian princess, a mother superior at a convent in Paris, a New Zealander most wanted by the Gestapo and a hedonistic Peruvian guava heiress are just some of the more colourful players in the cast of female spies who hoodwinked the generals of Adolf Hitler’s mighty phalanxes and outwitted the death head terror squads of the Third Reich.

But it is the story of a young Jewish woman  in Cairo, operating under the pseudonym “Yvette” and working for MI6 and the Jewish  Agency – the inspiration  for Ken Follet’s novel Key to Rebecca – that stands out from all the rest.

The moment “Yvette” set eyes on John Eppler, dressed in the uniform of a British captain, speaking with a Saar accent, pretending to be South African and using British pound notes instead of Egyptian money in a Cairo nightclub, she knew he was a Nazi spy. 

“Yvette” was spot on: Eppler was the head of the German Kondor Mission sent to Cairo by Field Marshal Rommel, the Desert Fox, to find out about British plans as Rommel was preparing his final assault on the Egyptian capital. Incidentally, the film The English Patient also deals with extensive Nazi efforts to sneak spies into the British-controlled Middle East during the War. 

“Yvette”  insinuated herself into Eppler’s world and, yes, she became his lover. Roaming freely in Eppler’s boathouse on the Nile, she saw Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca on the table with a notepaper covered with gridded squares and six-letter groups. She understood that she was looking at the cipher the Nazis were using to transmit valuable information to Rommel. She had what she needed to break her cover and immediately informed MI6. In a matter of hours, the members of the Nazi Kondor spy ring were behind bars. 

The boys and girls at Bletchley Park, working feverishly, finally broke the code. This breakthrough allowed Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to launch one of the greatest deceptions since the Greeks left a giant wooden horse at Helen’s gate. The British successfully impersonated Eppler, brilliantly deceived Rommel and led Hitler eventually to his first major defeat, at El Alamein.

As Winston Churchill observed, “We had neither a victory before nor a defeat after” that fateful encounter on the burning sands of North Africa. 

I often wonder what would have happened to Jews in then-Palestine if Rommel had succeeded and marched all the way to Jerusalem to shake Haj Amin al-Husseini’s hand.

“Yvette” returned to Israel after the war, married and raised a magnificent family.

Erol Araf is a Montreal-based strategic planning consultant.