A Heroine of our Time

A Heroine of our Time
(with apologies to Mikhail Lermontov)

By Melissa Tawn
She was one of the greatest heroines of the clandestine British war effort against the Nazis … or was she?



Lady Penelope Effingham was the daughter of the sixth Earl of Markham. Slim and athletic, she was an avid tennis player who could hold her own against men as well as other women; she was considered a beauty and was courted by many very desirable young men, though she had not shown a clear preference for any one of them. She was also a brilliant conversationalist and writer who, at the age of 20, had already published two slim volumes of poetry which received measured praise from the critics of the day. Penelope’s father travelled often and maintained a chateau in the Loire valley in France and a small mansion in the suburbs of Berlin, at both of which Lady Penelope spent considerable portions of her childhood. As a result, she was totally fluent in both French and German, as well as in Latin, which she had taught herself.

And then the second great European war came and, after working in various volunteer jobs, Lady Penelope suddenly disappeared from public view. Her friends and even her siblings had no idea where she was at, and they knew enough not to inquire. Her father did know, but did not talk about it. Only after the war did it become known that she had been approached by Colonel Colin Gubbins, an old friend of her father, who asked her to join a very clandestine organization which was being set up, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was founded in June of 1940 and dedicated to conducting covert operations behind enemy lines. Lady Penelope joined without hesitation. After a year of conducting language classes for SOE operatives at the SOE’s first headquarters at 64 Baker Street in London (which led to the nickname “The Baker Street Irregulars”) and then at Wanborough Manor in Guildford, she volunteered for frontline action. She was trained as a wireless operator and was dropped into France in the fall of 1941 to act as liaison with the French CLOUCHE resistance network.

For seven months, the CLOUCHE network conducted sabotage raids against German targets, helped rescue downed British airmen and convey them to Spain or Switzerland, and provided highly valuable intelligence data on German operations in the Paris area. Then, somehow, the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) were able to identify and penetrate them and, in a coordinated operation, all of the network’s leaders were rounded up or killed. Lady Penelope was apparently surprised in her bed in the garret where she slept. When her friends came the next morning, they found signs of a struggle and a blood-stained bullet-holed bed sheet. The Gestapo had apparently taken Penelope - dead or alive - with them. Her body was never recovered nor did any Gestapo records as to what happened to her ever come to light.

After the war, when the story of the SOE was published, the tale of Penelope Effingham was one of the highlights - the intelligent, beautiful, aristocratic young lady who sacrificed herself for the cause of fighting the Nazis. Those who knew her during the war told and retold stories of her courage, her leadership, and her sweetness which kept them going in many a dark hour. At least three books and two movies appeared based (rather loosely) on her life. The bullet-holed bed sheet stained with her blood was prominently displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London. Then, as inevitably happens, the interest in Penelope Effingham waned. A new postwar generation grew up that cared more about the future than the past, and the generation after that knew or cared even less about the war. Even the endless sequence of BBC and History Channel documentaries about the war seemed rather lifeless after a while. The story of Penelope Effingham, SOE heroine, became a footnote in a tome now rarely removed from the shelves.


The revival of interest in Penelope Effingham came, surprisingly, not from her wartime heroics but from the two volumes of poetry she had published before her 20th birthday. Academic researchers in the late 90’s stumbled upon them and decided that they had a seminal influence on modern British poetry. Hugh Malcolm, a Cambridge don and expert on contemporary poetry, led the way with a brilliantly-written treatise entitled “The Eff Factor” in which he maintained that the poems Lady Penelope Effingham had a direct and major impact on all poets after the war, whether they were aware of it or not. Indeed, he diagrammed these effects with a series of eye-catching diagrams showing lines of influence (which he called “Eff-rays”) emanating from her to everybody else. Malcolm’s book, originally intended for specialists, became a best seller and the quickly-reissued volumes of Penelope’s poetry sold out as fast as they could be reprinted. Her image changed - instead of being seen as the heroic secret agent and fighter, she began being portrayed as the great and promising poet who was martyred in a useless and needless display of senseless patriotism. (In the big picture, one must admit, the heroics of the SOE were essentially negligible and contributed very little to hastening the end of the war or influencing its direction.)

The BBC was quick to announce that it was funding a new miniseries about her, and that it had commissioned a special group of historians and forensic scientists to try and find the answer to the mystery of what happened to Penelope after her capture and to locate where she was buried. If her bones were found, they would of course be brought back to Britain and reinterred in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abby, alongside of Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and many others.


While the BBC’s group of historians (and their graduate-student and research-assistant camp followers) headed for France and Germany to look for clues in the Gestapo archives which had survived the war, the forensic scientists concentrated on the only physical clue they had - the bullet-holed and blood-stained bed sheet still on display at the Imperial War Museum. Using the techniques of modern science, they were able to extract some DNA samples which, while barely usable, still might provide some information. These they intended to compare with DNA taken from Penelope’s only surviving sibling, her brother Herbert, now in his 80’s but still in full command of his mental facilities. Herbert Effingham had spent the war on the staff of Lord Mountbatten in Kandy and, after the conflict was over, parlayed the contacts he made into a very lucrative import/export business from which he had retired only at the age of 75. (The Earldom had passed from his father to his older brother Oliver and then on to Oliver’s eldest son, so Herbert Effingham was free to concentrate on making money without worrying about the burdens of aristocracy.)

When Dr. Hollis McBride, the head of the BBC’s forensic team, contacted him, he was of course willing to provide a DNA sample. Unfortunately, he had no papers or other memorabilia of his sister, all of these having been destroyed when the south wing of Markham Manor suffered a direct hit by a V-2 missile in the closing days of the war.

Dr. McBride duly arrived for their appointment two days later, and startled Herbert by telling him that he had made an amazing discovery, and so would not need a DNA sample after all. “What is that?” asked Herbert. “The blood on the sheet is not your sister’s blood,” replied Dr. McBride, “I know that for certain.” Herbert wondered how Dr. McBride could be so sure, without having another DNA sample to compare it to. “We did a preliminary analysis,” explained Dr. McBride, “and found that the blood is definitely of a man. Therefore it cannot be your sister’s.” Dr. McBride went on to explain that the historians were all very excited about this find, since it opened the question that if Penelope Effingham was not killed in that garret, what happened to her? Was she overpowered and taken alive to a Gestapo prison? Or, perhaps, did she go willingly? Maybe she was the traitor who told the Gestapo about the CLOUCHE network to begin with? She had, after all, spent a considerable amount of her girlhood in Germany - perhaps her loyalties secretly lay there?

Herbert Effingham sat quietly and looked very sad while Dr. McBride kept spinning wilder and wilder theories. Finally, he interjected quietly. “My sister was no traitor, and she did die in that garret.”

“I am going to tell you a long-hidden story,” he continued, “and then I am going to ask you and your group not to use it in any way. The story begins when I was four years old - barely old enough to understand what was happening around me. At the time, I had two brothers: Peter, the eldest, and Oliver, who was two years older than me. My mother had passed away a year before, and we were being raised by various governesses. As you pointed out, we lived in Germany quite a bit in those days, purportedly for my father’s business interests. Only many years later, after my father also passed away, did I find out that he really worked for SIS and was there collecting information on German industrial production and its military implications. One day, my father called us all into his study and told us that Peter was in the hospital, and it would be a while until he returned. But that when he returned, he would no longer be Peter any more, but would be a girl, whom we were to call Penelope from now on. We were not to pester her with questions, but just accept that this is what had to happen. Some of the governesses giggled and some were shocked (and one even tendered her resignation the next day) but Oliver and I, being little children, just accepted it as part of the game of life, which we were still learning how to play.

It was only several years later that I had the courage to ask Penelope to explain what had happened. She was very frank, as was her way. She told me that she had always felt she was a girl, even though she had the body of a boy, and discussed the matter openly with our parents. She sufficiently convinced them of her seriousness - but then she was always a very convincing talker - that my father took her to see a Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld who, in 1931, performed the first “sex-change” operation on Lili Elbe and on another person, whose name is known only as “Dora R”. Surprisingly, Dr. Hirschfeld was very slow and careful in arriving at his diagnosis, and called in not one but two psychologists to subject Penelope to a long series of interviews and tests. Only after almost a year, he concluded that she would be a good subject for another such operation.

Dr. Hirschfeld’s first two operations had been only qualified successes, mainly because the subjects were already adults who had been homosexually active and had definite sex drives they wished to fulfill immediately. These expectations were never met. He hoped, however, that by operating on someone who had not yet reached puberty, he would cause the body to secrete female hormones of its own accord and thus Penelope would be a more “normal” female. My father agreed to the operation which, for obvious reasons, was done under conditions of complete secrecy at a private clinic in Berlin. Dr. Hirschfeld had planned to follow Penelope’s subsequent development closely, but in 1933 the Nazis sacked and burned his offices and library in Berlin. He was out of Germany at the time, and never returned. Instead, he settled in France, first in Paris and later in Nice. Penelope was able to see him on a few occasions, but since her files had been left behind in Berlin, there was not much he could do. In 1935, Dr. Hirschfeld died of a heart attack.

While there is no clinical data, it does appear that Dr. Hirschfeld’s theory that Penelope’s body would generate its own female hormones was justified, for - as you know - she became a very lovely and very feminine lady.”

At this point Herbert Effingham took a longish break, and looked silently at the wall of his study. Then he continued.

“Of course, I knew nothing of what Penelope did during the war though my father who, as I told you, was in the SIS, most certainly did. After the war was over, he was determined to find Penelope’s body and bring it for burial in England. He had many chits that he could, and did, call in and was finally able to piece together the story of what happened to the CLOUCHE network with the help of some former Gestapo officers who, subsequently and rather unexpectedly, were granted early rehabilitation by the West German government. Basically, the story is this: while it is true that Nazi hotheads burned down Dr. Hirschfeld’s institute and library in 1933, many of his medical files were “rescued” by far-sighted leaders of what later became the Gestapo, who could foresee their possible future use. Among these was Penelope’s file. When, a few months after her arrival in France, she was identified on the street by a Gestapo informant, somebody managed to put two and two together and realize that they could blackmail her into working for them.

The Gestapo sent four men to confront Penelope. Of those four only one, Hans Joachim Mecke, survived the war. In 1949, he was personally interrogated by my father in a safe house not far from Bonn. According to Mecke, the four broke into Penelope’s garret and confronted her with her medical file from Dr. Hirschfeld’s clinic. They offered her a choice - act as their double agent inside the CLOUCHE network or the file would be leaked to the British authorities and to the “neutral” press in Sweden. While pretending to reluctantly acquiesce with their offer, Penelope reached for a gun she had hidden underneath her pillow and shot the leader directly in the head. Mecke pulled his gun and killed her on the spot. The three Gestapo agents then took both bodies away with them. Hans Joachim Mecke gave the exact details of where her corpse was dumped. He then had no more information to provide. As sometimes happens in such situations, he did not survive the interrogation. Pity.

My father managed to locate Penelope’s body where Herr Mecke said it would be and, using dental records, confirmed that it was indeed hers. He then secretly brought the body back to England. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the copse of trees where she often sat while writing her poetry, here at Markham Manor.”

Again, Herbert Effingham paused for a few moments.

“I have absolutely no documentary or other evidence to back up what I have just told you, nor will you be able to find any corroboration to it. If the BBC tries to air this story it will be skating on some very thin legal ice indeed. The SIS does not like tales like this to float around. I strongly suggest that the whole miniseries project be dropped.”

And so it was.

EPILOGUE: This story is fiction but, as usual, I have incorporated real people in walk-on roles. One of these is Colonel Colin Gubbins, Director of Operations and Training at the SOE, and the other, of course, is Dr. Marcus Hirschfeld, the flamboyant Berlin sexologist who performed the first sex-change operations. The character of Penelope Effingham is loosely based on that of Noor Inayat Khan, the Indian princess (raised in England and France) who served as an SOE wireless operator with the PHYSICIAN network in France; she was arrested by the Germans in 1943 and later executed by them. It is her picture which appears at the top of this story.

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