One afternoon two years ago, I was looking through a book about resistance movements in World War II, when two photographs stopped me in my tracks. The first was a photo of a captured French Resistance fighter, taken perhaps a second before he was executed. The photographer was standing far enough away that he was able to capture not only the captive, but the firing squad. A bareheaded German officer, hands on hips, is about to give the order to fire. The Frenchman, his shirt opened, has been placed at the corner of a building to prevent ricochets. What pulled me up short was his face. He was smiling mockingly at his executioners.
The second photograph was of a woman. She was exquisitely beautiful, with delicate Eurasian features and dark, luminous eyes. There was an unworldly innocence about her, but also something more elusive, a kind of quiet resolution. The caption said she was an Indian princess who grew up in France and became an underground radio operator in Paris for an organization called SOE. She was caught by the Germans and killed at Dachau. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan.
I wanted to know what lay behind that doomed man's smile. And I wanted to know more about that Indian princess with the gentle, unforgettable face. That was how I came to write "Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler."
The common thread uniting the two photographs, I learned, was something called the Special Operations Executive. SOE was a top-secret British organization, created in the darkest days of the war, which sent agents behind enemy lines to carry out sabotage and subversion and work with resistance movements. Its agents, soldiers and civilians, men and women, faced appalling odds -- underground radio operators had a life expectancy of six weeks -- and were not protected by the Geneva Conventions. If captured, they were usually brutally tortured by the Gestapo, then executed. One in four agents sent to France did not return. And they had to face their trials alone, without the support of comrades. To this day, SOE is almost completely unknown in America. But it played a key role in defeating the Axis. And it left a legacy of courage that still inspires us today.
"Shadow Knights" tells the story of three daring SOE missions and the extraordinary men and women who executed them. The first is about a suicidal raid, carried out by nine SOE-trained Norwegian commandos, on an impregnable heavy-water plant in Norway. Fearing that the Nazis would acquire atomic weapons before the Allies, Churchill and Roosevelt made destroying the plant their top priority. Surviving a brutal winter in one of the harshest terrains on earth by devouring every part of the reindeer they managed to shoot, even the undigested moss in their stomachs, the Norwegians put a definitive end to the Fuhrer's plans to build an atomic bomb.
The second is the tale of Harry Ree, a rebellious Manchester-born intellectual who had been a pacifist until Hitler's murderous anti-Semitism convinced him he had to fight. Parachuted into France, Ree masterminded one of the great feats of sabotage in the war, convincing the owner of a giant Peugeot factory to allow SOE-trained Resistance fighters to blow up the crucial machines in his plant. Arrested and shot four times during a desperate struggle with a Gestapo officer, he managed to swim a river and stagger four miles to a safe house. Near death, he was carried by an underground escape network across the Swiss border to freedom.
The final story is that of Noor Inayat Khan. A children's book writer and musician, the daughter of an American mother and an eminent Sufi mystic, Noor fled Paris as the Germans approached, made it to England and joined SOE. She refused to leave her crucial radio post in Paris even though she knew her capture was imminent. Kept in chains, starved and beaten, she refused to give her captors any information. Her last word before she was shot was "Liberté."
"Shadow Knights" tells the story of a little-known organization that helped win World War II. But above all, it is an act of homage to the ordinary men and women who, like Frodo in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," chose to walk straight into the jaws of hell.
"Shadow Knights" is part of a new illustrated history book series called Pulp History that is being published this week by Simon & Schuster. A slide show of "Devil Dog" -- the other new book in the series -- appeared Tuesday in Salon. "Shadow Knights" features the lush artwork of award-winning illustrator Jeffrey Smith. The Pulp History books are more text-driven than graphic novels. But each page is colorfully adorned with original illustrations, maps, photographs and posters.