May 28, 1944. 20-year-old Sonya Butt parachutes into occupied France.

“I began my mission in wartime France as a British secret agent. My job was to recruit, arm and train a secret French force to carry out sabotage and harassment,” she recounted after the war.

Sonya, under the identity of a French citizen, landed that night in a field 40 miles from Le Mans, where Rommel’s army was concentrated in preparation for a coming invasion by the Allies. She was met by a group of elderly Frenchmen. “We old ones meet and guide those who come in planes. The younger men are needed for more serious work,” they explained.

After walking along rural roads for nearly 30 hours, in unbearable heat, they arrived at a chateau near Le Mans. During the day, the streets of the town swarmed with German soldiers, but Sonya pretended to be shopping as she contacted potential recruits for her secret army. By night, after curfew, Sonya frequented the black-market cafes and bistros patronized almost entirely by Rommel’s officers and collaborators. Gaining their acceptance, she gathered intelligence to pass along to London. One German colonel took a particular liking to Sonya. He frequently sat at her table and they shared drinks.

Sonya was nearly discovered one evening when the colonel sat next to her and her purse fell from the chair to the floor with a loud thump. It was obvious that she had something heavy in the purse, most likely a gun. The colonel fixed his gaze on Sonya.

As casually as possible, Sonya reached into her purse and extracted a  forged permit to carry a gun that was signed by Gestapo headquarters. The colonel concluded that Sonya was a Gestapo spy, which explained the reason for her frequenting the black market cafes.

Sonya eventually gathered a force of nearly 500 Frenchmen who were eager to help. The Allies dropped arms and ammunition by parachute, which Sonya and her men hid, then on market days, loaded onto carts and beneath the turnips and hay smuggled into town. Then, they commenced to wreaking havoc on Rommel’s army.

They cut communication lines, blew up fuel tanks, put emery powder in diesel electric generator tanks, and ambushed convoys. Then, on the night of June 5th, Sonya received a message from London. She was to blow up the turntables in the Le Mans railway yards, cut every telephone wire leading out of the city, and blow up all possible road and rail bridges. The Germans launched an all-out effort to find them, and succeeded.

The Abwehr raided a secure compound and killed or captured all but 80 of Sonya’s men, including the radio operator. There would be no more arms and ammunition drops. Sonya and the remaining men would be identified, so they could no longer be seen in town. They decided on one last, daring operation—the blowing up of a munitions train bringing guns and ammunition to Rommel.

They would disable the engine and capture as much materiel as possible to rearm themselves.

Their plan succeeded. Well-placed charges blew the engine from its tracks and it toppled over in a cloud of steam. Guards leapt from the overturned rail cars and began firing wildly into the night. Sonya and her men eliminated all of them, then unloaded the weapons they would use in running battles with the Wehrmacht. Then, they blew up what was left of the train. “We were still in sight of the train when the first charge went off with a force that nearly lifted us off our feet. When we were miles away, we could still hear muffled explosions as the train methodically blew itself to pieces,” she recalled.

Over the following days they continued their reign of terror, until they learned that the Americans were on the way. They were instructed to target airports, and kept the Luftwaffe pinned down until General Patton’s forces had the airfield surrounded.

With the area now under Allied control, Sonya was assigned to interrogate German prisoners. She was given one particularly stubborn prisoner to break down. It turned out to be the German colonel.