LACW Sylvia Spooner
Sylvia Spooner was born in 1920 into a Suffolk farming community. She went to school at Roedean College. During the Second World War, Spooner joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wireless operator. She was stationed at Bircham Newton airbase for a short while, before being posted to RAF Chicksands, one of many Y-Service Stations that intercepted German radio signals. Intercepted messages were taken by motorcycle courier to Bletchley Park for decryption.
Today, the Military Intelligence Museum, housed at what was RAF Chicksands, holds Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) Spooner’s Defence Medal and War Medal, the expected medals for someone involved in British forces during this time period. However, also in her collection is a French Croix de Guerre dated 1939-1940, a medal only awarded for valour in the field. This is a most unusual award to a WAAF stationed in Bedfordshire so there must be more to her story…
Sylvia never revealed to her husband how she obtained the medal, only that she was “given it by a Frenchman.”
Following her death, her husband Joseph Stanley (she did not adopt his name on marriage), told the following story to those gathered at her wake.
According to Mr Stanley, two days after her death he (Stanley) had received a strange phone call. A mystery caller told him that Sylvia had trained with him as part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Because of her competency with foreign languages, she had been selected for the intensive training course in 1939 where she trained as a wireless operator, learned morse code, how to operate small arms and explosives, and undertook interrogation training. According to the caller, she was marked ‘Best in Course’ above two of the male students. The mystery caller would not disclose how he had obtained Mr Stanley’s number or who he was.
In a later phone call, the mystery caller reportedly told Joseph that Sylvia had been presented with her Croix de Guerre on the first Bastille Day after the war. She and other SOE agents had marched on the Bastille wall before being awarded their decorations. The caller told Joseph that Sylvia had been shot by a German in Vichy France whilst organising an escape route that she had set up with the Basques who controlled the mountains.
LACW Spooner’s medals. Left to right: the Defence Medal, War Medal and Croix de Guerre.
She had managed to escape and was taken to Northern France by partisans where she was put on a plane which had landed to supply the French Resistance. The leader had threatened the pilot that if he didn’t take the wounded Sylvia with him, he would not go himself. In this way she was able to reach the UK and was taken to hospital for treatment. After recovering from her injury, Sylvia joined the WAAF.
According to her husband, Sylvia went to Cuba after the war and was a medic for Castro. She then returned to England and started the Bank of Cuba Representative Office. She later set up the bank’s London branch, the National Bank of Havana.
Joseph Stanley’s account of Sylvia’s life is certainly intriguing, however, there are a number of inconsistencies.
Most obvious is the fact that SOE did not formally exist until July 1940, so her training in 1939 is unlikely to have been for SOE. She is not recorded on any SOE material so far released into the public domain and the names of the female SOE agents who were sent into France are well documented.
It is possible that her training was therefore on behalf of another agency, although for who is speculation.
Mentioned by Mr Stanley is the escape lines. These were organised by MI9. The sort of training she apparently undertook could have been for MI9 although it was not formally established until December 1939. Her training in 1939 for a unit not yet established is possible, but unlikely.
Following the fall of France in June 1940, the Vichy French controlled area was established in the central and southern areas of France. It is possible that she was working there to repatriate evading British forces following the Dunkirk evacuations and this would certainly have involved Spanish Basques as the routes across the Pyrenees would require their expert local knowledge.
We have not been able to confirm her presence in France on behalf of MI9.
Another possibility is SIS (MI6) who certainly had agents and a few radio operators in Europe during the period but, as they never reveal or confirm details of their people, we can never know for sure if Sylvia was in France on MI6’s payroll.
Her exit from France presents other conundrums. A partisan leader apparently having to threaten a Special Duties resupply pilot to take a wounded British agent on board would be unusual. There is also no mention of the aircraft type involved or why such an altercation may have been necessary.
Lysanders had a very limited carrying capacity (although there are rare instances of more than one agent travelling in the rear) whereas Hudsons had considerably greater capacity so taking an extra, wounded passenger should not have been an issue.
There are certainly many questions which arise from Sylvia’s story but none that can currently be answered with any certainty. Furthermore, since it has not yet been 25 years since her death, we are unable to access her full WAAF records which may provide further clues to help us unravel the truth.
Whatever her story, Sylvia is a compelling character who will continue to fascinate the curators at the Military Intelligence Museum for some time.