The remarkable story of Sonia Sofia Stefanidou, a Greek-Ukranian woman who served as a nurse after the Italian army invaded Greece in 1941, and later went on to operate as a spy against the German invaders during World War II, has received greater attention in recent years.
Stefanidou was born in the Ukraine in 1902, moving to Athens in 1907 after her father volunteered to be a doctor for the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars.
Just months before the Greek-Italian war broke out in 1940, Stefanidou volunteered to become a member of the School of Air Defense Nurses. After the war began, she requested to join the defense services itself. “I considered it my duty to contribute as much as I could to the ‘sacred struggle’,” she recalled.
In November 1940, two months after the war began, she became a nurse at the Red Cross Hospital of Athens. However, by January 15, 1941 she requested to be transferred to the front lines.
After the German attack on Greece, Stefanidou took a position at the 1st Defense Hospital of Ioannina, where she participated in helping heal the injured, following bombings by the Italian Air Force.
Notably, it was in Athens during the German occupation that she wrote, “The view of the hooked cross on the Acropolis killed my soul.”
Following the German occupation of Athens, Stefanidou undertook a ten-week journey to Egypt, where she volunteered to work with the Royal Greek Middle East Army, made up of Greek units which had escaped to Egypt.
Stefanidou: from commando to spy
Though called upon to serve at the First Military Hospital of Alexandria, she sought a position where she felt she would have even more impact against the hated enemy. On April 8, 1943, she asked Greek Prime Minister Emmanouil Tsouderos for permission to join the commandos. After being accepted in to this elite unit, she found herself receiving army training, including parachuting.
Her first assignment as a commando began on July 2, 1943 when Stefanidou parachuted down near Florina, northern Greece, as part of a mission to gather intelligence. As a woman, often disguised as a villager — or even a beggar — she was able to move about the country in many ways that a man could not. Stefanidou became a Greek spy.
Although her entire unit was captured by Germans on September 2, 1943, a German guard miraculously allowed them to escape.
She then traveled to Kalabaka, where she joined resistance fighters who were working with the British.
Returning to Egypt in December of 1943, Stefanidou became a member of a newly-created volunteer fighting squad of Greek women. Later reports had her participating in a mission to the island of Crete, where she came into contact with Manolis Bandouva, a founder of the resistance movement on the island.
At the conclusion of the European war, Stefanidou sought permission to join the United States Army as a paratrooper in the Pacific. Her application, however, was rejected.
Following the war, Stefanidou was employed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the remainder of her life, she lived modestly, never seeking to gain recognition or wealth from her formidable, and certainly unprecedented, wartime exploits.
The former wartime nurse, paratrooper and spy died in 1990 and, per her wishes, was buried in her military uniform, on which her medals were proudly displayed.