Book review: Warrior Women by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross

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Whoever claimed that war was men’s work had never come across the likes of vengeful Caterina Sforza, the terrifying Jinga Mbandi or ace spy Pearl Witherington.

These are just a few of the feisty, fearsome and formidable fighting women whose acts of courage, daring and self-sacrifice have set alight theatres of war across the world for thousands of years.

While 21st century society wrings its hands over the rights and wrongs of women fighting on the front line, history tells us that they have always been there in some form or other, whether taking part in military campaigns or leading their countries into war.

As the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, Warrior Women, a magnificent new book by author Rosalind Miles and historian Robin Cross, restores their wartime heroics to a rightful place of honour and prominence by painting vivid portraits of over 100 outstanding women across 3,000 years of history.

From the ‘silver-sworded, man-loving, male child-killing Amazons’ to Colonel Martha McSally, the first female pilot in the US Air Force to fly in combat, women have often proved themselves cool and courageous under fire.

Some, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I, are familiar names but others like Susan Travers, the only woman to have joined the French Foreign Legion, are lesser known but just as thrilling.

As far back as 1049 BC, the legendary Delilah acted as the first ‘honey-trap’ operative when she ensnared Samson for the Philistines and in 61 AD Boudicca, dubbed the ‘Killer Queen’ of Britain by the Romans, cried ‘death before slavery’ as she took on the invaders.

In the second century, the Vietnamese Tru’ung Sisters led a famous rebellion against the Chinese Han Dynasty while swashbuckling swordswoman Tomoe Gozen, ‘a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god’, was a senior samurai officer in the Japanese Genpei War of 1180-85.

Austrasian warrior queen Brunhilde paid the ultimate price for 40 years of bravery and skill during the Frankish wars of the 6th century - her enemies literally pulled her to pieces by stringing her between four horses.

The religious struggles following the 7th century birth of Islam produced Salaym Bint Malhan who, although pregnant, fought in the ranks of Muhammad with swords and daggers strapped round her swollen belly.

A woman not to be crossed was Caterina Sforza, daughter of the 15th century Duke of Milan, who took revenge on the ringleader of her husband’s killers by having him dragged round a square by a horse and then disembowelled and dismembered while still alive.

One of the most extraordinary women warriors was Jinga Mbandi, the 17th century queen of what is now Luanda, the capital of Angola, which was then being exploited by Portuguese slavers. Jinga is reported to have sat on the back of a crouching slave to assert her rights as queen during talks with the Portuguese governor and then executed the slave, explaining that she never used the same chair twice.

In more recent times, Second World War spy Pearl Witherington, a brilliant agent with the British Special Operations Executive, took command of over 3,000 men of the French Resistance in the field and was so feared by the Germans that they put a bounty of one million francs on her head.

Brimming with fascinating histories and an amazing collection of colour pictures and illustrations, Warrior Women is a big, beautifully produced book which tells the awe-inspiring and revealing story of some unforgettable female fighters.

(Quercus, hardback, £20)