REVIEW: The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish: My Life in Churchill’s School for Spies by Noreen Riols
‘My mother thought I was working for the Ministry of Ag. and Fish.’ So begins Noreen Riols’ compelling memoir of her time as a member of Churchill’s ‘secret army’, the Special Operations Executive. It was 1943, just before her eighteenth birthday, Noreen received her call-up papers, and was faced with either working in a munitions factory or joining the Wrens. A typically fashion-conscious young woman, even in wartime, Noreen opted for the Wrens – they had better hats. But when one of her interviewers realized she spoke fluent French, she was directed to a government building on Baker Street.
It was SOE headquarters, where she was immediately recruited into F-Section, led by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. From then until the end of the war, Noreen worked with Buckmaster and her fellow operatives to support the French Resistance fighting for the Allied cause. Sworn to secrecy, Noreen told no one that she spent her days meeting agents returning from behind enemy lines, acting as a decoy, passing on messages in tea rooms and picking up codes in crossword puzzles.
Vivid, witty, insightful and often moving, this is the story of one young woman’s secret war, offering readers an authentic and compelling insight into what really went on in Churchill’s ‘secret army’ from one of its last surviving members.
Dear Ms. Riols,
Recently I read “Dear Mrs. Bird” fictional book set during the early days of World War II and also watched the film “Darkest Hour.” Then I remembered that I had bought your book a few months ago and it seemed the perfect time to bring it up on my ereader and dive in. I already knew you didn’t get that spiffy hat that lured you into trying for the WRENs but now to discover what took its place while you were in the SOE.
The first thing learned was “Don’t talk and don’t ask questions.” If one doesn’t don’t know it, it can’t revealed under torture. With the dangerous conditions into which agents were infiltrated and the relentless efforts of the Germans to capture SOE agents, the odds on an agent surviving and returning to Britain were 50/50. The average lifespan once in an occupied country ~ 6 weeks. Most agents were male and young but a few were in their 30s – or even 40s – and 30 female agents were sent in. Fifteen of them came back.
Agents knew the odds, knew the dangers, knew what would happen to them if caught. Many who were caught spent months in captivity being brutally tortured to extract their secrets. Some escaped despite horrific treatment and managed to get back to Britain. Others were tricked or driven past their endurance and yielded what they knew. What you said brought back memories of a documentary I once watched about US servicemen in Vietnam and how one former POW stated that despite any amount of determination everyone has their breaking point.
When he returned, one agent told me with a smile that as he had dangled above the dark ground, not knowing whether friend or foe awaited him, he couldn’t help saying to himself, ‘What on earth am I doing here? I must be crazy. I could have been sitting in a bar in London, having a drink, spending a pleasant evening with friends, and enjoying the relative safety of a free country, instead of leaping alone into the unknown.’ Then he had hit the ground with a bump, and out of the dark, willing hands had come forward to help him shed his parachute which, caught in the wind, was dragging him along the ground. And as he had looked up into so many unknown, but friendly, faces smiling in welcome, he had felt a sudden surge of emotion and knew that had he, at that moment, been able to change his mind and return to London, he would have chosen to be where he was, where he was meant to be, that what he was doing might be crazy, but for him it was right.
SOE also had rivals outside of Hitler who demanded that any of their agents who were caught were to be forced to reveal what they knew and then erased from existence. MI6 and de Gaulle’s forces despised SOE and sometimes duplicate missions clashed and ended up botching each other. Were there spies within the agency? Some failed missions and captures seemed to indicate yes.
The training itself was intense and little was spared to be sure that agents would not stupidly give themselves – and others – away. Getting them into the countries were they were to work was dangerous with German guns trying to shoot down planes, the risk of resistance groups having been infiltrated and soldiers waiting at drop sites. One group brought over by submarine celebrated going on their mission a bit too much then got their dinghy turned around and were headed for North Africa by mistake.
Idealistic, motivated and courageous agents were recruited from every branch of the Allied Forces stationed in England. They got no extra pay or perks. They were grilled and tested to the limit before leaving and knew what they faced.
Prospective agents were aware of all this before they left. They were warned. And they were afraid. Brave men are always afraid, otherwise they tend to do foolish things, taking unnecessary risks which endanger not only their own lives, but also the lives of others. Courage is not the absence of fear: it is the willingness to do the thing one fears. And they all did, leaving for their missions regardless. They were frightened, of course they were. But they faced their fear. And left.
The messages broadcast by the BBC were vital in getting information to the agents on planned materials drops. But they also served other purposes. One young French girl recalls the night that Princess Elizabeth spoke. Listening with her family, a blanket draped over the secret radio to muffle the sound, the Princess’s message gave them hope. The people in occupied countries knew that the BBC news would be the truth even if initially the truth was not encouraging. One message was for an agent who was anxious about his pregnant wife and unborn child. One can only imagine his shock when he got it.
FAIR WARNING that things are mentioned which might be upsetting. Reading about the fate and manner of death of four female agents who were killed at Natzweiler made my blood run cold. I agree with agent Nancy Wake’s statement ‘But I hate Nazis. And all they stand for.’
After the war was over, survivors realized that the peace they had fought for and the world they had known was changed forever. Some managed to adjust and thrive while others were haunted by what they’d seen and endured. Recognition of their wartime valor came to some only after death. Having seen some friends driven nearly to drink in planning elaborate weddings, I tend to agree with your low-key wedding.
With the passing of this “Great Generation” it is in our interest to remember what they did. It’s heartening to learn that many younger generations today do know and acknowledge how much was willingly given in the effort to free Europe from Nazi rule. A
When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.
In this recording, Noreen Riols tells a little about her wartime experiences and about SOE.
I also just watched a TV reality series that takes modern day people and puts them through SOE recruitment/training reenactment. “Secret Agent Selection” aka “Churchill’s Secret Agents The New Recruits” (on Netflix streaming) was actually very good.