REVIEW: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson
The little-known true story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the woman who headed the largest spy network in occupied France during World War II, from the bestselling author of Citizens of London and Last Hope Island
In 1941 a thirty-one-year-old Frenchwoman, a young mother born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamour, became the leader of a vast intelligence organization—the only woman to serve as a chef de résistance during the war. Strong-willed, independent, and a lifelong rebel against her country’s conservative, patriarchal society, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was temperamentally made for the job. Her group’s name was Alliance, but the Gestapo dubbed it Noah’s Ark because its agents used the names of animals as their aliases. The name Marie-Madeleine chose for herself was Hedgehog: a tough little animal, unthreatening in appearance, that, as a colleague of hers put it, “even a lion would hesitate to bite.”
No other French spy network lasted as long or supplied as much crucial intelligence—including providing American and British military commanders with a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads on which the Allies would land on D-Day—as Alliance. The Gestapo pursued them relentlessly, capturing, torturing, and executing hundreds of its three thousand agents, including Fourcade’s own lover and many of her key spies. Although Fourcade, the mother of two young children, moved her headquarters every few weeks, constantly changing her hair color, clothing, and identity, she was captured twice by the Nazis. Both times she managed to escape—once by slipping naked through the bars of her jail cell—and continued to hold her network together even as it repeatedly threatened to crumble around her.
Now, in this dramatic account of the war that split France in two and forced its people to live side by side with their hated German occupiers, Lynne Olson tells the fascinating story of a woman who stood up for her nation, her fellow citizens, and herself.
Dear Ms. Olson,
Last year I read Noreen Riols’ book,“The Secret Ministry of Ag & Fish” about her time in S.O.E. during WWII. She was in Britain helping prepare the agents who parachuted or were taken via submarine into France. But what about what happened there? This book though would give me the other side of the story; what agents (though these were not in S.O.E.) actually did there and how the most successful network got started.
Marie-Madeline Fourcade (she was known by her first married name during the war but used her second married name in writing her memoirs) was a well educated, well traveled, upper class French woman. Her parents encouraged her independence and she was not one to sit idly and confine herself to the traditional role most French, and her first husband, expected of women. When she joined a discussion about politics at her sister’s salon one evening in 1936, she met a man who would change her life. Known by all as Navarre, Major Georges Loustaunau-Lacau was well connected in French military circles and concerned about the growing threat from Germany.
Soon he had Marie-Madeline helping him to establish a network of people to gather information from various sources. What they learned confirmed fears about a potential war with Germany – fears that came to be in September 1939. Loustaunau-Lacau and many other officers desperately tried to pull the French military out of the mindset of WWI. When Germany finally did invade France, both Loustaunau-Lacau and Marie-Madeline were horrified at the quick capitulation and the establishment of the Vichy government.
Determined to fight back, they began what became known as Alliance. Slowly at first, they sought out people of like mind who were willing to gather intelligence and then later who didn’t have a problem working under the direction of a woman. But what to do with it? After finally connecting with MI6, the information began flowing to Britain. Desperate for details about German troop movements and especially U-Boat intel, Alliance was flooded with requests for specifics. MI6 began to send over radio transmitter sets and bricks of francs to fund the agents’ work.
But Alliance found themselves not only working to rid themselves of the Boche but also caught in the internal chaos of the Vichy government as well as the clashes between de Gaulle and his Free French and General Giroud. Oh and there was also the issue of the French military who were furious at the British for attacking French ships and thus refused to help gather intel to give to the British.
After the entry of the US into the war and the invasion of North Africa in late 1942, the Germans took the gloves off and occupied all of France as well as began intensive efforts to crush the spy networks. Almost unbelievable lapses in security (and I had to keep reminding myself that these were mainly amateurs) resulted in arrests which lead to more agents being rounded up. Other agents were suspected of secretly working with the Germans. Whole areas of the network were wiped out and had to be rebuilt just when the Allies needed certain information the most. Still, marvelous data was transmitted including details about a new weapon that had the Germans been able to deploy it, would have shattered morale in Britain as well as possibly delaying or stopping the D-Day Invasion.
I learned a lot about Vichy France and the internal strife that rent the country and military apart. The actions of various Vichy officials, which went beyond mere acquiescing and straight into collaboration, was appalling and must have been infuriating for Alliance agents. The acknowledgement by MI6 of the suffering and danger that agents endured to gather intel was heartening. The satisfaction the agents must have felt when they knew that their work had helped pave the way for the Allied successful invasion and liberation of France can only be guessed. The anguish they felt at the hundreds of agents who were captured, tortured, imprisoned in horrendous conditions and killed before the Allies reached Germany was impossible to imagine.
The women who took part in intelligence work during WWII have had little coverage and accolades. Almost 20% of Alliance agents were women and Marie-Madelaine ran the agency for most of its existence. Initially some men were gobsmacked that a woman was la patronne but she soon set them straight about who was in charge. The toll on her emotionally as well as physically while working sixteen hour days was enormous but she was always thinking of and worrying about her agents, harrying MI6 for more supplies, and desperate to get the intel to those who were working to free France from her German invaders. Vive la France and long live the memory of Alliance. B