When I started reading Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by New York Times’ bestselling author Lynne Olson, I assumed it was a novel of historical fiction—a story built around the experiences of true-life heroes of the French Resistance during World War II. To my surprise and ultimately much more rewarding to read, it turned out to be non-fiction. This book is a history lesson that is long overdue. We’ve read a lot of stories over the years about the bravery and heroic efforts of French citizens who risked their lives and the lives of their families to fight Nazi oppression during World War II from within but most of them pick up at particular points in time during the war and feature male heroes. This book examines the very birth, growth and maturity of the intelligence spying network Alliance, headed by a woman and known by the Gestapo as Noah’s Ark (agents’ had animal code names).
Alliance began with just two people—Georges Loustaunau-Lacau known by the code name Navarre and his second-in-command, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. They met socially at a party also attended by Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 1936. Marie-Madeleine was only twenty-six years old, an attractive blonde mother of two who lived apart from her conservative military husband. The future of France was fragile under a series of weak governments. Hitler’s growing imperialism and the threat of war were foremost in everyone’s mind. Marie-Madeleine’s obvious intelligence, political beliefs and the fact she owned her own car attracted the attention of Navarre and he invited her to act as courier for an intelligence-gathering network he was creating to support a free France.
Marie-Madeleine proved to be extremely adept and capable at her new job. Her duties multiplied and when Navarre was captured by the Germans in 1940, she assumed leadership of their growing network. At the age of only thirty-one she was la patronne, the boss. Alliance was focused solely on gathering military intelligence while other networks handled sabotage, repatriating allied soldiers and other anti-German activities. She tried to maintain a neutral position throughout conflicting power struggles between various political factions within France, focusing on a common goal of liberating France from the Germans.
Members of Alliance formed cells to report to British MI6 on naval and other military installations that were being built in France, particularly along the south and west coasts. As the network grew, it became more difficult to maintain security. Gestapo and French pro-German police became increasingly more sophisticated in ferreting out resistance fighters and their lives were in constant danger. With strong cells in Marseille, the west coast of France, Vichy and Paris, they were able to radio critical intelligence back to MI6 in England.
Alliance recruited agents from across the spectrum of the French population. They included aristocrats, farmers, lorry drivers, policemen, former members of the military, doctors and priests. Their numbers dropped after the many Gestapo raids and had to be rebuilt. Coding systems, security and procedures were constantly being revamped to prevent detection and were not always successful. There were the inevitable traitors who penetrated their ranks and were the most dangerous of all. Love affairs also blossomed under life and death conditions and even Marie-Madeleine herself was not immune. Although captured, she managed to escape and hold her network together.
Feminism in Europe during WWII was unheard of and the fact that this highly effective network was lead by a woman was significant. Both the German and French governments considered women secondary citizens and encouraged them to concentrate on home and children. Restrictions on women included “the death penalty for performing an abortion, made it more difficult to get a divorce, barred married women from working in the public sector, and ordered all female students in high school to take classes in housekeeping.”
This book is nothing short of astonishing—a fascinating read. Although non-fiction, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War reads like a novel. The writing is beautiful and easy to follow. Original photographs of the individuals who were major players are included and lend a personal touch to their amazing stories. The narrative proceeds in chronological order (just the way I like a book to unfold) and the amount of research required to bring this story to print is mind-boggling. I absolutely could not put this book down and even as I tore through it I hated to see it end. Those of us who have never lived through war or foreign occupation cannot imagine the hardships faced by everyday citizens under such conditions.
Her gender was kept secret from MI6 in the beginning and even as agents were recruited some were skeptical that a woman could do the job as well as a man. Her agents provided critical information that shaped the allied effort on D-Day and the push toward Berlin. Shockingly, she proved herself to be superior in every way and loyalty was assured when agents quickly became aware of her capability and leadership skills. After the war, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade did not receive the recognition and awards many lesser male counterparts enjoyed, simply because she was a woman. I rate this book 9 out of 10 and guarantee you will not be able to put it down.