Q and A for Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
— Your previous books about World War II have dealt with sweeping, panoramic subjects that feature large casts of characters. In Codename Hedgehog, you focus on one person — Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Why the shift?
As much as I enjoyed working on those “big books,” I often felt a sense of frustration in being able to devote only a few sentences or paragraphs to people who, in my opinion, deserved far more attention. That was especially true for my next-to-last book, Last Hope Island. I was drawn to a number of amazing individuals in it, but none more so than this young woman from a well-connected family who had dreams of becoming a concert pianist but ended up as arguably the greatest spymaster in Europe during World War II. I had never heard of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, and I wanted to introduce readers to an unknown heroine who helped change her country and the world but who has has slipped into the shadows of history.
— Why was Fourcade’s work so important to the Allied cause?
Because of the many German military secrets that her network, called Alliance, provided the British and American high commands throughout the war. Alliance was the largest and most important Allied spy network in occupied France. Its 3,000 agents collected information on a wide range of subjects, including German troop movements; submarine sailing schedules; airfields and anti-aircraft defenses; and the Reich’s new terror weapons, the V-I flying bomb and the V-2 rocket. Before D-Day, Fourcade’s spies in Normandy produced a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads on which the Allies would land, showing every German gun emplacement, fortification, and beach obstacle along the coast, together with details of German army units and their movements.
In writing about these agents, I wanted to give readers a better understanding of how extraordinarily difficult it was to stand up to the Germans and why these people did so, even though they were risking their lives on a daily basis. I also hope readers will see these resistants as examples of what ordinary people can do when faced with despotism and existential threats to human rights.
— In the book, you make the point that prewar and wartime France was an extremely conservative patriarchal society. How did a young woman like Fourcade become the leader of a network made up predominantly of men? What was it about her that made them accept her leadership?
Marie-Madeleine was strong-willed and independent from childhood, and she spent her life refusing to let men dictate what she could do. After the war broke out, she became deputy to the founder of Alliance, who was a former French army intelligence officer. When he was captured in July 1941, she took over command. Although some network agents had doubts about her at first, most were quickly won over by her charisma, courage, resilience, and determination to stay in the field with her agents. “She was young and very beautiful, but there was an unmistakable aura of authority around her,” one of them said after the war.
— You note in the book that, although the official name for Fourcade’s network was Alliance, the Gestapo called it Noah’s Ark. Why was that?
Because its agents used the names of animals and birds as their aliases. Marie-Madeleine came up with the idea and assigned each agent his or her code name. While the male agents had names like Wolf, Lion, Tiger, Elephant, Fox, Bull, and Eagle, she decided on Hedgehog for her own name. On the surface, it seems an odd choice, since the hedgehog is such a beguiling, unthreatening little animal. But when challenged by an enemy, it curls up in a tight ball, which causes all the spines on its body to point outwards. At that point, as a friend of Marie-Madeleine’s once said, it becomes “a tough little animal that even a lion would hesitate to bite.”
— As a woman, did Fourcade operate any differently than male resistance leaders?
Very much so. She was a strong, tough leader, but she also prided herself on forming close personal relationships with her top lieutenants and other members of her network. There was an extraordinary sense of community between her and those with whom she lived and worked — much more so, I think, than was true of male-led networks. Marie-Madeleine considered her agents to be as much a part of her family as her own children.
She also made a special effort to surround herself with other strong women. Although Alliance began as an almost exclusively male organization, women accounted for some twenty percent of its agents by the end — the highest percentage of any French resistance network. After the war, Fourcade paid tribute to the courage of her female agents, saying, “In my network, no woman ever faltered, even under the most extreme kinds of torture. I owe my freedom to many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts, even when they knew exactly where I was.”
—Other books have been written about women resistance operatives in wartime France. How does Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s story differ from theirs?
Most of the books about female agents in France have focused on women sent there by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose job was to encourage sabotage and subversion by the French. They were certainly brave and resourceful, and their stories are dramatic, but none had the power, influence, and impact that Marie-Madeleine and her network did.