Excerpt from Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
It was the middle of the night.
The air in the barracks detention cell was hot and sultry — typical July weather for the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence. Not surprisingly, the woman lying on the cot was bathed in sweat. But the reason wasn’t just the stifling heat. It was also fear. A few hours earlier, she had been captured by the Gestapo while combing through intelligence reports from her resistance network.
The Germans who had taken her captive knew she was an Allied spy, but they had no idea of her true identity. According to her papers — forged, of course —she was a French housewife named Germaine Pezet. Dour and dowdy, she wore spectacles, was drably dressed, and had lusterless, jet-black hair. It was the latest of her many disguises, this one concocted in part by a dentist in London who had made the dental prosthetic that had helped transform her appearance. No outward trace remained of the chic blonde Parisienne she’d been before the war — a woman born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamor.
For Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, those prewar years seemed like ancient history. Immediately after the German occupation of France, she’d joined the resistance — part of a “minute elite,” as Kenneth Cohen, a top British intelligence official and close friend of hers, called the comparative handful of French men and women who rose up in 1940 to defy the Nazis.
In 1941, at the age of 31, she became la patronne — the boss — of what would emerge as the largest and most important Allied intelligence network in occupied France. Throughout the war, it supplied the British and American high commands with vital German military secrets, including information about troop movements; submarine sailing schedules; fortifications and coastal gun emplacements; and the Reich’s new terror weapons, the V-I flying bomb and the V-2 rocket.
Over the course of the conflict, Fourcade, the only woman to head a major resistance network in France, commanded some 3,000 agents, who infiltrated every major port and sizable town in the country. They came from all segments of society — military officers, government clerks, architects, shopkeepers, fishermen, housewives, doctors, artists, plumbers, students, bus drivers, priests, members of the aristocracy, and France’s most celebrated child actor. Thanks to Marie-Madeleine’s determined efforts, almost twenty percent were women — the highest number of any resistance organization in France.
Her group’s formal name was Alliance, but the Gestapo called it Noah’s Ark because its agents used the names of animals and birds as their aliases. Marie-Madeleine had come up with the idea and assigned each agent his or her nom de guerre. Many of the men bore the names of proud and powerful denizens of the animal and avian kingdoms: Wolf, Lion, Tiger, Elephant, Fox, Bull, Eagle, to name a few. For her own code name, she decided on Hedgehog,
On the surface, it seemed an odd choice. A beguiling, bright-eyed little animal with prickles all over its body, the hedgehog was — and is — a beloved figure in classic children’s books. In Alice in Wonderland, hedgehogs are used as croquet balls by the Queen of Hearts. In Beatrix Potter’s stories about Peter Rabbit, one of her most endearing characters is a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggie-Winkle, who was based on Potter’s own pet hedgehog.
But the hedgehog’s unthreatening appearance is deceiving. When challenged by an enemy, it rolls 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 noted, it becomes “a tough little animal that even a lion would hesitate to bite.”
Until July 1944, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, like the hedgehog, had managed to elude her foes. Many others in her network had not been as fortunate. For the previous year and a half, the Gestapo had engaged in a full-scale offensive to wipe Alliance out. Hundreds of her agents had been swept up in wave after wave of arrests and killings; whole sectors had been annihilated. In the summer of 1944, Fourcade had no idea how many of her people were still alive. Dozens, including some of her closest associates, had already been tortured and executed.
After each crackdown, the Gestapo was sure they had destroyed the group. But they had not reckoned with its leader’s resourcefulness and fierce persistence. Every time a regional circuit was decimated, she managed to cobble together a new one.
In Aix-en-Provence, however, it appeared that her luck had finally run out. After her arrest, she’d been told that a high-ranking Gestapo official was coming from Marseille the following morning to question her. When he arrived, she knew that her real identity would almost certainly be discovered. She feared she would be unable to withstand the brutal interrogation and torture to which she would be subjected before her execution. Briefly, she considered swallowing the tablet of cyanide she’d been given in London in anticipation of such a moment.
But she knew that the end of her life would likely mean the end of Alliance as well. After all the contributions her network had made to the Allied war effort, including to the success of the D-Day landings just a month before, Fourcade couldn’t abide the idea of its destruction. She had to find a way to escape.
Throughout my writing career, I have specialized in works of history that tell sweeping, panoramic stories, chiefly set during World War II and featuring a multitude of characters. As much as I’ve enjoyed writing these books, I’ve often felt a sense of frustration in having to dismiss in a few sentences or paragraphs individuals who, in my opinion, deserved far more attention than I had given them.
That was especially true of my last book, Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War. I was drawn to a number of compelling figures in it, but none more so than Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. How could one not be fascinated by the story of this cultured young woman from a well-connected family who had dreams of becoming a concert pianist but ended up as arguably the greatest wartime spymaster in Europe?
M.R.D. Foot, the British historian widely considered the leading authority on European resistance movements in World War II, once observed that “resisters shared one characteristic besides bravery: contrariness. They were disputatious, argumentative, non-conformist, did not enjoy being ordered about.” Fourcade is the embodiment of that observation.
All her life, she rebelled against the norms of France’s deeply conservative, patriarchal society, in which women were largely confined to their domestic duties as wives and mothers and still did not have the right to vote. “She was very independent,” noted her younger daughter, Pénélope Fourcade-Fraissinet. “She had a mind of her own from the beginning.”
When the war broke out, Fourcade had long been estranged from her husband, a French army officer serving in North Africa. She had two young children whom she dearly loved but did not see for months, even years, during the conflict.
When she took over as a chef de resistance, she initially had doubts about whether male resistance members would accept her leadership. Although some were hesitant at first, most were won over by her courage, resilience, formidable organizational skills, and determination to stay in the field with her agents. The converts included a bevy of traditionalist ex-military officers who, as one observer later wrote, were “not inclined to feminism.” “She had enormous charisma,” recalled Charles-Helen des Isnards, whose father had been one of Fourcade’s top lieutenants. “She was one of those people who dominates a room just by being in it.”
Yet, as remarkable as Fourcade and her achievements were, she and Alliance remain virtually unknown. Since the war, there have been floods of books and films about the French resistance, but little has appeared about her and her network — or, for that matter, any other intelligence organization. The lion’s share of attention has gone to groups and individuals specializing in sabotage and other forms of open rebellion against the Nazis. A second strand of resistance activity — escape lines —has also received considerable notice. But as exciting and dramatic as their stories were, neither played a crucial role in winning the war. Saboteurs and other resistance fighters in France were certainly important after D-Day, but they did little to obstruct the Germans before then. Escape networks did heroic work in smuggling shot-down Allied airmen and others out of occupied Europe and back to freedom, but their actual contribution to victory was small.
By contrast, the third strand of activity — espionage — was vitally important to the Allied cause from the first day of the war to the last. In order to plan both defensive and offensive operations against the Germans, Allied military commanders were dependent on spies in France and the rest of occupied Europe to inform them where the enemy was and what he was doing. In France, dozens of intelligence networks sprang up to meet that need. Some, like Alliance, worked closely with MI6, Britain’s chief foreign intelligence agency. Others were associated with Charles de Gaulle and his Free French movement in London. Yet, despite their oversized impact on the war’s outcome, intelligence networks have gotten short shrift from historians, novelists, and filmmakers, primarily because of the secrecy of their operations.
But there’s another key reason for Fourcade’s relative obscurity: as a female chef, she does not fit into the traditional historical narrative of the French resistance — namely, that all its leaders were men. “To this day historians of the Resistance persist in the belief that no women led Resistance networks, blatantly ignoring the work of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade,” the British historian J.E. Smyth noted in 2014.
One of the reasons for this book, then, is to tell her story and give her the credit she is due. But I also wrote it to shine a spotlight on the thousands of agents she led — ordinary men and women who refused to accept the destruction of human values and the dishonor and degradation of their country.
Many years after the war, an American journalist asked Jeannie Rousseau, one of Marie-Madeleine’s operatives, why she had risked her life to join Alliance. “I don’t understand the question,” replied Rousseau, who was responsible for one of the greatest Allied intelligence coups of the war. “It was a moral obligation to do what you are capable of doing. It was a must. How could you not do it?”
Copyright © 2018 Lynne Olson.