Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
A dozen Gestapo officers pointed their machine guns at the young blonde. “Where’s the man?” they screamed. They were hunting for a leader of Alliance, the most important military intelligence network in France with three thousand spies. That person had to be a man. Not fragile-looking Marie-Madeleine Fourcade.
After they found encoded reports in her apartment, they threw her into a military jail until a senior Gestapo officer could interrogate her. Fourcade considered the cyanide pill in her handbag rather than undergo torture. But her suicide could destroy the organization she had been running for four years, since 1940.
Studying the space between the iron bars and a wooden board on the window, Fourcade saw her chance. She took off her dress, clenched it between her teeth, and squeezed through the small space. The pain was excruciating. She jumped from the window ledge and ran through brambles into a cemetery. Hiding inside a crypt, she heard the sirens wailing. She raced to her friends’ farmhouse outside Aix-en-Provence to warn them the Nazis were coming for them, too. Fourcade saved their lives and those of thousands of French, as Lynn Olson writes in Madame Fourcades’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler. This nonfiction book reads like a well-written thriller about the most interesting French woman since Eleanor of Aquitaine. It stars an unlikely heroine who fought autocrats throughout her life.
Destined for a haute bourgeois life in Paris, Fourcade instead left her husband, who demanded a conventional wife. Racing cars and flying airplanes were more her style. Radical for her social class, she took a job co-writing radio programs with famed author Colette.
With no training, she became the spine, the brains, and the heart of Alliance. She showed volunteer spies how to encode and decipher messages for radio operators to transmit to London.
At a posh party of diplomats and high-ranking military, she met an intelligence officer by the code name of Navarre.¹ He predicted in 1936 the Nazis would overrun France. Four years later, more than 1.5 million German soldiers crashed through the Ardennes, and Prime Minister Marshal Pétain, the eighty-four-year-old hero of World War I, capitulated to Hitler. Horrified, Fourcade planned to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in London.
No, Navarre said, we shall resist from within. We shall build an espionage network. She was wide-eyed. They would be challenging the strongest military power in the world. Who would take orders from a thirty-year-old woman? No one will suspect you, he said.
De Gaulle refused to work with them. Kenneth Cohen of the British foreign intelligence service MI6 agreed to a joint venture he called Alliance. MI6 would send money and radio transmitters through parachute drops into the fields of France. In return, Alliance would report strategic intelligence for the British. For example, Nazi submarines based in Brittany were blockading English ports. With seventy percent of their food imported, the Brits were starving. Fourcade found civilians to report on German shipyards and sub-bases, and MI6’s radios transmitted those locations.
To prevent Nazi domination in North Africa, thereby controlling oil from the Middle East, Britain needed to stop Germany’s secret shipments across the Mediterranean. An Alliance customs agent in Marseille discovered guns and the sailing date of Rommel’s Africa Korps.
Radio operators alerted MI6, and British bombers destroyed the convoy of German ships. Alliance later provided crucial intelligence for the Allies amphibious invasion in 1942 of North Africa, against French-held Morocco and Algeria.
The Gestapo captured Alliance’s co-founder Navarre in July 1941, which prompted the director of MI6 to cable, “Who’s taking over Alliance?” Fourcade responded, “I am, as planned.” (81) He only knew her by her code name and she let him assume she was a man.
With no training, she became the spine, the brains, and the heart of Alliance. She showed volunteer spies how to encode and decipher messages for radio operators to transmit to London. She brought in mail pilots and railroad workers, truck drivers and traveling salesmen, people whose jobs involved crisscrossing the country. Naval officers and merchant marines came onboard. One of her lieutenants brought her to a cafe to meet new recruits. As she walked to the table, one shouted, “Good God, it’s a woman.” (41)
After Navarre’s arrest, Fourcade chose her chief of staff, Léon Faye, a World War I pilot honored with the Croix de Guerre. He had no problems taking orders from a woman, and later they became engaged. Crisscrossing France, he recruited a thousand operatives, including a popular child actor then in his teens. Being a spy is my finest role, Robert Lynen said, as he packed radio transmitters in his costume trunk.
One of her lieutenants brought her to a cafe to meet new recruits. As she walked to the table, one shouted, “Good God, it’s a woman.”
Anti-Nazi Vichy officials and anti-German police joined Alliance. One Vichy naval attache carried francs and radio transmitters from MI6 to Paris in his diplomatic mailbags, which were exempt from customs inspections. That bag saved Fourcade and Alliance when a tsunami of arrests threatened the network’s survival. A top agent was arrested in Bourdeaux; more than twelve others were seized in Paris, and Fourcade’s mother and four new agents were rounded up by Vichy police. Every Alliance spy in Pau, near the Pyrenees, was caught in a dragnet. Radio transmitters were confiscated. Whole networks collapsed in some cities. Fourcade reminded herself with her motto, We must carry on.
She could not hide in another city because she would contaminate Alliance operations there. She knew the Gestapo caught most resistance leaders within six months, and she had operated the network for four years. Her time might be up. The only way for her to avoid prison and save Alliance was to go to London for help. Her only escape route went through Spain, a neutral country.
To Madrid in a Mail Bag
For seventeen agonizing hours, Fourcade curled her five-foot-six-inch frame inside a two-foot by four-foot diplomatic mail sack. The Vichy naval attaché smuggled her across the border in the trunk of her Citroёn. Cohen was impressed with her ingenuity.
To protect Alliance, Fourcade decentralized the spy network and made the radio operators independent. To protect individual spies, she gave them the names of animals instead of codes like 007. Faye was Eagle, sharp-eyed, high-flying, and fearless. Fourcade became Hedgehog, hérisson in French, a cute, little creature that when attacked, curls into a ball with its spines sticking out. Confused, the Germans searched for a Mrs. Harrison. With her false identity papers, fake eyeglasses, and prosthetic teeth, Fourcade was difficult to track down.
She and her lieutenants were constantly moving, changing safe houses and cities up to four times in one month. She once set up headquarters in Lyon under the nose of the notorious Klaus Barbie, who ran the local Gestapo. Barbie himself put out his cigarettes on the breasts of several of her women spies. Fourcade wrote in her memoir, L’Arche de Noé, ² (1968) “… no woman ever faltered, even under extreme torture. I owe my freedom to many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts.” (208)
Beautiful and charming, Fourcade was beloved by many men in Alliance. Yet she was no Queen Bee. She sought and promoted women operatives whose ranks included a princess, a countess, a laundress, and a seamstress in Brittany with the code name of Shrimp. While repairing German submarine life vests, Shrimp heard the dates and times of their sailings. Armed with her information, the RAF and Royal Navy bombed those U-boats. Prostitutes in port cities listened to the pillow talk of Kriegsmarinen, German sailors, and passed it on.
Fourcade found creative solutions. She set up Alliance’s undercover headquarters in a produce stand in Marseille where warehouses provided hiding places for her spies. When bad weather limited MI6 drops of transmitters into central France, she created a sea recovery operation in the Mediterranean.
Beautiful and charming, Fourcade was beloved by many men in Alliance. Yet she was no Queen Bee. She sought and promoted women operatives whose ranks included a princess, a countess, a laundress, and a seamstress in Brittany with the code name of Shrimp.
Fourcade worked sixteen-hour days and spent her nights sleepless with worry. She worried about her two older children living with her mother now released from custody. She worried about her and Faye’s newborn son hidden in the south of France. Unable to sleep, she imagined what Alliance spies in Nazi custody were enduring. The SS hunted down, tortured, and murdered at least 350 of Alliance operatives. Radio operators were the most vulnerable. They had to change frequencies constantly as German detection became more sophisticated.
A reoccurring nightmare haunted her: Gestapo agents grabbing Faye and their lieutenants as they emerged from a Lysander plane flown from England. Perhaps she intuited that there was a collaborator inside Faye’s group.
Operatives often jeopardized security. Olson attributes it to the social and talkative nature of the French, and to the rapid growth of Resistance networks. No one checked the background of recruits. One even belonged to Oswald Mosley’s British Fascist Union.
The Nazis were as careless. They bragged in front of their French translator, Jeannie Rousseau, about their secret rocket program called V-1 and V-2, the first long-range ballistic missiles. They will change the face of war, they said. “It cannot be true,” the twenty-three-year-old woman taunted them. To prove they were right, they showed her the drawings of the rockets being developed on a secret island in the Baltic Sea. With her photographic memory, Rousseau passed on every detail.
Unable to sleep, she imagined what Alliance spies in Nazi custody were enduring. The SS hunted down, tortured and murdered at least 350 of Alliance operatives. Radio operators were the most vulnerable. They had to change frequencies constantly as German detection became more sophisticated.
Rousseau’s report landed on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s desk. The RAF blasted the island with 600 bombers. “Were the Germans able to perfect these new weapons earlier it was likely our invasion of Europe … would have been a washout,” said General Dwight D. Eisenhower. (253)
Rousseau had no idea of her accomplishment. By D-Day, she was trying to survive in a concentration camp.
MI6 officials told Faye he would be captured if he returned to France. Fourcade begged him to stay in London. He exploded, saying he would not allow the men he had recruited to be captured while he lived safe and well. She watched him board a Lysander on September 15, 1943 “with the ‘absolute conviction’” she would never see him again. (260) The plane landed safely, but Faye sensed danger and did not rush off to Paris. On the train, he and ten others were dragged out and taken to Gestapo headquarters. He had been sold out for two million francs by a collaborator on Alliance’s protection team.
Angered with Alliance for providing intelligence to MI6 and not them, Free French officials did not report news of Faye’s capture to Fourcade for a month.
“Eagle, my magnificent Eagle, had fallen,” she wrote in L’Arche de Noé. (364) And more than 300 Alliance agents were also in custody. Work helped alleviate how she “was dying of grief.” (269) Cohen gave her a new project; he needed all available military intelligence for what would be the most complicated and largest invasion in history.
An artist in Normandy, Robert Douin, turned his talents to the coastline. He and his team sketched all of the German fortifications and gun emplacements along the sea. MI6 was impressed with Douin’s 55-foot canvas map showed possible landing sites for the Allies. As the Normandy invasion began June 6, 1944, the Nazis executed Douin.
D-Day did not end the war. Refusing surrender, the Nazis launched a dragnet for Fourcade. After escaping in Aix-en-Provence, she hid in a camp of maquis, rural guerrilla bands of Resistance fighters.³ The men gave her a new ID and sent her off to Marseille on a motorcycle. Operatives there dressed her in widow’s weeds and put her on the train to Paris. Back home, she assembled her team to collect intelligence about Nazis remaining in the City of Light: They were planning a massive retreat on every bicycle, car, and farm wagon they could steal.
Disguised as a Red Cross nurse, Fourcade drove an ambulance through a Nazi roadblock. Hidden inside was a radio transmitter by which she supplied General Patton’s Third Army with reports about enemy defenses in the Argonne Forest. That helped Patton liberate Verdun.
While her countrymen rejoiced, Fourcade wept for her 450 murdered agents. She and the survivors held a reunion in their new headquarters on Champs Elysees. “The animals were becoming people again,” Fourcade wrote in her memoir. (335) Agents straggled in from concentration and prison camps, Jeannie Rousseau among them. Alliance co-founder Navarre returned, weighing under one hundred pounds.
Cohen came to Paris to award her the Order of the British Empire.
While her reunion with her baby and two older children restored her spirits, she longed for Faye, still imprisoned. On January 27, 1945, the Germans announced they would release him in exchange for a collaborator. But De Gaulle ordered that man executed.
“She was first the bête noire of the Nazis,” wrote one historian, “then for 30 years she was the terror of the French bureaucracy.”
On V-E Day in May, Fourcade went to Germany to find Faye and other missing operatives. She learned the Nazis had executed him January 30, 1945, and burnt his body so his remains could not be identified. “Her beloved Eagle remained, as she put it, an isolated sentinel keeping watch over the wartime front.” (364)
She brought home the bodies of other operatives for burial with full military honors. “She was first the bête noire of the Nazis,” wrote one historian, “then for 30 years she was the terror of the French bureaucracy.” (374) In her post-war mission, she fought for government pensions and medical care for her military spies and their families. She hosted monthly alumni gatherings. “She brought them back to the days when there was no time for the usual class divisions, for right wing or left wing, for rich or poor.”⁴
Fourcade never sought glory for herself. The French government honored her in 1989 with the first funeral given a woman in the magnificent Les Invalides, France’s military museum. She is buried with her family in the beautiful Père Lachaise cemetery.
The grande dame of the French resistance and her colleagues are role models of what ordinary people can do. As Jeannie Rousseau told The Washington Post, “Resistance is a state of mind. We can exercise it at any moment.” (381)