One of Lynne Olson’s previous books about World War II, Citizens of London, was terrific, so I didn’t hesitate when I learned about this one. It is the wonderfully informative story of the woman who ran the biggest and most effective resistance movement in France during the war.
The focus of the network, Alliance, was to provide intelligence for British MI6 for their work against the Germans. MI6 provided support with equipment, money, and supplies by parachute drops and flights from Britain to France. The intelligence provided by the network was invaluable, especially as the British and Americans prepared for the D-Day landing.
One notable bit of intelligence that may have affected the outcome of the war was gathered by a young woman translator who had befriended the Germans she worked for. At first she had no way to pass along the information she gathered. A man named Georges Lamarque requested that Madame Fourcade allow him to create a small network that was separate from the Alliance network and though that was not their usual policy, she agreed. The young translator, named Jennie Rousseau, passed along information about the development of the V-1 and V-2 missiles being developed by the Germans at Peenemunde. As a result, the British bombed the site and delayed the development by eight months, saving countless lives. David Ignatius wrote a column about her when she died in 2017.
How it came to be that Madame Fourcade, a beautiful young woman whose bourgeois background would hardly seem to prepare her to administer a large spy network, is not conveyed in a sentence or two. The military men she initially teamed up with in the south of France were not looking for someone like her to head the network, but ultimately came to the conclusion they could answer to this woman who had a very authoritative demeanor. Her mentor, whose code name was Navarre, made her his deputy; he was captured and imprisoned. By the time that happened, the men she recruited and trained had come to trust her and recognized that she should be the head of the network.
You might wonder why her work was not recognized after the war. First, of course, is that she was a woman and despite women’s contributions to the resistance movement, few were recognized. But there are other factors. Her work began in Vichy and only later spread to occupied France. After the war, de Gaulle and others were not inclined to see anyone with any connection to Vichy as positive. And during the war Madame Fourcade resisted aligning with either of the factions fighting for post-war control of France. Apparently de Gaulle did not see her as loyal enough to his faction.
While the author tells many riveting stories, the large cast of characters was overwhelming at times. I do appreciate the need to record the sacrifices of so many individuals and to be reminded of the horrors of war. The physical stamina and courage of so many, including Fourcade herself is breathtaking.
Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Random House, 2019, 428 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.
In today’s New York Times book review section there were two reviews of remarkable women in the resistance movement in France. Code Name: Lisa by Larry Loftis, tells the story of a French-born British woman who was highly decorated for her spy work. A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell is, as the subtitle has it “the Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. I find it interesting that neither review mentioned the other or Lynne Olson’s book.