One of the enduring controversies about World War II involves the ways that French citizens responded to the German occupation. Despite an understandable desire of later generations to emphasize resistance to the Nazis and the Vichy puppet government, collaboration and quiet acceptance were commonplace, especially in the early years of the war.
It is not surprising that not everyone wanted to join the resistance. In occupied France, fighting back was hard, dangerous work and those who did it risked capture, torture, and execution. The risk-adverse are rarely heroes.
Among those who actively sought to undermine the Nazis, perhaps none were more important than the large group of agents in what was called the Alliance Network. Initially composed of anti-German officers who were part of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government, this espionage ring eventually grew to include some 3,000 members.
Making the group especially remarkable was its leader. When the network’s founder was arrested, his former aide, a young mother named Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, assumed command. The story of the Alliance Network and Madame Fourcade’s role in making it indispensable to the Allied war effort is the subject of Lynne Olson’s latest book, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler.
Before the war, Fourcade was a cultured, glamorous, and popular socialite. Born in Shanghai in 1909, she trained to be a concert pianist. When the war came, however, she turned out to be an extraordinary leader: forceful, courageous, resourceful, and utterly committed.
The French resistance fell into three groups that were mainly concerned with sabotage, espionage, and running escape networks to help downed airmen return to England. The Alliance, like other espionage rings, provided reams of data to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, about German military operations.
Much of the information was about troop movements, ship sailings, and defensive fortifications that allowed the Allies to operate more effectively. But there were also dramatic successes. For example, a highly detailed 55-foot-long map of the Normandy beaches delivered to British intelligence shortly before D-Day helped in invasion planning.
Equally important was early information about the V1 and V2 rocket program that allowed the British to bomb and seriously damage the testing site, thus delaying deployment of the missiles.
Olson’s story is really about Fourcade. Her agents were often shocked to learn that they were working for a woman and she herself avoided letting MI6 contacts learn her gender for fear that they would not take her seriously. They made the discovery eventually, of course, but not before they knew that she was a natural spy.
She was devoted to her agents and worried ceaselessly about them. But traitors were a constant danger. On two separate occasions, she had to rebuild the network completely after the Germans broke it up. Most of the agents who were part of her group when it started were gone when the war ended. Some 500 members had been executed, including her deputy and lover, León Faye, and many others were in prison.
She was always in the heat of the action and her personal bravery and ingenuity is breathtaking. The Gestapo arrested her twice and both times she escaped – once by forcing her body through the bars of her jail cell. She owed her escapes, in part, to the failure of the Germans to realize who she was: The idea that a young, attractive woman could be the leader of a massive spy ring was as incomprehensible to them as it was surprising to the French and British.
Lynne Olson is a gifted author and her books about the Allies in World War II are carefully researched and compulsively readable. Her books often focus on individuals who are less well known. Olson argues persuasively that Fourcade was not credited for her contributions partly because of her refusal to take sides in the French political machinations during the war as rival groups sought to position themselves to govern postwar France. In addition, she was devoted to her British spymasters, which irked the French intelligence service. Finally, the fact that early members of the Alliance had been part of the totally discredited Vichy regime was another black mark. So when the score settling began after the war, Fourcade’s amazing leadership and accomplishments were too easily forgotten. She died in Paris in 1989.
Thankfully, a new generation of writers is expanding our knowledge of individuals whose roles in World War II deserve more attention.