Chances are, even if you have read a lot about World War II, you may not have encountered the name Marie-Madeleine Fourcade.
With the dawn of World War II, this wealthy 31-year-old mother of two young children became the leader of what would become one of the largest military intelligence spy networks in France.
By nature a resistor, Fourcade channeled her intelligence, decisiveness and organizational skills into building three waves of spies throughout the course of the war. (Why three? Each time she built a network, the Nazis worked hard to imprison and execute the agents.)
Historian Lynne Olson has created a meticulous biography of Fourcade and her alliance network (referred to as “Noah’s Ark,” by the Nazis, as agents gave themselves animal names), in “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: the Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler,” 2019.
While I expected nonstop pacing akin to James Bond from the title and an excerpt I had read, Olson instead carefully documents radio transmissions and moonlit Lysander flights, parcel smuggling and disguises assisted by dental prosthetics.
Chronologically organized, Olson’s attentiveness to detail echoes Fourcade’s care for her agents, which continued even after the war.
At one point during the Allied advance east, Fourcade pressed for more speed, understanding that with more time and notice for the Nazis, it would be worse for her agents in prisons and concentration camps.
Olson ratchets the tension, detail by detail, building to a fever pitch with the capture and imprisonment of Fourcade herself. Later scenes of Ferdinand Rodriguez’s incessant chanting of “Hail Mary, Full of Grace ” while waiting for impending execution were equally as chilling.
With information culled from unpublished archives, personal interviews and published research, Olson documents intelligence gathering that was essential to MI6 and the Allied forces, such as a 55-foot hand-drawn map of the Normandy shore that took artist Robert Douin (and his son Remy) six months to complete, and ultimately cost him his life; and agent Jeannie Rousseau’s report regarding German V-1 and V-2 terror weapons that quickly made it to the desk of Winston Churchill.
I found myself digesting the book in small segments, simultaneously overwhelmed by the human cost of the war and obsessed with finding out more.
In a fascinating epilogue, Olson outlines the reasons why Fourcade and her network remain largely unknown. (Politically, she didn’t align with the party in power before the end of the war, and personally, she was female.)
Who is this book for? Readers interested World War II, particularly stories at the intersection of the personal and political. Fans of women’s history. And even fans of a good spy story, filled with high stakes, shifting allegiances and acts of bravery by unlikely heroes.