Book Review: MADAME FOURCADE’S SECRET WAR, a forgotten hero of WWII history

Olsen, Lynne - Madame Fourcade's Secret WarMadame Fourcade’s Secret War:
The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
Lynne Olsen

During World War II, Alliance, one of the largest and most important spy networks in France, provided critical intelligence to the Allies through MI6. Conceived by Major Georges Loustaunau-Lacau (a.k.a. Navarre), Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was second in command. When Navarre went to Africa in 1941 to help (unsuccessfully) foment a mutiny against Vichy France, he put Fourcade in charge, and she was the leader through the end of the war. Not only was she the only female leader of a major spy network, most helmsman were captured and/or killed within six months. Olsen describes her as having “a strong will and a taste for risk and rebellion—traits not often seen in young Frenchwomen from well-to-do families like hers.” Fourcade also utilized a number of women in the network, never overlooking their possible contributions.

Because of Alliance’s importance to the Allies, MI6 provided them equipment, funds, and logistical support. In exchange, they received pivotal intelligence. One operative, Jeannie Rousseau, who befriended German soldiers in Paris and was invited to their parties, was able to learn about the V-1 and V-2 rockets including information about the research facilities. Her information led to a bombing strike that significantly stalled German’s missile program. Flamboyant artist Robert Douin walked and cycled across the Normandy coast preparing a detailed map of German installments that was invaluable during the D-Day invasion.

Their success made them a prime target for the Nazis who were angry at Alliance’s role in their setbacks and defeats. Fourcade, who was pregnant by her second-in-command, Léon Faye, and likely hid it from her associates, stayed on the run for safety and narrowly escaped capture several times. Three thousand agents worked for Alliance, and as the network grew, security risks proliferated.

After the war, Fourcade didn’t relinquish her leadership; along with Ferdinand Rodriguez, a former Nazi prisoner, she traveled to Western France and Eastern Germany to investigate the fates of 450 Alliance agents unaccounted for. Immediately after the war, she advocated for her agents, but for the most part, disappeared into history. Such a position is untenable for a women who made such a contribution, according to Lynne Olsen. Olsen argues that Fourcade’s omission in the history books can be attributed to the fact that she was a woman leader in a deeply patriarchal culture. Additionally, Alliance provided their information to MI6 for the Allies, not to de Gaulle’s Free France which put them afoul of the hero. Those who weren’t allied with de Gaulle did not receive the same favorable treatment as his confederates. Additionally, Navarre had ties to Pétain, the Vichy France leader, anathema in the post-war climate.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War restores Fourcade to her rightful place in history along with the courageous agents of Alliance. The book shows how dedicated and strong ordinary people can be–since most Alliance agents were untrained volunteers–in the face of injustice. At the same time, it tracks the steep losses of Alliance under Nazi persecution.

The book provided rich biographical details of Madeleine-Marie, from her childhood in Shanghai, and of key agents and MI6 personnel. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War depicts the anxiety of being on the move to avoid Nazis, the brief moments of camaraderie, the politics of dealing with MI6, and even the experience of agents in Nazi camps. It’s meticulously researched and comprehensive. If anything, I wish there had been a bit more tradecraft and a bit less detail on movements through France.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War will appeal to many readers: history buffs, particularly of World War II history or women’s history; readers interested in feminism and women’s contributions to history; or anyone who likes a compelling and unbelievable story of ordinary individuals fighting injustice.

Thank you to Goodreads! I won a copy of this book in a giveaway, but was under no obligation to review it.

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