When France’s professional soldiers and politicians could not prevent the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1940, one notable woman stepped forward alongside the other previously untested citizens who joined the Resistance.
An upper-class, cosmopolitan mother of two when World War II broke out, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade not only participated in the Resistance, she led its biggest spy ring, Alliance, and defied both the Nazis and the French patriarchy that stifled women’s advancement.
Her story is told in a new non-fiction book by bestselling author Lynne Olson, “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler.”
Numbering 3,000 people at its height, Alliance’s successes included giving the Allies a 55-foot-long map of Normandy beaches that proved vital on D-Day, its 75th anniversary commemorated this year. By the end of the war, Olson writes, “No other Allied spy network in France had lasted as long or supplied as much crucial intelligence over the course of the conflict,” adding that Fourcade was the only woman to head a French Resistance organization during WWII.
Because Alliance members used animal names as aliases, the Gestapo called the network “Noah’s Ark.” Fourcade’s nickname was “Hérisson” or “Hedgehog,” a creature described by the book’s publisher as “unthreatening in appearance, yet a tough little animal that, as a friend of hers put it, ‘even a lion would hesitate to bite.’”
“The first time I came across Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, I was stunned that I had never heard about her before,” Olson told The Times of Israel. “It was incredible — a young woman who led the largest and most influential Allied spy network in occupied France.”
Constantly on the run, Fourcade suffered the capture and execution of many agents — including her second-in-command, Léon Faye, with whom she had a child during the war. Fourcade herself was captured twice, with one escape being particularly difficult.
Her postwar career included serving in the European Parliament and aiding former members of her network and their survivors. Upon her death in 1989 at the age of 79, she was the first woman to receive a funeral at Les Invalides, the final resting place of some of France’s most admired heroes, including Napoleon.
Yet Olson said history has been unkind to Fourcade, who “did not get the attention I really thought she deserved.”
Olson first learned about Fourcade while researching her previous book, “Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War.” A former White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Olson has written bestsellers about the UK and the Allied war effort during WWII. Fourcade’s story intrigued the author enough to become her next project.
Olson read Fourcade’s 1968 French-language autobiography and its English translation, as well as memoirs by two of her former lieutenants, Jean Boutron and Ferdinand Rodriguez. She also interviewed the spymaster’s daughter, Pénélope Fourcade-Fraissinet, whom she had with her second husband, businessman Hubert Fourcade. These paths helped Olson tell the story of an individual who lived an against-the-odds life.
Born Marie-Madeleine Bridou in Marseille, the future spymaster spent her early years in Shanghai, where her father was a shipping line executive. After he died, the family returned to France, but she resumed traveling after marrying her first husband, French army officer Édouard-Jean Méric, whom she accompanied to Morocco. They had two children, Christian and Béatrice, but separated in 1933.
In prewar Paris, she got a job in the radio industry, earned a pilot’s license and competed in auto races. And in 1936, at a social gathering that included future Resistance leader Charles de Gaulle, Fourcade met a French military intelligence officer named Georges Loustaunau-Lacau. He then recruited Fourcade for a private operation aimed at collecting information on Germany’s rising military program.
Fears of a German buildup were proven justified with the Blitzkrieg and the Fall of France in 1940. That September, Loustaunau-Lacau founded Alliance, taking the code name Navarre. From its inception, Fourcade was in charge of recruiting agents for the network.
“He taught her a lot,” said Olson of Loustaunau-Lacau. “But through trial and error, she did it on her own.” And while the work was difficult, Olson said, “she was a very fast learner.”
Initially, “she was out there recruiting agents and collecting information with no place to send it. She had very little money and was learning on the fly, which was true of the Resistance [in general] in those days,” said Olson.
But in April 1941, Alliance partnered with the British intelligence agency MI6 — including Commander Kenneth Cohen, a British Jew who headed the agency’s operations in Vichy. Fourcade asked Navarre not to disclose her name or gender to Cohen when the two men met in Lisbon.
The British sponsorship of Alliance “opened the floodgates,” Olson said. “They sent lots of money and radio transmitters. She was able to do what was needed to create a viable, important Resistance network and spy network” that “could file and collect intelligence, and send it to the British so the British could use it.”
However, in July 1941, Navarre was captured after a failed anti-Vichy coup in Algeria. Fourcade stepped forward to lead Alliance.
“It was extraordinary,” Olson said. “She just decided to do it.”
Yet she was concerned that she might not be taken seriously by MI6 because she was a woman. What convinced her to disclose her identity to the British was a Vichy crackdown on Alliance that included the arrest of Fourcade’s mother. Fourcade resolved to meet with MI6 in Spain. Her lieutenant Boutron drove her Citroën across the border with Fourcade hidden in a mail sack, an ordeal she endured for eight hours. When she arrived in Madrid and sent a message to Cohen informing him that she was a woman, several hours passed before the British spymaster green-lit further cooperation with Alliance.
“She, by that time, was so valuable, so important to MI6 that the British military overlooked the fact that she was a woman,” Olson said. “Alliance produced so much valuable information. She was really special.”
Olson noted that Fourcade inspired obedience from the majority of Alliance’s male members, many of whom had a military background, as well as the nearly 20 percent who were women. Fourcade’s agents scored notable coups.
Fourcade’s agents scored notable coups. Loathed by the French as a collaborator, Jacques Stosskopf was so diligent in his work for Admiral Karl Dönitz at the German submarine base at Lorient — the largest such base in the world — that his superiors never suspected he was conveying information to Alliance.
“German submarines decimated British merchant shipping,” Olson said. “He sent more information on their whereabouts so [the British could] get rid of them. What this man knew was extraordinary.”
Robert Douin, an artist and sculptor, created a 55-foot-long map of Normandy beaches and German fortifications that proved “incredibly important” on D-Day, Olson said. “It was a really long map — visualize a 55-foot-long map having the important places on D-Day.”
Jeannie Rousseau, a German-speaking translator in her early 20s, flirted with German officers whom she tricked into revealing Hitler’s plans for V-1 and V-2 rockets intended to destroy England and prevent D-Day. Rousseau’s coup led to the August 17, 1943, Allied raid on Peenemünde, Germany, that devastated Hitler’s missile testing center-slash-launch site, which had been the largest in the world.
Rousseau, Douin and Stosskopf were all captured in 1944, among the hundreds of Alliance agents captured throughout the war. Rousseau was imprisoned at multiple concentration camps, but survived and lived to be nearly 100. However, Douin and Stosskopf were both executed, as were numerous others, including Fourcade’s second-in-command and lover, Faye.
When the Gestapo captured Faye in September 1943, Olson said, “She lost the man she loved. She did not know what happened to him.”
Faye and other Alliance agents survived in German concentration camps until shortly before the war ended. He was killed in January 1945.
“She was clearly heartbroken by [Faye’s] death,” Olson said. “She never really recovered.”
Fourcade had a son with Faye who was born in June 1943. “She was on the run and pregnant, which made it even more remarkable how she managed to do the things she did,” Olson said. Their son was hidden in the south of France.
Fearing that the Germans would capture her two older children, Fourcade had them sent out of France to Switzerland. Concerned that she might be captured herself if she said goodbye to them, she watched their escape as they were guided past the building in Lyon where she was hiding.
At the border, the escorts fled out of fear of the Germans, but the children successfully completed the escape themselves.
“[Fourcade] found out [the details] after the war,” Olson said. “It was really, really tough for her.”
Twice, Fourcade needed to make an escape of her own.
The first time, in 1942, Vichy policemen who were secretly friendly to the Resistance came to her aid. On the second occasion, in 1944, her captors were the Gestapo. They “knew she was a spy, but did not [know] she was Marie-Madeleine Fourcade,” Olson said. “She was terrified they would find out very soon and torture her. She even considered killing herself [with a] poison pill.”
Instead, Olson said, “She took off all her clothes and managed to squeeze out her slender body through the bars of her jail cell. She jumped down — and in another incredible detail that I always think about, she had her dress clenched in her teeth when she jumped down. She crawled across the street on her hands and knees, put on the dress, and she escaped.”
Olson said this is “just one of many” examples that show why “this incredible woman” is “so striking and interesting.” The author said she believes the book has “done what I hoped it would do.”
“The reviews are all very good, extremely good,” Olson said. “Basically their common themes are, ‘Why have we never heard of this woman before?’
“Other women out there have been forgotten, whether in France or wherever. It’s high time we learn [about them] as well,” she said.