Madame Fourcade is one of the most heroic women you’ve probably never heard of in the history of World War II. A spy for the Allies and the only female chief of the French Resistance, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade ran the Alliance network in France from 1941-1945. In Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Olson presents a first-hand account of Madame Fourcade’s successful career in espionage and gives us the true story of a truly daring woman.
Using the Alliance network to defeat the Nazis required Madame Fourcade to harness her femininity to keep her enemies confused and to avoid capture. No one in the Gestapo apparently imagined that a woman could run a resistance network; thus, this 31-year-old mother and aristocrat was able to escape notice. “Because she was a woman,” Olson writes, she knew she would be underestimated — “a miscalculation on which she was determined to capitalize.”
Fourcade “had a candid face and a childish silhouette, with her fair hair falling to her shoulders, but she also had the spirit of a secret agent ready to do anything.” As was true of other French Resistance networks, Alliance found that women “were particularly successful when acting as couriers… were young and attractive… and used their charm and guileless appearance to talk their way out of ticklish encounters with German and French police and security officials.”
Madame Fourcade not only helped the British, MI6 and the American military through her intelligence work but also countless men and women who suffered during the Nazi occupation of France. Her network used informative spies in everyday roles — mail carriers, seamstresses, vegetable sellers — to spy on the German military and provide intelligence to MI6. Using agent code names like “hedgehog,” which inspired the Gestapo to name her agency “Noah’s Ark,” Fourcade defied the secret police and managed her network until 1945.
Olson focuses on how uniquely suited Fourcade was to be the inconspicuous head of Alliance. The suspense in Olson’s book builds as Fourcade repeatedly risks her life to keep the Alliance network in tact. Smuggled across the border, bent in half in a mail bag, Fourcade always protected her agents while staying in contact with MI6, providing important information to help defeat the Nazis. She even sacrificed her personal life with her children, spending years away from them.
“In my network,” said Fourcade, “no woman ever faltered, even under the most extreme kinds of torture. I owe my freedom to many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts, even when they knew exactly where I was.” For all of Fourcade’s sacrifices and achievements — as well as those of the other women in her Alliance — we owe a debt of gratitude.