Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

by Lynne Olson

Hardcover, 2019

Call number



Random House (2019), 464 pages


"The little-known story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the woman who headed the largest spy network in occupied France during World War II ... In 1941 a thirty-one-year-old Frenchwoman, a young mother born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamour, became the leader of a vast intelligence organization--the only woman to serve as a chef de résistance during the war. Strong-willed, independent, and a lifelong rebel against her country's conservative, patriarchal society, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was temperamentally made for the job. Her group's name was Alliance, but the Gestapo dubbed it Noah's Ark because its agents used the names of animals as their aliases. The name Marie-Madeleine chose for herself was Hedgehog: a tough little animal, unthreatening in appearance, that, as a colleague of hers put it, 'even a lion would hesitate to bite.' No other French spy network lasted as long or supplied as much crucial intelligence--including providing American and British military commanders with a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads on which the Allies would land on D-Day--as Alliance. The Gestapo pursued them relentlessly, capturing, torturing, and executing hundreds of its three thousand agents, including Fourcade's own lover and many of her key spies. Although Fourcade, the mother of two young children, moved her headquarters every few weeks, constantly changing her hair color, clothing, and identity, she was captured twice by the Nazis. Both times she managed to escape--once by slipping naked through the bars of her jail cell--and continued to hold her network together even as it repeatedly threatened to crumble around her. Now, in this dramatic account of the war that split France in two and forced its people to live side by side with their hated German occupiers, Lynne Olson tells the fascinating story of a woman who stood up for her nation, her fellow citizens, and herself."--Dust jacket. In 1941 Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, lifelong rebel against her country's conservative, patriarchal society, became the leader of a vast intelligence organization. Her group's name was Alliance, and used the names of animals as their aliases. Fourcade was Hedgehog: a tough little animal, unthreatening in appearance. The Gestapo pursued them relentlessly, capturing, torturing, and executing hundreds of its three thousand agents. Captured twice by the Nazis, she escaped and continued to hold her network together. Olson tells the fascinating story of a woman who stood up for her nation, her fellow citizens, and herself. -- adapted from jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member eyes.2c
An astounding story!

All I can say is Shame! Shame! Shame! Why has there been no over-the-top acknowledgment of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade? This woman masterminded the biggest spy ring across the length and breadth of occupied France during World War II. She controlled thousands of agents. Yet shockingly, no bright light has shone on her stupendous achievements and sacrifice for her country.
Hopefully Olson's novel will begin to rectify that.
Olson's research is outstanding. Her adherence to complexity and detail and the Bibliography gives weight to this.
But back to my opening question. Olson's 'Author's Notes' do give some guidance as to why there was a lack of recognition to the actions of women in these times. Amongst the reasons are the complexity of French politics after the war and post war ideas on the role of women. Further to that, "For several decades following the war, histories of the French resistance, which were written almost exclusively by men, largely ignored the contributions of women."
Hopefully a new era is opening up for these unsung women heroes.
Whilst the narrative could have been tighter the story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade is amazing. My heart was frequently in my mouth at some of the situations Fourcade found herself in.
In addition I loved the cover. It's brilliant! Those darkened rough stoned buildings looming behind the woman as she walks down a narrow lane, vividly portrays an aura of brooding and hovering menace. In shaded grayish overtones it subtly elicits atmospheric references to the dangerous maze of deception and counter deception Fourcade and her precious Alliance members negotiated a path through.
This is well worth the read! For any World War II aficionados, a must read!!

A Random House ARC via NetGalley
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was an amazing person. At the age of thirty-one, Fourcade became the head of France's largest Resistance intelligence group, Alliance. The fact that she was a woman made her accomplishments even harder won and more remarkable. Lynne Olson's readable narrative of Fourcade's life and years as chef de résistance brings to the attention of Western readers a woman whose story deserves to be known and honored.

Often underestimated because of her privileged upbringing and glamorous pre-war life, Fourcade was a force of determination and daring who bucked societal norms to become a pilot, get a job, and separate from her husband. When she was approached by Navarre, a former French military intelligence officer, to help him establish a clandestine journal trying to sway French military opinion prior to the war, she didn't hesitate. Their partnership led to the creation of Alliance, a nationwide resistance organization that provided key information to the Allies about submarine installations and movements, the V-2 rocket, the Normandy coast, and much, much more. In the last months of the war, Alliance provided information directly to General Patton as he moved his army into Germany. When Navarre was arrested in 1941, Fourcade stepped into the breach and became the head of Alliance for the rest of the war.

Fourcade had to learn as she went: how to be a spy, how to organize and run a resistance organization, and how to persuade men, many former military, to accept the leadership of a woman. Despite being separated from her children, being constantly on the run, and captured by the Nazis twice, Fourcade was unstoppable. Her personal bravery was only outshone by her organizational skills. Alliance operated over all of France, and she built cells in all the major cities, only to have them be destroyed by the capture of its agents, but would rebuild them with single-minded determination and dedication.

Despite her amazing leadership during the war, Fourcade was not named a Compagnons de la Liberation, France's highest honor for heroes of the Resistance. In fact, of the 1,038 members, 1032 were men. Perhaps now, with this book, Fourcade will receive the admiration and accolades that she should have received during her lifetime. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Apparently, this is the season or year of the war heroine. Several books have appeared about largely unsung and underappreciated female World War II resistance fighters. Suddenly, there are several lauding the accomplishments of brave and courageous women who worked at, created, or ran active resistance efforts in France. The books I have read have been filled with accurate historic events and major moments of the war, in which the women were influential in helping to turn the tide in the favor of the Allies and, possibly, even to shorten the length of the war, thereby saving thousands of lives. However, in their efforts, thousands were also recruited, betrayed and sacrificed for their valiant efforts. No good deed goes unpunished.

The current books, and this one is no exception, largely make out the women they portray to be the lord and master of the resistance movement. One would almost think that none were run by men. However, it is true that women were the least suspected to be doing such work and often got away with their clandestine behavior because of their sex. In this book and another I read, “A Woman of No Importance”, by Sonia Purnell, the women featured organized groups and recruited the necessary agents to wage battles for the resistance effort. Virginia Hall, of the United States, worked for the British SOE and in this one, Marie Madeleine Fourcade, a Frenchwoman, organized them for MI6. Her network seemed to have a greater scope than Hall’s. However, both organizations were under the British umbrella and when SOE collapsed, I was sad to learn that the members of MI6 cheered their demise. It seemed a foolhardy thing to do, to be happy that resistance fighters working to end the war had been murdered or compromised, necessitating the end of the organization.

Having read many books about the experiences of men in war, I was surprised to learn of how involved and courageous some women were, without gaining any true acclaim for their actions. The men of the day believed they were better suited to housekeeping. I also found that the author explained many of the events and circumstances described, emotionally, rather than militarily or intellectually. I believe that the women should have been described as most men were, as steady and sure footed, emotionally very stable. In the end, both books seemed to portray their male survivors as weaker than the women. They were described as having been devastated by their experiences and never returning to their former selves or stature. I found it distracting to read about how the women had to hold back their tears or had to control their rage or were haunted by guilt wondering if men would take orders from them. I did not believe that the emotional aspect was pertinent to the overall presentation of their valiant efforts. I couldn’t quite pair the reactions described with what I expected from the kinds of women who could organize and participate in such dangerous programs for the resistance, like arranging escapes, supplies, sabotage of all kinds, gathering weapons, cash, arranging message transfers, radio transmissions, and more, while also donning disguises and false identities to glean information.

Madame Fourcade was very brave and made many sacrifices, quite virtuously, even abandoning her family for years for the cause of French freedom. She supported the effort of the allies and communicated with and followed the directions of well known generals, like Eisenhower. However, in the author’s description, or perhaps from the narrator’s reading, I got the impression that some of the decisions Fourcade made seemed based on emotion rather than careful thought and almost caused her own capture and quite possibly the capture, torture and deaths of others. In total, however, more of her decisions saved lives, than took them. Marie Madeleine Fourcade set up resistance groups, organized agents and recruited resisters. Fourcade was the head of a program called Alliance, the forerunner of which was the Crusade. It is believed that the men and women she worked with shortened the length of the war. She worked largely in the free French zone which was controlled by the Vichy government. Soon, however, it came under the complete control of the Germans and Hitler. Her job grew evermore dangerous. She was running the largest network of spies.

I did learn several facts from the book. I had not realized that the United States supported the Vichy government and tried to get Marshall Petain to switch sides and support the Allies before D Day. He refused. I also, unrealistically, did not realize that spy organizations and resistance groups competed with each other, although I suppose it was a natural consequence of the shortage of, and yet need for, necessary supplies, recognition and information.

I found the narrator, a good reader, but inappropriate for this audio. She was over involved in its presentation. She over emoted and practically became a character instead of the reader. She was distracting and her interpretation was cloying at times and water boiled faster than she read. She actually turned me off the book, and if I did not want to read it for a group in which I participate, I would have given it up. I have listened to other books with this reader and she does well. Perhaps she should stick to fiction. Non fiction lends itself to less of an interpretation and more of a straightforward presentation. She overshadowed the story by trying to create too much feeling and interest. The subject matter in non fiction should be interesting enough.

There were many similarities in the books I read about with female heroines of WWII. Like Virginia Hall, Fourcade had a disability which would preclude her from certain branches of the service although it might not prevent her from performing admirably. Fourcade had a congenital hip disability and Hall had a false leg. Both were in their thirties and had no visible husband when they joined the service. Both organized resistance efforts. Both understood the necessity of the resistance effort to help the allies and both have been praised for their effort which has been attributed to shortening the war. However, Hall was more private and preferred to remain unsung, wishing her fellow fighters to be given awards, while Fourcade seemed to appreciate the medals she accrued. Both worked to thwart the efforts of Marshall Petain in Vichy and stop Hitler’s march across Europe. Both believed that women were not afforded enough recognition and actively worked to gain their recognition. Often they were unsuccessful. It was a time when women were believed to be better off in the kitchen and needed to know their place. Both books points out the uphill battle women faced for equal rights.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
This biography documents the life of a fascinating woman, Marie Madeleine Fourcade, who led a large spy network in France during World War II. Notice I said 'documents' and 'fascinating' and those two words summarize this book.

So the 'fascinating' part of this book is due to the fact that Madame Fourcade was an amazing and impressive figure. Not only was France physically split into two physical regions, Vichy France and German occupied France, but the people were split into German supporters (or at least passive citizens who were willing to tolerate the Germans) and resisters. Mme Fourcade's network provided essential information to the British which caused devastating harm to the German's and put her agents in incredible danger with many being imprisoned or killed.

The 'document' part of this book made it a bit of a slog to get through, especially in the beginning. Yes, she would build a network of spies, have it be discovered, and have to start a new cell. This happened several times in the war, and for me, the first half of the book could have been shortened significantly. There were many mesmerizing anecdotes that definitely would draw my attention, but it seemed like the author was set on describing Every. Single. Detail. and it became tedious in some parts. However the last half of the book was really fascinating and incredibly moving. The end of the war really became a race between getting crucial information to the Allies to start their invasion and trying to stay hidden long enough to survive until the Allied liberation. Unfortunately many of the spies in her network did not survive and those stories were heartbreaking. I would give 5 stars for the last half of this book and I'm really glad I finished it.

My recommendation is to read this book, but maybe do a quick read of the first half and then settle down for a fantastic story.
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