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In July 1944, the Gestapo pushed in Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s door while hunting for French Resistance spies. They shoved her aside, ransacking her apartment for information about an important member of the Resistance cell known as “Alliance.” Little did they know its ringleader was Fourcade herself. The inability to recognize—let alone even imagine—a woman spymaster wasn’t just a German shortcoming: throughout Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, the same proves true of men on all sides of World War II. And until recently, suggests author Lynne Olson, true of the rest of us as well.   

Olson’s book is part of a recent wave of works that highlight the women of World War II espionage (see “Book Briefs,” below). But Fourcade’s story stands out: from 1941 to 1945, she led the largest and longest-lived spy network in occupied France. Despite her outsized contribution to the French Resistance, Fourcade was not among those honored at World War II’s end; a longstanding political rivalry between Charles de Gaulle and Alliance’s founder, former intelligence officer Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, made the network politically poisonous. She lived until 1989, even publishing a memoir about her heroics, but received little fanfare until Olson’s new book. 

Not that Olson glorifies her subject; she shows Fourcade as a star in a broad constellation of resistance as the 3,000-member-strong Alliance refuses to comply with the Vichy government. Under Fourcade, they intercept communications, steal documents, and assist Allied intelligence. They even provide a 55-foot-long map of Normandy’s beaches that details its German fortifications, a document crucial for D-Day strategy.

Fourcade, who was raised wealthy and had long lived a life of casual glamor, wasn’t exactly born a rebel. But she was shocked by the complacency of her peers, many of whom associated with the Nazis and assisted the Vichy government. Fourcade’s willingness to put herself in mortal danger for her principles sets her on the road to spydom—and to leadership, after the Vichy police capture Loustaunau-Lacau and he taps her as his successor.  

Tense and absorbing, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is filled with betrayals, quick escapes, and secret identities: she dons disguises, doles out animal code names (Fourcade, herself, is the unassuming yet tough “Hedgehog”), and at one point even escapes the Nazis by shimmying naked through the bars of a prison window. Though Olson’s cast of characters is almost too large—readers will thank her for including mini-summaries of Alliance’s key agents at the very start—the book still feels intensely personal. It’s a painstakingly researched portrait of a spy network and a leader whose own agents were often reluctant to serve beneath a woman.

Not that naysayers had the last word: Fourcade’s levelheadedness, self-sacrifice, and authoritative decision-making tended to win over even her most dismissive skeptics. Olson ensures that readers respect her, too. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding along with one male agent as he enthuses over his boss: “A woman,” he gushes to a doubtful would-be spy. “But not just any woman! She’s an indisputable and undisputed leader.” ✯


A micro-trend of the moment is women spies of World War II:

D-DAY GIRLS: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
By Sarah Rose. 400 pp. Crown, 2019. $28. 

From a treasure trove of firsthand sources, Rose deftly chronicles the dramatic stories of three bold Allied spies who put themselves in harm’s way fighting with resistance forces in France, harrassing the Nazi occupation, and laying the groundwork for D-Day. 

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
By Sonia Purnell. 368 pp. Viking, 2019. $28. 

Known to the Gestapo as the Limping Lady, Virginia Hall battled sexism and disability (she had a prosthetic leg) while helping to spark the French Resistance. Purnell tells her tale using interviews with family, newly unearthed documents, and a heady mixture of realism and suspense.

CODE NAME: LISE, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy
By Larry Loftis. 360 pp. Gallery Books, 2019. $27. 

Combining novelistic flair and meticulous research, author Larry Loftis tells how a self-described “very simple, ordinary woman,” Odette Sansom, became an agent for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, and eventually, the most highly decorated spy—male or female—of the war. ✯

This story was originally published in the August 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.