- - Wednesday, April 3, 2019


 By Lynne Olson

Random House, $30, 429 pages 



By Sonia Purnell

Viking, $28, 368 pages

By Joseph C. Goulden

In time of war, should women be shunted aside and the fighting left to men? Call it chivalry or sexual prejudice, but the notion of women on or near the battlefield was historically anathema to most societies.

So consider the shock felt by French males early in World War II when they realized that two of the main leaders in their country’s resistance were females. Biographies that are exceptionally written and researched explore their respective careers.

Quite a pair, to be sure. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, from a socially prominent family, at age 31 was “cool and elegant, with porcelain skin and high cheek-bones,” a blonde “used to being the object of male scrutiny.” The mother of two children, Fourcade was estranged from her husband. (She ignored her married name during the war; after peace, she married a man named Fourcade, the name used in the biography.)

In the late 1930s, she met a former French army intelligence officer alarmed at Hitler’s rise to power. She joined him in publishing a journal which detailed German strength, including a smack-on accurate order of battle. Such became  her entry into intelligence.

Unwilling to submit to a collaborationist government after the Germans seized France, the strong-willed Marie-Madeleine became head of a resistance group named Alliance. The Gestapo called it “Noah’s Ark” because its some 3,000 agents used names of animals for cover. Marie-Madeleine chose “hedgehog” — for a tough little animal “even a lion would hesitate to bite.”

At its height, Alliance boasted more than 1,000 members, working with British intelligence. A primary mission was mapping German defenses at probable invasion sites. Her agents put together an incredible roll-up map measuring some 55 feet that guided Allied forces ashore on D-Day.

Of equal importance, perhaps, was intelligence on a top-secret site where the Nazis were developing guided missiles to rain down on Britain, hoping to create war-ending public hysteria. An innocent-appearing female secretary at the site gleaned all that was needed to know. Bombing raids destroyed so much of the facility that its missile attacks (the so-called V-2s) were an ineffective nuisance.

Ironically, many men in Alliance did not realize that they worked for a woman. And when they realized her gender, many grumbled. A British intelligence chief objected to women “as a matter of principle.”

Marie-Madeleine did not hesitate to use her considerable charm when necessary; yet she was captured twice by Nazi security. In one instance she surveyed the space between her cell bars, stripped naked, and slithered to freedom.

She bore a child by a wartime lover (who was later killed) but survived to become a player in post-war French politics. A strikingly well-told story by Washington writer Lynne Olson.

Equally brave was an American woman who did not permit her physical handicap to hinder her resistance work. Born into a socialite Baltimore family, Virginia Hall lost her left leg below the knee in a shotgun accident in her mid-20s. (She thereafter wore a clunky prosthesis which she named “Cuthbert.”)

Schooled at Radcliffe and Barnard, both top schools, and fluent in five languages, the only State Department job that Hall could obtain was as a secretary in Paris. She was denied a higher  position — formally because her injury, more likely because of her gender.

Early in the war, with France under German occupation, Hall worked as a reporter for the New York Post – and also for the nascent French resistance. In due course she signed on with  the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), created by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to keep the resistance  alive in France, and prepare for invasion.

Her occupation and nationality gave her freedom to roam the country, recruiting additional resistance fighters by the score, and gathering intelligence on German military matte

Sonia Purnell’s account is of a woman who established her leadership role in the underground war through a combination of guile and guts. Hall is credited for recruiting hundreds of persons to the cause of a free France – each risking horrible torture and death.

To escape capture at one point, Hall crossed snow-covered mountains into Spain, her artificial leg buckling at each step. She ignored the pain and brought important intelligence to her British handlers.

When invading Allied forces arrived in France, she switched to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor  of  CIA, and in postwar years to CIA itself.

Are women valuable in wartime? Virginia Hall and Marie-Madeleine Fourcade emphatically provide the answer.

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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