History Lonely Courage
Rick Stroud (Simon & Schuster, £20)
In this book, Rick stroud tells the story of the remarkable group of women secret agents trained by Churchill’s special Operations Executive (SOE) to be dropped into occupied France as couriers and wireless operators. the aim was to build up resistance circuits, organise parachute drops of arms and ammunition and carry out intensive sabotage of German supply convoys after the D-day landings.
It was dangerous work, especially for radio operators such as noor Inayat Khan, as the Germans were skilled at homing in on clandestine broadcasts by a process of triangulation, which pinpointed the buildings from which they were made.
the book is largely based on secondary sources, rather than the treasure trove of SOE documents—including all the surviving personal files of the agents—released to the national Archives in recent years. Its success lies in weaving multiple threads into a single gripping chronological narrative, occasionally embroidered: ‘I have made up the two lines of dialogue from Verity,’ reads the author’s note on a clandestine landing near the Loire by the soe’s leading Lysander pilot.
Mr stroud is, ironically, better on the villains than on his heroines. First among them was Mathilde Carré, ‘La Chatte’, who betrayed her Résistance comrades. the SOE was able to lure her to London on the promise of sending her back with a senior general; she spent the rest of the war behind bars, a traitor to both sides.
the man who had turned her was the Abwehr sergeant hugo Bleicher, a sly but effective operative, who yielded such results that his superiors never objected to him styling himself colonel. Another villain was Robert Alesch, a stocky 36-year-old priest with contacts in the French Résisthas ance, who had become a German citizen and handsomely paid informer. the soe’s valiant American recruit Virginia hall was highly suspicious of him, but London considered his information first class.
the book is ostensibly about the 39 women agents dropped into France by the soe’s French section, run by Col Buckmaster. It concentrates on seven of them, including the infinitely resourceful Polish aristocrat Krystyna skarbek, the plucky new Zealander nancy Wake and Pearl Cornioley, ‘the best shot (male or female) we have yet had,’ as her training report noted.
the brutal treatment and ghastly deaths of noor Inayat Khan, Violette szabo and the four killed on arrival at natzweiler concentration camp are described in the grimmest detail—most of it already published—at the expense of ‘the brave and often spectacular exploits of the agents’ praised by Eisenhower. the gallantry and achievements of these women deserve more space.
that said, Lonely Courage is a compelling read, particularly on the German break-up of the larger Prospect circuit based in Paris. Lessons were learnt and SOE circuits in the provinces scored impressive and heroic successes. Marcus Binney Marcus Binney is the author of ‘The Women who Lived for Danger’
Femme fatale: female agents were trained in the same skills as the men, including the ability to kill at close quarters