Charm­ing World War II spy was true pro­file in courage

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - OPINION -

Jean­nie Rousseau de Clarens, one of the re­mark­able spies of World War II, died last week in France at the age of 98. Like so many in­tel­li­gence officers, she had a gift for get­ting peo­ple to talk. But she had some­thing else: daunt­less, un­blink­ing courage in fac­ing the en­emy.

De Clarens stole one of the vi­tal se­crets of the war — Ger­many’s plans to build and test the V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs at Peen­e­mu­nde. Her in­tel­li­gence en­cour­aged the Bri­tish to bomb Peen­e­mu­nde, de­lay­ing and dis­rupt­ing the pro­gram, and “sav­ing thou­sands of lives in the West,” said James Woolsey, then CIA di­rec­tor, at a cer­e­mony in Oc­to­ber 1993 hon­or­ing de Clarens.

How did this charm­ing, diminu­tive wo­man ac­com­plish her mis­sion im­pos­si­ble? She lis­tened. De Clarens was a flu­ent Ger­manspeaker, and in 1943, she teased the first threads of in­for­ma­tion about the rocket pro­gram out of some Ger­man officers she had be­friended in Paris as a trans­la­tor. And then she kept pulling on the string.

“I was such a lit­tle one, sit­ting with them, and I could not but hear what was said. And what they did not say, I prompted,” she told me in 1998.

“I teased them, taunted then, looked at them wide-eyed, in­sisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the as­tound­ing new weapon that flew over vast dis­tances, much faster than any air­plane. I kept say­ing: ‘What you are telling me can­not be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”

“I’ll show you!” one of the Ger­mans fi­nally said, ea­ger to con­vince the pretty young French­woman. He dis­played a doc­u­ment from Peen­e­mu­nde; de Clarens, with her pho­to­graphic mem­ory, reg­is­tered ev­ery word and trans­mit­ted the in­for­ma­tion to Lon­don.

Her code name was “Am­niarix,” and she was part of a Bri­tish spy ring in Paris known as the “Druids.”

De Clarens made it all sound easy, no more than any­one would do, when I first in­ter­viewed her in 1998. “I just did it, that’s all.” She had never spo­ken to a jour­nal­ist be­fore, but when I showed up (af­ter an in­tro­duc­tion from Woolsey), the story be­gan to flow. I pub­lished her amaz­ing tale, but she was hap­pier liv­ing in the shad­ows, and I don’t think she told the full story ever again.

She was a grace­ful wo­man, el­e­gant as a French movie star, but she spoke in an in­con­gru­ous deep voice. On one of many vis­its in later years, she fright­ened one of my daugh­ters by de­mand­ing in that grav­elly bass: “If you don’t get me a whiskey right away, I will be very an­gry with you!”

What she didn’t want to tell me, in that first con­ver­sa­tion or ever, was how much she had suf­fered.

Af­ter the Bri­tish re­ceived her re­ports about the rocket bombs, they wanted to bring her to Lon­don to de­brief her. A boat evac­u­a­tion was ar­ranged from Brittany in the spring of 1944, but she was be­trayed to the Ger­mans on her way to the beach. She spent the last year of the war in three Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, each harsher than the last.

When she was fi­nally res­cued by the Swedish Red Cross, she was nearly dead of star­va­tion and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. She never re­vealed to the Ger­mans a hint of the se­crets she had stolen.

When I pushed her to talk about her time in the camps, her voice be­came dis­tant and ir­reg­u­lar, as if it was phys­i­cally painful to re­mem­ber, and to know that she had sur­vived when so many oth­ers didn’t.

With a mod­esty born of deep suf­fer­ing, she in­sisted: “What I did was so lit­tle. Oth­ers did so much more. I was one small stone.”

The mys­tery of Jean­nie’s story for me was where her brav­ery came from. Why did she do what was right, when so many oth­ers were afraid to take ac­tion? She shook her head, as if I was missing the point. “It wasn’t a choice. It was what you did. At the time, we all thought we would die. I don’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. How could I not do it?”

She was an ex­tra­or­di­nary wo­man. I’m glad she let me pull the story from her, so that oth­ers can read and re­mem­ber what courage is.

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