My history hero: Marie-Madeleine Fourcade (1909–89)

Chosen by Gordon Corera, BBC security correspondent

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the leader of a network of French resistance agents during the Second World War. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the leader of a network of French resistance agents during the Second World War. She joined the resistance in 1940 after France surrendered to Germany and went on to help establish the ‘Alliance’ group, which was supported by MI6. Fourcade spent part of the war on the run from the Nazis and part of it in Britain. She was captured on several occasions but always managed to escape. After the war, Fourcade wrote about her wartime experiences in the memoir Noah’s Ark.

When did you first hear about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade?

I first heard of her when I was working on a series for BBC Radio 4 marking the centenary of MI6. The British Secret Service is a challenging subject to research since the files are closed and the service does its best to protect the identity of those who have worked for it. But Fourcade’s remarkable memoir provides the most vivid, and at times painful, portrait of the work of the French resistance with MI6 against the Nazis.

The book’s title, Noah’s Ark, actually comes from the Gestapo. The members of her group rarely knew each other’s real names in order to maintain security and so used animal names as codenames. This led the Germans hunting them to christen the group Noah’s Ark.

What kind of person was she?

Fourcade’s codename of ‘Hedgehog’ does not really do justice to her, nor does the rather stereotypical description of her as a “copybook beautiful spy” by an MI6 controller she worked with. In her early thirties she was thrust into the position of taking over the Alliance network when its leader was captured by the Germans and went on to display remarkable bravery.

What made her a hero?

At its peak Fourcade’s organisation had over 2,000 agents across France. Many were captured, tortured and about 500 killed. Fourcade herself escaped capture on a number of occasions. She was faced with daily decisions of life and death for the hundreds of men and women who worked for her. She dealt with them through a mix of humanity and single-minded dedication.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

Not directly but I think her story underlines the complex moral dilemmas for those involved in clandestine activity – especially at a time of war. At one point an agent was sent over by MI6 who turned out to be a traitor informing for the Germans. Fourcade and her group took him to a safe house and had to decide what to do with him. MI6 made clear it wanted him executed. Initially Fourcade and her people tried to use poison but eventually shot him. Was it the right thing to do? It is not a situation many of us find ourselves having to deal with.

What was her finest hour?

She was forced to flee to Britain at one point when her network appeared close to collapse but while she could have remained safe in the welcoming arms of MI6, Fourcade insisted she be sent back to France.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

I can’t think of many parallels between my life and that of a brave, female resistance fighter in the Second World War.

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Gordon Corera is security correspondent with BBC News. He is also the author of The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011), which uncovers the history of the MI6 from the Cold War to the present.