Born Marie-Madeleine Bridou in 1909 in Marseille, she spent her childhood in Shanghai. After her return, marriage, two children and divorce, she was recruited by George Loustaunau-Lacau (AKA Navarre) into the French intelligence services in 1936, and was soon embarking on perilous international intelligence missions.
Experiencing what she described as an “immense wave of anguish” at Pétain’s armistice, Fourcade reconnected with Navarre, and in September 1940, they founded a spy network named “Alliance”, with Fourcade heading recruitment. In April 1941, Alliance forged a partnership with British intelligence, which provided vital funding, although its staff remained near exclusively French. Fourcade, described by Navarre as “the pivot around which everything turns”, assumed leadership of the network in July 1941 following his capture.
Nicknamed “Noah’s Ark” by the Gestapo due to its use of animal codenames (Fourcade went by Hedgehog), the network grew to be 3,000 strong, with agents in almost every large town in France. Lynne Olson, author of Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, writes that “No other Allied spy network in France had lasted so long or supplied as much crucial intelligence over the course of the conflict.”
Alliance provided information about military and naval movements, weapons programmes and gun placements. For example, the network provided a 55-foot map of the Normandy coast, detailing the German fortifications, used during the D-Day landings. In one of the key Allied intelligence wins of the war, the 20-year old Alliance agent Jeannie Rousseau tricked German officers into divulging information on the development of the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket, leading to an Allied attack in August 1943 that destroyed the German rocket plant in Peenemünde, Germany, potentially saving thousands of lives. The raid was described by Churchill as having had “a farreaching influence on events”.
Hundreds of Fourcade’s Alliance colleagues were killed during the war, including her deputy Léon Faye, who was also the father of a child she bore whilst on the run. She later paid tribute to “the many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts, even when they knew exactly where I was”.
Fourcade was herself arrested twice, the second time by the Gestapo. Remarkably, Fourcade explained that she was able to escape at 3 in the morning by squeezing through the window bars with her dress clenched in her teeth.
After two and a half extraordinary years in occupied France, Fourcade travelled to London to continue her work. She passed away in 1989, becoming the first woman to receive a funeral at Les Invalides, alongside many of France’s other military heroes.