As she approaches 90 (Eds. 5 September 2016) Noreen Riols is working as hard as ever to tell the world the truth about her work with the ‘bandits’ of SOE, Special Operations Executive. Bandits, of course, is not the official description for the courageous secret agents who were sent by Winston Churchill ‘to set Europe ablaze’. There were 40 F (for French) section female agents, fifteen of whom did not return, tortured to death or killed in concentration camps. Radio operators, who formed a critical part of each three person network and were usually women, had a life expectancy of about six weeks. Noreen Riols, as the last surviving female member of F section in France, is entitled to be forthright about the need to recognise the extreme bravery of the agents, many of whom she knew.
Riols does not deny the extraordinary courage of women such as 23 year old Violette Szabo, brutally murdered at Ravensbruck in 1945 after only a few days in the field, whose life was immortalised in Carve her Name with Pride, and Odette Sansom, later Churchill, who survived probably because of her clever ruse that, by virtue of her affair with fellow agent Peter Churchill, she was somehow related to Winston. Both Violette and Odette had children they left behind and both have become hugely famous. But Riols does not mince her words in lamenting the fate of many other SOE women, who are barely known today. Women like Yvonne Cormeau, who was never caught and managed 14 months as a radio operator who died in 1997, as well as Eileen Nearne, caught and tortured by the Nazis, who nonetheless survived Ravensbruck yet tragically died both penniless and unknown in 2010. “These women did spectacular things but in an unspectacular way,” explains Riols. “Real heroes never talk about what they have done,” she adds.
Riols herself, having signed the Official Secrets Act when she was first recruited, never spoke about the wartime work she had done until 2000, when SOE files were declassified. She was immediately in demand to speak about her experiences and eventually, in 2013, wrote an autobiography called the Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish the title being the place where she had told her parents she worked. They did not live long enough to learn the truth. But as the one who now carries the torch for her fellow agents, she is making up for lost time and regularly visits schools, gives speeches or lays wreaths at commemorative events. Also she was instrumental in organising a memorial at Valençay to the 104 SOE agents of F Section killed in action, meeting there each year on May 6, the date of the first drop into France. It was a task she used to share with her friend Bob Maloubier, a daring French agent who had accompanied Violette Szabo on one mission, dividing up the names that each would read out aloud. But he died in April 2015, leaving Noreen to undertake the task alone. Last year (2015) as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations for the end of the war, she visited five countries in six months. It’s a daunting schedule that would exhaust someone half her age.
Noreen was just 17 when, as Noreen Baxter, a pretty French speaker born in Malta to British parents, she was recruited by SOE in London. She had only recently left the Lycée and was never trained to be parachuted into France as she was too young but, had the war continued, she knew she too would have been sent. Working behind the scenes at various secret addresses, she soon became involved in the debriefing of agents where she discovered some harrowing and some extraordinary details of the operations such as how a Jewish refugee tailor from Vienna was used to produce clothes cut in the continental manner and how agents were given itching powder to put in German underwear. But her main work began early in 1944 when she was sent to Bournemouth to work as a decoy girl, designed as part of the training of agents to weed out those who were a risk because they might talk to a pretty girl.
She tells me the story of a handsome Dane who was hoping to be sent on an SOE mission but who, feeling amorous, had foolishly revealed his activities to Noreen one warm spring evening after dinner. When he was called in for his final assessment only to be confronted by Noreen, whose true identity was then revealed, he was furious and spat out that she was a bitch. Noreen was distraught at the idea that her whole life was spent lying but comforted
by the fact that it was dangerous to allow someone to operate who might talk not just for their own sake but because they might risk the lives of others too.
When we meet at her charming 17th century home about an hour outside Paris, a house she has lived in for about 50 years with her French husband, Jacques, and five children, she is in thoughtful mood, regretting Maloubier’s death but determined to carry on alone as long as she can.
“I feel when anyone asks me to talk, I must say yes as I think it is so important that the truth is known, especially since there is so much written about this time that is just wrong and overly romanticised. According to one recent film, the women were rushed through their training, were running around toting machine guns and were mistresses of German officers. None of which was true.” Riols maintains that all the women agents of SOE were carefully chosen and trained and is a fierce defender of Maurice Buckmaster, the controversial head of F section who has been much criticised for continuing to send agents – including most of the ‘lost’ women – to work for the infiltrated Prosper network, the largest SOE group in France, which collapsed in 1943 and whose penetration was obvious to all except Buckmaster. Some critics even believe the women were deliberately sacrificed to persuade the Germans that the British were unaware the circuit was blown. But according to Noreen, who worked closely with Buckmaster, “he was always deeply concerned about his agents and far from careless or uncaring about their fate.”
Sometimes Riols is shocked by the level of ignorance she encounters in schools, recently meeting children who had no idea it was dangerous to be living in London because of the German bombing campaign or who think the women of SOE were spies, which sounds glamorous but is not true. They were couriers and their task was mainly sabotage to bolster the French resistance. “What I really want to tell them is that war is horrible. I am not a pacifist but war does not solve anything. As Churchill said ‘jaw jaw is better than war war.’”
After a 14 year battle with French authorities, Riols has recently won the argument to be recognised as a war veteran herself in spite of being repeatedly rebuffed with arguments that included the claim that Britain was “not a war zone.” One letter from a French official which stated that SOE was not an operational unit made her especially angry. But President
Charles de Gaulle himself, trying to claim that his countrymen alone were responsible for clandestine operations in France, had never recognised SOE, which was disbanded after the war. Noreen is only too aware of the sense of betrayal felt by many agents over the French refusal to recognise the part played by British and foreign agents.
She has a sharp memory for what happened during the war but regrets she no longer remembers last week so well. I point out that that is probably because those events, when every day was a matter of life and death, were so extraordinary. She agrees, telling me she has just written a treatment for a film about SOE and is hoping to find a producer. She is absolutely determined to do whatever she can to ensure that there is a greater understanding of SOE and all that it did in France to win it freedom.
Les Parisiennes: how the Women of France lived, loved and died in the 1940’s by Anne Sebba is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in July