Yesterday evening, instead of going straight home after work, I headed for W.H. Smith’s in Paris, in order to attend the Parisian book launch of Noreen Riols’ latest book, The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish: My Life in Churchill’s School For Spies.
Noreen Riols is a respected BBC broadcaster, novelist, and regular contributor to Woman’s Hour. She is also one of the last surviving members of SOE (Special Operations Executive), which she joined in 1943, shortly before her eighteenth birthday. Now in her eighties, she has at last agreed to commit her memories to paper: The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish is her memoir of her time working for Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F (for French) section, in what was also known as Churchill’s “secret army”.
Though Noreen Riols herself was not an agent, she became intimately acquainted with the process of recruiting, training, and debriefing the men and women who were sent into Occupied France on highly dangerous missions, and many of them became her friends. To hear this small, white-haired woman, with her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, talking so calmly about events nearly seventy years old, and of such legendary names as Violette Szabo, Yvonne Rudellat, or Pearl Witherington – but also of others, both French and English, many of whom never returned – was an extraordinarily moving and unforgettable experience.
The book, with the inscription on the flyleaf in Noreen Riols’ pre-war handwriting, was originally meant for my mother, who is fascinated by SOE and has probably read every book ever published on the subject. I will eventually give it to her, but for the time being I have confiscated it and am reading it myself. It makes for a riveting read but, inevitably, it is also frequently deeply upsetting.
This afternoon, for example, I was reading about Vera Leigh, one of four women agents who were caught and sent to Natzweiler camp in 1944, where they were cremated alive. It seems Vera Leigh was from Maisons-Laffitte (a pretty town just outside Paris which is known for its racing stables), where I currently live. After the war, Leigh’s mother had a commemorative plaque put up in Maisons-Laffitte’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church. I had never before visited this church but, finding myself in the vicinity, I decided to go on a little pilgrimage. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the church was locked and there was no-one about – but now that I know, I am not likely to forget, and one day I shall return.
In her talk last night, Noreen Riols explained that this was precisely the point of her book: not merely to record sordid details and grisly events, but to remember with respect, with compassion, and with humility, the people who gave their lives for our freedom. She feels it is her duty, and it certainly is ours.
© Florence Berlioz 2013