Book review: The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish by Noreen Riols

If it hadn’t been for her fancy to wear a ‘seductive’ hat and a pair of sheer black stockings, teenager Noreen Riols might never have become a member of Churchill’s wartime ‘secret army.’

The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish by Noreen Riols
The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish by Noreen Riols

Joining the Wrens, with their smart outfits, had seemed the ideal choice for fashion-conscious Noreen when she received her call-up papers just before her eighteenth birthday in 1943.

But when one of her interviewers realised she spoke fluent French, she was recruited into a very different – and very much more dangerous – organisation.

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It was the French, better known as the F Section, of the Special Operations Executive led by the controversial Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, and for the rest of the war Noreen worked with Buckmaster and her fellow operatives to support the French Resistance across the Channel.

Seventy years later, Noreen has penned the remarkable account of her war work and is now one of the few people alive who was actually involved with the SOE, a shadowy world in which truth, as Churchill observed, had to be protected by a bodyguard of lies.

‘My life in SOE was based on deception, on lies. I lied to my mother. I lied to my friends. I lied to everyone I met outside of F Section. It was inevitable,’ she says.

Sworn to secrecy, Noreen was forbidden to reveal anything about her work so every morning when she left home for the SOE’s headquarters in Baker Street, London, her mother thought she was tucked safely behind a desk at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

‘Don’t talk and don’t ask questions,’ she was told. ‘The less you know the less you can reveal if the worst happens.’

It was only in 2000 that the British government finally opened up the SOE’s secret files to the public and Noreen was revealed as a former SOE operative, 26 years too late for her late mother to learn the truth about her daughter’s war work.

In reality, Noreen spent two extraordinary years meeting agents returning from behind enemy lines, acting as a decoy, passing on messages in tea rooms and picking up codes in crossword puzzles.

Now aged 87 and living in France with her French husband Jacques, Noreen still has what Paddy Ashdown describes in the Foreword to her book as ‘a remarkable twinkle in her green eyes’ and is a witty and perceptive raconteur.

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Her gripping, darkly funny and moving account allows a fascinating insight into the realities of working in a clandestine organisation which played a vital role in winning the war on the Western Front.

Noreen’s job was to help train new agents in the difficult art of espionage, dispatching them on missions, debriefing them on their return and delivering ‘weird and wonderful’ coded messages to the BBC every evening to tell agents that operations were ‘on.’

The tensions and dramas that made up her daily life in the SOE were interspersed with several romances and lighter moments because, as Noreen wisely remarks, ‘Nothing in life is all bad. Not even in war.’

By the end of the conflict, the SOE had 13,000 agents in Europe and Asia. Of the 480 F Section agents who were infiltrated into occupied France, 104 were killed and of the 30 women agents, 15 never returned and 12 of those were horribly tortured and executed in concentration camps.

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Noreen is still saddened by the poor post-war treatment handed out to many of the surviving agents and she deplores the fact that their value and their contributions to the war effort were never recognised.

The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish is thus her loving, lasting and very personal tribute to those ‘exceptional, courageous and truly wonderful people’ whom she feels very privileged and humbled to have known and befriended.

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)