What they were about to do defied all knowledge, all common sense, and yet she felt only a great rush of excitement.
Anne-Marie Walters was one of the thirty-nine women agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who were sent into occupied France during World War II. These agents worked with various groups of the French Resistance providing intelligence, sabotaging German facilities and trains and assisting downed Allied airmen to return to England.
Their work was fraught with danger. Twelve of the 39 were captured and murdered by the Germans, one died of meningitis, while the remainder survived the war. Anne-Marie was one and wrote about her experiences in Moondrop to Gascony. Her friendship with the mother of the British writer, Simon Mawer led to his interest in the women who served in the SOE. Walters is the subject of Mawer’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (published in the US as Trapeze).
Part fiction, part fact, Mawrer’s novel is an account of what it was like to serve as an agent in Nazi occupied France. The activities of the men and women of the Resistance is both inspiring social history and one that never ceases to command my respect knowing that these individuals worked day and night, usually alone, under the constant threat of capture and its terrifying consequences.
The novel begins by introducing Marian Sutro whose mother was French and father English; Marian speaks both languages fluently. As a result, she comes to the attention of an SOE recruiter, is sent to Scotland for training where she learns espionage, surveillance, wireless operation, and how to survive behind enemy lines. The training is grueling.
Always assume the worst, one of the instructors warned them: a pessimist makes the best agent.
She is parachuted into France, becomes Alice for a while, and begins work with the resistance. Eventually she is asked to go to Nazi infested Paris where there is no safety. Her task is to deliver an important letter to a French atomic scientist, once her teen-age infatuation.
The letter is from a professor in England. To read the letter, he is given a key. Alice tells him he can open up a minuscule compartment and take out a microdot. A microscope is required to read the embedded letter. Clever! It is persuasive, describing the work of German scientists to develop an atomic bomb.
Alice arranges his escape to England, finds herself unable to join him on the pick-up plane, manages to elude her followers, and returns to the relative safety of the countryside.
Does she return to England to join her former lover, remain in France to carry on with her resistance work, or fall prey to Nazi captors? These questions will not be answered here. Mawer’s account is captivating, fast paced, full of surprise, ingenuity, and suspense.
Once in a while I read such a thriller. I read The Girl Who Fell From The Sky because it is a story about the French Resistance, one of those events where I ask myself once again how I would behave if I were placed in a similar situation. Would I be able to display such courage? It is as simple and unknowable as that.
What are you going to decide? Because you’ve got to make a choice. That’s one of positive thing that this war has brought: we have to choose.