Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was born on 11 August 1909 in Marseille. Under the code name ‘Hérisson’ (‘Hedgehog’) she had the distinction of being the only female leader of a French Resistance network, ‘Alliance’, later named ‘Noah’s Ark’.
Marie-Madeleine married Edouard Meric, a future colonel, when she was twenty. The couple had two children, but later became estranged.
Aged thirty, Marie-Madeleine worked on a magazine, L’ordre national, and became involved in espionage. During her first mission she created Resistance sections in occupied France and assigned agents to these sections. This network developed into Noah’s Ark.
After the Gestapo arrested a number of leading Resistance figures it fell to Marie-Madeleine to lead the movement. She achieved a notable success when her agent Jeannie Rousseau convinced a Wehrmacht officer to draw a rocket and a testing station revealing details of Peenemünde and the V2 rocket programme. These details were forwarded to the Allies.
The British military authorities were so impressed with the quality of Marie-Madeleine’s reports that they sent her a wireless operator. Unfortunately, the wireless operator became a double agent and a number of her colleagues were arrested and murdered by the Gestapo.
After sending her children to live in the safe haven of Switzerland, Marie-Madeleine spent months on the run, moving from city to city to avoid detection. While on the run she gave birth to her third child, a son, whom she hid in a safe-house.
In July 1943, with the Gestapo closing in, Marie-Madeleine left France for Britain where she worked for British intelligence. Although eager to return to France, she had to wait until July 1944 when she rejoined her Noah’s Ark agents.
In Noah’s Ark all the agents were assigned animal names as code names. Their assignments involved gathering information about Nazi troop movements and transmit this intelligence to Britain using a network of couriers and clandestine wireless transmitters.
The Nazis were able to track down wireless signals, which meant that wireless transmission was perilous work. In total, the Noah’s Ark network lost 438 agents, but still others stepped forward to continue the fight against fascism.
The Gestapo captured Marie-Madeleine on two occasions. Arrested with her staff on 10 November 1942 she escaped and was transported by aeroplane to Britain where she continued to direct the network.
On her return to France, Marie-Madeleine was captured for a second time. Once again, she escaped this time by stripping naked and squeezing her petite body between the bars of her cell window.
After the war, Marie-Madeleine wrote L’Arche de Noé, a memoir of her wartime experiences. The book was published in 1968 and later abridged and translated into English as Noah’s Ark.
Active in her community, Marie-Madeleine’s social works included the care of 3,000 Resistance agents and survivors, and the publication of Mémorial de l’Alliance, which was dedicated to the 438 Resistance fighters lost during the war.
Marie-Madeleine remarried and in total had five children. She remained active on many committees, often chairing them, throughout her life. One of her last battles involved the Klaus Barbie lawsuit in Lyon in 1987, which resulted in his conviction for war crimes.
Marie-Madeleine Fourcade died on 20 July 1989, aged eighty, at the military hospital of Val-de-Grace. She was buried with honours and is remembered as one of the true heroines of France.