THE BLOG

The Spy Who Loved Me

Can you picture what it’s like to be terribly in love, and know that all you have is a few hours, this moment in time?

12/02/2018 10:55 GMT | Updated 12/02/2018 11:47 GMT
The Moth
HuffPost UK

During World War II, I was a pupil at the French Lycée in London. But on reaching the ripe old age of 18, I was obliged to abandon my studies and either join the armed forces or work in a munitions factory.

Well, that option did not thrill me. So I decided to become a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Because I liked the hat. I thought it was most seductive.

But when I went to sign on, I was taken aside and closeted in a kind of windowless broom cupboard with a high-ranking army officer, who began asking me an awful lot of questions which had nothing to do with the navy.

He was leaping like a demented kangaroo in and out of four languages. And he seemed very surprised that I could keep up.

He sent me to a large building in central London. Oh, I knew it well. But like the hordes of people who passed by every day, never had I imagined or even suspected that this was the headquarters of Churchill’s secret army. And that behind those walls, members of every occupied country were organizing acts of sabotage, and the infiltration of secret agents into enemy territory at night, by parachute, fishing boat, felucca, and submarine.

Without realising what had happened, I had been recruited into the hidden world of secret agents on special missions. (But I never got my seductive hat.)

I was assigned to “F” for France section. It was an exhausting but exciting, thrilling, exhilarating life, full of action and emotion. We lived some very intense moments.

I got to know an awful lot of agents. And I shared many confidences with those who were about to leave. They told me of their concerns for their families — many of them were married with young children — and of their own apprehension of torture and of death.

They knew they only had a 50% chance of coming back.

And they were afraid.

Brave men are always afraid. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the willingness — the guts, if you like — to face the fear.

They faced their fears. And they left.

Fiona Hanson - PA Images via Getty Images
Members of the SOE and a WWII French Resistance veteran greet the Band of Brothers bike ride cyclist fundraising for Help for Heroes at Bernay Aerodrome, France. Noreen Riols is on the right.

I remember one. He was Jewish. A radio operator. And he was going in on a second mission. Well, for a Jewish person to go in at all was extremely dangerous. But many did — we had quite a few Jewish agents. But a radio operator? A second mission?

A radio operator was the most stressful, hazardous, dangerous mission of all. He lived on his nerves. He could never relax. He was always on the run, always with the Gestapo just a couple of steps behind him. He needed nerves of steel, because once infiltrated, his life expectancy was six weeks.

I was with this agent on the night before he left. Oh, there was no romantic association; I was just keeping him company. After all, he was an old man—he was almost thirty-five.

During the evening he drew out of his pocket a small velvet box. And inside there was a gold chain with a Star of David and a dove of peace hanging on it.

He said simply, “I’d like you to have this.”

“Thank you so much,” I stammered. “I’m terribly touched, but I couldn’t possibly accept it.” He looked so sad. So disappointed.

He said, “Please do, oh, please do. All my family in France has perished in a German concentration camp. I’ve nobody left in the world. And I’d like to think that somebody remembers me. Somebody perhaps even thinks of me when I’m over there.”

So I took his little box, promising to look after it and give it back to him when he returned.

But he didn’t return.

Those who did return were taken immediately for a debriefing, and I often accompanied the two debriefing officers.

For me it was a revelation to see their different reactions. Some returned with their nerves absolutely shattered, in shreds. Their hands were shaking uncontrollably as they lit cigarette after cigarette. 

simonbradfield via Getty Images

Others were as cool as cucumbers. I realised then that we all have a breaking point. And we can never know until we’re faced with the situation what that breaking point actually is. Perhaps that is why departing agents were strongly urged if arrested by the Gestapo to take the cyanide pill, which was always hidden somewhere around their person, before they left. It would kill them within two minutes.

I grew up attending those debriefing sessions.

Many of those agents weren’t very much older than I. Hearing their incredible stories, witnessing their courage, their total dedication, I changed almost overnight from a teenager to a woman.

One snowy Saturday evening in early February, I was told that I was to leave and go down to Beaulieu. Now, Beaulieu was the last of the many secret training schools. These training schools were dotted all over England. And the future agents attended each one in turn during their long, tough, six-month training. Beaulieu, or Group B as it was called, was in Hampshire, deep in the New Forest. Only six women worked there during the war, and I am the last survivor.

We were used as decoys. We worked in the neighboring seaside towns of Bournemouth and Southampton. My pitch was usually Bournemouth.

It was there that we taught future agents how to follow someone — find out where they were going, who they were seeing — without being detected. How to detect if someone were following them and throw them off. How to pass messages without any sign of recognition or even moving our lips. This took place on the beach, in the park, on benches in the town, in telephone booths, and in the tearooms above the Gaumont Cinema.

The last exercise was reserved for those future agents whom the instructors thought might talk. Now, the instructors were with them all the time. They watched their every movement. They analysed it all. And if they thought that they might talk, they would have a carefully prearranged setup meeting between a decoy and a future agent in one of the two grand hotels in Bournemouth.

(Of course, if I had taken part in the earlier exercises, I couldn’t take part in that one, because they would know me, and then one of the other women took over.)

The meeting would take place in the bar or the lounge, followed by an intimate dinner tête-à-tête. It was our job to get them to talk — to betray themselves, in fact. 

I think it was then that I realised my whole life was a lie. I lied to everybody. I had to. To those agents. To my friends. To my family.

The Brits didn’t talk much. Foreigners sometimes did, especially young ones. Oh, I understood. They were lonely. They were far from their homes and their families. They didn’t even know if they would have a home, or even a country, to go back to once the war was over. And it was flattering to have a young girl hanging on their every word. Before they were returned to London at the end of their month in Beaulieu — and it was in London, in their country section, that their fate would be decided — each one had an interview with our commandant, Colonel Woolrych. (We called him Woolly Bags behind his back.) He had all the reports from the different training schools, and he made his final report that went back to London and carried a lot of weight.

Now, if they had talked, during the interview a door would open and I, or another decoy, would walk in.

Woolly Bags would say, “Do you know this woman?” And they would realise they’d been tricked.

Most of them took it well. But I’ll never forget one. He was a Dane — oh, a glorious blond Adonis. I think he was rather taken with me. (At the time I weighed about twelve kilos less, and I didn’t have white hair.)

When I entered the room, he looked at me with surprise, and then almost pain.

Finally, blind fury overtook him. He half rose in his chair and said, “You bitch!”

Well, no woman likes being called a bitch.

But as Woolly Bags said to me afterwards, “If he can’t resist talking to a pretty face over here, he’s not going to resist when he’s over there. And it won’t only be his life that is in danger, it will be many others.”

I think it was then that I realised my whole life was a lie. I lied to everybody. I had to. To those agents. To my friends. To my family.

My mother thought I worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. She died at 80 without ever knowing the truth, because all of us at the secret army were under the Official Secrets Act for sixty years, until those files were opened in the year 2000. And by then most of us were dead.

On the eve of my 19th birthday, I fell madly, hopelessly in love with an agent. He was one of our best agents. A crack. He’d just returned from a very successful second mission, and he was adulated. He was a legend in the section. I’d heard all about him, but I never thought I’d meet him. Then, suddenly one evening, he was there. Our eyes locked across a crowded room. And it was as if a magnet drew us irresistibly towards each other.

I couldn’t believe that he could love me. He was handsome. He was 12 years older than I. He was a hero.

He must have met many beautiful, sophisticated, elegant, gorgeous women. (Oh, he had—he told me. But he said he’d been looking for me.) Our idyll lasted three months, until he left on his next mission. 

He took me back to the office, and we said goodbye at the bus stop. I don’t think we even said goodbye.

I was terrified. It was a very dangerous mission. They said only he could carry it off. I was so afraid. But he reassured me. He said he was a survivor. And he promised me that this would be his last mission, and when he came back, he’d never leave me again. We’d grow old together.

The day he left, we had lunch, just the two of us, in a little intimate restaurant. We both knew that it would be many months perhaps before we’d be together again.

We kept emotion out of our conversation. I think we were both afraid of breaking down. I know if we hadn’t, I would have broken down, and I’d have begged him not to go.

I imagine you’ve all been in love. Can you picture what it’s like to be terribly in love, and know that all you have is a few hours, this moment in time?

He took me back to the office, and we said goodbye at the bus stop. I don’t think we even said “goodbye.”

As I walked through the door, I turned. He was standing on the pavement, watching me. He smiled and raised his hand to his red parachutist beret. A final salute.

He was infiltrated that night.

I never saw him again.

The mission was successful, but he didn’t return. And I was left with a little cameo of a perfect love. Perfect, perhaps, because it had been so brief. When the news that I’d dreaded came through, they tried to comfort me. They told me I should be proud. He was incredibly courageous — a wonderful man, who realised that there was a force of evil in the world that had to be annihilated, but that freedom has a price tag. He paid that price with his life.

But I didn’t want a dead hero. I didn’t want a medal in a velvet box. I wanted Bill.

All those agents in the secret army were volunteers. They didn’t have to go. But they went. Almost half of them never returned. Like Bill, they gave their youth, their joie de vivre, their hopes and dreams for the future.

They gave their all, for us.

They gave their today, so that we might have our tomorrow.

This story is cross-posted from The Moth for Love Less Ordinary, a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Noreen tell her story live here.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.