In 1943, 18-year-old Noreen Riols was recruited to the F-section (F for France) of the Special Operations Executive - also called "Churchill's Secret Army". She first worked at the French section's office, so she was present at the debriefing meetings with agents who returned from 'the field' (i.e. from enemy-occupied France).
Later, Noreen was sent to Beaulieu, where prospective agents were trained, and her part in the training was to act as a decoy: sometimes the agents were to try to 'shadow' her, or they would 'practice' passing secret messages to her or receiving messages from her. Another aspect of her work was putting some men's integrity to test: will they talk of their secret assignments to a pretty girl on a romantic moonlight terrace, or can they keep their mouths shut? As the commandant in charge of training said to Noreen: "If he can't resist talking to a pretty face over here, he most certainly won't once he's over there. And it won't be only his own life he'll be risking, but the lives of many others as well."
Noreen Riols has written her memoirs, but it's not only her story. She also recounts a lot of stories about the agents she had met and known. I sometimes felt that the book was rambling - as if she was writing things in the order they occurred to her, not in the chronological order they had happened. One agent's story reminds her of another, and so on. Some people are mentioned many times, and if you need a memory aid, there's a list of F Section's circuits and agents at the end of the book.
Many of the stories are tragic, not only of those who died or disappeared during the war. Life was not easy for former agents after the war, either. Since their operations had been secret and they had to remain quiet about what they had done, many people's heroism was not recognized for decades. Riols also talks about the enmity that the official intelligence agency, MI6, as well as the French leader General de Gaulle showed towards SOE.
Sometimes, Riols pauses to wonder how this life, filled with anxiety, stress, 'no questions asked' and endless lies to protect the operations affected the people involved in it. Some seemed to cope very well, some had more problems. "Trauma doesn't suddenly go away, it lives with you, maybe even colours the rest of your life," Riols writes. Also: "I realized that it is the way a person reacts to suffering which shapes them and forms their character. I could either let the pain dominate me and make me bitter, or I could use the pain to my advantage, learn from the experience, albeit a painful lesson, but through it grow and become a more rounded, more mature person."
I definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in World War 2, and/or agents and espionage.