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Forces War Records Blog

THE WREN WHO SPREAD HER WINGS AND BECAME A SECRET ARMY MEMBER

Blogger: GemSen Noreen Riols joined the Wrens in 1943 and never expected to get instantly sent to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) headquarters in London’s Baker Street. Noreen was deemed far more useful here — she could speak fluent French. At the SOE Headquarters she was signed up with the F-section (F = France), led by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, as part of Churchill’s Secret Army to help train secret agents to support the French Resistance fighting for the Allies.
 
Keeping secrets became a way of life for Noreen during the war. She picked up codes in crosswords, acted as a decoy, passed on messages in tearooms and met agents returning from behind enemy lines. Noreen had wanted to train as an agent herself and go to occupied France but she was too young at the time. "I learned to be a very good liar," the 87-year-old told the Express newspaper. "I had to. I lied to my mother, my friends. I lied to everyone. I think during the war we were used to keeping secrets," she added. If anyone asked her where she worked, she would say: “The Ministry of Agriculture and Fish.” Espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance Officially formed on 22 July 1940, The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation set up to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. Not many people knew about the SOE's existence and to those who were part of it or liaised with it — it was known as "Churchill's Secret Army" or the "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" and was sometimes referred to as "the Baker Street Irregulars", after the location of its London headquarters. SOE operated in all countries or former countries occupied by or attacked by the Axis forces, except the Soviet Union and the United States. According to sources the organisation directly employed just over 13,000 people and about 3,200 of them were women. After the war, the organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. Noreen apparently never spoke a word about her time as a secret army member and she kept the secret right up until 2000, when the official SOE files were finally opened to the public. Her mother, who died in 1974, never discovered what her spirited daughter had been up to all those years ago. In 1944, Buckmaster sent Noreen to the finishing school for secret agents. This was where the future agents learned the art of spying and is where Noreen encountered a lot of characters that inspired her to write a book called: ‘The Secret Ministry Of Ag & Fish: My Life In Churchill's School For Spies’. One character that Noreen remembers is Forest Yeo-Thomas, known to the Germans as 'The White Rabbit' - suggested by one historian that he could have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond, reported the Express. Yeo-Thomas was one of the most tortured SOE agents and only escaped Buchenwald concentration camp thanks to a doctor who enabled him to exchange places with a corpse. Those who survived torture would tell Noreen how they recited Shakespeare, verses from the Bible or counted to 100 over and over again to distract themselves from the pain. Insurance against torture Referred to as the insurance against torture, agents were also apparently given 'L tablets' (lethal potassium cyanide) and would ensure death within two minutes of biting into it. Out of the 30 F-Section women agents that were infiltrated into France, 15 never returned, 12 were executed in various concentration camps and four were brutally burned alive at one camp. Noreen apparently believes that many of the books on this topic try to glamourise SOE and are riddled with inaccuracies. "I think somebody has got to tell the truth because there is such a lot of garbage written about SOE," she says. "Unfortunately, people are writing stuff that just isn't true and it makes me very angry." "There is nothing glamorous about being a secret agent," she says solemnly. "It's not like it's portrayed in popular fiction or on the silver screen. James Bond is great but it is not how things were.
"It is a life of loneliness, tension, fear and very often betrayal.
"It is having the dread of someone hammering on your door in the middle of the night or suddenly a hand on your shoulder or a gun pointed to your back as you walk along the street and then knowing that all that is left for you is torture and certain death. There is nothing glamorous about that." Source: Express Looking for your family’s war hero? Log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records to find out more about your own ancestors  – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered. Why not delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting war diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Forces War Records are fortunate to receive such amazing real life war stories involving lashings of courage, and now you can read some of them – completely free of charge.
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