Probably because they were so exceptional. By convention women were never used in combat roles. Even the doughty ATS women working on anti-aircraft guns in the Blitz who set the sights, loaded the shells and died alongside their male colleagues, weren’t allowed to actually fire the guns. Yet women SOE agents operating undercover in enemy territory were trained to kill in close combat. And they were more than ready to use the ingenious and gruesome methods they’d been taught.
Their stories have all the ingredients of a macho adventure: a moral imperative to succeed; high-risk operations against impossible odds; constant danger of discovery; secret codes and cover stories … plus glamour, love and passion. It’s an irresistible recipe. It is also our recent history. These stories that read like fiction are real.
That’s what attracted me to the exceptional life and sad demise of Elaine Madden.
She is little known, perhaps because she was one of only two women employed as agents by SOE’s T (Belgian) Section when most attention has been paid to the many brave women of F Section operating in France – some of whom never returned. But Belgium was equally if not more dangerous for SOE agents in the latter stages of the war when Elaine was parachuted into the Ardennes region. T Section agents had a 1-in-3 chance of not coming back alive and only weeks before she arrived four had been caught, tortured and beheaded. Elaine was lucky. She did come back, though it was more than fifty years before she felt able to talk about her part in the war, such were the painful memories it invoked.
And as I discovered, that part was so much more than her SOE exploits …
Elaine had a very unusual upbringing. Her Australian father had served on the Western Front in the Great War, married a local Flemish girl and stayed on, working in the war cemeteries of Flanders Fields. Elaine, their only child, was born in Poperinghe in 1923 and assumed British nationality like her father. She had an English education at the British Memorial School in nearby Ypres where patriotism and a sense of duty was instilled in all the children. Though she’d never been to the UK she never for a moment doubted she was British.
Her childhood and family life were marked by a series of tragedies that culminated in the German invasion of May 1940 and the bombing of Poperinghe. To save her life she had to flee for what she’d always considered her real home – England.
Her dramatic flight and eventual escape through Dunkirk with the evacuating British Expeditionary Force is a story in itself, but there were many more to come … the heat and horror of the London Blitz, recruitment to an organisation about which she was told nothing, her bizarre training, the clandestine operations and close shaves, the glorious release of Liberation and a cruel betrayal.
Even that wasn’t the end. There were two more secret operations, one in newly-liberated concentration camps for which no training could have prepared her …
I met Elaine towards the end of her life. That charisma and spark of defiance were still there, though she’d suffered more personal tragedy and loss in her post-war life. Now well into her 80s, she felt abandoned in her small flat in southern France, apparently forgotten by the country she’d risked her life to serve. It was as if, despite the painful memories, she longed to relive the intensity and excitement of those wartime years when she was needed, admired and loved.
Alongside those brave women of F Section, Elaine Madden deserves to be remembered. I Heard My Country Calling is my tribute to her and testament to her extraordinary life and exceptional courage.
By Sue Elliott