Friday, June 6, 2014

Review of The Secrets of Rue St Roch by Janet Morgan (Penguin, 2004)

In 1995 Robert Bruce and his wife Janet Morgan opened a chest belonging to Robert’s father.  In it they discovered all the files belonging to a First World War spy ring run by Major George Bruce from a house on the Rue St Roch in Paris.  Rather than following protocol and filing or destroying the papers, Bruce had decided to maintain a personal archive of all the letters and coded newspaper stories concerning a successful train-spotting cell in Luxembourg.  The volume and scope of the material, along with subsequent interviews with the ring’s descendents, enabled Janet Morgan to construct a fascinating account of how the ring was created, how it operated, the personalities involved and their trials and tribulations, the politics of intra- and inter-service rivalries, and what the ring communicated to British intelligence. 

The lynch-pin to the operation was Madame Rischard, an upper-class house-wife to a Luxembourg doctor, who manages to travel from Luxembourg, through Germany and Switzerland to Paris to see her son, who is fighting for the French.  There she becomes stranded, having left Switzerland illegally, and is persuaded after many attempts by Major Bruce to become a secret agent and to set up a spy ring in her native country.  The aim of the ring was to collect information on all of the German supply and troop trains crossing the country and their destination, thus giving an indication of where future attacks might occur.  Whilst Madame Rischard, after intensive training in codes and espionage, was to travel back to her country by train via Switzerland, her fellow spymaster was to be flown in via a balloon drifting over enemy lines.  Baschwitz Meau, a Belgian soldier, was captured by the Germans, but escaped five times from prisoner of war camps before finally make it back to Allied territory.  An adventurer by nature, he volunteers to be infiltrated into Luxembourg to aid Madame Rischard in setting up the ring and collecting information.  There they are aided by Madame Rischard’s husband who tends to railway workers, a local teacher who writes newspaper stories that include a secret code, a local newspaper who publishes the stories, and a handful of railway workers.  The newspaper is sent to a priest in Switzerland, who then passed it on to British intelligence.  For the last nine months of the war the ring supplied detailed information that helped the allies determine the German’s battle plans.  After the war they were all decorated by British and French authorities.

The book is nicely written and constructed, and is full of detail about the whole operation -- perhaps too much detail in places, slowing the narrative a little.  Moreover, the personalities involved and their complex interplay are brought to life. Overall, an insightful and interesting read.

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