Madeleine's War

Madeleine's War

by Peter Watson


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When Colonel Matthew Hammond was posted to the European theater during World War II, he sustained a serious injury on the front lines that cost him a lung. Now he is back in England, unable to fight, but continuing to serve his country by training new resistance fighters in SC2, a specialist sabotage outfit. One of the recruits under his tutelage is the spellbinding Madeleine Dirac, an exotic French-Canadian nurse. Despite protocols discouraging romance, they fall deeply in love.
        Matthew is torn about putting Madeleine’s life in danger: he has mixed duty and pleasure before, with tragic results—his former lover, Celestine, was killed in an attempt to assassinate a Nazi doctor. But the Allies are mustering all their resources for crucial beach landings in Normandy, and Matthew knows his unit will be needed to parachute its agents in behind Nazi lines. Vivid and unforgettable, Madeleine’s War is a gripping tale of love in wartime—and of men and women caught in the sweep of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101873427
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 938,657
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter Watson is a well-known and respected historian are published in twenty-five languages. He was educated at the Universities of Durham, London, and Rome, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous publications in the United Kingdom. From 1998 to 2007 he has been a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. He has written two previous novels, Gifts of War and The Clouds Beneath the Sun, under the pen name Mackenzie Ford.

Read an Excerpt


I remember that day so well--late May 1944, early evening. As Winston Churchill himself said in another context, it was both the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end.

Southwater. A small Sussex village, made up of barely more than one street, with white-painted houses set back from the road, a pebble-faced church, a stone-built school, a pub--the Black Prince, which looked appetizing though we never had time to visit it--and a roped-off cricket field which bordered the road, where play sometimes stopped the traffic on match days, when the ball was hit beyond the boundary.

The airfield, which was our only reason for visiting Southwater, was well hidden, beyond the village, off the Chichester road. The lane by which it was approached wound round and dipped through a copse of beech trees--until you were again facing the village, but viewed from behind. The loamy field, flat on its northern reaches, and edged by a line of hawthorn, rolled away to give at its southern limit a fine view of the Sussex Downs, Pevensey in the distance, and beyond that, on a clear day, a very clear day . . . France itself.

There was a hangar of sorts at one end of the field. Just brick walls with a corrugated iron roof, and an abandoned concrete bunker, which had, in an earlier era of the war, stood ready to resist invasion.

Madeleine and I were lying on the grass, waiting. Waiting for the pilot and waiting for the moon. These were our last hours together, at least for now. She was wearing a blue dress with small white flowers printed across it, a dress made in the French style in our London factory, in keeping with her cover. There was a single row of pearls at her neck, and a leather shoulder bag lay on the grass beside her. She wore flat shoes. Her hair fluttered and flowed out behind her in the wind. Her gypsy hair, as I sometimes called it--her Botticelli hair, long, auburn, and unruly-curly, floating about the goddess in The Birth of Venus--was her most distinctive feature. She was forever pulling it away from her face, or gathering it up to let the back of her neck breathe.

She loved her hair, though she knew it was always going to be in the way. She was tall, but not too tall, and when she raised her arms to pull back her hair, whatever blouse or shirt or frock she was wearing tightened over her breasts. Her skin was paper white, and her lips more creamy brown than red. In the early evening light, she stood out--she shone--like a stained-glass figure on a dim church wall.

Across the field, to our left, the roofs of Southwater mingled with the trees, soon to be lost in the gloom.

Madeleine leant across and kissed my cheek. She had a slender, wispy figure, like those Debenham’s models pictured in the newspapers. She often held her lips slightly open, as if she were out of breath, or having second thoughts about saying something. Her eyes were the burnished brown of whisky (whisky is my main vice). When she was astonished, or amused, or aroused, her eyelashes settled on her cheeks like bird’s feet on sand.

“Will you miss me?”

“Silly question. Let’s go through your poem again.”

She rolled back on the grass and shook her head. “No need. I haven’t forgotten it.” She squinted at the sky. “What time does the moon rise?”

I looked at my watch. “Half an hour, forty minutes.”

“Why did we get here so early?”

“Regulations. Nothing last-minute. So your mind is settled before you go. So you don’t forget anything. You’ve got your instructions, sewn in as you were told?”

She picked up my hand and kissed it. Her lips were warm and wet. “I think you are more nervous than I am. And I’m the one going.”

“Don’t unstitch the instructions until you hear from us. Just in case you are caught and tortured . . . It’s safer for you not to know things before you have to.”

“You are nervous, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been there--you know that. I know what it’s like on the ground in France, how dangerous it is, what the risks are. I’m right to be nervous. It helps to be a little bit nervous--it stops you getting slack.”

At that moment we heard a car.

We scrambled to our feet. The car emerged from the copse of trees in the lane, its headlights already blazing, and then the lights started bobbing and weaving as the car slowed and drove across the grass of the field. Although the colour had gone out of the day, I recognized the vehicle as a Morris, standard issue for the Royal Air Force.

We watched as the car was parked next to my Lagonda, the engine was switched off, and the driver got out. He came towards us. I recognized him.

“Jack!” I cried. “Matthew Hammond. Matt Hammond. Remember me?--Drucourt, forty-two.”

He looked at me in the gathering gloom. He was a compact man, muscular and sinewy.

He held out his hand. “Of course, of course. How’s the wound?”

“I’ll live, but I’ve been grounded.”

“Chest wound, wasn’t it? Shrapnel.”

“You’ve got a good memory.”


“I lost a lung, had to give up sabotage--and tobacco, of course, or that’s what I told the quack. All the rest is working, though. For now at least. And you’re still flying.”

He smiled. “Shot down once, over Valençay. Managed to parachute to safety, then got away along a ratline.” He nodded. “So here we are, still at war.”

“Where’s the rest of your squadron?”

“Five miles away. On a field four times as big as this one, with a concrete strip.” He looked about him. “This is much better for what we are about to do tonight.” Looking at Madeleine, he went on. “And this is tonight’s mission?”

He and Madeleine shook hands.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m--”

“Don’t tell me,” he said quickly. “It’s safer for us all if I don’t know.” He looked at me. “It will take me half an hour to get ready. These Lysanders need TLC. By then the moon should be on the rise. Does that give you long enough?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “We’re ready now.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can.” And he walked off towards the hangar.

“How long will the flight be, do you think?” said Madeleine.

I stroked her hair. “Le Gavre is north of Nantes and inland from St. Nazaire--about five hundred and fifty miles direct but probably nearer to seven hundred with the route you will take. Close to four hours in the air, I’d say.”

She looked up at me. The cleft in her chin formed a tiny shadow. “Do you really think the invasion will come from the Atlantic?”

“I don’t know where the invasion will take place, or when. It will be soon, we know that, but exactly when . . .” I shook my head again. “You could be going to help the Resistance play their part when the invasion starts--or you could be a decoy. None of us knows.”

“I hope I’m not a decoy,” she sighed. “Not after all this training.”

Her voice matched her height and figure--rich, deep, with that French-Canadian lilt she had picked up at school in Quebec.

“Being a decoy would be safer.”

She shook her head vehemently. “Stop trying to reassure me! That’s not what I want. Imagine life after the war and not having . . . not having been in any danger.”

“Talking like that is a danger.”

“You’ve been in danger, you’ve got your wound.”

I let a pause go by. “You were right earlier--I am more nervous than you. If you are not on your toes the whole time . . . I messed up. I don’t want that to happen to you.” I gestured to Jack, now making noises in the hangar. “We’ve got half an hour. Let’s go for a stroll over the field.”

The dark had descended completely now and as we walked away from the hangar, the night closed in around us. I put my arm around Madeleine’s shoulders and buried my face in her hair. The soft sweetness of her scent rose to meet me, the muskiness I had first breathed in Scotland weeks before when she was training in Ardlossan and I was part of the instructor course.

“I won’t go on,” I said as softly as I could, “but if the worst happens and you do get caught . . . If they can prove you are what you are, then they can execute you. They will probably torture you before--”

She stopped, disengaged herself from under my arm, turned and put her fingers to my lips. “We’ve been through all this, hundreds of times.” She tapped her pocket. “I’ve got the pill we are all given.” She kissed me. “I’ll use it. I’ve told you before, I’m not sleepwalking here. I know what I’m doing and why. And you know why too. Stop treating me as if I’m--I don’t need to say that again, either.”

She looked up at me. “Just think. If I hadn’t injured my knee, all those years ago, I might have been a proper dancer by now, entertaining the troops somewhere, in Italy or the Middle East.”

She had fallen, as a young member of the corps de ballet, and broken her patella.

“And we might never have met.”

She kissed the tip of my nose. “You might have come to see me dance--hung around the stage door.”

“I don’t like queues.” I grinned.

We walked on a bit, further into the field, arm in arm.

“I wonder what Leni’s doing tonight?” Madeleine breathed. “Dinner à deux with Herr Hitler, or filming a night scene somewhere?”

Since Madeleine had discovered that the German film-maker had also begun adult life as a dancer, and then damaged her knee, she had followed Leni Riefenstahl’s progress as she grew more famous and got closer and closer to Hitler. She was a walking archive of the details of Riefenstahl’s life.

“Maybe she’s too close to Hitler,” I replied. “If Germany loses this war, she could end up in prison.”

“Do you think so? I suppose she is the most well-known woman in the Third Reich. That’s an achievement of sorts.”

Off to our left, a full moon was rising, silvery, slightly mottled, like an old coin, rendering the sky about it a deep indigo.

“Is that the last full moon before the invasion?” she asked.

I nodded. “There’s a good chance, I would say. Better than fifty-fifty.”

I didn’t tell her that I had sent more agents abroad in the past ten days than at any time previously. Tonight was unusual in that only Madeleine was going, but then I had had some say in that. If she had to go--and I knew she had to go, though it devastated me--I wanted her to myself at the last moments. The evening before I had seen off four, and five the night before that. Tomorrow three would be going. Anyone in the know could read the signs.

“And do you think . . .” Her voice caught. “Do you think it will be the last full moon I shall ever see?”

“Don’t,” I breathed.

It was the only time I ever knew her to show any doubt about what she was doing.

“Time to go back, I think,” she said in the same Quebecois tones. “Time for the Oak to fly.”

“Just a second.” I put my hand on her arm and with the other took a small package from my pocket. “This is for you.”

She looked up at me, her lips slightly parted, in that way that she had.

“Matt,” she said softly, her voice lingering on the last letters of my name. Her fingers pulled at the tissue paper.

The paper fell open.

“Oh. Oh, yes! Of course, how like you. An acorn, a gold acorn.” She held it in the palm of her hand. “It’s beautiful, beautifully made--how lovely. I shall wear it always. No one will ever guess.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed my cheek.

“I found it in a shop near Hatton Garden and couldn’t resist it. I thought . . . I thought . . . You know what I thought.”

She pinned the brooch to her coat.

“I’m overwhelmed,” she whispered. “Until this war ends, only you and I will know what this means. Our own wartime secret.”

“If you get captured, throw it away. That’s an order.” I smiled.

“I don’t think I have ever disobeyed you before, Colonel,” she said. “But the Oak is not going anywhere without this acorn, not even if she gets captured.”

She patted her hand over the brooch. “I already feel warm inside, just here.”

She kissed my cheek again. “Let’s go back now. Now I’m ready for anything. Ready for take-off.”

As we approached the hangar, the bark of the Lysander’s engine suddenly broke across the field as it erupted into life.

Madeleine picked up her shoulder bag and her other case, containing her change of clothing and her radio transmitter. The tone of the plane’s engine rose and then fell, as Jack eased the Lysander out from under the hangar. He taxied a few yards forward, then stopped and killed the engine.

Silence closed in around us. How far from the war we seemed just then.

Jack got down from the plane and stepped across. He held something out to Madeleine.

“This is a map--once we get aloft, there’ll be enough moonlight to read by. You can follow our route--west, more or less, to the Cherbourg peninsula, then south. Three hours and forty minutes if the wind holds steady.”

Madeleine took the map.

“Now, let me see you into your parachute.”

I stood and watched as he helped Madeleine fasten the straps in the correct configuration.

When it was fitted, she turned to me. She pulled her hair off her face again and kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t wish me luck,” she urged. “Don’t say anything. Let these be my last words.” Her voice fell to a murmur. “Le chene, je t’aime toujours.”

She brushed her lips across my cheek. A surge of desire rushed through my veins. How long before that would happen again?

“I love you. I love you always.” She pressed a small packet into my hand. “Don’t open it until I’ve taken off.”

Turning quickly, she moved towards the plane.

Jack helped her up and in, stowed her bags, and lifted her made-in-France bicycle behind her. Then he hauled himself into the pilot’s seat and all too quickly restarted the engine. In what seemed like no time the Lysander was taxiing towards the end of the field.

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