World War II spy trainer speaks at Female event
April 4, 2013
The Vicenza Military Community had a living history lesson that won't be found in textbooks at the Golden Lion March 28 during a monthly Female 2 Female event in conjunction with Women's History Month.
In 1943 Noreen Riols was an average 17-year-old girl living in London, studying at a French Lycée when she was notified that she must sign up for her mandatory military service. Because her father was in the Navy she decided that she would like to sign up for the Women's Royal Naval Service, but mostly because she liked the hat they wore.
"I found (the hat) most seductive and one's legs were shown off to much better advantage in sheer black stockings than in the thick woolly khaki or dull blue ones issued to the unfortunate women recruits to the Army or Royal Air Force," Riols said.
When Riols went to sign up she was told the only positions available were cooks or stewards, which she didn't like. Her only other option was to work in a munitions factory. She ran into a friend who got her a job at the BBC, but she was told she must serve her country. When her language skills were discovered by the military, she was whisked away and questioned.
"I was told immediately that I couldn't tell anyone where I worked and what I was doing," Riols said.
Before she knew it, she had agreed to work for the Special Operation Executive or SOE, otherwise known as Churchill's secret army, that operated on Baker Street in the middle of London, working in the F Section, because of her French language skills.
"Passing by, you'd never know what went on inside. You'd just assume it was another office," Riols said. "The only orders I ever received were to not ask questions, so the less I knew, the better for my safety. Becoming a very good liar was a way of life."
Now 87, Riols is one of the few surviving members of the SOE. In those days she told her family and friends she was working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fish. The people working for the SOE had no regular hours or weekends off.
Agents were trained on clandestine skills including lock picking, blowing safes and killing silently. They were also given four different names and carried an ID card with false information such as education and profession. They were continually quizzed on the details of their cover identities in case they were captured.
Being a radio operator, which required eight to nine months of training in Scotland, was one of the most dangerous jobs. Those sent into the field had a 50 percent chance of returning, Riols said.
"We knew if we didn't hear from them within six or seven days, they were dead or caught," she said. "These motivated, handsome volunteers received no special benefits. They were paid the same as men filing papers in an office."
The radio operators were given specific times they were to transmit enemy movements or sabotage carried out. They could never transmit for longer than 50 minutes or risk the Germans detecting and locating them. Women couriers could easily carry around the transmitter, which weighed around 15 kilos, in baskets with vegetables covering them.
"These men sent so much out in Morse code they thought the birds sang in Morse," Riols said.
The agents were given "L tablets" to carry, which contained cyanide to take if they were captured. They were often sewn into clothes, hidden in hollow pipes or even tubes of lipstick. After taking the tablet, the agent would be dead within two minutes, she said.
"Brave men are always afraid of the possibility to face up to fear. These men didn't realize the danger; death happened to other people," Riols said.
After a short period of time Riols was sent to a cottage in the forest belonging to a member of Churchill's family that became known as a "finishing school" for the spies. Her job was to see if she could get them to give up information before they were sent out.
Riols said she believes there were at least two known enemy agents working within her section.
"One man who organized the parachutes was working for the Gestapo and was imprisoned in 1948," she said. The other man was never charged and is now dead.
When the war ended Riols went to work for the BBC for five and half years. She married a Frenchman, Jacques, who had been a spy. Together they have five children, nine grandchildren and are expecting their fourth and fifth great-grandchildren.
Riols also had a radio show called "Women's Hour" and worked as a freelance writer for many years. Her twelfth book, being released in August, is a personal memoir in which she discusses her life and work during the war.
While Riols was in Vicenza, she spoke with students at the Vicenza Middle School.
"This is such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students," said VMS principal, Dr. Julio Gonzalez.
Riols still hasn't forgotten the brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice during war. "The mission to the end of their lives was so that we can have our tomorrow," she said.
In 1990, files documenting the existence of the SOE were released to the public. Riols said people found it hard to believe what she had done for a living. "People told me, 'I had no idea, why didn't you tell me?'" she said.
There is one telltale sign Riols shared with the VCM audience. If you ever see someone with a very small pin that looks like a parachute, walk up to them and say "S-O-E." They may be one of the few.