Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Despite the title, One Woman’s War is essentially the story of two women, one a British citizen and the other an Austrian. The Britisher is Victoire “Paddy” Bennett who walks one day into Room 39 at the Admiralty. She is expecting a secretarial position under the leadership of Commander Ian Fleming but discovers that Fleming requires much more of her. Fleming offers her the chance to influence policymaking in wartime viz., to deceive the Germans about the location of the mass invasion of British troops into Salonika rather than its true goal of Sicily.
So far, so good. The story of ‘the man who never was’ is well known in the historical literature pertaining to World War 2. The Spanish accepted the dummy body, reputedly being that of a British traveller killed in a plane crash. It is true that they shared the man’s papers with the German High Command, with the result that many German soldiers were withdrawn from Sicily.
I found this story confusing for the simple reason that its readers never know what elements of the story are fact and what are fiction. Paddy Bennett is no doubt fictional, but the con-job in which she was held to conduct a major part is non-fiction. Then the factual component is integrated with a story about Bennett’s newlywed status being placed in jeopardy by pressure from Fleming. Fiction, possibly. We just don’t know.
To regard the fictional character as identical with the equally fictitious Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond stories with no evidence in support of this odd assertion is most unusual. The advertising literature is misleading when it claims that “Miss Moneypenny’s international covert operation is put in jeopardy when a volatile socialite and Austrian double agent threatens to expose the mission to the German High Command”. I suspect that this is an allusion to an earlier book, not the present text.
The second major character is the socialite Friedl Stöttinger, a beautiful Austrian double agent, bullied by the Germans into spying for them. Her task is to work for MI-5, investigating fifth column activity among the British elite at parties and nightclubs. If she fails to report, her mother’s life is at risk. Friedl can read how the war is turning against the Germans, but some years before, she had agreed to work for German Intelligence and spy on the British. Oh dear! If you are confused as to whom she is working for, have a thought for Friedl, who does not seem to know either.
When her handler at MI-5 proposes that she work with Serbian agent, Duško Popov, Friedl falls hopelessly in love with the dashing spy. And when her intelligence work becomes fraught with danger, she must choose whether to remain loyal to the British and risk torture and execution by the Nazis, or betray thousands of men to their deaths.
There is no problem with Friedl’s story. It never tries to be anything other than a product of the author’s imagination.
Both stories are worth reading, but the English heroine’s tale requires some elucidation.
One Woman’s War
By Christine Wells
$32.99; 384 pp