a ruthless female double agent
As a French Resistance agent, Mathilde Carre's stealth, feline looks and duplicity earned her the nickname la chatte (the cat). Arrested by the Germans, she turned double agent and betrayed many of her colleagues.
"On a cold rainy day last week, curious Parisians packed a dingy courtroom in the Palais de Justice to hear a red-robed judge pronounce sentence on Mathilde Carre... The French thought they understood Mathilde, though they could not forgive her." So began a report in Time magazine on January 17, 1949. Although widely reported, the trial
('A pert, petite woman with bangs - the very picture of a Parisian gamine', is how Time magazine described Mathilde Carre in its report on her trial)
of Mathilde Carre raised few eyebrows. By 1949, the world was reeling with shock at the evidence of Nazi inhumanity that had emerged from the Nuremberg War Crimes trials - and by comparison the intrigues of a French double agent paled into insignificance. But as far as Carre was concerned, the trial was a matter of life and death - four years after the end of the Second World War, being found guilty of spying for an enemy power could still warrant the death penalty.
THE HEROIC RESISTANCE FIGHTER
Born in France in 1910, Mathilde Carre was educated at the Sorbonne and became a teacher. On her marriage to an army officer she moved to Algeria but, not long after the outbreak of war, her husband was killed and the widowed Carre volunteered to return to Paris and train as a nurse.
Female agents during the Second World War
Under the codename 'Annette', she conducted secret operations in occupied France, barely escaping arrest by Germans;
At the end of the war, she was awarded the George Cross for her work as a secret agent in the service of the British, as well as the French order of the Legion d'Honneur, and was feted as a national heroine.
As Ursula Beurton, she was one of the most successful spies of the 20th century. From 1930 onwards, she worked under the codename Sonja as an agent for the military intelligence division of the Soviet Red Army.
In June 1940, the German army occupied the French capital and Carre's unit moved out, eventually settling in Toulon - a major port on the Mediterranean coast. She ran a reception centre for French troops who had become separated from their units. Here, her path crossed with that of a charismatic young Pole, Roman Czerniawski, who, disguised as a Frenchman, was working undercover against the German occupation.
Carre was both impressed and attracted by Czerniawski - codenamed 'Walenty' to the Poles and 'Armand' or 'Victor' to the French - and she joined his Paris-based espionage network, Interallie. Her codename was 'Victoire' - all the staff in her section had cryptonyms beginning with V. (Interallie named its agents and their sectors using christian names grouped by letters of the alphabet.) Travelling all over the country, Carre gathered information about German troop movements, including identifying and pinpointing Luftwaffe and SS Panzer divisions near Bordeaux, and ascertaining that the German attack on Gibraltar had been abandoned. Her stealthiness soon earned 'Victoire' a second codename, la chatte.
LOYALTY VERSUS LIFE
When Carre's resistance cell was betrayed by a double agent, German counterintelligence - the Abwehr - began making arrests of French agents. Carre was detained by Hugo Bleicher in November 1941 and given an ultimatum - either become a double agent or die. Carre chose to live.
To save her own skin she revealed the names of more than 30 comrades. But she went a step further: continuing to use her codename 'Victoire', she successfully set traps for them all, one after the other. Even her former lover Roman Czerniawski and his new girlfriend were among her victims.
'A spy in the right place is worth 20,000 men at the front.'
Carre may have become Bleicher's mistress; whether she did or not, under his control she maintained radio contact with London, giving the Allies one false scent after another. She was certain of one thing - she would remain alive only while she was of use to the Germans. Meanwhile, Carre continued to enjoy French and British trust as a loyal member of the Interallie. Now that the group's communications network had been all but destroyed, Carre was called to London along with a resistance leader, Pierre De Vomecourt. The Abwehr, thrilled to be infiltrating the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), had no hesitation in letting Carre and Vomecourt leave France.
THE CAT LOSES A LIFE
It didn't work out quite as planned. Once she was in London, British counter intelligence, MI5, quickly discovered Carre's dual allegiance and she was arrested in 1942 and taken to Holloway prison. Later she was moved to a detention centre near Aylesbury, where it was noted that she also acted as an informant against her fellow prisoners. Carre remained in Britain for the rest of the war when she was extradited to face trial in France.
During Carre's time in Britain, an MI5 informer called Mrs Barton reported on a party at Claridges where Carre met Lord Selboume (Minister for the Special Operations Executive), with whom she got on extremely well. Barton said that 'even if only half of what she told me is true it seems to me that he is behaving exceedingly foolishly. . . [she] is an exceedingly dangerous woman'.
During the years she spent in prison before appearing in court, Carre wrote her memoirs, J'ai ete la Chatte (I was the she-cat). During her trial she refused to admit her guilt and, despite the glowing testimony of Paul Archard, one of her wartime resistance commanders, few others spoke in her defence. She had betrayed too many. Carre was dumbfounded when she was sentenced to death by hanging. But within a few months, her sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment. She eventually died in 1970. It seemed that this cat did indeed have nine lives.