Title: The Secret Ministry of AG & Fish
Author: Noreen Riols
Riols, Noreen (2013). The Secret Ministry of AG & Fish: My Life In Churchill’s Secret Army. London: Macmillan
|Great Britain. Special Operations Executive — Biography|
|World War, 1939-1945 — Secret service — Great Britain — Biography|
|Intelligence officers — Great Britain — Biography|
Date Posted: April 12, 2017
Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake
Intelligence-related codenames are often intended to deflect attention from an operation’s true purpose or person’s actual duties. “Manhattan Project” and “Tube Alloys” were US and UK code-names, respectively, for aspects of atom bomb programs, and “The Fluency” committee concerned a British molehunt—not language competence. Perhaps the most unusual WWII codename was the “Secret Ministry of AG. & Fish,” a fictitious British war cabinet office created by Noreen Blois to put her mother’s mind at ease—she never learned the truth while her daughter was employed by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
In her memoir of the same name, Ms. Riols, the only woman survivor of SOE’s F Section (concerned with operations in France), relates how she ended up training officers who were to be sent behind German lines in France. Her path to SOE was unusual. Called to duty as a teenager, she was faced with service in a munitions factory or the military. She initially chose the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WREN) “mainly because I liked the hat.” (p. 11) But the bureaucracy disagreed with her choice. The rules also kept her out of a BBC job she had been offered. About to be sent to a factory, she was saved by an SOE recruiter. Her qualifications included fluency in French and a willingness to keep her work secret. That she was young and attractive, she would eventually learn, also mattered.
At first Riols “didn’t really have a job title… I was a general dogsbody…” (p. 25) or—in indisputable English—a girl-Friday. But the work was interesting and she met some of the most famous SOE officers, including Forest Yeo-Thomas and Leo Marks, the cryptographer whose father owned the “84 Charing Cross Road” antiquarian bookstore.
Eventually she was transferred to the training facility at Beaulieu “where future agents learned the art of spying.” (p. 130) There were 25 officer instructors at Beaulieu, all but two who had served in France and escaped when their codenames became known to the Germans. One of the two civilians was the “handsome, charming, efficient—everybody liked him—Kim Philby.” (p. 133)
Riols was one of three women at Beaulieu who became “decoys.” (p. 149) Their job was to meet trainees “by coincidence” in their off duty hours at hotels or pubs. After striking up conversations, they would try to persuade them—by any means necessary— to reveal details of their upcoming missions. Riols tells stories about those who “couldn’t resist a pretty face” (p. 157) and were released from the program.
Throughout the book, Riols includes diversions that reveal some of the operations undertaken by SOE agents and the price they paid when caught. She also includes stories about the political battles that occurred within MI6, an organization that did not look favorably upon SOE.
The Secret Ministry of AG. & Fish concludes with some reminiscences of Riols’s postwar life and her contributions to preserving the SOE story. This engaging book, written from the perspective of a low-level employee, adds to the richness of the literature of SOE’s wartime service.
 Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp. 133-134). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at www.cia.gov.