The First Day
Sunday, May 28, 1944
One minute before the explosion, the square at Sainte-Cècile
was at peace. The evening was warm, and a layer of still air
covered the town like a blanket. The church bell tolled a lazy
beat, calling worshipers to the service with little enthusiasm. To
Felicity Clairet it sounded like a countdown.
The square was dominated by the seventeenth-century château. A
small version of Versailles, it had a grand projecting front
entrance, and wings on both sides that turned right angles and
tailed off rearwards. There was a basement and two main floors
topped by a tall roof with arched dormer windows.
Felicity, who was always called Flick, loved France. She enjoyed
its graceful buildings, its mild weather, its leisurely lunches,
its cultured people. She liked French paintings, French literature,
and stylish French clothes. Visitors often found the French people
unfriendly, but Flick had been speaking the language since she was
six years old, and no one could tell she was a foreigner.
It angered her that the France she loved no longer existed. There
was not enough food for leisurely lunches, the paintings had all
been stolen by the Nazis, and only the whores had pretty clothes.
Like most women, Flick was wearing a shapeless dress whose colors
had long ago been washed to dullness. Her heart's desire was that
the real France would come back. It might return soon, if she and
people like her did what they were supposed to.
She might not live to see it—indeed, she
might not survive the next few minutes. She was no fatalist; she
wanted to live. There were a hundred things she planned to do after
the war: finish her doctorate, have a baby, see New York, own a
sports car, drink champagne on the beach at Cannes. But if she was
about to die, she was glad to be spending her last few moments in a
sunlit square, looking at a beautiful old house, with the lilting
sounds of the French language soft in her ears.
The château had been built as a home for the local
aristocracy, but the last Comte de Sainte-Cècile had lost his
head on the guillotine in 1793. The ornamental gardens had long ago
been turned into vineyards, for this was wine country, the heart of
the Champagne district. The building now housed an important
telephone exchange, sited here because the government minister
responsible had been born in Sainte-Cècile.
When the Germans came they enlarged the exchange to provide
connections between the French system and the new cable route to
Germany. They also sited a Gestapo regional headquarters in the
building, with offices on the upper floors and cells in the
Four weeks ago the château had been bombed by the Allies. Such
precision bombing was new. The heavy four-engined Lancasters and
Flying Fortresses that roared high over Europe every night were
inaccurate—they sometimes missed an entire
city—but the latest generation of
fighter-bombers, the Lightnings and Thunderbolts, could sneak in by
day and hit a small target, a bridge or a railway station. Much of
the west wing of the château was now a heap of irregular
seventeenth-century red bricks and square white stones.
But the air raid had failed. Repairs were made quickly, and the
phone service had been disrupted only as long as it took the
Germans to install replacement switchboards. All the automatic
telephone equipment and the vital amplifiers for the long-distance
lines were in the basement, which had escaped serious damage.
That was why Flick was here.
The château was on the north side of the square, surrounded by
a high wall of stone pillars and iron railings, guarded by
uniformed sentries. To the east was a small medieval church, its
ancient wooden doors wide open to the summer air and the arriving
congregation. Opposite the church, on the west side of the square,
was the town hall, run by an ultraconservative mayor who had few
disagreements with the occupying Nazi rulers. The south side was a
row of shops and a bar called Cafè des Sports. Flick sat
outside the bar, waiting for the church bell to stop. On the table
in front of her was a glass of the local white wine, thin and
light. She had not drunk any.
She was a British officer with the rank of major. Officially, she
belonged to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, the all-female service
that was inevitably called the FANYs. But that was a cover story.
In fact, she worked for a secret organization, the Special
Operations Executive, responsible for sabotage behind enemy lines.
At twenty-eight, she was one of the most senior agents. This was
not the first time she had felt herself close to death. She had
learned to live with the threat, and manage her fear, but all the
same she felt the touch of a cold hand on her heart when she looked
at the steel helmets and powerful rifles of the château
Three years ago, her greatest ambition had been to become a
professor of French literature in a British university, teaching
students to enjoy the vigor of Hugo, the wit of Flaubert, the
passion of Zola. She had been working in the War Office,
translating French documents, when she had been summoned to a
mysterious interview in a hotel room and asked if she was willing
to do something dangerous.
She had said yes without thinking much. There was a war on, and all
the boys she had been at Oxford with were risking their lives every
day, so why shouldn't she do the same? Two days after Christmas
1941 she had started her SOE training.
Six months later she was a courier, carrying messages from SOE
headquarters, at 64 Baker Street in London, to Resistance groups in
occupied France, in the days when wireless sets were scarce and
trained operators even fewer. She would parachute in, move around
with her false identity papers, contact the Resistance, give them
their orders, and note their replies, complaints, and requests for
guns and ammunition. For the return journey she would rendezvous
with a pickup plane, usually a three-seater Westland Lysander,
small enough to land on six hundred yards of grass.
From courier work she had graduated to organizing sabotage. Most
SOE agents were officers, the theory being that their "men" were
the local Resistance. In practice, the Resistance were not under
military discipline, and an agent had to win their cooperation by
being tough, knowledgeable, and authoritative.
The work was dangerous. Six men and three women had finished the
training course with Flick, and she was the only one still
operating two years later. Two were known to be dead: one shot by
the Milice, the hated French security police, and the second killed
when his parachute failed to open. The other six had been captured,
interrogated, and tortured, and had then disappeared into prison
camps in Germany. Flick had survived because she was ruthless, she
had quick reactions, and she was careful about security to the
point of paranoia.
Beside her sat her husband, Michel, leader of the Resistance
circuit codenamed Bollinger, which was based in the cathedral city
of Reims, ten miles from here. Although about to risk his life,
Michel was sitting back in his chair, his right ankle resting on
his left knee, holding a tall glass of pale, watery wartime beer.
His careless grin had won her heart when she was a student at the
Sorbonne, writing a thesis on Molière's ethics that she had
abandoned at the outbreak of war. He had been A disheveled young
philosophy lecturer with a legion of adoring students.
He was still the sexiest man she had ever met. He was tall, and he
dressed with careless elegance in rumpled suits and faded blue
shirts. His hair was always a little too long. He had a come-to-bed
voice and an intense blue-eyed gaze that made a girl feel she was
the only woman in the world.
This mission had given Flick a welcome chance to spend a few days
with her husband, but it had not been a happy time. They had not
quarreled, exactly, but Michel's affection had seemed halfhearted,
as if he were going through the motions. She had felt hurt. Her
instinct told her he was interested in someone else. He was only
thirty-five, and his unkempt charm still worked on young women. It
did not help that since their wedding they had been apart more than
together, because of the war. And there were plenty of willing
French girls, she thought sourly, in the Resistance and out of
She still loved him. Not in the same way: she no longer worshiped
him as she had on their honeymoon, no longer yearned to devote her
life to making him happy. The morning mists of romantic love had
lifted, and in the clear daylight of married life she could see
that he was vain, self-absorbed, and unreliable. But when he chose
to focus his attention on her, he could still make her feel unique
and beautiful and cherished.
His charm worked on men, too, and he was a great leader, courageous
and charismatic. He and Flick had figured out the battle plan
together. They would attack the château in two places,
dividing the defenders, then regroup inside to form a single force
that would penetrate the basement, find the main equipment room,
and blow it up.
They had a floor plan of the building supplied by Antoinette
Dupert, supervisor of the group of local women who cleaned the
château every evening. She was also Michel's aunt. The
cleaners started work at seven o'clock, the same time as vespers,
and Flick could see some of them now, presenting their special
passes to the guard at the wrought-iron gate. Antoinette's sketch
showed the entrance to the basement but no further details, for it
was a restricted area, open to Germans only, and cleaned by
Michel's attack plan was based on reports from MI6, the British
intelligence service, which said the château was guarded by a
Waffen SS detachment working in three shifts, each of twelve men.
The Gestapo personnel in the building were not fighting troops, and
most would not even be armed. The Bollinger circuit had been able
to muster fifteen fighters for the attack, and they were now
deployed, either among the worshipers in the church, or posing as
Sunday idlers around the square, concealing their weapons under
their clothing or in satchels and duffel bags. If MI6 was right,
the Resistance would outnumber the guards.
But a worry nagged at Flick's brain and made her heart heavy with
apprehension. When she had told Antoinette of MI6's estimate,
Antoinette had frowned and said, "It seems to me there are more."
Antoinette was no fool—she had been
secretary to Joseph Laperrière, the head of a champagne house,
until the occupation reduced his profits and his wife became his
secretary—and she might be right.
Michel had been unable to resolve the contradiction between the MI6
estimate and Antoinette's guess. He lived in Reims, and neither he
nor any of his group was familiar with Sainte-Cècile. There
had been no time for further reconnaissance. If the Resistance were
outnumbered, Flick thought with dread, they were not likely to
prevail against disciplined German troops.
She looked around the square, picking out the people she knew,
apparently innocent strollers who were in fact waiting to kill or
be killed. Outside the haberdashery, studying a bolt of dull green
cloth in the window, stood Geneviève, a tall girl of twenty
with a Sten gun under her light summer coat. The Sten was a
submachine gun much favored by the Resistance because it could be
broken into three parts and carried in a small bag. Geneviève
might well be the girl Michel had his eye on, but all the same
Flick felt a shudder of horror at the thought that she might be
mowed down by gunfire in a few seconds' time. Crossing the cobbled
square, heading for the church, was Bertrand, even younger at
seventeen, a blond boy with an eager face and a .45 caliber Colt
automatic hidden in a folded newspaper under his arm. The Allies
had dropped thousands of Colts by parachute. Flick had at first
forbidden Bertrand from the team because of his age, but he had
pleaded to be included, and she had needed every available man, so
she had given in. She hoped his youthful bravado would survive once
the shooting started. Loitering on the church porch, apparently
finishing his cigarette before going in, was Albert, whose wife had
given birth to their first child this morning, a girl. Albert had
an extra reason to stay alive today. He carried a cloth bag that
looked full of potatoes, but they were No.36 Mark I Mills hand
The scene in the square looked normal but for one element. Beside
the church was parked an enormous, powerful sports car. It was a
French-built Hispano-Suiza type 68-bis, with a V12 aeroengine, one
of the fastest cars in the world. It had a tall, arr