Special Forces and top-secret missions have always enthralled readers and writers alike, and the years of WW2 provide a rich hunting ground for both. The actions of the SOE and their “cousins across the pond” the OSS make for some pretty unbelievable tales, both real and fabricated, the secrecy surrounding the origins and the assignments only adding to the glamour. With none of those involved willing to agree to or deny any of the rumours, the stories take on a reputation of legendary proportions. Jackdaws is one such story; it tells of a near impossible mission entrusted to a female SOE agent, one that could potentially change the tide of war.
It is mere days before the Allies will launch the biggest offensive of the War at Normandy. As the armies prepare for the beach assault, their counterparts in the SOE and the French resistance are equally busy, identifying and destroying targets that have military value for the Germans. One such vital target is the telephone exchange in northern France that serves as a node through which more than half of the military communications are routed to the German Headquarters; taking it out will effectively cripple the German war effort. An air raid undertaken to level it is unsuccessful, so a ground attack is the next option.
The local resistance cell, headed by Michel “Monet” Clairet, has intelligence on the number of guards and the layout of the exchange, collected by MI6 and delivered by Felicity “Flick” Clairet, as well as an inside source – Monet’s aunt. Flick, who is married to Monet, is the SOE agent-in-charge of the entire northern France region, and has been building and liaising with dozens of cells like Monet’s for more than two years now. She is on site to observe and report back to her superiors the success or failure of the mission. Sitting at a roadside café with Monet, for all intents and purposes an innocent civilian couple enjoying their time together, she watches as the team move surreptitiously into position. As the church bell nearby tolls the hour, they swing into action.
It is a disaster.
The information given by MI6 is inaccurate; there are at least double the number of guards around the place, including the Gestapo. Monet’s hunters quickly become the hunted, and he himself gets wounded in the skirmish, but escapes as Flick rescues him and takes him to his aunt’s place. The aunt works at the telephone exchange, supervising a team of Frenchwomen who clean the place, and as Flick lays her injured husband on her couch, she notices her pass that allows her unimpeded access to the place. A germ of an idea makes her pocket the pass, and she goes out in search of the escape vehicle.
With the aid of the driver, a 19-year-old girl named Gilberte newly recruited into Monet’s cell, they bring him to her small apartment instead his own place; any captured members would soon be tortured for that location. At the apartment, Flick has her second catastrophe of the day – she finds out Monet is having an affair with Gilberte. Furious with the sudden knowledge that Gilberte is probably not the first woman he has cheated on her with, she waits only until the doctor arrives to tend to him, and then departs for England, rendezvousing with a small plane on the outskirts of the village which is her modus operandi for getting in and out of France.
Coincidentally present during the raid is Major Dieter Franck. An intelligence officer from Rommel’s personal staff, he is charged with examining and strengthening the security at vulnerable targets, and the raid gives him firsthand experience of the tactics of the resistance and the response and lack of readiness of the sentries – only their superiority in numbers helps them win. He also gets a look at Flick, noting her calm under fire and quick response to getting her wounded comrade out of harm’s way. More skilled in methods of interrogation than the Gestapo, he uses Rommel’s authority to take over the questioning of the captured fighters from them and within the first few hours gets not only the location of Monet’s place but also the name of the local person who is the cut-out – a protective buffer between the resistance cell and Allied agents dropped into France.
The identity of the cut-out is usually known only to the head of the resistance cell, but the interrogated fighter happens to hear an agent mention her address. This is a gold mine for Dieter, and he arrests the cut-out, an old woman living by herself, extracting the information he requires from her about the rendezvous point with agents and the code words of recognition. Knowing there would be more agents sent to build up Monet’s cell again, he has his mistress impersonate the cut-out and be at the point every day until contact is made.
In England, MI6, in an attempt to cover their role in the failure of the operation, pins it on Flick and the SOE in the presence of General Montgomery and she isn’t given a chance to explain her new plan. The incongruencies in MI6’s story are noticed by Paul Chancellor, an ex-OSS agent now serving on Monty’s personal staff, and he convinces the General to listen to Flick. Her plan is simple yet bold – she plans to lead an all-women team of SOE agents back to the target, where they will take the place of the French cleaners, infiltrate the exchange and directly blow up the terminals from within.
As simple as the plan sounds, it has one major hurdle; Flick has only three days to find and train the team and two days after that to get to the target and blow it up. With the help of her boss and Paul, the candidates are chosen from the lists those who were considered as possible agents but rejected. Ruby, a tough street fighter serving a prison sentence. Diana, the daughter of Flick’s mother’s employer, an aristocrat and an excellent marksman. Maude, a pathological liar who is fluent in French. Denise, an RAF officer forced onto the team by MI6 after they hear of the plan. They are still missing two important operatives, though; an explosives expert and a telephone engineer.
The first of the two, the explosives expert, is introduced to Flick by her boss. Geraldine “Jelly” Knight is an old acquaintance of his and is not only familiar with explosives but is an accomplished safebreaker as well. The search for a telephone engineer is more complicated; a conversation with her brother leads Flick to a gay nightclub in Soho where she meets Greta, who is not a woman, but a man named Gerhard in drag. Persecuted in Germany for his sexual orientation, he has fled to England and works as a telephone engineer by day. Greta makes such a convincing woman that even Flick doesn’t realize until told the truth.
The team, codenamed the Jackdaws, is taken to the SOE’s training school, where weeks of training is crammed into three days. Apart from Flick, Greta and Paul, no one else knows the real mission; they are told instead they will be parachuting into Reims to blow up a railway tunnel linking the region with the German reserve divisions. The training is taxing, but all of them, including Jelly who is the oldest of them all, hold up well. Flick’s knowledge, toughness and willingness to teach has most of them following her orders without questions, except Diana and Denise. The former thinks taking orders from someone whose mother works for her is beneath her, and the latter disregards instructions to not speak of the mission to anyone, resulting in her expulsion from the team.
Back in France, Dieter’s trap is sprung by the radio operator sent to replace the one Monet lost in the attack. The plan is almost ruined by the Gestapo showing up and arresting him, but Dieter is after bigger game and aids the operator in escaping. This leads to an altercation between him and the Gestapo, but his actions are vindicated when the operator leads him to Monet and the remnants of his cell. With their subsequent arrest and interrogation, the Major learns two important news – Flick is the person who can lead him to every resistance cell in northern France, and that she is being dropped back into France the very next day. He also gets a photo of Flick from the operator, who has a schoolboy crush on her and has disobeyed orders to not carry any personal items into the war zone. With the location of the landing site tortured out of Monet, Dieter hides his men around it to capture the team upon landing.
To ensure the SOE finds nothing amiss, he sends a radio message using the operator’s transmitter, informing them of his safe arrival and contact with Monet. The message however, is marked as phony by the receiver in England, who is familiar with the operator’s transmitting style, and she immediately informs Flick’s boss and Paul. The alert comes too late for the Jackdaws, though; they are already en route to the drop point and are maintaining strict radio silence to avoid detection. Paul decides to go into France himself to warn them.
Flick has already deduced something is wrong. The Germans have rounded up all the villagers and barricaded them in the village church. As a result, where the village usually had a few lights burning and smoke pouring out of chimneys, there is nothing this time round, and it sets off warning bells for the ever vigilant Flick. Unwilling to abort the mission, she has the pilot take them to the next drop point where they are parachuting weapons to another cell and jumps there instead. The dismayed Dieter looks on as the plane departs without anyone having jumped out, but covering all his bases, has Flick’s photo sent to every German outpost in the region, with orders to capture her alive.
With the help of the second resistance cell, the Jackdaws board a train taking them to Paris, from where they will make their way to the exchange. After a close call with a couple of soldiers on the train, they are forced to take temporary shelter in one of the seedier hotels in the city when they spot posters for Flick’s arrest at the railway station. Diana and Maude have an argument with Flick over the place, and in a bout of ignorant rebelliousness leave and check into the Ritz, where they are promptly arrested by Dieter while Flick narrowly escapes. The team is down two members before they have even reached the target, and the remaining ones make their way to the exchange.
Paul parachutes into France, and unaware that the cut-out is compromised goes to the rendezvous point where the fake cut-out promptly has him incapacitated. Before he is tied up, he manages to drop his toothbrush, a distinctive one, at the door of the house. When Flick and the others arrive at the place to regroup before heading out, she spots it, and suspecting a trap lays one of her own. Jelly and Greta go through the front door, distracting Dieter’s mistress and the Gestapo guards, while Flick and Ruby sneak in through the back door and disarm them. Questioning her, they learn of the captures of the radio operator, Monet and now Paul. Freeing Paul from the basement, they leave the place and Flick summarily executes the mistress as a collaborator.
Dieter, enraged at the death of his mistress, arranges for Monet to escape in the hope that he might lead him to Flick. His instincts pay off once more, as Monet makes his way to a pub that houses an illegal gambling house; it is a backup rendezvous point. Flick is waiting there for him, and Dieter orders his men to storm the place as soon as Monet leaves after a brief discussion with her. The gambling house however, has a secret exit for contingencies like these, and she evades him again. The wary Flick guesses Monet is bait and changes the meeting place and time without informing him, leaving Dieter in the dark.
The Jackdaws and Paul take refuge in the house of a French sympathizer but leave before Monet arrives. Flick leaves him instructions that lead Dieter on a wild goose chase, away from the exchange. The team heads over to Monet’s aunt’s house, where Flick tells Ruby and Jelly the real plan. Monet’s aunt and her team of cleaners are tied to chairs in the house to make it seem like they were forced into submission rather than willing partners. A last minute requirement of bags large enough to hold the explosives has Ruby step across the road to buy them, but on the way back she is accosted by a German soldier who makes disparaging remarks about her gypsy like face and demands to see her papers. In the altercation that follows, Ruby knifes the soldier to death and is apprehended by two Gestapo officers before she can escape.
Down to three now, the Jackdaws make their way to the exchange where their false papers gain them entry. Once inside, Greta cuts the power to the entire place, plunging it into darkness and in the ensuing mayhem, they reach the terminals where Jelly plants the explosives, rigged to blow up in minutes. Their job done, Flick orders both of them to leave the place while she searches for Ruby, but on the way out Greta is recognized as the saboteur of the power lines and is hauled away by Dieter for interrogation. Unaware, Flick rescues Ruby from her torturer and exiting the place, they meet Jelly only to find Greta missing.
As one, they head back into the exchange, but are almost immediately accosted by four Gestapo men who herd them into the basement at gunpoint. Being the only ones who know of the explosives, they are ready for the blast, and use the confusion it affords to shoot the men, but Jelly dies in the shooting. The same explosion kills Greta and knocks Dieter out, who comes around as Flick reaches the interrogation room, leading to a shootout between them before she runs away with Ruby. Dieter follows but is unable to catch either of them as the fire reaches the gasoline storage tanks and the entire place goes up in flames.
Facing a humiliating end to his career, the injured Dieter still has one more card to play. He threatens the recaptured Monet that unless he reveals the location of the backup landing site, Gilberte will be sent to Ravensbrück. Monet gives in, and Dieter takes both under guard to the field, lying in wait for the team to arrive. As Flick, Ruby and Paul reach the landing strip, Monet sacrifices himself to alert Flick to Dieter’s presence. In the ensuing firefight, the guards are shot by Paul, while Flick stabs Dieter and leaves him for dead. As their plane heads back to England, they fly over the flotilla heading towards Normandy.
Jackdaws is a thriller at heart, combining fast paced action with the intrigue one would expect from a behind the lines strike force, making it a perfect read for slow days. Follett draws inspiration for Flick from real life SOE agents like Pearl Witherington and Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, two of the most prolific agents during the War who created and led vast resistance cell networks in Occupied France for years, playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the Gestapo and rising above the misogynistic attitudes of most of the men they worked with until they commanded not just their respect but their undying loyalty as well, proving themselves more than equal to the task at hand.
His character arc for Major Dieter Franck is equally poignant. We see him in the beginning as a rough-around-the-edges officer who has his own moral compass and is disdainful of the Gestapo and their perversions. He is skilled at torture and interrogation but sees it only as a means to an end, never delighting in it for its own sake. As time goes on, and his failures and frustrations mount, we see his morality being chipped away little by little, with the death of his mistress pushing him over the edge and there being no difference between him and those he abhorred at the end.
For a simple thriller, Jackdaws is surprisingly deep at times. Flick’s brother is gay, but his orientation is not the focus of his story. Dieter’s mistress is complex in her own right, throwing up the subjectivity of right and wrong. And at the end of the story, Follett highlights the deep-rooted patriarchy that women have had to face and overcome to be considered even half as good as men, and even then, not given their due. It comes across in Flick being passed over for a Military Cross by the vengeful MI6, as was done to Pearl when she was offered the MBE in the Civil Division instead of the MC, which Pearl rejected with the note, “there was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.”