"Claude and Madeleine" packs a lot in terms of drama, excitement, and derring do. It is centered on two people - Claude Peri and Madeleine Bayard - who meet in French Indochina in 1936 and fall deeply in love. Claude was close to 30 and had been born and raised in Hanoi. Aside from a stint in the French Navy during the 1920s, he hadn't ventured out of Indochina. Claude was a stocky, solidly-built man who lived life with gusto and woe betide anyone who ran afoul of him. Madeleine, a widow in her early 20s, had been born in poverty in Paris, the daughter of a seamstress. She never knew her father, and had lived with her mother and younger stepsister til her marriage to a Frenchman who took her to Indochina, where their life as husband and wife proved to be a short-lived one.
Within a year of meeting, both Claude and Madeleine become a part of Deuxième Bureau " - the intelligence section - of the French government's Colonial Ministry." At this time, the Ministry became acutely aware of the growing threat to its colonial territories "- in the Far East from an expansionist Japan, and in North Africa" from the Third Reich. Consequently, in June 1937, "a dedicated Colonial Ministry intelligence section [was created], under whose control was Claude and Madeleine's employer, the Service de Renseignements Imperial [SRI]. And, though their immediate bosses were based in Hanoi, the section head - and a man with whom Claude and his brother Henri had long been friends - was Raoul Salan, later to become one of France's most distinguished military figures." (By the spring of 1938, following a change of government in Paris, Salan would be made head of the SRI.)
Claude and Madeleine are trained in the use of explosives. Both of them then became involved in at least one operation against Japanese assets near the Indochina border in Occupied China. Then Claude goes to France early in 1938 upon learning of the death of his father there. While attending his father's memorial service, Claude has a brainchild and shares the details of it with Salan. It was a grand idea that for Claude "promised to combine freedom and adventure with espionage work and continued contact with Madeleine." He proposed to travel alone overland by car through Europe, the Levant, India, and on to Thailand under the guise of an ethnographer working for the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. Salan was intrigued and backed Claude's plan, ensuring it its legitimacy through his high level government contacts. "During the journey [Claude] would file reports to Salan, noting political tensions, military build-up, and the moods of the different populaces." And what a journey it proved to be! (While in Berlin, Claude made the acquaintance of one of the top leaders in the Nazi hierarchy, who invited him to his country estate, where they went hunting.)
The outbreak of war in September 1939 finds Claude and Madeleine back in Indochina. Two months later, both of them board a ship to France, where Salan places both of them in a specialized course which trains them in the use of " 'le plastic', a British invention that Salan had first studied under Commander 'Biffy' Dunderdale, SIS [Senior Intelligence Service] station chief in Paris." Madeleine was also given specialized training as a cipher officer. Salan had a plan to use Claude and Madeleine's unique skills at sea for special clandestine missions. But the German blitzkrieg campaign of May and June 1940 against the Low Countries and France put the kibosh on that plan.
Claude and Madeleine were in Paris when the Germans entered the city in triumph on June 14, 1940. Eight days later, France surrendered to Germany and signed an armistice. Both Claude and Madeleine managed to secure a car and drive south to Marseille, where they boarded the ship Le Rhin, a coal-fueled merchant ship that for 20 years had plied its trade between the South of France and the coast of West Africa, "chugging sugar, cotton, and coffee." Claude had had some previous experience engaged in espionage work aboard Le Rhin shortly before the German blitzkrieg, and so had some familiarity with the ship's characteristics.
From Marseille, Le Rhin sails with a group of ships ostensibly for North Africa on behalf of the new collaborationist Petain government. Le Rhin trails behind and once the other ships are out of sight, Claude sets a course for Gibraltar. He is enraged with his fellow Frenchmen for France's abject defeat and is determined to continue fighting the Germans.
Le Rhin manages to reach Gibraltar, where it is in harbor for several months while Claude and Madeleine's bona fides are verified by the British. Claude manages to ingratiate himself with Admiral Somerville, the commander of the British Mediterranean task force. Indeed, it is through Somerville's influence that Claude and Madeleine are sent to Britain, where Claude is made an officer (under a nom de guerre since he had been sentenced to death in absentia by the Vichy French) in the Royal Navy. Madeleine is allowed to join the Royal Women's Naval Service (WRENs), where she receives additional training in ciphers and telegraphy.
The book goes on to detail Claude and Madeleine's wartime activities aboard Le Rhin, which was converted by the Royal Navy into a modern warship --- HMS Fidelity --- and the tragedy that would overtake them both on the high seas.
"Claude and Madeleine" is an incredible story which seems like one Ian Fleming and Patrick O'Brian could have dreamed up had they written it together. But what Edward Marriott managed to piece together here is ALL TRUE.