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MBE awarded to British woman who trained WW2 spies for French missions

96-year-old has lived in France for 70 years but has not been recognised as a 'war veteran' here as she worked in the UK

Noreen Riols, pictured celebrating her 96th birthday, was made an MBE in this year’s New Year Honours list Pic: Noreen Riols

A former member of Churchill’s ‘Secret Army’ is to be made an MBE by the British ambassador in Paris, 78 years after the end of World War Two.

Ninety-six-year-old Noreen Riols spent the war working for the Special Operations Executive, created to conduct espionage and sabotage operations, and to help local resistance movements.

Read more: Last surviving French resistance fighter deported in WW2 dies aged 96

Dedicates MBE to ‘people who did not come home’

On February 10, she travels from her home in Marly-le-Roi (Ile-de-France) with members of her family – she has five children, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren – to receive her honour from Dame Menna Rawlings.

Read more: UK ambassador to France shares view on first ‘hectic’ months in post

Ms Riols, who is British but has lived in France for more than 70 years, tried for years to be recognised as a war veteran in France but was told by authorities that Britain had not been a war zone and the SOE was not an operational unit.

So, when news of her UK New Year Honours list citation arrived from the British Embassy in Paris, she was shocked but thrilled. 

“I said yes immediately. I told the caller that it wasn’t for me but for the people who didn’t come home.”

Read more: British team leads dig to recover WW2 US airmen in tiny French village

Work was secret for 60 years

In summer 1943, as a shy 17-year-old, she queued with other volunteers to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the ‘Wrens’. 

“My father had been in the Royal Navy and I liked the uniform, especially the hats,” she said. “I wanted to do my bit.”

However, she possessed a skill that would make a vital contribution to the war effort: she was fluent in French.

So, instead of being issued with naval kit, she was enlisted into the ‘F’ (for France) section of the SOE. 

“If questions were asked, we were told to say that we were doing important work for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries,” she said. “The true nature of the SOE’s function was protected by the Official Secrets Act. 

“I had to keep my mouth shut and not tell anyone, not even my mother.”

Ms Riols kept her secret for 60 years, only revealing it in 2000 when the government released classified SOE files.

Within weeks she was a spy trainer

Born in 1926 in Malta, where her father was stationed, Ms Riols moved back to London with her family when she was two-and-a-half years old.  

She was educated at the French lycée in London, where the rules were strict: pupils and staff spoke French all the time. 

So, that wartime summer morning, she was ready for the challenge. Within weeks, she had become one of Churchill’s exclusive team of spy trainers.

“We were based in the Mall, London, and also worked at the SOE headquarters in the New Forest,” she said. “I helped operatives, all French-speaking, to prepare for their missions.

“I wanted to be dropped into France myself but was not allowed to do so as our work was essential.  I coached recruits in how to pass messages covertly or act as decoys. 

“Role-play sessions tested agents in various situations, such as how to extract information by stealth at cafes.

“I was never told where my recruits would be sent or if they came home safely, but you did hear rumours.  

“I now know that nearly half of the people I helped prepare for missions did not return.”

Read more: Violette Szabo: British spy who fought Nazis to avenge French husband

A career in journalism after the war

After the war, she worked for the BBC French service based at Bush House in the Aldwych. 

It was there that she met and fell in love with Jacques Riols, a young French journalist sent over from Paris.

Ms Riols later trained as a nurse but decided to return to journalism and, in 1959, moved to Paris as a reporter for news agency Opera Mundi.

Jacques switched to public relations, working for Esso and the Compagnie générale des eaux. The couple lived in the 16th arrondissement and were married at the mairie. 

“We enjoyed our time in the city, but wanted more freedom in a country area and bought La Grange, the 17th-century farmhouse where I still live.”

The couple brought up five children together, including two from Jacques’ first marriage – four boys and a girl. Sadly, Jacques died five years ago.

‘I love this country so much’

“I waited until our youngest son was 18,” Ms Riols continued, “then wrote four novels based on my experience in the SOE and a memoir of those days, The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish.”

She has since written six more books and is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists.  

“I could have travelled over to London to receive my honour at Buckingham Palace but felt it was more appropriate for me to go to our Embassy in Paris. I have lived here nearly all my life and love this country so much.”

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