New biography of Madge Addy, medical volunteer and spy

Post date: 03/06/2021

Chris Hall introduces his upcoming biography of Madge Addy, a Manchester nurse who served alongside the International Brigades in Spain and went on to work as a British agent in Nazi-occupied France. ‘The Nurse Who Became a Spy: Madge Addy’s War Against Fascism’ is available from Pen & Sword publishers from 30 July, and can be pre-ordered here.

The life story of Madge Addy, a working-class Manchester woman who volunteered to fight fascism and Nazism in two major wars, is a truly remarkable one. Madge left her job and her husband to serve in the Spanish Civil War as a nurse with the Republican medical services. In Spain she was wounded in a bombing raid, fell in love with a Norwegian volunteer who became her second husband, was made a prisoner of war and was the last British nurse to leave Spain, witnessing the horrors of Franco’s fascist regime before she left. She was caught up in the Fall of France and lived in Marseille with her Norwegian husband.

From 1940 to 1944 Madge was an amateur resistor and later a full-time secret agent, working with the likes of Ian Garrow, Pat O’Leary and Guido Zembsch-Schreve. She also acted as a courier, flying to Lisbon to deliver and receive secret messages from British intelligence. She then became romantically involved with a Danish secret agent and married him after the war. Madge’s wartime achievements were recognised by the British with the award of an OBE and by the French with the award of the Croix de Guerre.

I have attempted to bring Madge’s story to life using archive material and photographs from Britain, France, Spain, and Norway. Madge’s Spanish Civil War experiences are vividly described in a mass of letters she wrote requesting medical aid and describing the harrowing conditions at her wartime hospital. Her activities in the Second World War show a woman with nerves of steel and a bravery at times bordering on recklessness. As she herself said, ‘I believe in taking the war into the enemy camp’.

To give a feel of the book here are excerpts from two of Madge’s letters, this one written in 1938:

‘...typhoid we had five cases, one died, it worries me terribly that they are with the other men, but we have nowhere else for them. I have got them all a piece of mosquito netting for their faces, but they are delirious more or less and keep tearing it off and oh if you could see the flies. Their mouths are black with flies and I am constantly urging the nurses to keep cleaning out their mouths …’

She viscerally describes the horrors and difficulties experienced by medical volunteers supporting the front:

‘We are having a very bad time indeed here, and I am working every hour of the day at the hospital. Some of the doctors and a lot of the staff have been sent to the front, and consequently we are short-handed. A month ago, we had 1,600 wounded in from the Estremadura front, and we got the lot in two days. Dirty, hungry, lousy, war-weary men, never have I seen such a depressed filthy lot of men. We haven’t clean clothes for them, there isn’t enough to eat, it is impossible to procure any kind of nourishment for the very sick. We have one hypo syringe left in the hospital which is mine, and which I guard with my life. We are all lousy, we cannot get the men or the place clean because we haven’t shirts, sheets, or pillow slips. The clothes that the men arrived in, or a great many of them, have had to be destroyed, those who are up have no shoes of any kind (they arrived in this state from the front, where they have been fighting in bare feet.), Some of them have septic feet, others keep getting them cut on stones. I cannot adequately describe the utter hopelessness of everything.’

Donald Darling, a British senior secret agent and Madge’s contact in Lisbon, comments on her activities in the Second World War. Firstly as an early resistor in Marseille helping British servicemen to escape to Spain:

‘To be honest, the Marseille group did contain some unexpected people, beside the English wife of a Norwegian. There were three Greeks, a Dane, and a French Australian. Garrow was a Scot…Louis Nouveau and his wife Renee…Dr Rodocanachi, they formed a highly active, if amateur team’.

Secondly as a courier from Marseille to Lisbon, flying on German commercial aircraft: ‘With communications with Marseille now on a firm basis, through Madge Holst, I felt I could leave matters in the hands of the confidential secretary’. Her personal qualities are described as: ‘cool as a cucumber’, ‘slight and delicately built, but calm and self-possessed’.


Posted on 3 June 2021.

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