Book Review: The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish by Noreen Riols.

My Life in Churchill’s School for Spies


Type: Paperback, 320 pages

Publisher: Pan, May 8, 2014 (first published in August 29, 2013)

The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish was the first ever non-fiction memoir that I have ever read. Throughout my entire lifetime of reading, the books I’ve always read were fiction; science fiction, romance fiction, literary fiction, and historical fiction. Whatever it was, it was pure and wholly fiction titles. But when a friend found this book at a warehouse sale, I just knew I couldn’t pass up on such a wonderful opportunity. At that time, I hadn’t known that it was a non-fiction book. It was only until I got home that night to start reading when after a few pages, I realised that this wasn’t my usual genre. But after awhile of reading, it wasn’t so bad after all.

Without going into further detail, I soon finished reading the book and concluded that it was the best non-fiction book I have ever read! I enjoyed it so much that after work every night, I rushed back home to shower and get ready for bed so I could have more time to read more than a chapter before calling it a day.

As I’ve mentioned, this was my first serious non-fiction novel and I could tell it was going to be pretty amazing. Written from the point of the author, Noreen Riols, it was easy to read and oh-so-witty!  Of course it had only been the early chapters and I knew that books could change as you read on. That was what I had thought too.

Synopsis by Goodreads:

‘My mother thought I was working for the Ministry of Ag. and Fish.’ So begins Noreen Riols’ compelling memoir of her time as a member of Churchill’s ‘secret army’, the Special Operations Executive.

It was 1943, just before her eighteenth birthday, Noreen received her call-up papers, and was faced with either working in a munitions factory or joining the Wrens. A typically fashion-conscious young woman, even in wartime, Noreen opted for the Wrens – they had better hats. But when one of her interviewers realized she spoke fluent French, she was directed to a government building on Baker Street. It was SOE headquarters, where she was immediately recruited into F-Section, led by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. From then until the end of the war, Noreen worked with Buckmaster and her fellow operatives to support the French Resistance fighting for the Allied cause. Sworn to secrecy, Noreen told no one that she spent her days meeting agents returning from behind enemy lines, acting as a decoy, passing on messages in tea rooms and picking up codes in crossword puzzles.

Vivid, witty, insightful and often moving, this is the story of one young woman’s secret war, offering readers an authentic and compelling insight into what really went on in Churchill’s ‘secret army’ from one of its last surviving members.

As I read on, I think it was due to her witty writing style as she injected humour into her plot, it could be why the book was much easier to read. I’ve also read other similar humorous memoirs in the past but they were mostly about the author’s life somewhere around the world in modern times where technology and manmade structures have made living so much more comfortable than during the bleak times of war. Stuff like The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz and Once Removed by former ESPN Star show host Andrew Leci were amazing light reads but certainly nothing compared to World War II reminiscing by survivors of the war.

Being told firsthand the horrors of World War II is never a pleasant moment. If any, it only served to confirm that many people (the innocent and the fighters) have suffered during those terrible and turbulent times and there wasn’t much that could be done for them. Those who were captured as prisoners of war and brought to the many extermination and concentration camps that dotted the world over were almost always never to be seen again unless you got lucky. Yet throughout the war-torn years, many have given up their lives and freedom to fight for a united cause — and that is to rid their countries of the enemy. Like the poem in the last chapter of the book had said, “We gave up our today for their tomorrow.” It was the most poignant poem I’ve ever read.

The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish was the mildest version of World War II that I’ve read (and it was a good thing too!) because then I was able to read it at night before bedtime without it giving me nightmares and sleepless nights. Yes, I tend to have these occurrences if the book I’m reading is way too real for my imagination! Eventually, however, I reached the dreadful parts that I had hoped never to see. But it was inevitable. The awful and unfair murders of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents at the hands of the Gestapo left a bitter taste on my tongue. Ghastly!

Learning of the hardships that people went through during a war really makes you feel more grateful for what little you had then and more appreciative for the things you were given or provided. People were less petty and selfish because they had very few possessions to begin with! They were also more compassionate and generous as well, because many had suffered at the hands of the enemy and the least one could do was to help where they can, even if they could be arrested for aiding those that Hitler considered his enemy. During the war, people had gotten used to the incessant air raid sirens blaring out deep into the middle of the nights, the constant roar of the jet engines each time several planes flew by, the roaring and deafening sounds of explosions. That had been music to one’s ears during that moment. Once peace-time came round, none of the survivors knew what to do with it and what to expect. Sadly, many were unable to keep calm and carry on living, so to speak.

What a rollercoaster and mess of emotions the story left my heart in. From the agents being flown into occupied France where they faced horrors more terrifying than ghosts and apparitions to the pain and torture of the agents at the hands of the enemy, Hitler & Co., and the sadness at the loss of so many brave individuals… I had to nurse my emotions immediately after I finished reading the book.

But hey, for all you history buffs out there, if you enjoy reading about World War II and secret spy missions, this could be the book for you! You’ll never know until you’ve tried it!

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