Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier’s Secret War, 1942–1945
by Betty Lussier.
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010.
Hardcover, 240 pages, $35.
Betty Lussier was born in Canada but raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her father, born in the U.S. but a Canadian citizen, was a farmer famous from his service as a fighter pilot in World War I, experience having a direct impact, both as pilot and farmer, on his daughter. Learning to fly at the tender age of sixteen, and possessing a British passport by virtue of being born in Canada, Lussier applied and was accepted as a pilot for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) of the Royal Air Force in World War I.
Soon bored by the pedestrian task of shuttling aircraft and passengers between English airfields and denied, as a woman, the opportunity to ferry combat aircraft to the Continent following the D-day landings, Betty resigned and was accepted for service with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime spy service.
The British had broken the German military intelligence code and agreed to share it with the OSS. Lussier was one of the first Americans to decode German messages and deliver the information to combat units, a delicate and high-responsibility task. It was an assignment that would take her first to North Africa, and later to liberated southern France. In France, she would team up with Richard Sickler, an OSS counterintelligence agent whom she had met in Algiers. Her memoirs mention a dangerous incident in Algiers when she accompanied Sickler on a visit to the casbah, the Arab quarter. Upon encountered threatening Arabs, Sickler pulled out his .45 and they backed out the door.
Lussier’s recollections of her wartime activities are unbalanced. In this brief memoir, 159 of a mere 201 pages of text are devoted to her six months of relatively boring duty with the ATA, and only thirty-four pages cover her more interesting two years as a counterintelligence agent with the OSS.
The author sets the limits of the memoir, but the reason Lussier chose to abridge her wartime experiences to a brief thirty-four pages is regrettable: She omits the fact that she had married her superior, “Richard Sickler,” real name Ricardo Sicre. Their marriage, in defiance of OSS policy that a married couple could not serve in the same theater, is covered in detail by another OSS agent, Elizabeth P. McIntosh in Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS (1998). Sicre, a native of Catalonia, a province of Spain, had fought in Spain’s civil war on the side of the Soviet-supported Republican government against the rebel, Francisco Franco. Finding himself in 1939 on the losing side and facing execution or, at best, a long prison term, Ricardo fled to England where he met the English poet Robert Graves. The two became lifelong friends. In 1941 Ricardo set sail for the United States, leaping from the ship in New York harbor and swimming to shore to evade immigration officials as he lacked a visa. He was soon recruited into the OSS as a counterintelligence agent. Patrick K. O’Donnell, in Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, provides a remarkable description of Sicre:
“By the summer of 1942 … the OSS had several black bag jobs in play … A young Spaniard, Ricardo Sicre, penetrated the Spanish embassy (in Washington). Sicre, described as ‘the handsomest man …,’ and equipped with wads of money, first seduced the embassy’s unsuspecting secretaries, then his team broke into the embassy at night. After cracking the safe, the men carried out four large suitcases of photographed documents.” According to O’Donnell, Sicre later set up a training school for spies who crossed the Spanish border into Vichy, France. When American forces occupied France, Sicre “would team up with an American OSS agent named Betty Lussier …” By war’s end, Sicre held an army commission, had been awarded a Bronze Star, received American citizenship, and had himself a new bride. The couple took up residence in Madrid where Betty eventually delivered four sons.
In Spain, Ricardo established a small import-export business but, according to Betty “went to work for another company.” Again, according to Betty, he sent reports to the New York office “that read like mystery novels.” Ricardo had become involved with something called the World Commerce Corporation.
At the end of the conflict in Europe, Sir William Stephenson of British Intelligence (code name Intrepid, and Lussier’s godfather), led a small group to form the British American Canadian Corp. S.A., later changed in 1947 to World Commerce Corp. Frank Ryan, its president, had headed the Iberian desk for OSS Secret Intelligence during the war. Sicre was its vice president, and the board of directors included not only Sir William but also the wartime OSS chief, William Donovan. Almost everyone involved had connections with British or American intelligence. “Commerce” had to be a euphemism for “Intelligence.” The Cold War was underway.
It is unclear when Ricardo left the World Commerce Corporation (it was liquidated in 1962 for tax reasons), but he did return with great success to the import-export business; among other enterprises he had the concession for J&B whisky. He was at one point described as among the “most wealthy men in Spain” and he and Betty became key players in the social life of Madrid. Among the friends they entertained on their yacht, the Rampager, were such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, leading Spanish bullfighters, and the American Adlai Stevenson. Their old relationship with Graves flourished as Ricardo became the writer’s business advisor and “unofficial banker.”
Betty eventually became bored with Madrid’s social life and so the onetime farmer’s daughter took off to Morocco, sans Ricardo (who had been seen with Ava Gardner at bull fights), to teach the natives how to raise hybrid corn. She tells of that experience in Amid My Alien Corn, published in 1957.
The Sicres eventually moved to Switzerland and then to Manhattan, before divorcing when their four sons completed college. Ricardo died in 1993 in Maryland, possibly at the Lussier farm. He left behind The Tap on the Left Shoulder, an autobiographical novel published in 1950 that tells the story of a young Spaniard who fought on the side of the Spanish Republic but was wrongly accused of being a Communist. He criticizes the United States for failing to came to the aid of the Republic against Franco.
Intrepid Woman, though promising more than it delivers, is well-written and interesting. Lussier is quite an exceptional woman and worthy of a good biography, one that would include her late ex-spouse, the truly intrepid Ricardo. They seem to have been a well-matched pair of counterintelligence agents with a postwar life as remarkable as their wartime service.
Robert Huddleston is the author of Edmundo: From Chiapas, Mexico to Park Avenue (2007), the story of a WWII American OSS agent in Spain who married a German princess whose father supported Adolf Hitler.