Life in pictures of the secret agent seductress

September 21st, 2014

Fifi’s job involved testing would-be British agents from the SOE’s “finishing school” at Beaulieu by turning up unannounced while they were engaged on 96-hour training missions in towns and cities around the country.

The rendezvous point was usually a hotel bar. Over drinks, the lonely agents – often from the Continent and suffering from homesickness – would blow their cover and confide in the sympathetic woman claiming to be a French journalist.

One official report noted that her looks were perhaps “too striking and foreign for English tastes” but suitable for Beaulieu students, who were mostly from the Continent. London-born Chilver was half-British and half-Latvian, and her education – first at a German school in Riga, then at the Sorbonne – gave her a distinctly European air.

After leaving the service, Chilver lived with her companion, Jean ‘Alex’ Felgate, a fellow SEO agent, from the 1950s until her death in 2007 aged 86. They bought a converted cider barn in the Forest of Dean and devoted their lives to tending its many acres, which they turned into an animal sanctuary.

Chilver let few people into her life. In her will, she asked to be cremated “without ceremony” and Felgate was the only mourner.

One of her few friends was Janice Cutmore, who cared for the couple in their final years. When Felgate died in 2011, she left part of her estate and all her wartime mementoes to Mrs Cutmore.

“It was an isolated house and they liked to be away from everybody. All their photographs were in an album, and the only ones on show were of their animals,” Mrs Cutmore said.

“Christine knew her mind and nothing would change it. But she was fair and when you got to know her she was lovely. I started off as their cleaner, but when Christine came out of hospital after a hip operation they gave her a carer and, Christine being Christine, she was not having any of it. So I asked if she would like me to look after her and she said yes.

“Alex told us a bit about Christine’s work after she died. She said Christine would go to a pub all dressed up and see which one of the new recruits would say, ‘Guess what I do for a living’.”

Jonathan Cole of the National Archives said Fifi became “a legend of SOE, a symbol of seduction – not surprising, since she’s said to have bedded trainee agents to find out whether they talked in their sleep”.

Chilver’s reports detail nothing of the sort, and appear to show that flirtation over drinks or dinner was enough to get the agents spilling their secrets.

As part of her cover as a supposed journalist she wrote an article for Housewife magazine about the differences between British and European men.

European men like a woman to be a woman, she wrote. “So make a routine of the little things. Keeping your smile fresh and the seams of your stockings straight. Sitting down with poise. Always walking, instead of striding along with swinging arms.”

Beneath the strong exterior, Chilver had family difficulties. She sent all earnings from her “very slender bank balance” to her deaf elder sister and ailing mother in Sweden, where they had fled when the Russian army invaded Latvia.

She published a book about her love for animals, which included oblique references to the war years. “Animals are magnificent teachers; they try so hard to make us behave in a manner of which we need not be ashamed,” she wrote.

“As a child I used to listen to our animals just as I listened to adult conversation. The little girl is now an old woman. She has lived to see some of the greatest horrors of all time.”


World War Two

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