Churchill’s Secret Agent: A Novel Based on a True Story
Published by: Berkley/Penguin
After France’s surrender to Germany in 1940, Max Ciampoli—only seventeen and already a lieutenant in the French army’s elite Alpine infantry on skis—refuses to be personally defeated. He feels betrayed by his commander and his government because they surrendered before his shock-troopers, who had trained so hard, fired a single shot.
Max wants revenge and makes a decision not to give up until France is free from the Nazi invaders. He knows that he must get out of the country—to North Africa or, better yet, England—as quickly as possible to be useful to the cause. If he stays, he’ll be sent to a Nazi munitions factory, or worse.
Who can advise him? He hates his father, who is a Fascist anyway, and he isn’t allowed to talk to his mother. Some of his former teachers at the Jesuit school are pro-Nazi, so he doesn’t dare ask them. He decides to visit his godfather in the south of France, who not only takes Max’s resolve seriously but also telephones his former neighbor, Winston Churchill, now prime minister of England.
Churchill tells the godfather to send Max to England, where he attends a Special Forces training school and demonstrates not only his leadership capabilities but also an exceptional gift for problem-solving. After rigorous training, Max parachutes repeatedly behind enemy lines in German-occupied Europe and becomes so successful at devising clever solutions to the problems he confronts that Churchill nicknames him l’Ingénieux – the Ingenious One.
Soon after the south of France is liberated, Max returns to re-form his company of ski shock-troopers and leads them on a daring mission to uproot the German soldiers who have long held a French fortress on the French-Italian border. The inventive plan is successful, but Max is badly injured and spends well over a year in an officers’ hospital in the south of France while the Allies succeed in expelling the Nazis from his beloved homeland and, ultimately, the rest of Europe.
Max’s never-before-told story provides a unique perspective on World War II’s European theater as seen through the eyes of a bold warrior who enjoys privileged relationships with not only Winston Churchill and General George Patton but also with celebrated entertainers such as Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier. The impact of his actions on the outcome of the war is even more thought-provoking.
Though Max’s story highlights acts of bravery by many individuals and pays heartfelt respect to the enduring heroism of the French Resistance, the German Resistance, the Gypsies and the British and American military, it also introduces to the world a very human and fiercely determined young patriot whose own contributions during World War II forever changed the course of history.
Follow Max Across Europe: View the map
Max and I met in 1986 in Marina del Rey, California, where my French boyfriend and I were looking for a boat to live on. When we entered one of the marina yacht brokerages, the receptionist introduced us to the manager, Max Ciampoli. Though my boyfriend and I decided against living on a boat, the three of us developed a good relationship and often went out to dinner together. The French language contributed in bringing us even closer together. I found Max to be not only fascinating, but ethical and honorable as well—besides, he had a great sense of humor. When I became “single” the following year, Max and I began seeing each other.
We surmounted many difficulties during our courtship which culminated in a beautiful marriage in May, 1991. Soon after, his nightmares from World War II were keeping both of us awake. I suggested he begin writing down his memories to get them out of his system, a process that had worked for me to diffuse the power of bad recollections.
But writing didn’t seem to lessen his pain in the least. Once started, however, Max persevered. Legal-sized pads of yellow paper were filled and stacked one on another. Neither of us remembers exactly how the idea of compiling his writing into a book developed. Though I had no difficulty reading French, I could not read his writing. So he recorded his story onto tapes which I eventually translated, organized and expanded through in-depth questioning. Almost every time we talked about a mission, Max would have nightmares about the war. (He still does.) The process did not lessen the hold the memories had on him; rather, it made the memories more vivid—not good for my beloved’s peace of mind, but ultimately valuable for the development of a book.
By the mid-1990s, there was no turning back. One memory birthed another. A book had been conceived, but we had no idea how to find an agent or get a publisher. Finally, early in 2008 we found our agent through the recommendation of another writer. A few months later, our wonderful literary agent, now a cherished friend, Nancy Ellis, sold our book to the Berkley/Penguin Publishing Group. Just to let you know, this writing/publishing process is not for the faint of heart. It has been especially wrenching for Max having to relive these long-repressed experiences time and again, many of which he will not share because, he tells me, they are too gruesome.
My heart goes out to anyone who has survived a war. The sights you have seen, the pain you have experienced that you carry within for a lifetime are beyond my ken. I applaud you, and I am indebted to each one of you who has fought for freedom and equality for us all.
Chained to a stone pillar, the glare of the floodlight was blinding me. Did I smell smoke? A coal furnace? The smoke seemed to be moving closer to where I was seated on the examination table. To my right, I could barely see a man in a white smock. He pulled out red hot branding irons along with an array of instruments which he laid out on a side table. Was this yet another test we should add to our training, a scene producing drama and anxiety in the prisoner? They’ve created an operating room—a meticulous setup indeed! I was becoming impatient. “When is their play going to start? I know I’m the star. Does Mr. Churchill even know I’m here?”
A man smoking a cigar appeared on the left. From beyond the floodlight, a loud voice spoke to me. “What is your name?” Textbook—same old routine.
“Michel Carbonell,” I answered. The smoker approached and put out his cigar on the bottom of my right foot, twisting it slowly between his fingers—right, left, right, left. All my nerve endings screamed. This classic torture was far more painful than I ever expected. Then, a man advanced toward me on the right, rhythmically swinging a red rubber hose less than a meter long. “Probably buckshot inside,” I thought.
“You must excuse me. When I asked you your name, we were interrupted by my friend who needed to put out his cigar. Will you repeat your answer, please?” I considered how grave my situation was. Though agitated, I restrained myself and replied evenly, “Michel Carbonell.”
The hose whipped across my thighs, ripping flesh and causing blood to splatter. “If you come out from behind your screen and show me your face, I’ll tell you all that I know! If you’d take the time, you could read it in your dossier. I’m sure the facts are all there. Maybe I have a hard head, but if you don’t stop these barbaric tactics, I will refuse to open my mouth!” My seething rage was much greater than the pain. Once again I confessed the lie I had prepared. “I parachuted outside of Neufchâteau. I had become acquainted with a French man and his sister in Paris during the time of France’s defeat. The three of us became close friends. When it was clear that France was defeated, he and I took the opportunity to take a boat from Dunkirk to England. His sister stayed with her parents near Vincennes. He and I saw each other regularly while we were in London. One day, he told me of his decision to hire a private plane and parachute back into France. Not only did he want to find his family, but more important, he needed to contact the French partisans to let them know of the proposed Allied landing somewhere on the coast of southern France. He asked if I wanted to join him. As he was wealthy, money was not an issue. I accepted right away. You see, I was in love with his sister and wanted nothing more than to see her again. That is all.”
“That is why you parachuted into France?” he responded in disbelief. The stunning pain of the hose again, this time on my thighs and chest. I gasped for air. Then I pretended to faint thinking this might cause them to stop the torture.
“Drag him to a cell and hang him by his thumbs! Let his toes barely touch the floor. But before you hang him up, remove all of his clothing. I plan to visit him often. I have a special way to make him tell the truth.”
After pulling me along the icy floor, they tossed me face down into a cell, the floor of which was covered with human waste. One held me up while the other tied leather straps to my thumbs. They hoisted me to the ceiling and tied the straps to small rings. My feet could barely reach the floor. After they left, I tried to get some of the shit off my face by grimacing and blowing through my lips. The more I tried, the more seeped into my mouth.
Then—the sound of steps advancing toward my cell! Two German soldiers were talking about two Gestapo higher-ups who had discovered a better way to make prisoners talk. The method was to gather roaches and ants, put them in boxes and bring them to the interrogation room. Without warning, they would dump the roaches on the head of the prisoner and observe his reaction. Sometimes the prisoner would break, sometimes he wouldn’t. If he did not talk, they would take the other box filled with red ants and dump it on his head. This was always more effective because the ants would crawl into the nose and ears. As they passed my cell, I didn’t move or make a sound. I thought to myself, “At least, I know what’s coming next.”
Or did I? Despite the pain and biting cold, I had only one thought. Escape.