“I recall the adventure as the most wonderful and intense periods of my life.” — Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir
Queer people played a significant role in the winning of the second world war, from the famous story of Alan Turing to the hundreds of names behind the scenes. One of those names is Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir. In any remembrance of this woman’s work, it must be noted that while her work was done below the radar, her life most certainly was not. The daughter of a Peruvian diplomat, she was a woman who loved parties and “favour[ed] the companionship of women who may not be careful of their virginity” according to Deputy Chief Constable Josef Goulder. She was not well-respected, but she was well-known. Considered to be a beautiful “good-time girl” who loved the spotlight and was dismissed because of this, her identity was only revealed years after the war had ended: Agent Bronx.
The Peruvian woman was raised in France and expensively educated because of her father’s fortune. Married in 1934 at twenty-three, Elvira found that married life didn’t suit her. When affairs proved not be enough, she ran away to the Cannes with her best friend Romy Gilbey. There her friend married the heir to a gin dynasty, and the two were spending most of their time gambling their money away when in Germany invaded France. Again Elvira found herself running away with her best friend, driving an open-top Renault to St. Maulo before taking a boat to England. It was in England, unsurprisingly in a casino, that Elvira was approached by Claude Dansey, assistant chief of M16.
When offered a job as a double agent, Elvira quickly accepted, in need of money and a good distraction. She was taken to a flat in Knightsbridge and taught the basics before she was sent to Vichy France to report on the happenings there. More importantly, she was to engage in “coat-trailing,” the intelligence strategy of placing a promising recruit in a position to be recruited by the other side as well.
It was in a Cannes casino that she was approached by Henri Chauvel, a wealthy Nazi collaborator. He asked her out and through him, she met Helmut Bliel and gained another name, Agent Dorette.
She was given a second bottle of secret ink and returned to England with an arrangement that would send her one-hundred pounds a month under the guise of alimony checks from her ex-husband.
She was passed from M16 to M15, offered as a new addition to the experimental Double Cross team, also known as the twenty or double X committee. She was not trusted immediately, as her “lesbian” tendencies were seen by many members as easy blackmail material. In the end, she was accepted in, however cautiously.
It was with this group that she was given her third name. Though the rules were strict against any name that related to the agent in question, the Double Cross team broke this often and beautifully. Christopher Harmer explained her code name in a recording:
“I chose the name of a rum-based cocktail. It was one of the very few cocktails you could buy during the war when gin was in short supply. It was very appropriate a short name for an exceptional woman.”
Given a cover job at the BBC, Elvira became Agent Bronx.
She began writing letters in invisible ink to her German handler, writing in a unique style filled with gossip, half-truths, full lies, and banalities, all accepted eagerly. At the same time, she wrote vicious anti-Nazi articles in the BBC, always making sure to give an excuse to her German handler.
“I hope you won’t mind reading my article in Sunday Graphic as it was essential that I should get a reputation for hating Germany,” she wrote.
In her letters, she was able to also plant a bit of propaganda, telling of a massive supply of chemical weapons that England had in case Germany began gas attacks. She saved lives by discouraging Germany from pursuing that route and proved her worth to the team.
Harmer later reported, “Of the cases that I have had to deal with, Bronx is the only one who has told the entire truth about her recruitment and mission.”
Hugh Astor, who took over her case after Harmer was transferred, reported,
“She was a British agent before she was ever recruited by the Germans, and is probably one of our most reliable agents.”
One of the greatest deceptions that the Double Cross team can be credited for was Operation Fortitude, a concerted attempt to redirect German attention and disguise the true location of the Allied invasion of Normandy. It was at the height of Germany’s trust in her that she was given the opportunity to participate in this massive deception.
At this time all of the German agents sent to England were either recruited as double agents or removed, making the entirety of the German spy network in England a well-played trick; one that, upon the decision to invade Normandy, began to be used to its full potential. Agent Bronx played a large part in that.
Because of the delay that came with mail, Germany suggested an alternate signal if Elvira received any information about the upcoming Allied invasion. She was to send a telegram with her reason for the request to a bank in Portugal run by a corrupt manager who would then pass it on along to German agents. The amount of money would be decoded to indicate where the invasion was set to take place, and the reason would be decoded to indicate her certainty and timeline for the invasion.
The information that she gave was directly responsible for the mobilization of Das Reich North away from Normandy, saving the lives of many Allied soldiers and weakening German defenses further.
Her critical telegraph was followed by a much slower letter which explained her mistaken information and purposefully arrived far too late.
The American President Dwight Eisenhower praised this operation in writing. “I cannot overemphasize the importance of maintaining as long as humanly possible the Allied threat to the Pas de Calais area, which has already paid enormous dividends and, with care, will continue to do so.”
Through the ending of the war, Agent Bronx continued to play a significant role, searching through the German hierarchy to find who might sue for peace. She was sent away from England once again, though it was clear that this time there was more danger. Because of the false information she had passed, they were aware that she would be questioned, presenting a significant risk. Before leaving, she told her handler that should anything happen to her, he was to tell Monica Sheriffe, a woman with whom she started a relationship in England long before.
She flew to Madrid and found that she could not find a single German agent to meet. She sent a furious message to the Germans, complaining that she had expected a bonus and livid that no one had met her. And though she had likely been summoned for an interrogation and punishment, she was instead given an apology.
Once the war ended, she spent time shaping post-war Germany and continued sending telegrams. Though she had the opportunity to continue, Agent Bronx retired with the war.
Given a parting bonus, she lived a much quieter life in the South of France, using her inheritance to make a life for herself and run a small gift shop called l’Heure Bleu. In 1995, the leader of M15, Stella Remington, was informed that Elvira was broke. In December, Elvira was sent a check for five thousand pounds. Remington wrote about it, saying, “[This is] a way of making the point that her war-time service is still remembered and appreciated.”
Elvira died only a month later at the age of eighty-five.
A woman who was thought of as “a good-time girl with no allegiance to anyone except herself” was, in fact, a vital part of the success of the Allied forces. A hard worker who was clever enough to deceive the forces of the German intelligence system over and over, disguising her lies beneath so much of what was seen as frivolous, that hardly anyone considered she was playing them.
There is no better way to understand her drive than to read her answer when she was first asked why she wanted to become a double agent:
“She replied that she had no such desire at all, although she would do it if it was any use.”
A bisexual, divorced, gambler was not someone who was often trusted by military officials in England, but Agent Bronx secured her place as one of the most reliable and trustworthy agents they had. Her contributions to the wartime effort were invaluable, and deserve much more recognition. No matter what people thought of her in her time, how they dismissed or mocked her, she was an incredible woman, and she saved lives.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
“Elvira Josefina Concepción de la Fuente Chaudoir.” Special Forces Roll of Honour, John Robertson, 1942, www.specialforcesroh.com/gallery.php?do=view_image&id=18466&gal=gallery.
Macintyre, Ben. Double Cross the True Story of the D-Day Spies. New York City: Broadway Books, 2012. Print.
Maggs, Sam. Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2016. Print.