A housewife turned spy for the British who ran an intelligence network from Boulevard Royal, a local newspaper from Diekirch that printed coded messages, and a strange Belgian who was airlifted into the occupied Grand Duchy in a hot-air balloon. No, this is not fiction, this is in fact the incredible story of the Luxembourg Operation.

You would think that in a tiny country such as Luxembourg, anything even remotely noteworthy that happens would be widespread knowledge. But if this series has proven anything, it is just how many  truly  fascinating tales go untold.

In this article, we will delve into what is perhaps the Grand Duchy's most criminally unknown story yet. The protagonist at its centre, Madame Lise Rischard, should by all accounts be one of Luxembourg's most famous historical figures. And yet, many of you will probably have heard her name for the first time.

Strap in for a story of unbelievable bravery, daring acts above enemy lines, and inspiring international cooperation. Oh, and make sure to stick around until the end to learn the basics of an actual WWI spy code!

I. An unlikely recruit for an unlikely plan

Paris, 1917. Captain George Bruce, chief of a Permit Office located in 41 Rue St Roch that was secretly also engaged in espionage, has a daring plan: Setting up a train-watching network in the occupied Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Luxembourg was an ideal location for such an operation: Situated at the centre of a railway network, the central station served as a hub for the Germans, directing trains to various sections of the Western Front. The idea for a network in the Grand Duchy had been floated before but was rejected by Bruce's superiors. "Too difficult to supervise from a distance," they said.

But Bruce believed in his plan. All he needed was the right person to pull it off. Unbeknownst to him, fate had already lined up a most remarkable woman for the task: Madame Lise Rischard from Luxembourg.

At the time, Madame Rischard was stranded in Paris. She had applied for a travel permit to Switzerland from the German commandant in Luxembourg, intending to secretly cross over into France to visit her son Marcel, who faced the risk of deployment to the front lines.

However, her request for a visa to return to Switzerland was denied by the French authorities when they discovered her ultimate destination was Luxembourg—a route that required passage through Germany.

Through an acquaintance, Captain Bruce became aware of Madame Rischard's predicament and saw an opportunity. Alongside Captain Lewis Campbell, he approached her during a meeting at Quai d'Orsay and made a proposition: they would assist her in returning to Luxembourg if she agreed to establish an intelligence network for the British Secret Service, operating behind enemy lines.

At first, Madame Rischard was appalled. It should be noted that until this point, she had led a quiet, peaceful life with her husband, Dr Camille Rischard, on Boulevard Royal in Luxembourg City. Now, she found herself face-to-face with strange men in military attire, requesting her to spy on the Germans.

Eventually, Madame Rischard agreed. The plan for the Luxembourg Network was officially in motion.

II. Captain Bruce's plan

Although Madame Rischard may seem an unlikely choice for a secret agent, she was actually perfect in many ways. She needed no disguise, as her life was her cover: a 49-year-old housewife hailing from a respected family (her father played a pivotal role in Luxembourg's iron ore industry), married to an equally esteemed man (Dr Rischard's father had served as Minister of Public Building and Works).

However, she did need to be trained. To begin with, Captain Bruce explained the full plan to her: Her mission was to return to Luxembourg and enlist her husband's aid. Together, the Rischards would establish a network of observers in the marshalling yard of the central railway station and along the adjoining lines.

Madame Rischard would oversee these individuals through her husband, primarily gathering intelligence on "constituted units" traveling through Luxembourg to the Western Front. To ensure secure communication, all information would be encoded using a complex cipher devised by Campbell, whom Madame Rischard would learn from.

While Campbell was in charge of coming up with a code, Bruce began teaching Madame Rischard how to recognise German uniforms, insignia, train types, weapons, and much, much more.

It was a truly gargantuan task, but Madame Rischard proved to be both highly capable and persistent. By the summer, she had not only become an expert on the German military, but was also increasingly able to use Campbell's highly complex code that the code-breakers of both the British War Office and the French Service du Chiffre failed to decipher.

III. Duping the Germans with… local news

Actually getting Madame Rischard to Luxembourg proved very difficult and it wasn't until February 1918 that she finally returned to Boulevard Royal.

During the preceding months, Captain Bruce had made one highly significant addition to the plan. While initially intending for Madame Rischard to send coded letters to Paris, the team at 41 Rue St Roch grew concerned that this method might be too time-consuming and susceptible to the scrutiny of censors.

In contrast, newspapers underwent only casual inspections and were swiftly delivered as perishable items. Recognising the advantage, Captain Bruce discovered the ideal publication for the Luxembourg operation: a newspaper named Der Landwirt ("The Agriculturalist"), printed in Diekirch. This newspaper focused on addressing local concerns and interests through articles penned by acquaintances and neighbours – incredibly mundane and thus incredibly well-suited for a spy operation.

After ensuring the trustworthiness of the publishers, Madame Rischard was entrusted with persuading Joseph Hansen, the schoolmaster in Diekirch, to craft brief articles containing coded messages. These messages would be passed on to Jeanne Schmitt, the newspaper's proprietor, who would guarantee their inclusion in the forthcoming edition.

The newspaper would then be sent to Father Cambron, a Jesuit priest who had been expelled from Luxembourg and currently resided in Switzerland. Father Cambron would, in turn, forward the publication to 41 Rue St Roch.


Father Cambron (left) with Captain George Bruce (right).

It was a masterful plan. A week after her return to Luxembourg, Madame Rischard wrote a coded letter to Paris, confirming that the operation was underway. Written on 18 February, the letter reached Captain Bruce on the 27th. The day before, Bruce had already received the first copy of the Landwirt.

This issue, published on Thursday, 21 February, contained Madame Rischard's first report. Transmitting information from occupied territory in a mere five days was nothing short of remarkable.

Madame Rischard was instructed to primarily rely on the Landwirt for communication. After a few weeks, the Luxembourg Network had evolved into a well-coordinated machine. But perhaps it could be made even more efficient?

IV. Belgian support from the skies

Captain Bruce and his colleagues had started to wonder whether it might be possible to smuggle a covert agent into the Grand Duchy. They already had someone in mind: a peculiar Belgian by the name of Baschwitz Meau, who had reached out to Bruce directly to propose his services and had garnered a reputation for repeatedly breaking out of German POW camps.

The plan they came up with sounds like it was taken straight out of a Hollywood movie: Baschwitz would embark on a clandestine journey in a hot-air balloon, silently traversing enemy lines to enter the Grand Duchy. Once safely inside, he would disembark the balloon, allowing it to continue its flight and ideally drift far enough to prevent the Germans from tracing its origin back to the Grand Duchy.


The enigmatic Baschwitz Meau. Somewhat fittingly, he vanishes after 1940 and it is not known what ultimately became of him.

This daring stunt took place on the night of 18/19 June. At 1.50am, Baschwitz Meau ascended into the sky near Verdun, flawlessly navigating through enemy territory, and leapt from the balloon near Grosbous at approximately 3.55am. Once again, the plan unfolded flawlessly, leaving the Germans none the wiser.

The presence of an experienced military officer – on Madame Rischard's explicit request, Baschwitz lived with her and her husband on Boulevard Royal – immediately made the Luxembourg Operation more professional.

The Belgian organised their network of train-watchers and soon an abundance of reports flooded in, requiring Madame Rischard to diligently encode messages until the early hours of the morning.

Ultimately, the Luxembourg network stretched across the entire country: northeast toward Trier, northwest to Arlon, southeast toward Audun, south through Thionville and Metz, southwest toward Saarbrücken, and west to Longwy.

V. An agent till the very end

After the end of the war, there was no doubt about the mission's success. Colonel Reginald Drake, Head of Intelligence and Captain Bruce's superior, hailed the Luxembourg Network as one of the most accomplished intelligence endeavours he had ever witnessed. In History of Intelligence, he noted:

"Thanks to the spade work performed by Madame Rischard and to certain improvements in the code which past experience in communicating with her had suggested, Lieutenant Meau was able to set up the best train watching service, as far the reporting of results goes, which had up to that time been established."


Post-war honours for the heroes. Lise Rischard and Dr Camille Rischard on the far left.

The British government recognised Madame Rischard's remarkable contributions by bestowing upon her the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), while Dr Rischard received the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire).

Madame Rischard and Baschwitz Meau were also appointed Chevaliers in the Légion d'Honneur by the French, upon the recommendation of Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during WWI.

Lise Rischard's unwavering dedication to Captain Bruce's mission persisted until the very end. In early 1940, sensing the impending threat of a German invasion, she deliberately destroyed all records pertaining to the Luxembourg operation.

Aware of her declining health, she entrusted her story to her nephew, Charles-Edouard, a young doctor who later joined forces with the Luxembourg resistance. In February, Lise Rischard passed away. The German authorities had learned of the honours bestowed upon Madame Rischard and her comrades in 1919.

On 10 May 1940, German troops were despatched to apprehend her and seize her files – but the only thing they found was that they had once again been outwitted by the indomitable Madame Rischard.

VI. Learn to code like a spy with RTL Today

The code used by Madame Rischard to communicate with 41 Rue St Roch was brilliant in many ways. Notably, it could be used regardless of whether the sender was writing in English, French, or German.

While teaching it to you in full would be way beyond the scope of this article, we can have a look at the basic principles and a very simple example, just to get an idea of how it worked.

Bruce and Campbell created a list of twenty subjects they were interested in. They assigned a number to each subject, ranging from 1 to 19, plus 0. Each number was matched with a letter of the alphabet, where A = 1, B = 2, and so on.

For example, Subject 3, "Section of line and two dates," was represented by "C," and Subject 10, "Description of Uniforms," was represented by "L." These subjects and their corresponding letters formed the initial vocabulary of the code.

The first rule of grammar involved using the first letter of the first word of the first line to indicate the subject of the hidden message. For instance, if the first letter was C, it referred to "Section of line and two dates." The sender would then provide subsidiary information related to that subject.

To indicate places and stations, each location was assigned a number and matched with its corresponding letter. For example, Arlon was assigned 1 (A) and Libramont was assigned 6 (F). A line beginning with A represented Arlon, while one beginning with F represented Libramont. The order of places indicated the direction of travel, such as A followed by F indicating travel from Arlon to Libramont.

Dates required special treatment because the numbering system only went up to 19. Dates between 20 and 31 were accommodated by subtracting the observed train's date from the report's date. For example, if the report was dated the 25th and the train was observed on the 22nd, the departure date from Arlon would be 3 (C), which would be the first letter of the first word in the relevant line.

To avoid confusion between main and subsidiary subjects, as well as between different subsidiary subjects, grammar rules were essential. Following a predetermined order, each main subject would have subsidiary information listed accordingly.

For example, under the main subject "Description of Uniforms" (L), the third item would be "grey," represented by 3 (C). The agreed order ensured clarity in communication.

Here is an example taken straight from the exercises given to Madame Rischard:

The information to be transmitted concerns:


The date of the movement observed in this sector is the 12th.

The report is dated 13th.

In this instance, Madame Rischard wanted to convey a concise message regarding 'Section of line and a date'. The initial line denotes that all subsequent information in the ensuing three lines pertains to statement B.

The initial letters of the first words in the second and third lines thus reveal the stations where the observations took place—Libramont (F) and Carignan (D)—while also indicating the train's direction. The observed movement occurred on the 12th, and the report was made on the 13th.

Employing Bruce's system of subtraction, we obtain 1, denoted as A, which serves as the first letter in the fourth line.

Consequently, the discreet message of a train journey from Libramont to Carignan on the 12th could be concealed within a letter discussing an entirely unrelated matter. Like this:

"Beer is unavailable, Alas, it goes so well with

Food. However, we must make do with Father

Daudet's cider. This is delicious, as for some reason

Apples ripened early but did not fall off the trees."

Decoding the text involved identifying the subject by the first letter of the first word in the first line. Then, taking the first letter of the first word in each line, the recipient could read off places, dates, numbers, and other details.