This is one of those amazing stories of resilience and perseverance.
Odette Sansom, aka Odette Churchill and Odette Hallowes, code name Lise, was an agent for the United Kingdom’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France during World War II.
She was born on 28 April 1912 in Amiens, France.
She met an Englishman, Roy Patrick Sansom, in Boulogne and married him in Boulogne-sur-Mer on 27 October 1931, moving with him to Britain. The couple had three daughters, Françoise Edith, born in 1932 in Boulogne; Lili M, born in 1934 in Fulham; and Marianne O, born in 1936 in Fulham. Mr Sansom joined the army at the beginning of the second world war, and Odette Sansom and the children moved to Somerset for their safety.
In the spring of 1942, the Admiralty appealed for postcards or family photographs taken on the French coastline for possible war use. Hearing the broadcast, Odette wrote that she had photographs taken around Boulogne, but she mistakenly sent her letter to the War Office instead of the Admiralty. That brought her to the attention of Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s Special Operations Executive.
Odette was recruited as a courier for the SPINDLE circuit of Special Operations Executive. She was a wife and mother of three who didn’t drink, smoke or swear, and to the casual observer, she was quite ordinary, perhaps even boring. Yet, she was a trained killer. She feared neither danger nor dagger—interrogation nor torture. She didn’t think twice about confronting German generals or commandants and often placed principle before prudence. Like her colleagues in the SOE, she signed up for the war knowing that arrest (and execution) was a very real possibility—a fate that awaited almost one in two for F Section (France) couriers.
She was betrayed by a double agent, Colonel Henri, in April 1943. Colonel Henri was a German officer who claimed he wished to work for the allies. Despite, Odette’s suspicions, his involvement led to her arrest.
Arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo, she was sent with fellow SOE agent Peter Churchill (no relation to the Prime Minister) to Fresnes Prison in Paris. At Fresnes, she was interrogated and tortured 14 times by the Gestapo, including having her toenails torn out, her back scorched by a red hot poker, and locked in a dark basement for 3 days at a time. During the interrogation she lied to the Gestapo agents saying Peter Churchill was her husband and the nephew of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to make the Germans believe she was a relative of Winston Churchill then she’d be kept alive as a bargaining tool.
In 1943, she was sentenced to death twice, to which she responded, “Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed because I can only die once.” Infuriated, the Gestapo agent sent her to Ravensbruck Camp. At Ravensbruck, she was kept on a starvation diet in a cell where other prisoners could be heard being beaten. After D-Day, all food was removed for a week, all light was blocked from her cell, and the heat was turned up. She was expected to die after a few weeks but instead only fell unconscious and was relocated to solitary confinement. As a child she’d been blind and bedridden from serious illnesses for three-and-a-half years, so the darkness didn’t bother her, and as she was considered a difficult child (likely due to her illnesses) during her convent education, she was used to starvation punishments. As the Allies approached Ravensbruck, the commandant drove her to a nearby American base to surrender, hoping to use Odette as a bargaining tool to escape execution.
She testified against the prison guards charged with war crimes at the 1946 Hamburg Ravensbrück Trials, which resulted in Suhren’s execution in 1950. Roy and Odette’s marriage was dissolved in 1946 and she married Peter Churchill in 1947.
Despite her appalling treatment, she was not over-consumed with bitterness. Instead, after the war, she worked for various charities seeking to lessen the war pain for others. For her service, she was awarded the George Cross. Her humility meant she was not keen on accepting the award, but she did accept it on behalf of all agents who suffered during the war. She briefly married, Peter Churchill, before marrying her third husband, Geoffrey Hallowes. She died in 1995 aged 83.
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