Odette Sansom.

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In this post we continue our dive into the SOE with Odette Sansom, who was one of the 41 female SOE F-Section agents to travel into occupied France. Captured and interrogated, Odette remained resolute, never breaking. This is her story. 

You can learn more about the SOE in part one of our Spies and Espionage After Dark by clicking here

(Odette in uniform. Image from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odette_Sansom.jpg)

Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born on the 28th of April, 1912, in Amiens. Her father was killed during the First World War. Odette received a convent education, and was considered a difficult child,  which some have suggested is due “…to a childhood punctuated by illnesses and temporary blindness at aged eight from which she took a long time to recover.” At nineteen she married Engliahman Roy Sansom, and the two had three daughters, the last two born after they had moved to England.

When the Second World War broke out, Roy joined the army and Odette and her children moved to Somerset for safety and to be near her mother in law. Although she had three young daughters, patriotism for both Britain and France propelled her to join the SOE in May, 1942. She described leaving her children as “…the hardest and most painful decision of her whole life.” 

(Odette with her daughters. From:https://www.aroundwellington.co.uk/odette-to-be-commemorated/

During training Odette was described as “…excitable, rash, stubborn and unwilling to ever admit she was wrong, but also very energetic and likeable.” A bad fall during parachute training meant she was unable to parachute into France and so travelled with Mary Herbert and Marie-Thérèse le Chêne by boat to Cassis on October 31st,1942. At 30 she was the youngest of the three women. Odette was initially intended to travel to occupied Burgundy, but first she had to meet Peter Churchill, organiser of the Spindle network in Cannes and a series of unfortunate events would change her plans. 

Peter Churchill’s mission was two-fold, first he was to build up the Spindle Network and second, was to liaison with André Girard who had impressed the SOE with his claims of having an army of 200,000 trained and armed soldiers, mainly taken from the Vichy Armistice Army. 

By the end of 1942 everything was going wrong André was difficult to work with; his wireless operator was unwilling to transmit the long and wordy messages he insisted on sending, and Churchill was forced to step in when André and his assistant’s arguments grew more frequent. To make matters worse, the organiser responsible for the southern felucca landings, was arrested on the 11th of November. This was not the end of the calamities; Francis Suttill sent him the names of around 200 possible supporters ‘in clear’ meaning unencrypted from, however, the list was stolen from his courier Marsac, and although they didn’t know it then, the list was in the hands of the Germans. The final blow came on the 29th of November, when the Vichy Armistice Army was demobilised. Owing to the catalogue of disasters Peter Churchill was in need of a courier he could trust, and since Odette had to wait in Cannes she was re-designated as his courier. She was now Madame Odette Metayer (codenamed Lise) of the Spindle network in what she considered a most dangerous town, as it was “full of holidaymakers, informers and Germans.”

Odette was shocked with how lapse those around her were with security, the only saving grace was Churchill and Rabinovitch the radio-operator, also prized security and the three got along well. As Rabinovitch was in France illegally, he didn’t have a ration card and so Odette needed to find food for him and as he was constantly on the move she had to find secure places for him to transmit his signals and to live. She was also responsible for organising and attending receptions for air drops. These often went wrong having been “carelessly placed, such as on ploughed fields, or near German airfields or barracks, and once she only just missed being hunted by German dogs.” Odette would take wireless equipment and sabotage materials where they needed to go travelling by bike or train. 

André Girard’s organisation was crumbling, in February 1943 he travelled to London to give his side of the story, and shortly after members of the Spindle members began to be arrested in Cannes. Peter Churchill reacted quickly and took his staff to St Jorioz, where the locals supported the resistance. Odette felt safer aways from Cannes and she and Churchill took rooms in the Hôtel de la Poste, whilst Rabinovitch stayed close by where he had better wireless reception. 

The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) began moving against those on the list taken from Marsac, starting with Marsac himself. Whilst he was in prison Marsac was visited by Sergeant Hugo Bleicher, the Abwehr’s most skilful interrogator, who pretended to be ‘Colonel Henri’, an anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi German, who wanted to end the war, and so needed to travel to London to discuss his plans. Marsac believed the charade and suggested that as he did not have the address for a wireless operator, he would instead give him the address of Odette and Roger Bardet, and they would be able to help ‘Henri’. Carrying a note from  Marsac, ‘Colonel Henri’ made contact with Odette and Bardet, and told them the same story. Odette was suspicious, but with Churchill in London she had no one to turn to for guidance, when she asked London for advice, they gave her “no clear course of action.” Although still unsure she trusted Marsac, and so told ‘Colonel Henri’ that he could be picked up on 18th of April, knowing that Peter Churchill was due to parachute in a few days before on 15th April and so the two would have to consult before Henri was due to leave. 

(Odette and Churchill. From:https://nypost.com/2019/01/19/how-an-ordinary-mom-of-three-became-britains-most-decorated-wwii-spy/)

As arranged Churchill parachuted in on the 15th of April landing safely on the landing ground  Odette had found. Although Churchill had been warned to stay away from Odette as London feared she was being watched, she was waiting for him when he arrived and their  “warm reunion meant all warnings were forgotten and they made their way back for a night’s rest at the Hôtel de la Poste.” By this time the two had fallen in love and staying apart from each other was not something they wanted to do. The following evening they were both arrested by Bleicher in his real persona, and the Italian police, Churchill immediately requested that they be placed into Italian custody to delay them being handed over to the German authorities.

They were moved from prison to prison in Italy and then France, on one of the occasions when they saw each other, Odette persuaded Churchill to say that; “they were married and that he was the Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s nephew and that his presence with her was her fault, as she had persuaded him to join her against his wishes.” By doing so she ensured she would be the one interrogated and tortured,not him. During her interrogations her “overwhelming personality” convinced her interrogators to believe her and they handed over to the Germans in May 1943, when they were taken to Frèsnes and then to Avenue Foch. 

Odette was interrogated tweleves times in which she withstood torture, throuhout it all she remained defiant, never betraying her fellow agents, and would repeat, “I have nothing to say”. At Frèsnes, she was put into a solitary confinement cell with hermetically sealed windows and little food causing her to fall ill. In June 1943 she returned to the Avenue Foch and officially informed that she was “condemned to death as a French resistance worker and an English spy.” This didn’t change anything, other than she was moved to a warmer cell in Frèsnes, with two occupants and faced no further interrogations. 

On the 12th of May, 1944, Odette was taken back to the Avenue Foch and placed in a “…large and rather impressively decorated room with seven other women, who were from other SOE networks.” Later Odette recalled they were “given tea in china cups and cigarettes”, before being taken to Paris railway station, where they were taken by train to Karlsruhe prison for civilian women. Upon their arrival they were separated and placed in cells with ordinary female German prisoners. Odette stayed at Karlsruhe until the 18th of July 1944, when she was sent briefly to Frankfurt and then Halle before being sent to Ravensbrück, where instead of being treated like other prisoners, she was put into an underground isolation cell in the punishment block known as the Bunker. Odette faced punishment because the Allies were advancing and her because they believed that she was connected to Winston Churchill. Her cell had no light, the temperature was “raised and lowered at her jailer’s will, and as it was near the crematorium smoke from the ovens would fill the air. Whilst she was not interrogated or tortured again, she could hear the screams and executions of others nearby and on one occasion recalled witnessing an “act of cannibalism by starving prisoner.”

(Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. From:https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-ravensbr-uuml-ck)

Through her training and childhood illness, Odette knew how to will herself to live, she later recalled her main motivation was to “…see her daughters again.” No matter how strong her mind, her physical condition deteriorated, and she fell ill with scurvy, dysentery, tuberculosis and other chest problems. Whilst her will to live alone wouldn’t save her, the lie she was connected to Winston Churchill would. 

The camp commander, Fritz Suhren, upon realising the war was going badly turned to his own preservation and saw that Odette was the key to his survival. So, in late 1944 she was moved to a ground floor cell, given a short exercise period daily and hospital treatment, though she was still kept in isolation this was a dramatic improvement on her quality of life. In April 1945, as SOE prisoners were facing mass extermination, he drove her from the camp and placed her in the care of American forces, thinking that this would help his case. Instead, Odette told them to take him prisoner and he was later hanged for war crimes, and she would go on to give evidence against several of Ravensbrück’s staff, which influenced their sentencing. 

Although she would need an extended hospital stay before she fully recovered, Odette survived through a mix of luck, stubbornness, bravery, quick thinking, and by refusing to let her will to live be crushed. 

In 1946, Odette was awarded the George Cross for refusing to betray her fellow secret agents under torture, she accepted the award “on behalf of all her comrades who did not survive”. In 1951, her George Cross was stolen when her house was burgled, her mother made an  appeal for it to be returned and it was along with a note which read:

“You, Madame, appear to be a dear old lady. God bless you and your children. I thank you for having faith in me. I am not all that bad — it’s just circumstances. Your little dog really loves me. I gave him a nice pat and left him a piece of meat — out of fridge. Sincerely yours, A Bad Egg.”

Odette’s marriage to Roy Sansom was dissolved in 1946, the following year she married Peter Churchill, but their marriage was not to last and they divorced in 1956. The same year she married for the final time, marrying Geoffrey Hallowes, a former SOE officer.

(Odette and Peter on their wedding day. From:https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7070379/How-brave-British-spy-protected-man-loved-ensuring-Nazis-tortured-instead.html)

Odette died on the 13th of March, 1995 at the age of 82. Odette was a force of nature, her selflessness, bravery, and will to live make her one of the most amazing women I have had the pleasure to read about.  

Author: Gemma Apps. 

Sources:

The Heroines of SOE: F Section, Britain’s Secret Women in France. By Beryl E Escott.     https://amzn.to/2KrmTxj

Flames in the Field. By Rita Kramer. https://amzn.to/2UR5PCB

Unearthing Churchill’s Secret Army. The Official List of SOE  Casualties and Their Stories. By Martin Mace and John Grehan. https://amzn.to/3fhRZma

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odette_Sansom.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Special_operations_executive.png
https://prabook.com/web/peter.churchill/3714280

In this post we continue our dive into the SOE with Odette Sansom, who was one of the 41 female SOE F-Section agents to travel into occupied France. Captured and interrogated, Odette remained resolute, never breaking. This is her story. 

You can learn more about the SOE in part one of our Spies and Espionage After Dark by clicking here

(Odette in uniform. Image from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odette_Sansom.jpg)

Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born on the 28th of April, 1912, in Amiens. Her father was killed during the First World War. Odette received a convent education, and was considered a difficult child,  which some have suggested is due “…to a childhood punctuated by illnesses and temporary blindness at aged eight from which she took a long time to recover.” At nineteen she married Engliahman Roy Sansom, and the two had three daughters, the last two born after they had moved to England.

When the Second World War broke out, Roy joined the army and Odette and her children moved to Somerset for safety and to be near her mother in law. Although she had three young daughters, patriotism for both Britain and France propelled her to join the SOE in May, 1942. She described leaving her children as “…the hardest and most painful decision of her whole life.” 

(Odette with her daughters. From:https://www.aroundwellington.co.uk/odette-to-be-commemorated/)

During training Odette was described as “…excitable, rash, stubborn and unwilling to ever admit she was wrong, but also very energetic and likeable.” A bad fall during parachute training ment she was unable to parachute into France and so travelled with Mary Herbert and Marie-Thérèse le Chêne by boat to Cassis on October 31st,1942. At 30 she was the youngest of the three women. Odette was initially intended to travel to occupied Burgundy, but first she had to meet Peter Churchill, organiser of the Spindle network in Cannes and a series of unfortunate events would change her plans. 

Peter Churchill’s mission was two-fold, first he was to build up the Spindle Network and second, was to liaison with André Girard who had impressed the SOE with his claims of having an army of 200,000 trained and armed soldiers, mainly taken from the Vichy Armistice Army. 

(Peter Churchill. From: https://prabook.com/web/peter.churchill/3714280)

By the end of 1942 everything was going wrong André was difficult to work with; his wireless operator was unwilling to transmit the long and wordy messages he insisted on sending, and Churchill was forced to step in when André and his assitant’s arguments grew more frequent. To make matters worse, the organiser responsible for the southern felucca landings, was arrested on the 11th of November. This was not the end of the calamities; Francis Suttill sent him the names of around 200 possible supporters ‘in clear’ meaning unencrypted from, however, the list was stolen from his courier Marsac, and although they didn’t know it then, the list was in the hands of the Germans. The final blow came on the 29th of November, when the Vichy Armistice Army was demobilised. Owing to the catalogue of disasters Peter Churchill was in need of a courier he could trust, and since Odette had to wait in Cannes she was re-designated as his courier. She was now Madame Odette Metayer (codenamed Lise) of the Spindle network in what she considered a most dangerous town, as it was “full of holidaymakers, informers and Germans.”

Odette was shocked with how lapse those around her were with security, the only saving grace was Churchill and Rabinovitch the radio-operator, also prized security and the three got along well. As Rabinovitch was in France illegally, he didn’t have a ration card and so Odette needed to find food for him and as he was constantly on the move she had to find secure places for him to transmit his signals and to live. She was also responsible for organising and attending receptions for air drops. These often went wrong having been “carelessly placed, such as on ploughed fields, or near German airfields or barracks, and once she only just missed being hunted by German dogs.” Odette would take wireless equipment and sabotage materials where they needed to go travelling by bike or train. 

André Girard’s organisation was crumbling, in February 1943 he travelled to London to give his side of the story, and shortly after members of the Spindle members began to be arrested in Cannes. Peter Churchill reacted quickly and took his staff to St Jorioz, where the locals supported the resistance. Odette felt safer aways from Cannes and she and Churchill took rooms in the Hôtel de la Poste, whilst Rabinovitch stayed close by where he had better wireless reception. 

The Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) began moving against those on the list taken from Marsac, starting with Marsac himself. Whilst he was in prison Marsac was visited by Sergeant Hugo Bleicher, the Abwehr’s most skilful interrogator, who pretended to be ‘Colonel Henri’, an anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi German, who wanted to end the war, and so needed to travel to London to discuss his plans. Marsac believed the charade and suggested that as he did not have the address for a wireless operator, he would instead give him the address of Odette and Roger Bardet, and they would be able to help ‘Henri’. Carrying a note from  Marsac, ‘Colonel Henri’ made contact with Odette and Bardet, and told them the same story. Odette was suspicious, but with Churchill in London she had no one to turn to for guidance, when she asked London for advice, they gave her “no clear course of action.” Although still unsure she trusted Marsac, and so told ‘Colonel Henri’ that he could be picked up on 18th of April, knowing that Peter Churchill was due to parachute in a few days before on 15th April and so the two would have to consult before Henri was due to leave. 

(Odette and Churchill. From:https://nypost.com/2019/01/19/how-an-ordinary-mom-of-three-became-britains-most-decorated-wwii-spy/)

As arranged Churchill parachuted in on the 15th of April landing safely on the landing ground  Odette had found. Although Churchill had been warned to stay away from Odette as London feared she was being watched, she was waiting for him when he arrived and their  “warm reunion meant all warnings were forgotten and they made their way back for a night’s rest at the Hôtel de la Poste.” By this time the two had fallen in love and staying apart from each other was not something they wanted to do. The following evening they were both arrested by Bleicher in his real persona, and the Italian police, Churchill immediately requested that they be placed into Italian custody to delay them being handed over to the German authorities.

They were moved from prison to prison in Italy and then France, on one of the occasions when they saw each other, Odette persuaded Churchill to say that; “they were married and that he was the Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s nephew and that his presence with her was her fault, as she had persuaded him to join her against his wishes.” By doing so she ensured she would be the one interrogated and tortured,not him. During her interrogations her “overwhelming personality” convinced her interrogators to believe her and they handed over to the Germans in May 1943, when they were taken to Frèsnes and then to Avenue Foch. 

Odette was interrogated tweleves times in which she withstood torture, throuhout it all she remained defiant, never betraying her fellow agents, and would repeat, “I have nothing to say”. At Frèsnes, she was put into a solitary confinement cell with hermetically sealed windows and little food causing her to fall ill. In June 1943 she returned to the Avenue Foch and officially informed that she was “condemned to death as a French resistance worker and an English spy.” This didn’t change anything, other than she was moved to a warmer cell in Frèsnes, with two occupants and faced no further interrogations. 

On the 12th of May, 1944, Odette was taken back to the Avenue Foch and placed in a “…large and rather impressively decorated room with seven other women, who were from other SOE networks.” Later Odette recalled they were “given tea in china cups and cigarettes”, before being taken to Paris railway station, where they were taken by train to Karlsruhe prison for civilian women. Upon their arrival they were separated and placed in cells with ordinary female German prisoners. Odette stayed at Karlsruhe until the 18th of July 1944, when she was sent briefly to Frankfurt and then Halle before being sent to Ravensbrück, where instead of being treated like other prisoners, she was put into an underground isolation cell in the punishment block known as the Bunker. Odette faced punishment because the Allies were advancing and her because they believed that she was connected to Winston Churchill. Her cell had no light, the temperature was “raised and lowered at her jailer’s will, and as it was near the crematorium smoke from the ovens would fill the air. Whilst she was not interrogated or tortured again, she could hear the screams and executions of others nearby and on one occasion recalled witnessing an “act of cannibalism by starving prisoner.”

(Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. From:https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-ravensbr-uuml-ck)

Through her training and childhood illness, Odette knew how to will herself to live, she later recalled her main motivation was to “…see her daughters again.” No matter how strong her mind, her physical condition deteriorated, and she fell ill with scurvy, dysentery, tuberculosis and other chest problems. Whilst her will to live alone wouldn’t save her, the lie she was connected to Winston Churchill would. 

The camp commander, Fritz Suhren, upon realising the war was going badly turned to his own preservation and saw that Odette was the key to his survival. So, in late 1944 she was moved to a ground floor cell, given a short exercise period daily and hospital treatment, though she was still kept in isolation this was a dramatic improvement on her quality of life. In April 1945, as SOE prisoners were facing mass extermination, he drove her from the camp and placed her in the care of American forces, thinking that this would help his case. Instead, Odette told them to take him prisoner and he was later hanged for war crimes, and she would go on to give evidence against several of Ravensbrück’s staff, which influenced their sentencing. 

Although she would need an extended hospital stay before she fully recovered, Odette survived through a mix of luck, stubbornness, bravery, quick thinking, and by refusing to let her will to live be crushed. 

In 1946, Odette was awarded the George Cross for refusing to betray her fellow secret agents under torture, she accepted the award “on behalf of all her comrades who did not survive”. In 1951, her George Cross was stolen when her house was burgled, her mother made an  appeal for it to be returned and it was along with a note which read:

“You, Madame, appear to be a dear old lady. God bless you and your children. I thank you for having faith in me. I am not all that bad — it’s just circumstances. Your little dog really loves me. I gave him a nice pat and left him a piece of meat — out of fridge. Sincerely yours, A Bad Egg.”

Odette’s marriage to Roy Sansom was dissolved in 1946, the following year she married Peter Churchill, but their marriage was not to last and they divorced in 1956. The same year she married for the final time, marrying Geoffrey Hallowes, a former SOE officer.

Odette died on the 13th of March, 1995 at the age of 82. Odette was a force of nature, her selflessness, bravery, and will to live make her one of the most amazing women I have had the pleasure to read about.  

Author: Gemma Apps. 

Sources:

The Heroines of SOE: F Section, Britain’s Secret Women in France. By Beryl E Escott.     https://amzn.to/2KrmTxj

Flames in the Field. By Rita Kramer. https://amzn.to/2UR5PCB

Unearthing Churchill’s Secret Army. The Official List of SOE  Casualties and Their Stories. By Martin Mace and John Grehan. https://amzn.to/3fhRZma

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odette_Sansom.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Special_operations_executive.png

https://prabook.com/web/peter.churchill/3714280

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