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Odette Sansom, also known as Odette Churchill or Odette Hallowes, was a French intelligence officer who served with the Allies during World War II. She helped the French Resistance and withstood Gestapo interrogation and torture to guarantee the safety of fellow agents in France. Odette Sansom earned the George Cross for her service, the first women to do so, and a 1950 film documents her life and great courage during World War II.

Early Life and Marriage

Odette Sansom, born as Odette Marie Céline Brailly on April 28, 1912, lived in Amiens, France with her parents and two younger siblings. Her father, Gaston Brailly, worked as a bank manager and died just before the 1918 armistice while fighting for the French army in Verdun. [1] She suffered many illnesses as a child, spending over three years blind, attended a local convent school where she earned a reputation for being headstrong. [2]

In 1926, Odette moved with her mother to Boulogne. She met an English businessman named Roy Sansom and the couple married in 1931. Odette gave birth to their only son, Françoise, and they moved to London, England. Two daughters followed, Lili born in 1934 and Marianne in 1936.[3] World War II began and Roy joined the army while Odette took the children near Somerset.[4]

Special Operations Recruitment

Odette Sansom reluctantly accepted the position in Special Operations in an effort to help fight the Nazis with France, even though she had no previous experience and three small children.

In early 1942, Odette Sansom responded to a BBC request from the Admiralty for photographs and postcards detailing the coastline of France for intelligence purposes. She provided pictures and enclosed a note mentioning her knowledge of Boulogne and her French birth.She mistakenly sent the letter to the War Office where SOE Colonel Maurice Buckmaster saw potential and she received an invitation to join the SOE.

When Sansom agreed to join, the SOE enrolled her at the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Her children attended a convent school and she began training to serve the French Resistance in her Nazi-occupied home country. [5] She earned a headstrong reputation again during training and some of her instructors believed her to be too temperamental. She continued on anyway with permission from Buckmaster.[6]

French Service and Capture

On November 2, 1942, Odette Sansom arrived outside Cassis and contacted the head of the SOE network in South France (SPINDLE) named Peter Churchill in Cannes. Her objective involved meeting with the French Resistance on the Riviera then establishing safe houses in Auxerre, Burgundy for SOE agents. SPINDLE experienced internal strife during this same time with André Girard, the main agent, arguing with Adolphe Rabinovitch, the area radio operator. One of Girard’s couriers lost a confidential list of 200 possible SPINDLE supporters and he denied any help for Odette to reach Auxerre. Sansom could not leave Cannes, so Churchill informed Buckmaster to take her on as his personal courier.[7]

Sansom became “Madame Odette Metayer” and helped retrieve airdropped supplies from hazardous areas and secured housing and food for Rabinovitch. She worked in the heavily guarded city of Marseilles filled with Nazi agents and formed close relationships with both Churchill and Rabinovitch. An Abwehr counterintelligence agent, Hugo Bleicher, infiltrated the SPINDLE network in 1943. He used the list stolen by the Germans from Girard’s courier. He pretends to be an officer with the Germans named Colonel Henri, who opposed the Nazis and Hitler. On April 16, 1943, Bleicher arrested Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom in the Saint-Jorioz Hôtel de la Poste and sent them to Fresnes Prison.[8]

Fresnes Prison and Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

Odette Sansom suffered fourteen Gestapo interrogations while imprisoned at Fresnes. They ripped out her toenails and burned her flesh with a fire poker, but she never revealed the location of Rabinovitch or other British agents.

Despite her initial apprehensions to perform intelligence work, Odette Sansom managed to survive torture and not reveal the information vital to the safety of Allied resistance agents.

She pretended to be Odette Churchill, the wife of Peter Churchill, who posed as the nephew of English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and denied knowing anything about SPINDLE.

Sansom's efforts succeed in taking the Gestapo’s attention away from Churchill, who only suffered two interrogations, and protecting the other officers whose locations only she knew.[9] Bleicher attempted to woo Sansom by inviting her to restaurants and concerts in Paris and persuade her to talk, but she rejected all of his attempts.[10] After receiving two death sentences, Bleicher moved her to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.[11]

Sansom resided in a cell with no light and ate a diet meant to starve her. She spent every night in the punishment block where she listened to other prisoners being beaten. In 1944 when the Allies landed in south France, the officials denied her food, darkened her cell further, and turned up the heat. They returned her to solitary confinement after she collapsed in her cell. They moved her to a nicer, ground floor cell in December 1944, but this one sat near the crematorium and it often became covered in burned hair.[12] On May 1, 1945, Camp Commander Fritz Suhren took Sansom to the nearby United States military base when the Allies stationed a few miles outside Ravesnbrück. He intended to surrender in hopes of avoiding execution.[13]

Post-War Life and Legacy

Odette Sansom testified at the Hamburg Ravesnbrück Trials in 1946.[14] On August 20, 1946, she became the first woman to receive the George Cross and the only one ever to receive it while still alive.[15]She dissolved her marriage to Sansom the same year and married Peter Churchill the following year. They divorced in 1956 and she became Odette Hallowes the same year after marrying Geoffrey Hallowes, another SOE member.[16] Odette Hallowes’ life story features in Odette, the 1950 film documenting her exploits.[17]

References

Bibliography


Escott, B. E. (2012). The Heroines of SOE: F section: Britain’s Secret Women in France. United Kingdom: The History Press.

Perrin, N. (2016). Odette Sansom. SOE Agent Profiles.

Sansom, O. M. C. (1986). IWM interview. Sansom, Odette Marie Céline (IWM interview). Imperial War Museums. 
Starns, P. (2010). Odette: World War Two’s Darling Spy. London, United Kingdom: The History Press.

Footnotes

  1. Starns, 2010
  2. Sansom, 1986
  3. Perrin, 2016
  4. Escott, 2012
  5. Tickell, J. (1971). Odette: The Story of a British Agent. London: Pan Macmillan.
  6. Sansom, 1986
  7. Sansom, 1986
  8. Escott, 2012
  9. Starns, 2010
  10. Sansom, 1986
  11. Starns, 2010
  12. Sansom, 1986
  13. Perrin, 2016
  14. Perrin, 2016
  15. Central Chancery of the Orders of Nighthood (1946, August 20). Third Supplement to The London Gazette. The London Gazette.
  16. Perrin, 2016
  17. Sansom, 1986

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