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Odette Sansom, also known as Odette Churchill and Odette Hallowes, was born on 28 April 1912 in Amiens, France. Her father, Florentin Désiré Eugène ‘Gaston’ Brailly, was killed at Verdun shortly before the Armistice in 1918.
As a child, Odette contracted serious illnesses which blinded her for three and a half years. She also contracted polio, which left her bedridden for a number of months.
As an adult, Odette met an Englishman, Roy Patrick Sansom (1911–1957), in Boulogne and married him on 27 October 1931. The couple moved to Britain where they produced three daughters. Roy Sansom joined the army at the beginning of the Second World War. Two and a half years later, in the spring of 1942, Odette responded to an Admiritaty appeal for photographs of the French coast. Those photographs brought her to the SOE’s attention and the secretive organisation promptly recruited her into their service.
With her three daughters in a convent school, Odette trained as an SOE agent. At first, Odette’s instructors regarded her as too temperamental and stubborn for the SOE. One report stated, “She is impulsive and hasty in her judgments and has not quite the clarity of mind which is desirable in subversive activity. She seems to have little experience of the outside world. She is excitable and temperamental, although she has a certain determination. However, she is patriotic and keen to do something for France.”
George Starr, a successful agent who clashed with many of the female agents, particularly the attractive ones, described Odette as “a dreadful lady.” In particular, he deplored her “seductive behaviour.”
Odette landed on a beach near Cassis on the night of 2 November 1942. There, she made contact with Captain Peter Churchill. Her initial objective was to contact the French Resistance on the French Riviera and establish safe houses for other agents in Burgundy.
In January 1943, to evade arrest, Churchill and Odette moved their operations to Annecy in the French Alps. The couple resided at the Hotel de la Poste in the village of Saint-Jorioz. The hotel became a meeting place for agents, which aroused suspicion.
Spy-catcher Hugo Bleicher proceeded to Saint-Jorioz where he introduced himself to Odette as “Colonel Henri.” He suggested that they should travel to London to “discuss a means of ending the war.” Odette reported this meeting to her superiors and they warned her to sever all contact with Bleicher.
At the time of Bleicher’s meeting with Odette, Peter Churchill was in London consulting with the SOE. They warned him to avoid contact with Odette and “Colonel Henri” on his return to France. However, when he parachuted into Annecy during the night of 14 April 1943, he met Odette and they proceeded to the hotel in Saint-Jorioz. At 2 am on the 16 April, Bleicher, no longer in the guise of “Colonel Henri,” appeared in the hotel and arrested Odette and Churchill.
At Fresnes Prison, near Paris, Odette was interrogated by the Gestapo fourteen times. Despite brutal torture, she stuck to her cover story and insisted that Peter Churchill was the nephew of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and that he knew nothing of her activities. The idea was, as a relative of Winston Churchill, the Gestapo would keep Peter Churchill, and Odette, alive as bargaining chips.
Nevertheless, in June 1943, the Gestapo condemned Odette to death on two counts 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, Bleicher sent her to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
In Ravensbrück, the Nazis kept Odette in a punishment cell on a starvation diet. However, her earlier blindness and paralysis, and the example set by her grandfather, who “did not accept weakness very easily”, aided her survival. Furthermore, she accepted in advance that the Gestapo might capture her and that she might die.
Odette adopted an attitude of defiance and found that this attitude earned a degree of respect from her captors and strengthened her mind.
Later, Odette insisted that she was not brave or courageous, but that she just made up her mind about “certain things.” She recalled in a post-war interview that while everyone has a breaking point, her feeling was that if she could “survive the next minute without breaking up, that was another minute of life.”
Because of her past illnesses, Odette knew that she could accept her situation and survive it. By accepting death, she felt that, “They would not win anything. They’ll have a dead body, useless to them. They won’t have me. I won’t let them have me.”
In general, the Gestapo found people of the prisoners’ own nationality to carry out their torture, so that the prisoners could not say they were tortured by the Nazis. Odette’s torture was carried out by a “very good-looking young Frenchman” who she believed was mentally ill.
In August 1944, with the Allies advancing on Ravensbrück, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, took Odette and drove her to an American base to surrender. He hoped that her supposed connections to Winston Churchill would allow him to negotiate his way out of execution.
In 1946, at the Hamburg ‘Ravensbrück Trials’, Odette testified against the prison guards charged with war crimes and this resulted in Suhren’s execution in 1950.
Odette’s wartime experiences led to a complex personal life. She divorced Roy Sansom in 1946 and married Peter Churchill in 1947, only to divorce him in 1956. That year, she married Geoffrey Hallowes, a former SOE officer.
Odette’s SOE experiences were chronicled in a movie, Odette, which was released in 1950. Anna Neagle played Odette while Trevor Howard played Peter Churchill. Odette insisted that the film should not be made in Hollywood for fear that her story would be fictionalised. The movie, a great success, ensured that Odette became a celebrated member of the SOE.
Odette died on 13 March 1995 in Surrey, aged 82.