Sansom, Odette (1912–1995)
Sansom, Odette (1912–1995)
Hero of the French Resistance, known only as Odette, who worked for the British War Department during World War II and, when captured and tortured by the Nazis, refused to divulge classified information. Name variations: Odette Hallowes; Odette Churchill; (code names) Odette Matayer, Céline, Lise. Born Odette Marie Céline Brailly on April 28, 1912, in France; died in 1995 in England; daughter of Yvonne Brailly and Gaston Brailly (a bank official and soldier); married Roy Sansom, in 1930; married Captain Peter Morland Churchill, in 1947; married Geoffrey Hallowes; children: (first marriage) Françoise (b. 1932); Lily (b. 1934); Marianne (b. 1936).
Joined the Resistance (1942); captured and brought to Fresne Prison in Paris (1943); tortured by the Gestapo (May 26, 1943); transferred to Karlsruhe prison (May 12, 1944); brought to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany under sentence of death (July 18, 1944); released from Ravensbrück (April 28, 1945); received George Cross from King George VI (November 19, 1946); testified for the prosecution at the War Crimes Court in Hamburg, Germany (December 16, 1946).
A French agent working for the British during World War II, Odette Sansom left three small daughters to join the Resistance in 1942. She was captured six months later and imprisoned in Fresne, the Gestapo prison in Paris. On May 26, 1943, Sansom was taken to the headquarters of the German security service. When she refused to divulge the whereabouts of her spy circuit's wireless operator and another British officer, she not only saved the lives of other agents but enabled them to continue their work for the Resistance.
A specially trained inner core of Nazis, hand-picked by Heinrich Himmler, interrogated her repeatedly. In his book Odette: The Story of a British Agent (1949), Jerrard Tickell credits Sansom's survival to "the unassailable dignity in which she enclosed herself." One Nazi interrogator caught her arms and held them behind the back of the chair, wrote Tickell. The other began to unbutton her blouse. "I resent your hands on me or on my clothes," she said. "If you tell me what you want me to do and release one hand I will do it." The interrogator told her to unbutton it. When she did, he pulled back the material and pressed a red-hot poker to her spine. As she fell forward, the interrogator asked, "Where is Arnaud?" Sansom replied, "I have nothing to say."
The torture continued. Still Odette refused to speak. The interrogator calmly told her that his colleague was going to pull out her toenails one by one. In between each "evulsion," he would repeat his questions, telling her she could end "the ceremony" simply by answering the questions. Again, he asked, "Where is Arnaud?" When Sansom would not answer, the man kneeling at her feet fastened pincers around the tip of one of her toenails and pulled. The pain was excruciating. Still, she refused to speak. "Now would you care to tell me Arnaud's address?," the interrogator asked. When Odette again refused, the Nazi systematically tore out each of her toenails, one by one. "How do you feel?," the interrogator asked. "I have nothing to say," Sansom replied.
The interrogator told Odette he was a servant of his führer, Adolf Hitler, and had no regrets for what he did; in fact, he would stop at nothing to get the information he needed. "I am interested to see, monsieur, that you consider it necessary to defend what you have just done," said Sansom. Standing angrily over her, he said, "We Germans have no need to excuse ourselves to subject races. Are you going to answer my questions?" Once more, she refused. Back in her cell, Sansom ripped her prison cloth into strips to bind her feet. She had kept silent, but she knew about the other things the Gestapo did to women and, alone in the darkness of the prison, she feared her strength might not last.
"If I had courage, it was my grandfather's," Sansom told a London Sunday Times interviewer in 1990. "Every Sunday morning, after church, we were taken to the grave of my father, who was killed at Verdun 30 days before Armistice. 'It will be your duty,' said my grandfather, 'to do what you can for your country.' I grew up with this sense of duty." Sansom, an elegant, vivacious young Frenchwoman who had been living in England, detested the Nazi system, the police state, and Hitler. Coming from a long line of patriots from the province of Picardy, she rose up against indifference and was outraged when the Nazis took over her nation. She believed that only if England and France survived would freedom and civilization prevail. It was this belief that saw her through her harrowing ordeal.
Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born on April 28, 1912, the first child of Gaston, a bank official in Amiens, and Yvonne Brailly . In 1914, her father joined an infantry regiment. Honored for his tenacity and courage at the battle of Verdun, he was later killed as he attempted to save two men missing from his platoon.
Odette was a quiet child. When she was eight, an unidentified disorder caused her to go blind for
two years. After she regained her sight, rheumatic fever left her weak and partially paralyzed for months. While her brother, Louis, went to school at the Lycée, Odette was sent to the Convent of Sainte Thérèse because her mother thought the Normandy air would be beneficial. The nuns considered her volatile, petulant, and stubborn.
At age 14, Sansom moved with her mother to Boulogne, where Odette and her brother ran barefoot over the rocks and cliffs during the holidays. When Louis returned to school, she continued her walks alone and, though she missed him, found an unexpected joy in solitude. Yet, there was an undercurrent of bitterness and turbulence in her. Something about the future seemed to haunt her.
In 1930, Odette met Roy Sansom, an Englishman who was the son of a family friend. A year later, they were married, and their first daughter Françoise was born in 1932. They then moved to England where a second daughter Lily was born in 1934. Two years later, Marianne was born. Four years later, Sansom was following the fall of France in British newspapers, listening to BBC radio reports as refugees choked every road from Paris to Marseilles while German troops marched down the Champs-Élysées. Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain, proclaimed his faith that France would be free once more, and Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French in London, encouraged his nation to fight back.
Before war broke out in September 1939, Britain had established secret agencies to conduct clandestine operations in Europe. By July 1940, these activities were brought under the control of a central organization, called the Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as "the Firm" and "the Racket." Each country, including France, had its own section in London. Men and women from the SOE would work within occupied nations, disabling factories, wrecking power houses, and severing lines of communication. Spies were chosen carefully. Selectors, relying on instinct, looked for spirit rather than muscle.
After the British evacuation of Dunkirk, the War Office had made a radio appeal to the public for pictures of the French coast. The purpose of these photos was to determine the exact topography of a particular section. SOE was also monitoring those who brought them in, hoping to find some who were qualified to become agents in France.
By the end of March 1941, the first members of the French Section were in intensive training in Britain. Agents learned how to place explosive matchboxes or fountain pens where they would do the most damage. They learned how to pick locks and pockets, forge signatures, and derail trains. They also learned how to kill silently. Meanwhile, Sansom was feeling powerless. According to the Geneva Convention, women were not allowed to engage in physical combat, but she wanted desperately to fight the Nazis and decided to volunteer for the war effort in any way she could. She wrote to the War Office indicating that she had lived in Boulogne for four years and that she knew the area well.
During her interview, Sansom was puzzled by the questions and by how much the British knew about her. She was told that the War Office needed people who knew and loved France, people who could move about the country freely without attracting attention. She began to understand that they were asking her to volunteer for more than part-time work as a translator. After four months of agonizing indecision over leaving her three children, and still feeling unqualified, she accepted. "Train me," she said. "You will realize I am not what you want."
In July 1942, Sansom began her training at the SOE school, a country house hidden in New Forest, Hampshire. She learned how to fire British guns, how to identify the insignia on German uniforms, how to write, transmit, and receive Morse code, how to handle a canoe, and how to evade answers under SS (Schutzstaffel or "elite guard") interrogation; in short, all the techniques necessary for leading the double life of a spy.
Women were employed by SOE for field work, generally as couriers, and frequently as wireless operators. They were not expected to carry out acts of sabotage or to join in guerilla operations, though there were exceptions. For example, Violette Szabo fought a rearguard action with German units before being captured near Limoges. Another courier, Pearl Witherington , led an underground force of 2,000 young French guerillas, called the Maquis, who specialized in cutting the main Paris-Bordeaux railway. Sansom was trained to serve as a courier and a circuit organizer. This would mean securing an apartment in a specified part of town in France to which the SOE might send other members, either as part of an escape team or to encourage sabotage and action by the French Resistance.
Before spies left England, Scotland Yard detectives scrutinized their clothing. Britain's most prestigious organizations turned out forged papers for them to carry. Agents wore boots and shoes with secret compartments. They hid microdots bearing secret codes on their bodies, or in toothpaste tubes, shoelaces or buttons. Messages were printed on ties, scarves, handkerchiefs, and underwear. A matchstick was made in which the equivalent of nine sheets of paper could be carried and then hidden among the regular matches in the box. Agents memorized codes in verse.
In October 1942, leaving her three daughters at a convent school in Essex, 30-year-old Odette Sansom became a member of the Women's Transport Service, a part of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Her first mission was to set up a wireless operation at Auxerre. She was to land on the Mediterranean coast and work her way north, where SOE hoped to establish a new circuit. With several other agents, two of them women, Odette sailed from Gibraltar at the end of October aboard a small Polish trading boat. She had already made three unsuccessful attempts to get to France. A week later, they landed on the Riviera in an unoccupied region of France. The following month, after American and British troops landed in French North Africa, the Germans were prompted to enter the unoccupied zone, at which point the Mediterranean coast took on new significance for the SOE.
Captain Peter Morland Churchill (code name "Raoul") was the commanding officer of the Marseilles-Cannes SOE circuit (code name "Spindle"), one of nearly 50 secret organizations run by British agents in occupied France. Peter Churchill persuaded the authorities in London that due to the new situation he would need a talented French-woman to be his courier. Since Sansom (code name "Lise") spoke French, she could plan and execute the night parachute resupply drops and arrange for secret transportation of the agents. Rarely would an assignment be easily completed, nor did agents have the luxury of time. People would cross paths, sometimes in crucial ways, then slip away and never see one another again.
When German counter-intelligence became more of a threat, Churchill moved his circuit of saboteurs and information gatherers to Upper Savoy in February 1943. Odette accompanied him. While on a secret trip to England, he left her in charge. Sansom organized and brought about the largest resupply drops ever made to the Maquis who were hiding in the mountains above the Cote d'Azur in France. But German agents had begun to infiltrate "Spindle" by the time Churchill returned to Annecy on the night of April 14–15, 1943. After he landed by parachute in a remote mountainous area, Churchill and Sansom hid in an inn in St. Jorioz. It was there, the next night, that they were arrested by Italian troops and a German security agent.
En route to the Gestapo prison in Paris, they decided that Sansom would pretend to be Churchill's wife, in order to divert attention from his London mission and the sabotage they had orchestrated in France. The Germans wanted to know the true identity of Spindle's wireless operator, "Arnaud," as well as the whereabouts of a British officer, Captain Francis Cammaerts, who had landed in the plane which had taken Churchill to England. It was at Fresne Prison that they tortured Sansom.
Occasionally, during their imprisonment, Sansom and Churchill managed to meet and talk secretly before he was moved to Germany in February 1944. In June 1943, she was brought before an improvised military court and condemned to death as a British spy. When they told her she was to be executed, listing her many crimes against the Nazi Third Reich, she told them to take their pick of offenses, because they could only kill her once.
Returning to Fresne, Sansom expected to be shot. However, since she had claimed to be the wife of Peter Churchill, and the Germans were not sure of his relationship with Winston Churchill (there was none), they were reluctant to kill her. No underling in occupied Paris was prepared to order the execution of an agent who might, later in the war, be of considerable value to Berlin. Both Churchill and Sansom were therefore retained in Fresne and frequently interrogated for another eight months.
I knew kindness as well as cruelty, understanding as well as brutality.
On May 12, 1944, 25 days before the Allies landed in Normandy, Sansom, along with six other women agents of the SOE, was taken in handcuffs by night train from Fresne to Karlsruhe Prison in Germany. Although they had all parachuted into France and been on similar missions, none of the agents had met. Knowing they were going to die gave them a sense of freedom, and they told each other their real names as well as their code names.
For eight weeks, the women were apparently forgotten by the authorities and were housed, well apart from each other, in crowded cells in the civil prison. Orders arrived from Berlin in July. Three of the women—Andrée Borrel ("Denise"), Vera Leigh ("Simone"), and Diana Rowden ("Juliette")—were taken to the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace and summarily executed. Odette's other companions remained at Karlsruhe until September when they were taken to Dachau concentration camp. Yolande Beekman ("Yvonne"), Madeleine Damerment ("Martine"), and Eliane Plewman ("Gaby"), along with Noor Inayat Khan , were executed without trial in Dachau on September 13, 1944. Sansom was the only one officially condemned to die and, ironically, the only one to live.
Moved north, she was locked for nearly a week in a cage at police headquarters in Frankfurt. She was then transported to Halle, where she was again treated brutally. Finally, she was taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. She arrived on July 18, 1944, two days before a now-famous failed plot by members of Hitler's inner circle to assassinate him.
At Ravensbrück, Sansom was put in solitary confinement underground, in an attempt to break her spirit. By October, when her health had just about failed, they moved her to a cell above ground. Roll call (appel) in the camps was held outdoors twice a day, no matter the weather—in summer at 5:30 am, in winter at 4:30 am. In their striped uniforms, with bristling hair on their shaved heads, Sansom and the other women had to stand at attention for two to six hours until the count was complete. This was hard enough for most prisoners and even worse for those suffering from diarrhea which was epidemic in the camps. Those who stumbled or fell were ordered to the Bunker, a maze of tiny, airless cells. There were beatings, tortures, mutilations and rapes. Women also died from malnourishment, overwork, exposure, lethal injections or obscene experimental surgery. In five years, over 100,000 women died. Though the camp was designed to contain a maximum of 6,000 prisoners, after 1943, there were never fewer than 12,000. Inmates drank ersatz coffee in the morning, watery soup for lunch, and ate bread for dinner while doing heavy labor. Those who managed to live for more than a few weeks or months on this diet had figured out a way to get extra food. They either had a skill the SS valued, a job where they could steal food, or a protector who looked after them.
At any time, there could be a surprise selection for the gas chamber. In desperation, some women would scrape soot with their nails from the prison walls to try to blacken the roots of their gray hair hoping to look younger and be spared death during selection. They would stand on their swollen feet as the Nazis came, smoking and chatting, handing out pink tickets for the crematorium. Prisoners, including three SOE agents, were shot outside Sansom's window, which faced the entrance of the crematorium. In December 1946, giving evidence at a war crimes trial in Hamburg, she would describe how she had seen women being driven screaming and struggling to the crematorium doors.
By the fall of 1944, news filtered back to prisoners that the war had turned against the Germans. As the Russians drew closer, the entire Nazi death operation went into reverse. The Germans began a massive campaign to hide the evidence of their crimes. They scraped out human fat 18 inches thick from crematoria chimneys. They killed anyone they feared might testify. They marched long columns of prisoners out of the camp, by the thousand, past the notorious sign Arbeit macht frei (Work makes one free). Some had only rags to cover their feet as they were forced onto the frozen mud. Anyone who fell behind was shot dead.
On April 28, 1945, on her 33rd birthday, Sansom was released from Ravensbrück weighing less than 90 pounds. Still thinking she was going to be executed, she was driven by the Nazi commandant of Ravensbrück, Fritz Sühren, in his Mercedes to the American line. Sühren was hoping to save himself from execution as a war criminal after Germany's defeat. He told the Americans, "This is Frau Churchill," believing that she was related to the prime minister of England. As Odette got out of the car, Sühren stood in the street with her. "And this is Fritz Sühren," she said, "commandant of Ravensbrück concentration camp. Please make him your prisoner." Then she demanded his revolver, put it into her bag, turned and walked into the nearby village. She would keep the pistol as a memento of the war.
Sühren, along with his top-ranking prison staff, was executed following the War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. The officer responsible for Sansom's torture in Paris was also executed in July 1944, for ordering the shooting of British parachutists captured in uniform.
Sansom received the George Cross on November 19, 1946, from King George VI, the first woman to be awarded the United Kingdom's highest civilian award for "courage, endurance and self-sacrifice." Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan were awarded the George Cross posthumously for their bravery. Szabo was shot at Ravensbrück; Khan was brutally interrogated and kept in chains before she was executed at Dachau. On December 16, 1946, Major Stephen Stewart called Odette Sansom as a witness for the prosecution at the War Crimes Court at Hamburg. She wore her FANY uniform and the blue ribbon and silver miniature of the George Cross.
At age 78, in October 1990, Sansom sat with a reporter for the London Sunday Times. The journalist summed up the experience:
Everyone remembers that Odette had her toe-nails torn out by the Gestapo. Some mistakenly say finger-nails: but her torturers stopped short when they realised that even the grotesque pain of the toe-nails could not persuade her to speak (and having been ticked off firmly by Odette myself, for springing a photographer on her, I understand the Gestapo's reluctance to displease her further).
After the war, Odette's marriage to Roy Sansom was dissolved, and she married Peter Churchill. The marriage ended in divorce. Later, she married Geoffrey Hallowes. She lived quietly, carrying on an extensive correspondence. "People in trouble or despair seem to think I am someone of learning to turn to," she explained.
In all, 50 SOE women agents were landed in France during World War II. Fifteen of them were captured by the Nazis. Two of those escaped, and Sansom returned, the lone survivor. In commemoration of those women of the SOE who were executed by the Nazis, there is a plaque at St. Paul's Knightsbridge, dedicated on May 7, 1948. It reads:
In love and homage to Mrs. Yolande E.M. Beekman, Croix de Guerre, Miss Danielle Bloch , Miss Andrée M. Borrel, Miss Muriel Byck , Miss Madeleine Damerment, Miss Noor Inayat Khan, Mrs. Cecily M. Lefort , Miss Vera E. Leigh, Mrs. Eliane S. Plewman, Croix de Guerre, Miss Lilian V. Rolfe , Miss Diana H. Rowden, Mrs. Yvonne Rudellat , Mrs. Violette R.E. Szabo, George Cross.
Each Remembrance Day, Sansom placed a cross of flowers there. "That is a permanent link I would not let go of," she said. Odette Sansom died in 1995.
"British Heroine Honored, Aided French Resistance Despite Gestapo Tortures," in The New York Times. August 21, 1946.
Fraser, Antonia, ed. Heroes and Heroines. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980.
Gleeson, James Joseph. They Feared No Evil: The Women Agents of Britain's Secret Armies, 1939–45. London: R. Hale, 1976.
Grove, Valerie. "Life wisdom learnt in the darkness of a torture cell; Odette Hallowes, GC.," in London Sunday Times. October 14, 1990.
"The Last Days of Auschwitz, 50 Years Later: Untold Stories From the Death Camp," in Newsweek. January 16, 1995, pp. 46–59.
Mahoney, M.H. Women in Espionage. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1993. Perles, Alfred, ed. Great True Spy Adventures. London: Arco, 1957.
Tickell, Jerrard. Odette: The Story of a British Agent. London: Chapman & Hall, 1949.
Stafford, David. Britain and European Resistance, 1940–45: A survey of the Special Operations Executive with Documents, 1980.
"Tortured French Woman Decorated by George VI," in The New York Times. November 20, 1946.
Susan Slosberg , writer, New Rochelle, New York