Odette Churchill: “The Darling Spy”

Odette Churchill: “The Darling Spy”

(From the author’s private collection)

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Odette and it is appropriate that the Post Office has issued a commemorative portrait stamp. However, when I visited my local branch they sadly had never heard of her or her heroism, nor was I able to purchase one over the counter. (In fact, the above postage stamp was later purchased privately by me for this article).

Odette was born in 1912 in France and as a young girl had suffered poor health, including a temporary blindness. She seems also to have been a dreamer as a child with a quaint fascination for England, where she would live and make her home.

Later she would marry an Englishman Roy Sansom, there would be three daughters from this union. (During her life Odette would be known by four surnames. First, her maiden name of Brailly, later by her married name of Sansom, then later by Churchill, followed by Hallowes.

For the purpose of the article I shall simply refer to her as Odette).

But a chance radio broadcast that she heard in 1942 by the War Office seeking any holiday postcards of pre-war France in preparation for the future invasion, saw her immediately responding by posting some of her own, and by mistake to the naval office in London. This would later bring her into the searchlight of the SOE (or ‘the firm’) then located in Baker Street (no, not 221b, the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes, if you don’t mind!) where her postcards and holidays snaps had been diverted to.

Later it seems after a detailed interview about herself she would be offered the opportunity to enlist in the covert forces, then being sent by land, air, and sea to enemy-occupied France. But first, she would subject herself to a period of extensive training to determine if she had the necessary skills and strength

To become an agent working under the suspicious snouts of the Germans, and eventually after her training was completed, she was accepted. Later being parachuted into France in 1942 and joining the dangerous ‘Operation Spindle.’

With her husband Roy away serving in the British Army, Odette had to make prompt preparations for the future of her three daughters before her mission to France, this she did by enrolling them into the convent boarding school of St. Helens in Essex, which I expect the SOE or some benefactor contributed, by paying for all school fees and tuitions.

After acceptance into the portals of the SOE office in London, under the reins of Major Buckmaster, Odette would receive the code name of “Lisa Clothier,” agent S23. Then in the autumn of 1942, she arrived in France via Gibraltar.

Later in Cannes, she would be introduced to the man who would play an important role, both in her private and professional life, he was captain Peter Churchill, or agent ‘Raoul.’

In late March of 1943, Odette and Peter Churchill were inevitably betrayed, and the fragile ‘spindle’ network would almost collapse as a result of this. (I suspect that Odette knew who had betrayed her to the Germans).

In fact, the author Jerrard Tickell writes: “The Raoul-Lise circuit was only one of nearly fifty secret organizations, directed from Baker Street and run by British agents in occupied France.”

For all of this to succeed must have taken a deep determination to survive in the on-going battle with the Germans, so naturally, there must have been many holes in this sieve.

Also complicating events for her in Cannes was the arrival on the coast of the sinister German agent Henri of the Abwehr, who now entered Odette’s life. Henri was now deeply disillusioned with the way the war was progressing and suggested earnestly that Odette return with him to London and initiate peace feelers to the Allies.

Naturally, Henri would seek a safe guarantee concerning his own life. The idea never got off the ground or was taken seriously by London. And in the ensuing weeks, Odette and Peter Churchill were arrested at the Hotel de la Poste.

In fact, the two had been warned of this location and its dangers if they returned but this advice was ignored for some reason. Agent ‘Henri’ later scurrilously claimed that both she and Churchill were discovered together in bed when they were detained after their arrest. This was always later hotly denied by Odette and the proprietors of the hotel who were indeed present at both arrests of the couple from separate bedrooms.

Then after both being detained, Odette and Churchill were transported to the Italian barracks (at their own request) to be questioned, and it was there that Odette in a rather audacious fashion informed her Italian captors and later her German interrogators, that Peter Churchill was actually her husband who was also related to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

This she rather suspected would gain them some better treatment from the Gestapo. This naturally must have given the Germans a scare at first, that such an important prisoner was in their care, but sadly it did not, however, prevent Odette from being subjected to brutal interrogations at the skilled hands of the Gestapo sadists.

(Incidentally, it should be remembered that British agents were supplied before leaving England with poison capsules to bite and swallow before possible capture if indeed they had the time or opportunity to do so).

In looking at the terrible tortures that were certainly inflicted upon Odette’s body, both physically and mentally, perhaps in Annecy under the Italians and later in Grenoble, but certainly in the notorious Avenue Foche in Paris one can only speculate that they were far more severe than were first recorded in print and film or that she admitted to.

We know that she was branded with a parched poker on to her exposed back (on to the third vertebra) by her sadistic interrogators as well experiencing the excruciating pain of having each toenail extracted individually with sharpened pliers. (I do have to wonder if she lapsed into an unconscious state during these assaults upon her body, yet through it all, she revealed nothing to her interrogators of other agents’ names or addresses or of her own wireless operator).

Yet this defiance from Odette must only have increased the anger of her captors by her intransigence causing them to intimidate her more physically and mentally during these sessions at Gestapo headquarters, located at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris. (You can still see the building today and I understand it’s a suite of offices as well as luxury apartments, and one does wonder why there is no museum/memorial somewhere in this elegant building in memory of those who were dragged through its doors during the war).

It must also be remembered that the British reading public of the early 1950s would certainly have been very squeamish about what was portrayed of the treatment and brutality of captured spies, and especially towards women during the war. Unlike today of course when the public it seems demands much more from the media and the movies as regards sadism and sex, all part of the decline in morals of our country and of a nation that has abandoned God.

Odette was finally deported to the torment of Ravensbruck on the 18th July 1944, after a dreadful journey from Paris, she had already been subjected to torture and deprivation of food and the loss of immediate freedom. But of one thing I suspect was how she never lost hope of coming home and being reunited with her three young daughters. Later Odette recalled her first impressions of the camp and how she was shocked by what she witnessed: “I was overwhelmed by the appalling size of the place. The number of women who no longer looked like women, they looked like wounded animals. I was overcome by the sheer misery of the place.”

“And there she saw women stark naked, their heads shaved, swollen bellies and dirty feet with shrivelled breasts,” she would later inform major Tickell of the War Office.

Also interestingly housed in the camp perimeter was Violette Szabo and three other women agents: Lillian Rolf, Denise Bloch, and Cecily Lefort. I am not sure if Violette or Odette were ever aware of each others presence at this camp, or were able to communicate with just a few words or a brief prayer because it was after all a vast compound of closed cells, unbridled cruelty with a working crematorium dominating the skyline, and all the while being patrolled by sadistic guards with snarling dogs.

Years later Odette would write of her suffering comrades in captivity by recalling with deep pride and respect: “They were such beautiful women. They were all very brave young women. I will never forget them, never.”

And I suspect that as the years passed her memories of those heroic heroines only increased never to fade or be forgotten by her. After all, she had survived, while they had suffered and died for their country, far from home and family.

Odette always remarked when prompted that Violette was the bravest of us all and reading and understanding of what Odette herself suffered and endured until her release from captivity, and with so little known about Violette’s own anguish and inflicted pain, I can only speculate that Odette had learned a great deal more at the end of the war of what her dear friend in arms had suffered in captivity, but on my part it’s mere speculation because I have no evidence otherwise.

When Odette was gratefully and finally released from the horrors of Ravensbruck camp (and that’s another story in itself) her physical wounds would eventually heal but I do wonder if the mental scars inflicted upon her body ever really deserted her. Then later sadly to return and inflict her with flashbacks for the rest of her life.

Some pain can never be erased or removed but through prayer and faith in the blood of Christ can a person begin to heal.

In 1946 Odette graciously accepted the coveted George Cross medal from King George VI at St James’s Palace in London. She was the first woman to receive such an honour not just for her own courage but all of her friends and colleagues who had been chosen like herself to be prepared and dispatched into occupied France and elsewhere. Sadly many would never return.

In her personal life, there were also some important changes occurring. Her marriage to Roy Sansom was now finished and a discreet divorce followed, this allowed her to accept a proposal of marriage from captain Peter Churchill, which she accepted.

They were later married in 1947, which would be covered by British Pathe news. (It’s rather amusing to me that the wedding day photograph of the beaming couple, taken over sixty years ago for the press, has today been re-printed on assorted merchandise such as coffee mugs, key fobs, t-shirts, tea towels, and fridge magnets to name but a few, can you believe).

I do have to wonder what she would have made of this false fame that is so much today part of the fabric of the 21st century, and all for the wrong reasons of course.

The book

In 1949 the manuscript titled Odette the story of a British Spy authored and researched by major Jerrod Tickle of the War Office public relation’s office was finally published. It would eventually sell over 500,000 copies.

Major Tickell had fortunately interviewed dozens of people and serving officers who were involved in that amazing period of her training and arrival and capture in France for his publication. This would be their story as well as Odette’s and naturally, the SOE would play a prominent role in the finished book. It would, after all, be good PR for them as well.

However, I found the German and French dialogue, also Latin that is used by the author to frequently tell Odette’s story, very tiresome to read or even try to understand.

As regards the 1950 British film Odette I have to admit that I watched and enjoyed the film long before I read Tickell’s book about her life and the legend that she would later become.

Acting as advisors for the future film in its pre-planning preparation would be Odette naturally, and with Tickell and Churchill signed up as well to keep an eye on the authenticity on the film’s progress.

The film was produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox the husband of the star of the film Anna Neagle (later becoming a dame of the British Empire in 1952).

When she portrayed Odette’s life Anna Neagle was 38-years-old, Odette, on the other hand, was 26-years-old but it isn’t noticed or indeed does it hamper her acting skills. But I have to say that she does a splendid job, especially in the torture scenes.

Occasionally however Anna Neagle’s British accent occasionally slips, becoming a British/French accent, which is a shame. The supporting actors such as Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee who played ‘M’ in the first eleven James Bond movies are always a pleasure to watch.

Also as usual Marius Goring as the evil conniving ‘Henri’ offers a fine performances in his role, but who had the idea that major Buckmaster portray himself in the film (Always dangerous). I really thought he looked rather uncomfortable in some of the important scenes with some strange looks from the actors as well in his direction. (I do hope he had an equity card!)

(From the author’s private collection)

The musical score did perhaps lack some gravity and it’s a pity the budget didn’t run to Wilcox hiring Walton or Bliss to compose the soundtrack. The Ravensbruck scenes were adequate, but of course in real life, the womens’ heads would have been shaved to prevent the spread of headlice. But the camp orchestra was authentic and quite moving to watch and listen to.

(From the author’s private collection)

After the war

Odette always claimed that she had been pleased by the portrayal of her life by Dame Anna. But she would later have to answer serious allegations of her own exploits and survival during the war. Her fame through the film and book of her life become I suggest a double-edged sword for Odette that would have to endure with some courage and patience in the years ahead.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Odette became “the fallen heroine,” as her biographer Penny Starns correctly called her.

By now new and existing allegations concerning her treatment and torture under the Gestapo were perhaps inflated by herself, with further sly rumours suggesting that she had embarked with the camp commandant in an affair. Worse still, her critics implied that as an enemy agent in the field her missions had achieved very little in defeating the Germans. These were surfacing in the press and elsewhere.

Also, prominent politicians of the day who should have known better, as well as distinguished historians, seemed to continue the persecution of Odette and her reputation without remorse. And I can only suspect that certain sections the SOE were dubiously involved and responsible for some of these scurrilous slurs on her name.

However, I think it did backfire upon many of the old colonel Blimps, then safe behind SOE walls, but dangerous all the same. I appreciated the story of the house painter, who when decorating Odette’s London flat, remarked with cheerful certainty saying to her: “Don’t worry miss, the country is behind you.” How true this seemed to be.

Eventually, Odette did receive a grudging apology from some of her detractors, and on her fifty-fourth birthday as well, a nice birthday present she must have thought.

Perhaps the British establishment didn’t admire or approve of this hero’s fame, unless of course, it was of their own making and creation, and the fact that a woman at that should be awarded the coveted George Cross by no less than the king himself in 1946, would also alienate their false pride and patriotism.

All the deceit of these men and women comes from the fall as witnessed in the book of Genesis. Today the distress and doubt that affects so many people all originates from that era. Men should cry out in grief saying: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Life is too short, but eternity one-way or another, is eternal.

In the 1950s her marriage to Peter Churchill was over and she would later marry another SOE operative from her war time days, a Mr. Geoffrey Hallowes. (I bet her enemies then still active in the SOE didn’t like this news at all).

“But Odette was not a person prone to self-pity, and while she often reflected on the past she did not dwell on it,” so writes Penny Sarnes. The past as they say is another country and dwelling in its memories and mistakes is purely negative.

In 1994 Odette undertook a personal pilgrimage to Ravensbruck, and if her health was then failing, her spirit was far from being diminished. She travelled to Germany to unveil a memorial plaque in memory of all those friends and others who had been brought to this prison of pain only to perish there alone but never forgotten.

For Odette, it would be one of her last public appearances. And if indeed it was to be in this terrible place where she had herself languished for so long, then what a lasting memory and tribute to remember Odette.

Now in the autumn of her years, she stands in the camp and unveils that memorial plaque to those brave women of the SOE who would not submit to the fascist fist. After this, I feel her work was now completed but her own courage had come at a price that she had paid back many times in full.

Odette Hallowes died on the 13th March 1995 in Surrey, she was 82 year old.

In conclusion, Odette rather like her sister-in-arms, Violette Szabo who incidentally will be my next article, in this series of women of the SOE, were unique in that special loyalty and love they had for their adopted country.

However in some ways, although she survived when others like her sadly failed to do so. Her own circumstances and courage still needs our applause and admiration, even today, and perhaps always will.

“It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).


Odette, Jerrard Tickell

Odette, Penny Starns (lots of good background on the subject matter)



4th November 2012

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