Odette Brailly was born in Amiens, France, on 28th April 1912. Her father was a soldier in the French Army and was killed during the First World War. Educated at the Convent of Therese in Amiens she married Roy Sansom, a hotel worker, in 1931. The couple moved to London where she gave birth to three children.
Distressed by the occupation of France by the German Army in 1940 she made contact with the Free French forces based in London. As a result she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
In October, 1941, she was sent by boat to France with orders to help establish a new circuit in Burgundy. Over the next few months she worked under Peter Churchill, the SOE's organizer in that part of the country.
On 16th April, 1943, Sansom and Churchill were arrested by Hugo Bleicher of Abwehr. They claimed they were husband and wife and related to Winston Churchill. They hoped that this story would help them receive better treatment while in prison.
Sansom was sent to Fresnes Prison in Paris and while being tortured by the Gestapo she had all her toenails pulled out. On 13th May 1944 the Germans transported Sansom and seven other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel, Sonya Olschanezky and Madeleine Damerment to Nazi Germany. The following month she was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
Sansom continued to claim that she was related to Winston Churchill and in 1945, with the Red Army advancing on Ravensbruck from the east, she persuaded Fritz Suhren, the camp commandant, to drive her to the Allied lines in the west. In 1946 Sansom was awarded the George Cross for bravery and the following year she married Peter Churchill.
The marriage ended in divorce in 1956 and she married Geoffrey Hallowes, a wine importer. Odette Hallowes died at Walton-on-Thames on 13th March, 1995.
(1) Captain Selwyn Jepson was SOE's senior recruiting officer. He was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum for its Sound Archive.
I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, "What are you doing?" I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you'" That was my authority!
(2) Patrick Howarth worked for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and afterwards wrote about his experiences in the book, Undercover (1980)
Of the SOE agents who were captured in France and sent to concentration camps few survived. Perhaps the most famous of these who did was a French girl, Odette Brailly, who had married an Englishman named Sansom by whom she had three children. She was parachuted in to serve as courier to Peter Churchill, a Cambridge ice-hockey blue, who had been operating over an extensive area of southern France. Both were arrested. Odette Sansom succeeded in convincing her interrogators that it was she and not Churchill who made the decisions and, as the citation for the George Cross which she was awarded stated, that it was she and not Churchill who should be shot. In fact they both survived, not least because of the skill with which Odette Sansom caused her interrogators to believe that Peter Churchill was related to Winston Churchill and that she was Peter Churchill's wife. They were indeed to be married later.
(3) On 13th May 1944, Odette Sansom was moved by the Gestapo from France to Germany with Elaine Flewman, Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel, Sonya Olschanezky and Madeleine Damerment. She was interviewed about these experiences by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field (2010)
We travelled from Paris to Germany together. We did not know each other before. We all did our training at different times, we all went to France at different times. I had never seen the others at Fresnes, although I heard the voice of one of them once. They were not in a solitary cell like mine and they were able to communicate a little with people outside through the top of their windows. We met for the first time in the Avenue Foch.
It was a lovely hot day, a beautiful day. And the Avenue Foch is beautiful, and the house where we were was a beautiful house. I remember little things. One of the girls had a lipstick and we all used it, passed it around and put it on. It was quite a treat. We were young women, after all. And we talked and talked and talked, of course. We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought about it, what that other one had to say about it. I remember what one of them said because I had the same feelings. She and I, we had a feeling that something had been wrong. The others thought they had been captured because of the work they were doing or the people they were with. She had the feeling, because she had been arrested as soon as she arrived in France, that there was an informant. And I did too.
We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be - helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone - the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.
Everybody tried to be a little braver than they felt. All of us had a moment of weakness, we did all cry together at one moment, there were a few tears, but after all it was a lovely spring day in Paris. Riding in the van from the Avenue Foch to the station we could get a glimpse of what was going on in Paris, people sitting on the terraces of cafes drinking their ersatz coffe or whatever. I was looking forward to the trip. I had spent a year alone in my cell and I thought. Now I am going to be with these other women.
On the train we were handcuffed, each one of us handcuffed to somebody else, so we were not free to move around or anything, but we did not look absolutely miserable. No, we made the best of it. I remember one of them even asked a guard for a cigarette, and he gave her one.
We were frightened deep down, all of us. We were wondering what was the next thing, a normal thing to ask yourself in those circumstances. Were we going straight to our death, were we going to a camp, were we going to a prison, were we going to - what? We couldn't not think of those things. Our only hope was maybe to be together somewhere.
(4) Odette Hallowes, The Times (17th March, 1975)
Of all the women who took part in special operations in France, Odette - as she was universally known in spite of having borne three married surnames in her lifetime - perhaps best symbolized the indomitable spirit of resistance to Nazism. Captured by the Gestapo in France and consigned after being cruelly tortured in Paris's notorious Fresnes prison, to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she emerged emaciated, weak and gravely ill at the end of the war. But in the years that followed, her undiminished mental and moral energy, combined with a complete absence of bitterness towards her tormentors and the nation that had spawned them, became a beacon to others who had suffered disfigurement, pain or bereavement. Indeed the theme of her postwar working life, with its service to various charities and help for the underprivileged, was the healing of those wounds, both physical and mental, which had been inflicted upon individuals by the war. Her George Cross, she always maintained, was not to be regarded as an award to her personally, but as an acknowledgment of all those known and unknown, alive or dead, who had served the cause of the liberation of France. Her wartime experiences had taught her two great truths; that suffering is an ineluctable part of the human lot, and that the battle against evil is never over. Fame came to her - notably, through the film Odette which celebrated her life - but she never sought it.