WWII

Odette Hallowes: The WWII British Spy

Odette Hallowes was tortured by the Gestapo, yet survived the war to become one of Britain's most decorated spies

Odette Hallowes has a story unlike anyone else.

Also known as Odette Sansom and Odette Churchill, she served in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. 

The SOE conducted espionage and sabotage operations, and aided local resistance movements in occupied Europe.

Odette was the most highly-decorated spy of the Second World War, and was also the first woman to be awarded the George Cross in the United Kingdom.  She was also awarded the Légion d’honneur in France.

Both of these awards were given to Odette for the incredible acts of heroism and courage she displayed during her service, which included enduring brutal interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo.

Odette Hallowes is one of a few to survive Nazi imprisonment.

In this article, BFBS tells the incredible story of Odette Hallowes with audio contributions by her Granddaughter, Sophie Parker.

Odette Hollowes Royal Mail stamp.

The Royal Mail issued a stamp in celebration of Odette Hollowes in 2012. Credit: Shutterstock / neftali.

1912 - 1942

Odette was born in Northern France in 1912, and was only six years old when her Father, Florentin Brailly, was killed fighting in the French town of Verdun shortly before the Armistice in 1918.

Odette was a bright but sickly child, even from a young age her life was threatened when she contracted serious illnesses, including Polio, that blinded her for almost four years and left her bedridden for months.

Spending her teenage years in the French coastal city of Boulogne, she fell in love with Roy Sansom, a visiting Englishman who was involved in the hotel trade. The couple married in 1931 and moved to London.

Roy enlisted and became a sergeant in the British Army at the start of the Second World War. Odette relocated to Somerset with her three children and mother for safety during the war years while Roy was away.

But in 1942, Odette’s country lifestyle was interrupted when she took a path that would change her life forever.

Unbeknown to Odette, she had caught the attention of the War Office, who sought to enlist her as a secret agent for the SOE.

Listen to Odette's Granddaughter, Sophie Parker, discuss how she initially brought herself to the attention of the SOE with BFBS's Ben Coley, in the audio clip below. 

1942 – 1943

On the night of November 2, 1942, Odette landed on a beach near Cassis in Northern France. There, she met with her new SOE comrades, including her Commanding Officer, Peter Churchill, and a radio operator called Adolphe Rabinovitch.

Odette’s first role was to find lodging for Rabinovitch (who was in France illegally) and to tend to air drops.

In January 1943, Odette and her comrades moved into a small hotel at St Jorioz, situated near Lake Annecy. The group thought they were safe, however, they had in fact raised the suspicions of the Italian police and Gestapo.

One day, they were approached by a gentleman who only gave his name as Henri. He weaved a tale that he was an anti-Nazi German Colonel, and that they should work together against Germany. But this was all an act.

On the night of April 16, 1943, Odette and Peter were arrested. Henri was in fact Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Service).

Sophie Parker, Odette's Granddaughter, describes the capture of the SOE agents by the Gestapo in the audio clip below. 

1943

Odette was taken to the Fresnes Prison, near Paris where she was brutally interrogated by the Gestapo some 14 times.

Despite her harrowing ordeal, Odette remained defiant and refused to give details of her colleagues’ whereabouts. Instead she fabricated a story that she hoped would keep her and Peter alive.

While in prison, Sergeant Bleicher frequently invited Odette with him to the cinema and to drink at expensive restaurants in the hope of persuading her to confess, but Odette declined his offers.

Hear Odette's Granddaughter, Sophie, describe what happened next to her Grandmother once captured... 

1943 – 1945

After the Gestapo Officers realised that they could not get any useful information out of Odette, they condemned her to death on two counts. Odette famously stood up to the Gestapos, defiantly responding:

“Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed, because I can only die once.”

In June 1943 Odette was sent to the infamous Ravensbrük Concentration Camp in Northern Germany. At Ravensbrük, it was estimated that 50,000 women were murdered during the war years.

Odette was imprisoned for the rest of the war. She was initially put into a cell next to a punishment room where she could hear other women being beaten.

In her cell, Odette was kept on a starvation diet which typically consisted of coffee or tea for breakfast, watery soup for lunch and a small portion of bread for dinner.

While spending much of her time in the commandant’s quarters, Odette was also transferred into solitary confinement next to the camp crematorium.

Odette described her experience of Ravensbrük as “a very sad spectacle” having even witnessed an instance of cannibalism by the starving prisoners.

To get through, Odette refused to accept death as an option, keeping in her possession a leaf as a symbol of hope.

BFBS's Ben Coley and Sophie Parker describe Odette's ordeal at Ravensbrük in the next audio clip. 

1945 – 1946

As the Second World War drew to a close, Allied forces began to take large numbers of Axis prisoners.

It became apparent to the Nazi SS guards that they would be held accountable for their war crimes. Because of this, the Ravensbrük camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, took Odette to a nearby American base to use her as a bargaining tool to escape his own imprisonment.

But Odette immediately denounced him, and after the war she testified against him in the 1946 Hamburg Ravensbrük Trials.

In this final audio clip, Sophie describes how her Grandmother, Odette, survived captivity and eventually testified against her Gestapo captors.

After the war, Odette divorced Roy in 1946 and for a brief time was married to her war time co-SOE agent, Peter Churchill.

Odette became a celebrated heroine, gaining fame after the publication of her 1949 biography and the release of a film about her WWII ordeal in 1950.

In the years following, Odette lived a peaceful and happy life. She worked tirelessly to promote the importance of female SOE agents, and also co-founded the International Woman’s Day Lunch.

She passed away in March 1995 aged 82. In 2012, the Royal Mail issued a special edition stamp featuring Odette as part of their Britons of Distiction series, in recognition of her outstanding work in the SOE. 

Odette is remembered for her bravery and loyal service. But above all else, she is remembered for her selflessness. She famously said:

"My comrades, who did far more and suffered more profoundly than I, are not here to speak. Because of this, I speak for them." 

 

Cover image: Odette Hollowes, taken from the book, Code Name: Lise, by Larry Lofts, published by Mirror Books. Credit: Mirrorpix.