Odette Brailly Sansom Hallowes was born Odette Marie Céline Brailly on 28-04-1912 in Amiens, France, the daughter of Gaston Brailly, a bank manager, who was killed at Verdun shortly before the Armistice in 1918. She had one brother. As a child she contracted serious illnesses one of which blinded her for three and a half years, as well as polio, which resulted in her being bedridden for months. She had a convent education and was considered difficult, perhaps because of her illnesses.
She met an Englishman, Roy Sansom , in Boulogne and married him in 1931, moving with him to Britain. The couple had three daughters: Françoise, Lily and Marianne Roy Sansom joined the army at the beginning of the World War II and Odette Samson and the children moved to Somerset or their safety.
In the spring of 1942, the Admiralty appealed for postcards or family photographs taken on the French coastline for possible war use. Hearing the broadcast, she wrote that she had photographs taken around Boulogne, on the French coast of the English Channel, but she mistakenly sent her letter to the War Office instead of the Admiralty. That brought her to the attention of Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s Special Operations Executive .Buckmaster survived the war and died old age 90 on 17-04-1902 in Forest Row, East Sussex.
She initially resisted because of her children and out of her belief that she was not qualified to do secret work. But she was overwhelmed by guilt, as both her brother and mother were still in France while she was in the relative safety of Britain.
As cover for her secret work, she was enrolled in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) , which supplied SOE with support personnel. She left her three daughters in a convent school, and was trained to be sent into Nazi occupied France to work with the French Resistance. Originally Sansom was considered too temperamental and stubborn by SOE, with an evaluation stating “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, the evaluation noted “her patriotism and keenness to do something for France.” Buckmaster allowed her training to continue regardless. A bad fall during training ruled out parachute entry into France.
She made a landing on a beach near Cassis on the night of 02-11-1942, and made contact with Captain Peter Churchill
, who headed SPINDLE, an SOE network in the South France and based in Cannes. Her code name was “Lise.” Sansom’s initial objective was to contact the French Resistance on the French Riviera, and then move to Auxerre in Burgundy to establish a safe house for other agents.
Sansom and Odette’s marriage was dissolved in 1946 and Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom were married in 1947, but divorced in 1956. Churchill continued to live in France after the war, settling in Le Rouret near Cannes, where he worked in real estate, and lived there until his death, age 63 on 01-05-1972 in Le Rouret.
In 1943, Churchill’s operation in France was infiltrated by Hugo Bleicher , an Abwehr counter intelligent officer, using the list of names lost by Girard’s courier. Bleicher posed as “Colonel Henri,” , Henri Dericourt , a German officer who opposed Hitler. Bleicher arrested Sansom and Churchill at the Hôtel de la Poste in Saint-Jorioz on 16-04-1943; they were then sent to Fresnes Prison. Hugo Bleicher was born in Germany in 1899. He was decorated by the Abwehr with the War Merit Cross 1st Class for his services. and died age 83 in August 1982.
In the course of her imprisonment at Fresnes, she was interrogated by the Gestapo fourteen times. She was subjected to torture. Her back was scorched with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails were pulled out. But she refused to disclose the whereabouts of British agents, stuck to her fabricated cover story that Churchill was the nephew of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that she was his wife, and that he knew nothing of her activities. The hope was that in this way their treatment would be mitigated. The British had calculated that if the Germans thought she was related to the British Prime Minister, they would want to keep her alive as a possible bargaining tool. Sansom succeeded in diverting attention from Churchill, who was subject to only two interrogations, and protected the identities of the two officers, whose locations were known only to her.
While imprisoned, Bleicher occasionally appeared and sought to invite her to travel with him to Paris to attend concerts and dine in restaurants, to persuade her to talk. Sansom rejected the overtures. She was condemned to death on two counts in June 1943, 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 Ravensbruck she was thrown into a completely dark cell on a starvation diet. She was in the punishment block and every night could hear other prisoners being beaten.
After the Allied landings in the south of France in August 1944, on orders from Berlin, all food was withdrawn for a week, all light was removed from the cell, and the heat was turned up. Despite a report by the camp doctor that she would not survive such conditions for more than a few weeks, after she was found unconscious in her cell, she was returned to solitary confinement. Her conditions only improved in December 1944, when she was moved to a ground floor cell. The cell was located near the crematorium and her cell would be covered with burned hair from the cremations. At one point toward the end of the war, she witnessed an instance of cannibalism of a dead inmate by starving prisoners.
When the Allies were only a few miles from Ravensbrück, camp commandant Fritz Sühren
took Sansom with him and drove with her to the US base to surrender to the Americans. He hoped that her supposed connections to Churchill might allow him to negotiate his way out of execution. Suhren later came to trial for his time as commandant of Ravensbruck and was hanged on 12-06-1950, age 42.
Sansom was aided in her endurance in prison by her early blindness and paralysis, and by her training by her grandfather, who “did not accept weakness very easily.” She also accepted in advance that she might be captured by the Germans. She adopted an attitude of defiance, and found that this resulted in a degree of respect by her captors and helped her survive the imprisonment mentally.
Sansom said she believed she was “not brave, not courageous, but just make up my 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 is another minute of life. And if I can think that way instead of thinking what is going to happen in a half-hour’s time,” Because of her past illnesses she knew “I was able to accept this, 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.” She described it as a “kind of bargaining.”
The Germans generally found persons of the prisoners’ own nationality to carry out the torture, she later recalled, so that one “could not say they were tortured by the Germans.” Her torture was carried out by a “very good-looking young Frenchman” who she believed was mentally ill.
She testified against the prison guards charged with war crimes at the 1946 Hamburg Ravenbruck Trials, which resulted in Suhren’s execution in 1950.
Death and burial ground of Odette Brailly Sansom Hallowes.
Sansom and Odette’s marriage was dissolved in 1946 and she married Peter Churchill in 1947.Death and burial ground of In 1951, her home was burgled and the George Cross stolen. After an appeal by her mother, it was returned with a note saying: “You, Madame, appear to be a dear old lady. God bless you and your children. I thank you for having faith in me. I am not all that bad — it’s just circumstances. Your little dog really loves me. I gave him a nice pat and left him a piece of meat — out of fridge. Sincerely yours, A Bad Egg.”
She was divorced from Churchill in 1956 and married Geoffrey Hallowes in the same year. Hallowes, a former SOE officer, outlived her and died in 2006.
Odette died age 82 on 13-03-1995 in Walton on Thames, Surrey, England and is buried on cemetery Burwood Road, Hersham, Elmbridge Borough, Surrey.