“My hero of the month” for Britain at War

First published in Britain at War in January 2014.

Odette Sansom, GC

For their bravery during the Second World War, three women were awarded the George Cross after working as undercover agents. Only one of them, Odette Sansom, survived to receive her decoration. In the latest article in his “Hero of the Month” series, Lord Ashcroft tells the story of her incredible courage.

In all prolonged global conflicts, including the two world wars, women have played a vital role in determining which side gets the upper hand. Many have toiled for long hours in factories and fields, while others have worked close to the front-line giving crucial medical care to the sick and wounded.

A small number of women, however, have gone to even greater lengths to serve their country, risking their life time and again without being on the battlefield. One such individual was Odette Sansom, the first woman to be awarded the George Cross (GC). Indeed few recipients, in the GC’s 73 year-history, can have done more to earn the decoration.

Odette Brailly – her maiden name – was born in Amiens, France, on 28 April 1912. Her father was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, when his daughter was four. As a child, she suffered from temporary blindness and rheumatic fever, both of which she overcame and, in 1926, her family moved from Saint­-Saëns to Boulogne. She married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, in 1931 and the couple had three daughters, two of whom were born in Britain, where the couple had moved in 1932–3.

Early in 1942, and nearly three years into the Second World War, Sansom heard a broadcast that appealed for photographs of France. She wrote to the War Office explaining that she was French and where she had lived. Sansom ended up going for an interview and, on 28 June 1942, she was asked back to meet Captain Selwyn Jepson, the author and, at the time, the senior recruiting officer for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had been formed in the summer of 1940 after the fall of France.

Jepson later told how he preferred recruiting women rather than men. When interviewed by the Imperial War Museum long after the Second World War, he said:

“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!”

Jepson’s style was to tell potential recruits: “I have to decide whether I can risk your life and you have to decide whether you’re willing to risk it.” After much soul­searching, Sansom agreed to work for the SOE. As a cover, she was enrolled in the Women’s Transport Service (‘FANY’), while her three young daughters went to live in a convent.

What made Sansom willing to give up her children and risk her life as an undercover agent? She had a deep love of both her French homeland and her adopted country, Britain. She wanted to help the Allied cause and, because she spoke fluent French and knew France well, she concluded that her most valuable role would be with the Resistance. She was single-minded so that, once she had made her decision to join the SOE, she was determined to see her role through to the end, come what may.

During her training, Sansom received an early setback. She had a bad fall during her parachute instruction and her injuries delayed her drop into France. After three abortive attempts to land her in France by air, she sailed to Gibraltar in a troopship. From there, in October 1942, she and six other agents were landed in France from a fishing boat. Her code name was “Lise”. On 2 November, she joined up in Cannes with Peter Churchill – code name “Raoul” and the leader of the so­-called Spindle circuit. The intention had been for her to proceed to Auxerre but Churchill, realising her value to him as a courier, got permission from the Baker Street headquarters of the SOE for her to remain in Cannes.

After the Germans and Italians overran southern France, Churchill and Sansom were forced to move on. Accompanied by their wireless operator, Adolphe Rabinovich, they transferred to St Jorioz, near Annecy, in the French Alps. When Churchill returned to London for instructions, Sansom was tricked into revealing her sympathies.

She was approached by a “Colonel Henri”, who claimed to be a German officer wanting to defect to the Allies. In fact, the man was Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr – German military intelligence. Although Sansom was suspicious of the “officer”, her cover was blown and she and, later, Churchill – who was by then back in France from the UK – were arrested.

As they were being moved, Churchill and Sansom secretly agreed that their cover story was to be that he was related to the British Prime Minister and that they were married. This story may well have saved their lives. Sansom was taken to Paris and to the notorious Fresnes prison outside the city.

There she endured terrible torture and deprivation. During fourteen brutal interrogations, she stuck to the cover story and even repeated that Churchill – in fact, her Commanding Officer – had only come to France at her insistence. She took full responsibility for her actions and insisted that she, not Churchill, should be shot.

Her story was believed and Churchill only had to endure two interrogations. The Gestapo was also desperate to trace a wireless officer and a British officer working with the Resistance. They repeatedly tortured Sansom in an attempt to extract the information: her back was burned with a hot iron and her toenails were pulled out but she gave nothing away. This meant she not only saved the officers’ lives but their valuable secret work was able to continue.

In June 1943, Sansom was sentenced to death but instead she was reprieved and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany. There she was kept in solitary confinement for two years. At one stage she spent three months and eleven days in a darkened room – her personal punishment for the Allied landings in the South of France.

As the war neared its end, Fritz Suhren, the German camp commandant, decided that handing over Sansom might guarantee him lenient treatment from the Allies. However, although he drove her to an American unit, Sansom was in no mood to forgive him: in fact, after the hand-over, she returned to his car and found photograph albums that were used against him at the war crimes’ trials.

Her physical and mental health was frail for some time after the war. Her doctor’s report prepared at the end of 1945 concluded: “Mrs O. Sansom of 75 Harcourt Terrace, S.W.10 has been under my care since June 1945. At that time she was in a state of high nervous tension due to maltreatment received in German captivity. Some nails on her toes were missing; there was on her back a rounded scar of about half an inch in diameter, the result of a burn deliberately inflicted in the concentration camp.

“Since last July she has had numerous injections of calcium, artificial sunlight and intense general medicinal treatment. Her nails have grown again but some of them are still deformed. The scar on her back is still evident. She is still receiving treatment for her general nervous condition, and anaemia.”

Sansom’s GC was announced on 20 August 1946. Her lengthy citation ended: “During the period of over two years in which she was in enemy hands, she displayed courage, endurance and self-­sacrifice of the highest possible order.” Sansom was reunited with her children after the war, but her marriage did not survive. In 1946, she was a witness at the trial in Hamburg of sixteen members of Ravensbrück’s staff.

After the Second World War, she became a national heroine and, for many, the symbol of defiance against the Nazi regime. Furthermore, she was the only one of the three female Resistance workers awarded the GC to survive her ordeal at the hands of the Germans.

The two other women to receive the GC for their work as undercover agents in Occupied France were Violette Szabo, codename “Louise”, and Noor Inayat Khan, codename “Madeleine”. Both women had, like Sansom, been recruited by the SOE.

Szabo was captured and tortured before being shot in February 1945, aged just 23. Her posthumous GC was announced on 17 December 1946 when her citation said that she “gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness”. Khan was captured and tortured before being shot in the back of the head in September 1944, aged 30. Her posthumous GC took longer and was not announced until 5 April 1949 when her citation said that she had “displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical, over a period of more than 12 months”.

In 1947, Sansom married Peter Churchill, with whom she had endured so much during their time working with the French Resistance. However, the couple divorced in 1953 and she married Geoffrey Hallowes, another former Resistance fighter, in 1956. Hallowes had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his “cloak and dagger” actions, while Sansom had received the Légion d’honneur.

Having led such a secret life for so long, she then had to live in the public eye. In 1949, Jerrard Tickell published his book Odette: The Story of a British Agent after Sansom told him her story. A biographical film, Odette, starring Anna Neagle, was released in 1950. Sansom died in Walton­-on­-Thames, Surrey, on 13 March 1995, aged eighty­-two.  After her death, a plaque in her honour was placed underneath the FANY Memorial in Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London. In February 2012, the Royal Mail released a stamp featuring Sansom as part of its “Britons of Distinction” issue.

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