This Housewife Became World War II's Highly Decorated Spy
This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy

Khalid Elhassan - June 12, 2019

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Paris in the first Bastille Day under German occupation, in 1940. Time Magazine

15. She Attracted the Attention of the Special Operations Executive

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in June of 1940 as a secret organization, tasked with conducting espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance operations in occupied Europe. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had high hopes for the SOE, whose creation he had ordered within weeks of taking the reins of the British government. Also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army”, and the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, the pugnacious Prime Minister directed the SOE to give the Axis no rest, and to “set Europe ablaze!

Setting Europe ablaze required intimate knowledge of local conditions, and an ability to coordinate with the local anti Axis elements on the ground. Reliable personnel, possessed of the linguistic and cultural knowledge that could allow them to blend in with the locals in occupied Europe, were relatively few. Thus, when Odette’s letter was forwarded to the SOE, it caught their attention. She was born and raised in France, so she met the linguistic and cultural requirements. She was married to a Briton, and had three British daughters, and thus had sufficient ties – and thus, presumably, loyalty – to Britain. She was worth a closer look.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Special Operations Executive (SOE) insignia. Pintrest

14. Recruitment Into the SOE

A week later, Odette received a reply, requesting that she stop by the War Office. There, she was asked whether she would be interested in using her French background to aid the war effort. Assuming what was on offer were translation jobs or the such, she said she would be more than happy. In a follow up interview soon thereafter, she met with a recruiter who offered her a job with the SOE’s Section F, tasked with conducting operations in France. Relatively few Britons could speak French like a native, but Odette could, and as the recruiter told her: “We think women could be very useful“.

As a matter of fact, women were extra useful for work in France. Aside from arousing less suspicion, women were not subject to the frequent roundups of French males, who were sent to Germany as forced laborers. However, with three young daughters to take care of, Odette was understandably reluctant. As she put it: “My children come first. I mean, I want to do everything I can for this country, which is my adopted country and the country which has adopted me. My children are English and I have a French family, and all my roots are in France; I have two reasons for wanting to help, but I can’t do that“. Over the following months, she struggled with the decision, before finally deciding to join the SOE.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
French gendarmes under Gestapo supervision, rounding up Jews in Marseilles for deportation. Frank Falla Archive

13. The Risks of an SOE Operative

Odette found a convent boarding school for her daughters, and arranged for them to spend holidays with an aunt and uncle, before reporting to the SOE to commence her training. Before that, however, she had to go through an interview with Maurice Buckmaster, her F Section boss. He was amazed to discover that she had three daughters, noting that, despite her thirty years, Odette looked like a child herself. Perhaps feeling a bit guilty, he tried to make sure that she had no romantic illusions about what awaited her:

In many ways it’s a beastly life. It will be physically hard. More than that, it will be mentally exhausting, for you will be living a gigantic lie, or series of lies, for months on end. And if you slip up and get caught, we can do little to save you“. When she asked “save me from what?“, she got the chillingly offhand reply: “Oh, from the usual sickening sort of thing; prison, the firing squad, the rope, the crematorium; from whatever happens to amuse the Gestapo“.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Odette Sansom in uniform. Wikimedia

12. SOE Training

Accepting the risks, Odette began her training as an SOE operative. As cover, she was enrolled in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) – a charity active in nursing work, and which supplied the SOE with support personnel. Her real training, however, commenced with field craft, radio message coding and decoding, weapons, and physical fitness and strengthening. She became proficient in explosives, and with virtually all firearms she was likely to encounter in occupied Europe. She was also trained in hand to hand combat, and taught how to kill with close in weapons such as knives, and pen pistols that could fire a single bullet or an asphyxiating gas cartridge.

She was then sent to more advanced training, where her espionage skills were further honed, and she was prepared for life in occupied France. Details that a local would know, but that might trip up somebody who had not spent years living under German occupation, were drilled into her time and time again. She had to memorize her cover story, and become who she claimed to be. She needed to understand the fine points about ration cards; identity papers; how to deal with and talk her way through checkpoints; how to interact with German soldiers; how to spot and avoid secret police, informers, and snitches, etc.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE Section F, and Odette Sansom’s boss. Resistance Francaise

11. There Were Doubts About Her Suitability for Undercover Work

SOE trainers’ reports described Odette as enthusiastic, driven, and able. On the downside, she was also described as “excitable and temperamental“, as well as “impulsive and hasty in her judgments“. She was also reluctant to accept constructive criticism, and the report concluded that: “her main weakness is a complete unwillingness to admit that she could ever be wrong“. In normal circumstances, that might have tanked her chances and washed her out of training, as unsuitable for undercover work. However, the exigencies of war and the shortage of qualified personnel tipped the scales in her favor.

As her boss, Major Maurice Buckmaster, saw it, many recruits with poor training reports had gone on to prove themselves as valuable agents in the field. In a final interview before deciding her fate, he told her: “The work I had planned for your to do is so desperately important and so… so interlocking that we can only dare to send people who are cool in their judgment and who have crystal clarity of mind. I believe you to be single-minded, loyal, and tenacious. But, let’s face it, there is the question of this mercurial temperament of your’s which comes out every now and again like a nettle rash“. Nonetheless, he went with his instincts, and allowed Odette to continue training and preparation for her mission.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Occupied France. Oradour

10. She Was Smuggled Into France by Boat

Odette was supposed to get airdropped into occupied France, so she was sent for parachute training. There, however, she made a bad landing during one of her jumps, and ended up smashing face first into some matting. She hurt her knee and ankle, which was badly sprained, and got a concussion, as well as a cracked metatarsal. She spent time in a hospital for those injuries, and required specialist opthalmic care for an eye that was closed shut amidst a badly swollen face.

After recovering from her injuries, she expressed willingness – if lukewarm – to resume parachute training, but made it clear that she would prefer an alternative means for getting to France. Insertion via submarine was discussed as an option, before it was finally decided to smuggle her in by boat. On September 14th, 1942, she was given false identity papers for an “Odette Metayer” – a widow from Boulogne, who had been born and raised in Dunkirk. She was then dispatched to Gibraltar, from whence a small boat would smuggle her into southern France.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill in 1947. Wall Street Journal

9. Operation CLOTHIER

Given the code name “Lise”, Odette took a seaplane to Gibraltar, and from there boarded a boat for the French Riviera, to carry out her part in Operation CLOTHIER. She landed in the Riviera on November 2nd, 1942, and was picked up by the French Resistance. She was then taken by them to her SOE cell, headed by British Army captain Peter Morland Churchill – no relation to the Prime Minister. Her mission called for her to then move on to Burgundy, where she was to set up a safe house for other agents. However, Peter Churchill, impressed by Odette – and perhaps feeling the first stirrings of a romance that would blossom down the road – contacted SOE headquarters in London, and convinced them to scrap her orders. Odette was reassigned as a courier to Churchill’s network, known as SPINDLE.

All was not well with SPINDLE when Odette arrived, and things were destined to get worse. The network was beset by internal strife between its French Resistance main contact, Andre Girard, his deputy, and the SOE radio operator assigned to the lot, Adolphe Rabinovitch. Things went from bad to worse when Girard’s negligence and inattention to operational security led to the loss of a list that contained the names of over 200 supporters. It was recovered by the Gestapo, who made a near clean sweep of the lot.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Captain Adolphe Rabinovitch, SOE, the SPINDLE network’s radio operator. Wikimedia

8. Getting to Work

Odette’s first main task was to arrange room and board for the radio operator, Rabinovitch, who had no ration card – a necessity at the time. She had a near puritanical attitudes towards the black market, and a general revulsion towards what she saw as an environment of frippery and fluff on the Cote d’Azur, which she thought was unseemly given the seriousness and hardships of wartime. Nonetheless, she made a go of it, and carried out her early assignments. Then things got immeasurably worse barely a week after her arrival, on November 11th, 1942.

That day the Germans, reacting to the Allied landings in North Africa, invaded and occupied the nominally independent rump France, in which Odette and the SPINDLE network operated. The new conditions worsened the network’s internal strife. Odette was kept busy with her secret courier work between the SOE and various Resistance elements, while the SPINDLE network descended into chaos. That led to sloppy security work, which almost got Odette and Peter Churchill captured by the Germans, during a failed attempt to arrange a clandestine night time airplane landing.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Training a canine for the German military. World War II Film Inspector

7. Chased by Dogs

Odette and Peter Churchill were nearly undone in late 1942, when a French Resistance contact named Carte was tasked with finding an out of the way landing area near Arles, in southeastern France. It was supposed to be suitable for the night time landing of a modified Hudson bomber, that was to whisk Peter Churchill and four French generals back to Britain, for an SOE meeting. Unfortunately, Carte ineptly chose an airfield that was located about 1000 yards from a German antiaircraft battery.

Nothing doing, a new landing site was selected, this one an abandoned airfield near Bassillac, about 500 miles away. After dodging German and collaborationist Vichy police, Odette, Churchill, and their party, made it to the airfield, only to discover that the control tower and a nearby barracks were occupied by German troops. It was a trap, and the party was forced to scatter, with Germans hot on their tail. Odette crashed into bushes, with German dogs nearly snapping at her heels, plunged into an icy stream, and battled the freezing current to the other side, where she finally shook off the pursuit.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Collaborationist French Milice, arresting suspected Resistance members. Awesome Stories

6. Hiding in a Whorehouse

On another occasion, Odette was tasked with guiding four newly arrived English SOE agents into Marseilles, and chaperoning them past German military checkpoints. Those were relatively easy, compared to the checkpoints manned by collaborationist Vichy police, who as native Frenchmen were more attuned to telling genuine fellow countrymen from imposters. After fulfilling that task, she was to contact and deliver a message to a high ranking Resistance commander. She was then to contact yet another Resistance leader, and deliver to him a sum of money with which to buy gasoline on the black market. Odette managed to fulfil all her tasks, but ran into delays while doing so, and by the time she was done, night had fallen, and with it a curfew imposed by the authorities.

All hotels were booked, and the last thing Odette wanted was to get arrested for violating curfew, and risk a search that might reveal incriminating documents. So she hid in a whorehouse that catered exclusively to German soldiers, run by a madam sympathetic to the Resistance. It was as safe a hideout as any, because such an establishment was the last place the authorities would expect to find an anti Nazi. However, on that particular night, the whorehouse was raided by German military police searching for a deserter. The quick thinking madam kept them from entering Odette’s room, by claiming it housed her niece, who was infected with smallpox.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Sergeant Hugo Bleicher, the German agent who tracked down and arrested Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill. Code Name Lise

5. Sansom’s Network Was Tracked Down by One of the Abwehr’s Best Investigators

Odette Sansom’s and Peter Churchill’s nemesis would prove to be a seemingly unprepossessing German investigator with an unlikely background. Sergeant Hugo Bleicher, who had recently taken down the Allies’ then-largest network in France, had sought to join the Kaiser’s navy in his youth, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. Drafted into the army when he turned eighteen in 1917, he was sent to the Western Front, where he was captured by the British almost immediately upon his arrival. After WWI, he went to work for a German firm in Spanish Morocco. When WWII began, he was drafted into the army once again, and sent to France after its conquest as an undercover cop.

There, he demonstrated a talent for interrogating and turning captured agents – without torture, but by appealing to their egos, or otherwise spotting and targeting their psychological weak spots. He became a celebrity among the Gestapo and the Abwehr – German military intelligence – when he used those skills in 1941 to turn a captured agent, and convinced him to snitch on his comrades. The result was the unravelling of a network named INTERAILLE, then the largest Allied network in France, and the capture of over 60 undercover agents. In early 1943, German authorities, concerned about increased Resistance activities in southern France, put sergeant Bleicher on the tail of SPINDLE, Odette Sansom’s and Peter Churchill’s network.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Aerial view of Fresnes Prison, where Odette Sansom was held after her capture. Frank Falla Archive

4. Love and Capture

Along the way, a romance began to blossom between Odette and Peter Churchill. Around the same time, the Gestapo, having learned of the presence of an SOE cell and British intelligence officers near Cannes, began intensifying its raids. Amidst mounting pressure, SPINDLE was forced to relocate to the Alpine village of St. Joiroz, near the Swiss and Italian borders. Safety was illusory, however, for sergeant Bleicher had come across a French Resistance member named Marsac, who knew the identity and location of Odette and Churchill. Convincing Marsac that he was an anti-Nazi officer who sought to defect to the British, Bleicher got his captive to reveal Churchill’s location, in order to arrange the “defection”.

Instead, after a brief cat and mouse game with Odette and Churchill, Bleicher arrested them in March of 1943. A quick thinking Odette saved Churchill from torture and execution by falsely informing the Germans that he was related to the British Prime Minister, thus enhancing his value in their eyes as a potential bargaining chip. She also saved herself, by claiming that she and Peter Churchill had been recently married, thus making her a distant in-law of Winston Churchill.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Female prisoners in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where Odette Sansom was held. Bundesarchiv Bild

3. Torture

The Germans refrained from mistreating Peter Churchill, based on their belief that he was a blood relation of Winston. As a mere in-law of the Prime Minister, however, Odette was on shakier grounds, and the Germans were willing to torture her into spilling secrets. What they most wanted to know was the identity and location of SPINDLE’s radio operator. A captured radio operator was considered a prize jewel, because by turning one, Allied intelligence could be manipulated. In 1942, the Germans had captured and turned an SOE radio operator in the Netherlands, and got his handlers in London to radio information that led to the dismantling of virtually the entire local SOE. Worse, they got the British to parachute dozens more SOE agents into the waiting arms of German intelligence.

Odette knew the location of SPINDLE’s radio operator, Adolphe Rabinovitch, but she adamantly refused to tell. At Fresnes Prison outside Paris, she was interrogated over a dozen times by the Gestapo, who scorched her back with red hot irons, and pulled out all of her toenails. She screamed in agony, but insisted that she knew nothing about Rabinovitch. In between the torture sessions, sergeant Bleicher played good cop, by visiting her in prison, and inviting her on outings to Paris, to attend concerts and dine in restaurants with him, in a bid to get her to talk. She did not bite.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Fritz Suhren, Commandant of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Picswe

2. Concentration Camp and Freedom

Eventually, the Germans gave up on trying to squeeze information out of Odette, and sent her first to a women’s prison in Germany, and thence to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. There, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, upon being informed that she was a relative of Winston Churchill, marked Odette out for special treatment – and not the good kind of special treatment. She was kept on a starvation diet, and housed in a punishment block cell, from where she could hear other prisoners being tortured.

However, with German defeat drawing ever closer, Commandant Suhren reconsidered his treatment of Odette, and decided he would be better off after the war if he kept her alive. Accordingly, her conditions were improved, and she was moved to a normal cell, and given standard rations. On May 1st, 1945, Suhren loaded Odette into his Mercedes, and drove to American lines, where he handed her over, in a bid to lessen his inevitable sentence. It did not work: Suhren had committed too many war crimes and crimes against humanity. Odette testified against him and other Ravensbruck guards in a 1946 trial, and he was executed in 1950.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Odette with her third husband, Geoffrey Macleod Hallowes Find a Grave

1. Life After the War

Back in Britain, Odette required extensive hospitalization and treatment to recover from her torture and harsh imprisonment. Upon discovering that Peter Churchill had survived stints in German concentration camps, she got a divorce, then married Churchill in 1946. Adolphe Rabinovitch, the radio operator whom she had endured torture in order to protect, survived the collapse of the SPINDLE network and made it back to England. He was eventually parachuted back into France, but was captured and executed in 1944.

Odette was personally decorated by King George VI, receiving awards such as Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and the George Cross (GC) – the highest non-military decoration for gallantry. Between those and French awards, such as the Legion d‘Honneur, Odette Sansom became WWII’s most highly decorated spy. Her adventures were depicted in the 1950 film Odette, in which Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard played the roles of the SOE couple. Unfortunately, she and Peter Churchill did not live happily ever after, and divorced in 1956. She remarried that same year, this time to Geoffrey Hallowes, another SOE agent, with whom she remained until her death, in 1995.

This Housewife Became World War II’s Highly Decorated Spy
Odette Hallowes in old age. Amazon


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Biography Online – Odette Sansom

Daily Beast, February 2nd, 2019 – Excerpt: The Female Spy Who Climbed the Alps to Battle Nazis

Imperial War Museum – Odette Sansom, GC

Loftis, Larry – Code Name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy (2019)

New York Times, March 21, 1995 – Odette Hallowes, 82, A British Agent Tortured by Nazis

Nigel Perrin dot Com – SOE Agent Profiles: Odette Hallowes

Time Magazine, January 15th, 2019 – The Extraordinary Bravery That Made This Woman One of World War II’s Most Remarkable Spies

Wikipedia – Odette Hallowes