During World War II, many of the best operatives of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), were women. They worked undercover, putting their lives at risk in occupied France, and running agent networks, conducting sabotage, and training the French Maquis.
Many lost their lives or went sent off to concentration camps as the German Gestapo found out their true identities. Odette Hallowes, a member of the SOE, was arrested by the Gestapo, brutally tortured and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp; but she survived to tell her tale and would go down as one of the most decorated agents of World War II.
Hallowes was awarded the Georges Cross, made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and the French Legion d’Honneur among other awards and decorations. There have been books written about her as well as a film on her wartime exploits. On Friday, March 6, the Great Western Railway (GWR) named a train after her.
“We are so moved by this honor,” her granddaughter Sophie Parker said.
“It’s a wonderful way to recognize what Odette did, but also a way to make sure that people like her are not forgotten.”
“We have heard details of Odette’s remarkable story. Her bravery was inspirational and her survival extraordinary,” said Princess Anne, who attended the ceremony on Friday morning. “She would never accept any recognition for her special contribution without reminding us that she was only a face of a wider body of operations, made possible through a network of dedicated teams behind the scenes, as well as those like her who were prepared to infiltrate enemy lines.
Odette Marie Léonie Céline Brailly was born on April 28, 1912, in Amiens, France. She was sickly as a child and suffered from polio and an illness that left her blind for over three years. When she was just 19, she met and married an Englishman, Roy Samson. The couple moved to England where they had three daughters.
At the start of the war, she and the children moved for safety to Somerset. Early in 1942, the British Admiralty requested any photos of the French coastline that English citizens had, to be used for the war. She sent pictures of Boulougne but mistakenly sent them to the War Office, where they were seen by Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE. She was quickly recruited and given a cover position in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.
She didn’t receive high marks in most of her training. One evaluation of her was quite negative: “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,” it read.
The report added, “She is excitable and temperamental, although she has a certain determination.” However, the evaluation also contained something that would convince the British she would work out: “her patriotism and keenness to do something for France.” Buckmaster allowed her training to continue regardless. She suffered a bad fall during training which essentially ruled out any thoughts of her parachuting into France.
She was inserted in France by boat on the night of November 2, 1942, and made contact with Captain Peter Churchill (no relation to the Prime Minister), who headed Spindle, an SOE network based in Cannes. She was given the code name “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.
“Spindle” was beset by problems: a list of 200 potential supporters had fallen into the hands of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. As a result, the organization was infiltrated by Hugo Bleicher, an Abwehr counterintelligence officer. Bleicher’s cover was that he was a German officer (Colonel Henri) who was part of the anti-Hitler organization in the Wehrmacht. He arrested both Churchill and Odette at the Hôtel de la Poste in Saint-Jorioz on April 16, 1943. They were promptly sent to Fresnes Prison.
The two had become romantically involved during their operation. Odette used this to keep both of them alive during custody. While Churchill refused to give the Germans anything useful, Odette told them that the two were married and that he was a relative of Winston Churchill. That would keep the operative alive as the Germans could then use him as a bargaining chip. During the interrogations, both of them managed to stick to their stories.
Resultantly, the Germans bought their cover story hook, line, and sinker. But the Germans wanted to find another member of the team, the network’s radio operator and a Russian-Egyptian Jew, Adolphe Rabinovitch, who went by the code name “Arnaud.” Rabinovitch was arrested by the Gestapo shortly after D-Day and executed.
Anxious to find Rabinovitch and another British agent, the Gestapo brutally tortured Odette 14 times and placed a red-hot poker across her back and then pulled out all ten of her toenails, but she never divulged a word of her fellow agents’ whereabouts.
In June of 1943, the Nazis condemned her to death on two counts of espionage. Nonplussed, the cocky Odette replied: “Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed because I can only die once.” She was sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, where she was kept in solitary confinement in the dark and fed a starvation diet. Her cell was near one of the crematoria and the ashes from that continually filled her cell.
As the war neared its end, the commandant of Ravensbrück, Fritz Suhren, took Odette and drove to an American unit to surrender, in an attempt to save his own hide. Eventually, though, after several escape attempts, he was convicted, with testimony provided by Odette, and was hung.
After the war, Odette divorced Samson and married Churchill. The pair divorced in 1956. She married Geoffrey Hallowes another SOE veteran in the same year. She remained lifelong friends with Peter Churchill and even dined with him when she and Hallowes visited France in their later years.
In 1950 “Odette,” a film about her life, was released. It starred Anne Nagle as Hallowes and Trevor Howard as Churchill. Buckmaster was played by himself.
Odette Hallowes died on March 13, 1982, at the age of 82.