Odette Samson, taken from John Robertson's Special Forces Roll of Honor webpage

Odette Brailly Sansom Churchill Hallowes, was a heroine amongst heroines of World War II. She was part of the infamous Special Forces of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY, for short–no jokes).  She was sent undercover to work with the French underground as part of the Special Operations Executive. The SOE was created during the second World War to enable espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.  In signing up, Odette had to leave behind her 3 children, whose father, her husband, was also off fighting in the war.

It has been said that women agents were sought after by the British miliary because it was easier for them to get acclimated. They were sought after by the Germans for the same reason.  Supposedly, the German military felt that women agents were far more dangerous for this reason, and when these women were caught, they were almost always executed. On the other hand, male agents were treated much better (although, how much more is debatable, considering they would have been taken to concentration camps as well). A fellow blogger has done some research on this–check it out here and on their webpage here. It has also been suggested, one example being Rita Kramer’s book Flames in the Field, in which she writes that Henri Déricourt (a possible double agent working for the SOE) said said that the British had deliberately sacrificed women SOE agents as part of a scheme to distract from specific military invasions, namely Sicily. These women were  meant to be captured, and meant to lay false information in waiting German hands.

After her training, Odette parachuted into Cannes in 1942, and aided  her supervisor, Peter Churchill, who was working on the Spindle network (a network of the underground based around Montpellier). The two became close. The Abwehr (German military intelligence) tracked them down and  captured them in 1943. They claimed they were a married couple, and related to Winston Churchill. They were tortured anyway. Odette was tortured by the Gestapo in Paris, and amazingly she stuck to her story. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp.

After many threats of execution, Odette survived the war. She went on to testify against her captors.

Peter and Odette married after the war, but divorced in 1956. She later married Geoffrey Hallowes, a one time officer of the SOE.

Before her death, Odette was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (for her work with the French resistance), a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and was also the first FANY member to be given the George Cross. She remains the only woman to have been given the George Cross whilst still living.

The reason I find Odette Sansom inspirational is fairly evident. She was brave, truly brave, and her courage and actions are more than inspirational, they’re astounding. Can you imagine parachuting, in the dark, into another country, where you were under threat of being killed? All soldiers are brave, no doubt, and perhaps its sexist to say, but her bravery means a bit more to me because she was a woman. Maybe its because I’m a woman myself. Or perhaps its because, at the time, women were really only just getting a strong foothold in the workplace, in society at large. At that time, British women joined the miliary as nurses, or WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), or the like. On the whole, though, they were non-combatants, even if they faced much the same dangers wherever they were posted.  But there’s something so…scary, is the only term I can think of, of being sent away from everything you know, knowing that your children may become orphans with both their parents at war. Knowing that any slight mistake, slip of the tongue, could mean certain death. Maybe I am being sexist, but I find those things scarier than bullets. All I know is that Odette Sansom was a soldier, and being female may have been more of an asset than a detriment. Her bravery, and the bravery of all the women of the SOE, stands firm, and I find it so terribly inspirational.

2 responses »

  1. Very interesting post! I don’t think it’s sexist to say that her bravery means more because she’s a woman. Given the historical power imbalance and gender expectations, it’s definitely harder for women to do “men’s” work of any sort; add to that the risk of being be treated more harshly etc. and I think it’s fair to say that it took some extraordinary bravery to do what she did.

  2. po says:

    I agree to a certain extent–she was brave–but it was wrong and foolish to leave her children and put them in a convent, my opinion. She could’ve done a lot for France/England at home.

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