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Mrs Odette Marie Celine SANSOM (later CHURCHILL, HALLOWES), GC, MBE

No. & Rank at the Time of Action:

Unit/Occupation: Women's Transport Service (FANY)

Date and Place of Birth: 28th April 1912, Amiens, France

Family: Daughter of Gaston Brailly, Croix-de-Guerre, Medaille Militaire who was killed at Verdun, France in 1918. Married Roy Sansom 1931, Peter Churchill in 1947 and Geoffrey Hallowes in 1956

Early Life:

Date and Place of GC Action: April 1943-May 1945, Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Germany

The London Gazette: 20th August 1946

Citation: "The King has been graciously pleased to award the George Cross to: -

Odette Marie Celina (sic), Mrs. SANSOM, M.B.E., Women’s Transport Service (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).

Mrs. Sansom was infiltrated into enemy-occupied France in October 1942 and worked with great courage and distinction until April, 1943, when she was arrested with her Commanding Officer. Between Marseilles and Paris on the way to the prison at Fresnes, she succeeded in speaking to her Commanding Officer and for mutual protection they agreed to maintain that they were married. She adhered to this story and even succeeded in convincing her captors in spite of considerable contrary evidence and through at least fourteen interrogations. She also drew Gestapo attention from her Commanding Officer on to herself saying that he had only come to France on her insistence. She took full responsibility and agreed that it should be herself and not her Commanding Officer who should be shot. By this action she caused the Gestapo to cease paying attention to her Commanding Officer after only two interrogations. In addition the Gestapo were most determined to discover the whereabouts of a wireless operator and another British officer whose lives were of the greatest value to the Resistance Organisation. Mrs. Sansom was the only person who knew of their whereabouts. The Gestapo tortured her most brutally to try to make her give away this information. They seared her back with a red hot iron and, when that failed, they pulled out all her toe-nails. Mrs. Sansom, however, continually refused to speak and by her bravery and determination, she not only saved the lives of the two officers but also enabled them to carry on their most valuable work.

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."

Account of Deed: Mrs. Sansom was in solitary confinement for two years and whilst in the prison of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp was kept in complete darkness for three months and eleven days, as a punishment for the Allied landings in the south of France. Ultimately, she was taken by the German Camp Commandant to the nearest American unit in May 1945.

Remarks:

Additional Information: HALLOWES, Odette Marie Celine, GC 1946; MBE 1945: Legion d'Honneur, 1950: Vice-President, Women's Transport Services (FANY); Member Royal Society of St George; housewife; b 28 April 1912: d of Gaston Brailly, Croix-de-Guerre, Medaille Militaire; m 1931, Roy Sansom (decd); three d; m 1947, Captain Peter Churchill, DSO (marr. diss.: he d 1972); m 1956. Geoffrey Macleod Hallowes. Educ: The Convent of Ste Therese, Amiens (France) and privately. Entered Special Forces and landed in France, 1942: worked as British agent until capture by Gestapo, 1943: sentenced to death June 1943; endured imprisonment and torture until 28 April 1945, when left Ravensbruck Concentration Camp (MBE, GC). Member: Military Medallists League (Vice-Pres.); Cttee, Victoria Cross and George Cross Assoc.; Pres., 282 (East Ham) Air Cadet Sqdn. Founder Vice-Pres., Women of the Year Luncheon. Hon. Mem., St Dunstan's Ex-Prisoners of War Assoc. Recreations: reading, travelling, cooking, trying to learn patience. Clubs: Naval and Military, FANY, Special Forces. Died 13 March 1995. (WHO WAS WHO 1991-1995, p229)

Final Rank:

Other Decorations/Medals: Mrs Odette Hallowes' (formerly Sansom) medal group comprising her George Cross, MBE (Civil Div), 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal, War Medal, 1953 Coronation Medal, QSJM, Chevalier Legion d'Honneur (Fr) is on display in the Victoria Cross & George Cross Gallery, located in the Imperial War Museum, London

GC Location/Sale History:

Date and Place of Death: 13th March 1995, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Cause of Death:

Burial/Cremation:

Obituary: (The Times, March 17th 1995)

Odette Hallowes, G.C., M.B.E., wartime heroine of the Special Operations Executive, died on March 13 at her Walton-on-Thames home aged 82. She was born in Amiens on April 28, 1912. Of all the women who took part in special operations in France, Odette - as she was universally known in spite of having borne three married surnames in her lifetime - perhaps best symbolised the indomitable spirit of resistance to Nazism. Captured by the Gestapo in France and consigned after being cruelly tortured in Paris's notorious Fresnes prison, to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she emerged emaciated, weak and gravely ill at the end of the war. But in the years that followed, her undiminished mental and moral energy, combined with a complete absence of bitterness towards her tormentors and the nation that had spawned them, became a beacon to others who had suffered disfigurement, pain or bereavement. Indeed the theme of her postwar working life, with its service to various charities and help for the underpriviledged, was the healing of those wounds, both physical and mental, which had been inflicted upon individuals by the war. Her George Cross, she always maintained, was not to be regarded as an award to her personally, but as an acknowledgement of all those known and unknown, alive or dead, who had served the cause of the liberation of France. Her wartime experiences had taught her two great truths; that suffering is an ineluctable part of the human lot, and that the battle against evil is never over. Fame came to her - notably, through the film Odette which celebrated her life - but she never sought it. In her entry in Who's Who she styled herself simply: housewife. She was born Odette Marie Celine Brailly in Picardy, the daughter of Gaston Brailly who was killed towards the end of the First World War. She was educated privately and at the Convent of Ste. Therese in Amiens. She always said that she had been determined at the outset to marry an Englishman, after a series of young British officers were billeted on the family house during the First World War. At any rate, when the son of one such man, whom her mother had nursed back to health, visited the family after the war to improve his French, romance soon blossomed. She married Roy Sansom, who worked in the hotel industry, in 1931, and settled in London, where she had three daughters. British domiclied she might be, but her heart remained French. After the catastrophe to French arms in the early summer of 1940, she longed to do something more active than looking after her young ones.

By a stroke of luck she got in touch with the independent French section of the Special Operations Executive. Yet when she was first interviewed there were some doubts about her suitability as a clandestine SOE courier. Would she be able, as a mother of three young daughters who might be constantly on her mind, to undertake missions requiring steely nerves and an ability to concentrate on the task in question to the exclusion of all else? On the other hand, from certain points of view she seemed an ideal candidate. She was young, attractive, vivacious. She knew France, she had a winning manner. Furthermore, she had a burning desire to redeem by direct action the disgrace her country had suffered in its capitulation of 1940. Accepted, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (since membership of a service organisation was a prerequisite of working for SOE, and the FANY provided basic training in such matters as driving, wireless operation, etc.) and did well in all her courses. She returned to France secretly, by small boat from Gibraltar to Antibes, on the last night of October 1942, with orders to join a new circuit in Burgundy. There she got on so well with Peter Churchill, SOE's organiser on the spot, that he secured London's leave to keep her on the Riviera. Within a fortnight, the Germans and Italians overran all southern France. Churchill and Mme. Sansom continued to try to provide contact between London and a large - and as it turned out, a purely imaginary - secret army that was supposed to be organised by a friend of Churchill's codenamed "Carte", the father of Danielle Darrieux the film star. Unfortunately quarrels between "Carte's" friends became so acute that next February Churchill took Mme. Sansom and his wireless operator, Adolphe Rabinovich, away to St. Jorioz near Annecy in the French Alps. Churchill then returned to London for instructions. While he was away, Odette was approached by a "Colonel Henri" who represented himself to be a German officer who wanted to defect to the Allies.

She was highly suspicious of "Colonel Henri" - with some justification since he was in fact Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr. But one of the more impetuous of the "Carte" members was taken in by him and imparted some names and numbers of the members of the circuit in and around Annecy. Churchill returned to France by parachute on April 14-15, 1943, and was met by Odette, with whom he returned to St. Jorioz. He had already been warned against "Colonel Henri" in London. But their operation had been fatally undermined by the indiscreet disclosures of their "Carte" comrade. After dark next evening Bleicher and a detachment of Italian troops arrived at the hotel in Jorioz where Odette and Churchill were staying. He arrested her in the hall and, going upstairs, where he found Churchill sound asleep in bed, arrested him too. Churchill and Odette passed themselves off as married, and as relations of relations of Winston Churchill (he claimed to be Churchill's nephew). They were, therefore, for a time treated with a mixture of savagery and deference. Odette was sent to Paris where, at the notorious Fresnes prison, she endured excruciating torments, including having her toenails pulled out (for a year after her homecoming she could not wear shoes and had to walk on her heels until several operations restored her to normal mobility). In June 1943 Odette was condemned to death and eventually sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, north of Berlin. The sentence was never carried out but for the remainder of her stay there her lot was one of alternate molly-coddling and beating which is the traditional procedure of the interrogator. Neither of them (Peter Churchill had been sent to join the Prominenten at Sachenhausen) made any admissions of importance. Meanwhile, Rabinovich, who had evaded arrest, escaped to England only to be dropped back by an unhappy staff error straight into the arms of the Gestapo next year. At the end of the war, when the Red Army's advance approached Ravensbrück, Fritz Suhren, the camp commandant, drove in a sports car with Odette beside him into the American lines in the hope that he could use her charms to save himself. She at once denounced him and he was hanged after trial.

Odette became a national heroine, subject of innumerable newspaper articles, a book by Jerrard Tickell and the film Odette which starred Anna Neagle in the title role. She was appointed MBE in 1945 and in the following year awarded the George Cross. In 1950 she was made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur. She believed that the George Cross had been given to her, not because she had been especially gallant, but because she had had the good fortune to survive, unlike 11 other women in her section who had died in German hands, some of them shot within earshot of her cell. Her first husband died and she married Peter Churchill in 1947. In 1956 that marriage was dissolved and she married Geoffrey Hallowes, a wine importer, who had also served - in another section - with the SOE in France. He was a constant support to her throughout the years when her life was lived in the glare of often unexpected bursts of publicity, not all of them welcome; there were, for example, criticisms of the effectiveness of SOE's operations in southern France. But there was also publicity of a more light-hearted kind. On one occasion her mother's house in Kensington was burgled, the thief making off with some silver spoons and Odette's George Cross and Legion d'Honneur. Distraught at the loss of her daughter's treaures, Mme. Brailly appealed through the press for their return. The thief, evidently a humane soul, obliged. His letter accompanying the decorations read: "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."

Odette was active in many organisations; she was on the committee of the VC and GC association, she was a vice-president of the FANY, an honorary member of the St. Dunstan's Ex-Prisoners of War Association, President of 282 (East Ham) Air Cadet Squadron, Founder Vice-President of the Women of the Year Luncheon for the Blind, and Vice-President of the Military Medallists League. Last year, though already frail, she revisited Ravensbrück. For her it was the first time since 1945. The occasion, the unveilling of a plaque remembering the courage of the SOE women who had died there, was for her a profoundly moving experience. Her husband and the three daughters of her first marriage survive her.

Memorials: Headstone on grave. Her name is on a plaque underneath the FANY Memorial, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London. A biographical film, ‘Odette’, starring Anna Neagle was made in 1950

Town/County Connections: Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames, Surrey