Odette Sansom had been a prisoner of the Gestapo for five months by October 1943. All of her toenails had been ripped from her feet. She was subsisting on just one slice of bread and a bowl of soup per day.
But most painful of all for the British spy was being separated from the man she loved, who was held in the same French prison.
Peter Churchill was Sansom’s supervisor in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret guerrilla organization that supported the British military.
Before they developed personal feelings for each other, Churchill — no relation to Winston, though the Nazis thought otherwise — had come to admire Sansom’s uncommon courage and determination, two traits she brought to bear during her captivity.
Allowed to spend time in the prison sewing room, Sansom noticed a fuse box there and thought of a way to help prisoners who were being starved to death.
Sansom cut the wires in the fuse box and jammed it with scissors, blowing the fuse. When guards came to check, she told them some of the prisoners were electricians who could fix the problem.
She gave them a list of the starving prisoners, and when they arrived at the sewing room, she slipped them some extra rations she had stored up.
They later repaid her kindness when they noticed Churchill had been allowed outside to exercise.
“Odette! Odette! Peter is in the yard!” they screamed to her.
And out their windows, they yelled: “Peter — your Odette is here!”
“Tell her to listen,” Churchill shouted back.
Then Churchill, with Nazis all around him, sang a love song for everyone to hear.
Sung in French, the tune, “You Are My Heart’s Delight,” ended with the phrase, “That dreams of mine may at last come true/And I shall hear you whisper, ‘I love you.’”
It would take some time, but Churchill would get that chance, writes Larry Loftis in the new book, “Code Name: Lise — The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy” (Gallery Books), out now.
Born in Amiens, France, in 1912, Sansom was a married mother of three young daughters living in Somerset, England, when the British Royal Navy broadcast a plea for photos of the coast of France to help with the war effort in the spring of 1942.
Sansom had several and mistakenly mailed them to the War Office instead of the Admiralty.
Eventually she heard from Capt. Selwyn Jepson, who wanted to recruit her to the “F [France] Section of SOE — Special Operations Executive — a new sabotage outfit that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tasked to ‘set Europe ablaze.’ ”
As female couriers generated far less suspicion than men, and “few native-born Britons could speak French without an accent,” Sansom’s potential was deemed invaluable.
Initially she was resistant, protesting to Jepson that she was a “simple, ordinary woman.” But Jepson disagreed, writing in her dossier, “Direct-minded and courageous. God help the Nazis if we can get her near them.”
Finally Sansom agreed to participate in the section’s months-long training, only to show Jepson how unfit for this effort she was.
Instead, it proved her worth.
Sansom began training as an operative for the SOE on July 18, 1942. She learned “how to fall, subdue a sentry and roll down a flight of stairs.” She was taught how to fire “virtually every weapon found in Europe” with one hand, from German Lugers to Tommy Guns. She learned close-range knife fighting, how to set up and detonate explosives on a moment’s notice and how to shake a tail when being followed.
She was also given several pills, including one that could incapacitate an enemy for 24 hours, and one that, if she found herself in a hopeless predicament, would kill her instantly.
By the end of the training, Sansom’s perspective had changed.
As her husband was already fighting in the war, she arranged for her daughters to live in a nearby convent and prepared for her new adventure.
She was assigned to an SOE group led by Peter Churchill and met him that November.
Her code name was Lise, his Michel.
“He was tall, she noticed, and extremely handsome,” Loftis writes. “He wore glasses, but behind them were confident brown eyes. His face was chiseled and tan and from the way he moved and the muscles in his forearms, she could tell he was athletic.”
Churchill had been captain of the Cambridge hockey team and spoke five languages. For the SOE, “he had delivered 2 million francs to Resistance groups in Cannes, Lyon and Marseille,” and once snuck into Gibraltar by hiding in the trunk of a diplomat’s car.
Once Churchill asked Sansom to run an errand by bike. She fell off immediately, cutting her stockings and ripping her knee to bloody shreds.
Later, he asked why she hadn’t told him she couldn’t ride a bicycle.
“Because,” she replied, he “seemed to take for granted that everybody was as competent as he was. It is most irritating.”
“Peter shook his head and admired his angry gazelle. One in a million.”
Sansom escorted English soldiers through French territory and helped set up landing strips for Resistance delivery flights. In December, while assigning Sansom a reconnaissance job, Churchill asked her to tell him more about herself.
She said there was nothing to tell. Then she casually mentioned she had three daughters, and “Peter’s jaw dropped.”
“Good God!” he said. “How on Earth could you have left them?”
“Odette pondered how to answer,” Loftis writes. “How does one explain to a commanding officer — one to whom you have an undeniable attraction — that you are unhappily married and heartbroken over leaving your children, a decision you struggle with every day, every hour, every minute?”
She mentioned that her husband, Roy, was fighting for the Allies, then added, “I don’t imagine he could have stopped me in doing this job. I’m inclined to arrange these things on my own.”
Eventually, a hotel in the French Alps became their hideout. In April 1943, a group of officers barged in and found Sansom. One put the barrel of a gun to her spine and forced her to lead the men to Churchill’s room.
As they entered, Sansom announced: “There is the Gestapo.”
The couple was handcuffed, brought downstairs and placed into the backseat of a car.
“Odette reached for Peter’s hand, knowing this might be the last, and squeezed it tightly,” Loftis writes, “pouring her strength into him.”
First imprisoned in Italy, their ordeal did nothing to discourage their courtship.
“Each day one of the friendly guards would bring Odette news of Peter, and she had them send messages to him,” Loftis writes. “Peter responded with romantic love notes, which the passionate Italians delivered with pleasure.”
When they were transferred to another Italian prison, Sansom told Churchill that she had revealed three things to the guards, two of which were false:
One: Churchill’s real name
Two: That he was related to the prime minister
Three: That they were married.
Churchill worried that this was a dangerous strategy, but she disagreed, telling him, “Wrong psychology. You’ll see.”
Then she made clear to Churchill their sudden marital state was just temporary.
“Naturally,” she said, “I need hardly add that this stunt is merely a war-time measure.”
Holding her gaze, Peter said he felt otherwise.
“If I ever get the chance,” he replied, “I shall ask you if you’d care to make it a lifetime measure.”
While the couple suffered beatings and torture in prison — Sansom was branded with a red-hot fire iron and once received no food for six days — the two were almost surely kept alive because they were assumed to be related to the prime minister and could act as future bargaining chips. Sansom had been right.
They remained prisoners for almost two years until they were released during the chaos of the war’s end in May 1945. The removal of Samson’s toenails led to her developing sepsis, and she was initially told by doctors she wouldn’t survive. But, invincible as ever, she lived.
In 1946, Sansom was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s second-highest honor, for her bravery throughout the war. She was the first woman to ever receive the honor, which was presented to her by King George himself, who later also declared her a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Churchill, meanwhile, received the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and France’s Croix de Guerre.
One year after the war ended, she divorced her husband, and in 1947 she and Churchill were married. Sansom retrieved her three daughters, aged 10, 12 and 14, and lived off her full military pension, while Churchill worked in real estate.
A film version of her ordeal, titled “Odette,” was the fourth-highest grossing film in Britain in 1950.
But sadly, the great love affair didn’t last, and Sansom and Churchill were divorced in 1956. While there were rumors of infidelity by Sansom — she remarried later that year — Churchill never spoke of her in anything but glowing terms.
‘There were always bad people. I’ve seen a lot of bad people, but because of those evil ones, I’ve seen the most noble people.’
Churchill, who never remarried, died in 1972 at the age of 63. Sansom passed away in 1995 at age 82.
In 2012, the Royal Mail issued a stamp in Sansom’s honor (under her later married name, Odette Hallowes) as part of its Britons of Distinction series.
She was both the most highly decorated spy and the most highly decorated woman to emerge from World War II.
Speaking about her wartime experience years later, she illustrated the strength of character that had convinced so many she could do anything she set out to accomplish.
“When asked if the torture she suffered left her frightened of humans, she answered, ‘No. Why? Nothing has changed. There were always bad people. I’ve seen a lot of bad people, but because of those evil ones, I’ve seen the most noble people. So this is what I wish to remember of it. I consider that it has been an extraordinary experience.’ ”
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