Odette [Marie Céline Hallowes]

Odette [Marie Céline Hallowes]
Other names
née Brailly
Birth and death
1912 - 1995
Profession details
Special operations officer and member of the FANY
Related place
Alice Sullivan and Anne Wright

Life beyond Elmbridge

Odette Marie Celine Brailly was born on 28 April 1912 in Amiens, France. She was the eldest of three children born to Gaston and Yvonne Brailly. Her father was killed at Verdun in October 1918. His father visited his son's grave often, accompanied by the young Odette, and would tell her that, 'In twenty years there will be another war....and you will have to do your duty as your father did.' - an uncannily accurate prophecy. Odette Brailly was educated privately at the Convent of St. Therese in Amiens. During the First World War a number of young British officers were billeted with the Brailly family and when Roy Sansom (c.1911 - 1957), the son of one of these officers visited his father's hosts after the war he and Odette fell in love and married in 1931. Their first daughter was born in 1932 and in 1933, they moved to London. Two more daughters followed in 1934 and 1936. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Roy Sansom enlisted and in 1940 Odette, her daughters and mother moved to Somerset.

In early 1942, the Admiralty broadcast a request for holiday photographs of the French, Dutch and Belgian Channel or North Sea beaches to help prepare for raids and eventually the liberation of occupied Europe. Odette responded writing that she had few photographs but was French and familiar with Boulogne. By mistake, she sent her reply to the War Office not the Admiralty. She was interviewed by Selwyn Jepson at the War Office who was recruiting for the French section of SOE. He thought she had the character and courage to be a successful operative but pointed out the dangers and his concerns for her young daughters. Odette reflected on what he had said and perhaps remembering her grandfather's words at her father's graveside, she decided to accept the offer to join SOE; as a prerequisite for this was to belong to a service organisation she became a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Odette established her children in a convent in Essex and started her training.

On 3 November 1942, she landed from a small fishing boat near Cassis on the French Mediterranean coast. Odette's codename was 'Lise' and her mission was to cross Vichy France to the occupied zone to join a resistance group in Burgundy. She got on well with SOE's local organiser Peter Churchill, codenamed Raoul, and when the Germans invaded Vichy on 11 November in retaliation for the Allied invasion of N.Africa, he persuaded SOE command in London to allow Odette to remain as his courier first in Cannes, and from February 1943 in St. Jorioz, near Annecy. However, the resistance group had been infiltrated by a German agent, and Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom were arrested on 16 April 1943. By this time they were romantically involved and passed themselves off as married and as relations of Winston Churchill.

Odette was taken to Fresnes prison in Paris. She endured terrible torture but did not betray her resistance colleagues one of whom was Francis Cammaerts ('Roger'), recently arrived in France, who was to organise one of the most successful circuits of the war. In May 1944, she was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp north of Berlin where she stayed until liberation in 1945. She spent months in solitary confinement close to the punishment block within hearing of the many beatings and executions that took place. Odette was condemned to death but the order was not carried out. Her fellow SOE agents Violette Szabo and Denise Bloch were murdered at Ravensbruck.Odette was eventually admitted to the camp hospital suffering from TB. On 1 May 1945 in an attempt to save himself, the camp commander, Fritz Suhren, believing Odette to be a relative of Winston Churchill, drove her to the American lines. His plan backfired: on arrival she grabbed his pistol, immediately denounced him and her evidence against him at the Nuremberg trials helped to convict him and he was hanged in 1950. "The first night of my release was unforgettable. It was a glorious night, full of stars and very cold.....It was so long since I had seen the night sky." Odette had been a prisoner of the Germans for just over two years.

She returned to London on 8 May 1945 and after medical care was reunited with her daughters. Odette was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross(GC), the highest non-military decoration for gallantry and the citation in the London Gazette, 20 August 1946, records that whilst a prisoner, '...she displayed courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the highest possible order.' Her other awards included an MBE in 1945 and in 1950 she was appointed a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur for her contribution to the French resistance movement. Her first marriage was dissolved in 1946 and she married Peter Churchill in 1947. Odette became famous when a film about her wartime career starring Anna Neagle was released in 1950; its title was simply, 'Odette'. Her second marriage also ended in divorce in 1955 and she married her third husband, Geoffrey Hallowes, in 1956.

Odette's gravestone at Burvale Cemetery in Walton

© Elmbridge Museum

Life in Elmbridge

Odette and Geoffrey Hallowes retired to Walton-on-Thames in the early 1980s. After the war Odette became involved in many organisations: the committee of the Victoria Cross and GC Association; the St.Dunstan's Ex-Prisoners of War Association; 282 (East Ham) Air Cadet Squadron (President) and the Woman of the Year luncheon (a founder vice-President). She maintained a close link with the FANY becoming their vice-President in 1967 and helped to develop their peacetime role in communications. Odette attached a bunch of violets to the FANY wreath laid at their memorial in St.Paul's, Knightsbridge, every November, in memory of those who had not survived. She always asserted that, "My comrades, who did far more and suffered more profoundly than I, are not here to speak. Because of this, I speak for them." Odette did this most eloquently when she returned to Ravensbruck on 13 June 1993 to dedicate a memorial plaque to female agents who were murdered there in the last months of the War: "They are all our mothers and sisters, you would not be able to either learn or play in freedom today, yes, you may not ever have been born, if such women had not stood their soft, slender bodies before your future like protective steel shields throughout the Fascist terrors."

She died at her home, Rosedale, 8 Eriswell Road, Walton-on-Thames, on 13 March 1995 and was buried at Burvale Cemetery in Walton. Odette is commemorated on the FANY memorial in St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge and her medals can be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London. On her memorial plaque are these words: 'Here she laid violets, transforming into service the pain of her survival.'


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