Why you should care
Because wartime valor favors no gender.
Wearing a gray flannel suit and a thick scarf around her head, Odette Sansom shielded her eyes from the salty ocean spray as the fishing boat scudded over choppy waters. Behind her, the coastline of Gibraltar was fading into the mist. Ahead lay her homeland, France, overrun by German troops. All Sansom had ever wanted was to be a wife and mother, but there was no turning back. She was about to enter enemy territory as a spy.
Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born in Amiens, France, in 1912. Her father was killed fighting for France in World War I, and her grandfather never let her forget his heroism, writes Penny Starns in Odette: World War Two’s Darling Spy. He wanted Odette to be strong. When she contracted polio as a child and went blind for several years, she received no sympathy from her grandfather. “He did not suffer weaklings very easily,” Odette said in her oral history for the National Archives in London.
You will have to make up your mind on which count I am to be executed because I can only die once!
Odette Sansom, British spy, taunting her German captors during WWII
Odette married Englishman Roy Sansom, who worked in the hotel industry, in 1931. The couple moved to London, where they were raising three daughters when war once again engulfed Europe. In 1941, Odette heard that the British war office was looking for photographs of the French coastline. After mailing in a few prints, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had been established to conduct missions of intelligence, espionage and sabotage throughout Western Europe, according to Michael Barnhart, a history professor at Stony Brook University who specializes in WWII.
At first, Sansom resisted the recruitment efforts. She relished her role as a mother, and did not want to leave her young children to work in the war effort. After some time, she agreed to attend training but with the intention of proving herself unqualified. “[They] will see I am not right for the job at all,” Sansom recalled in an interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1986.
In her training, she learned unarmed combat, weapons handling, Morse code and how to sabotage ships and ports and other spycraft. To her surprise, she discovered she quite liked these paramilitary courses and learned the required skills much faster than she expected. Still, she didn’t want to abandon her children, especially because her husband was also serving Britain in the war as a soldier, so the three girls would be left with the nuns of St. Helen’s convent school near Somerset. But duty to king and country won out. She agreed to deployment, joining the few other female spies in the Allied operation.
After her boat ride from Gibraltar to France, Sansom was sent to Cannes under the command of Peter Churchill — no relation to then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Her orders were to start a spy network in Auxerre, about 100 miles southeast of Paris. But shortly after she arrived in Cannes, the Italian army invaded the south of France, making it too dangerous for her to travel north to her objective. Instead, she was put to work as a bicycle courier, carrying messages from her spy cell to other resistance members and conveying her cell’s intelligence reports to an agent who flew them back to SOE headquarters in London.
Sansom also worked as a radio operator, another of the SOE’s most important jobs, as it was the primary means of exchanging crucial information between France and Britain. “This was the only way to get observations of troop movements [and] agents’ reports out of Hitler’s Europe,” says John Broich, history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. But radio operation was also highly dangerous. The Gestapo was constantly monitoring the airwaves, trying to triangulate the source of any unusual radio traffic.
In 1943, Sansom was betrayed by a German officer posing as an SOE agent. She was taken to the notorious Fresnes Prison, just south of Paris, where Gestapo officers ripped off her toenails and prodded her spine with a hot iron. Still, she gave up no information. She also saved Peter Churchill from execution by convincing her captors that he was her husband and the nephew of Winston. Sansom maintained she was active in the French resistance, and Churchill had no involvement. When she was sentenced to death on two counts of espionage, Sansom replied, “You will have to make up your mind on which count I am to be executed because I can only die once!” She was sent to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp north of Berlin, where her captors nearly starved her to death and turned heaters on her full blast in summer.
But Sansom survived. As the Nazis realized a German defeat was imminent, camp commandant Fritz Suhren handed her over to the Americans, hoping it would improve his fate. No such luck. Following the war, Sansom testified against Suhren at the Nuremberg trials, and he was sentenced to death.
In 1946, Sansom became the first woman to receive the George Cross for gallantry, Britain’s highest nonmilitary award. Two of her fellow SOE agents, Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, who were executed by the Germans, received the George Cross posthumously. Sansom died at her home in Surrey, England, in 1995 at the age of 82.
She once said that one thing helped her endure the torture: She wasn’t afraid of being killed by Nazis. “They would have a dead body,” Sansom said defiantly, “but they would not have me.”