- - Monday, January 28, 2019



By Larry Loftis

Gallery Books, $27, 360 pages

One’s reflexive first thought is wonderment at why the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited a woman, Odette Sansom, for a hazardous mission into German-occupied France.

Fresh from a busted marriage, the French-born Odette (as she is called in the book) had three pre-teen daughters, stored in a convent but surely on her mind. Attractive of face and form, she was a woman to be noticed — and remembered. So much for the anonymity cherished by most spies.

But in 1942, the British army’s neck was literally on the chopping block. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had created SOE to foster resistance in occupied areas — sabotage and intelligence gathering — to aid Allied troops when they landed.

Recruiters were dubious when Odette volunteered for service. But she did not wish to sit out the war: Her father had been killed by Germans in World War I, and she lusted for revenge. She spoke with fire in her voice. SOE director Maurice Buckmaster warned her of the dangers if captured: “the usual sickening sort of thing, prison, the firing squad whatever happens to amuse the Gestapo.” She was not deterred. Her interviewer jotted, “Direct-minded and courageous. God help the Nazis if we can get her near them.”

Thus veteran author Larry Loftis lays the background for a story of sheer bravery and survival that should astound even an avid reader of military history.

Given the code name “Lisle,” Odette went through an SOE course designed to teach her how to kill people, either bare-handed or with a variety of weapons. She learned how to parachute — perhaps silently asking, as she looked down to Earth, what many first-timers have wondered: “What the am I doing here?”

Just before she was dispatched to France, someone handed her an “L” pill — for use “where there’s absolutely no way out.” She was slipped into France by boat from Gibraltar. And she meets, and is enthralled by, a dashingly handsome SOE officer named Peter Churchill. He was not related to Sir Winston, but a member of a prominent British family, a Cambridge graduate, and multi-lingual.

Odette’s unit is tasked with establishing secure landing sites for parachute drops, both of agents and supplies. Here Mr. Loftis’ narrative goes astray somewhat, with a disorganized jumble of names, and scant information of what the SOE teams and their French allies actually accomplished, in terms of gathering intelligence. (SOE seemingly remains chary about releasing information.)

A constant sub-theme is the ongoing romance between Odette and Capt. Churchill — finding solace in one another’s love while crouching in isolate fields listening for the sound of friendly aircraft. All the while, their rings are pursued by a dogged German counterintelligence officer, one Hugo Bleicher, who had already gained fame by cracking a large Allied spy ring. Benefitting from a series of security glitches, Bleicher eventually makes sweeping arrests that bring in the couple.

Their treatment in captivity is a case study of the techniques devised by a criminal state which imposes no moral boundaries on its operatives. Early in her stay in France, Odette suffered a fall which caused a spinal injury. Other ailments plagued her as she and Churchill were shuttled from dungeon to dungeon.

Bleicher’s goal was to elicit the names of resistance leaders. He tried bribery, in the form of decent food. No other women prisoners received such a bounty. She chose to “suffer with her mates, even if it killed her.”

Harsher methods followed. One example should suffice. During an interrogation, Odette refused to give the location of a much-sought resistance figure. She was stripped to the waist, and a red-hot iron was run across her back.

She still refused to talk. Whereupon a jailer took a pair of pliers and, one by one, pulled off her toenails. She still refused to talk.

In due course, war ended and Oddette had survived. She returned home for years of intensive medical treatment, both for physical and psychological damage. Churchill was there to give her solace and love, and they married. (They later would divorce.)

And she found herself at Buckingham Palace, one of 250 persons to be honored with the George Cross, Britain’s second-highest military honor. At the investiture. King George VI insisted that Odette stand at the front of the line, the first to receive the medal. Other awards followed, making her the most decorated woman of the war.

She died in 1995 at age 82. And her example was proof that women were qualified to wage war at whatever level required of them. Statistics attest to their sacrifice. Of the 38 female SOE agents dispatched to France, 16 were caught and executed, or died in captivity — a 42 percent fatality rate vs. 45 percent for the British Bomber Command.

A splendid read about a splendid woman.

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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