Odette Legendary WWII Spy
By Athena Ives
Odette Samson Hallowes (1912-1995) was a courageous agent for the United Kingdom’s Clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France during WWII. SOE agents assisted with the different resistance groups, supplying them with weapons and other equipment. She was the first female to earn the George Cross by the UK as well as the Legion D’honneur by France (Tickell, 1956).
During the Spring of 1942, the Admiralty (Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy) reached out to the public requesting postcards or family photos that were taken on the French coastline for war intel. Odette sent several photos of her and her three young daughters but to the wrong location. She accidentally sent them to the War Office. After seeing her attractiveness and her ability to blend in, SOE recruited Odette. Leaving her daughters in a convent, Odette bravely accepted the assignment (Escott, 2012).
In 1943, Odette was working on an espionage mission in Nazi-occupied France where she was betrayed and arrested with her supervisor Captain Peter Churchill. On the way to prison Odette was able to convince her captors that Churchill was her husband and closely related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In hopes to obtain more intel, she was brutally tortured and endured 14 interrogations where they ripped off all her toenails, scorched with hot irons, and other torture methods. Not once did she provide any information. When asked how she endured, Odette said she would project outside her body while looking out a window and used her memories of her daughters to stay alive (Escott, 2012).
Not only did she protect the names and locations of several other SOE agents they were looking for, but Odette was also able to protect her supervisor by convincing them he was only in France because they were married and he wasn’t SOE. Because of her refusal to cooperate, she was sentenced to death on two accounts by a Gestapo Court. Upon being sentenced Odette calmly stated, “Then you will have to make up your mind on which count I am to be executed because I can only die once” (Starns, 2009).
This calm reaction infuriated the Gestapo and Odette was immediately transferred to the notorious concentration camp Ravensbrück. She was kept in an all-female camp where the female SS guards were more vicious than the male guards. During their nightly patrols, the female SS guards would inflict sadistic torture and use their vicious guard dogs to terrorize the prisoners. During her time there, she saw first hand the evil she was fighting which only served to reinforce her belief in the cause (Tickell, 1956). Odette recalls having being starved for a week, all light blocked in her cell, with the heat turned up. She was moved to a different cell after being found unconscious with little hope of survival. Her new cell was near the crematorium where she described being covered with the hair and the ashes of those burned alive. On another occasion, she witnessed the cannibalization of a dead prisoner (Starns, 2009).
In an interview after the war Odette stated she believed she was “not brave, not courageous, but just made up my mind about certain things. If I could survive the next minute without breaking up, that is another minute of life. And if I can think that way instead of thinking what is going to happen in a half-hours time, I was able to accept this and survive it” (Starns, 2009).
In 1946, Odette was released and she became one of the most famous female SOE agents. Not only was she able to contribute to providing crucial intelligence, but she was also able to provide key testimony against the Gestapo and other guards during the International Nazi War Crimes Tribunals in Hamburg, Germany (Escott, 2012).
"My comrades, who did far more and suffered more profoundly than I, are not here to speak. Because of this, I speak for them" (Stams, 2009).
Escott, B. (2012). The Heroines of SOE: F Section: Britain's Secret Women in France. Stroud, UK: The History Press.
Starns, P. (2009). Odette: World War Two's Darling Spy. The History Press.
Tickell, J. (1956). Odette: The story of a British agent. London, UK: Chapman & Hall.