French-born Odette Sansom was a sickly child. She wrestled with a slew of childhood illnesses, including a bout with polio that left her blind for three years. The adversity she overcame as a youth was good preparation for what she would do as an adult: joining the British “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”
Sansom’s accomplishments in World War II earned her the Order of the British Empire, a knighthood of the French Légion d’Honneur, and she was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross for “acts of the greatest heroism.” Her life foreshadowed the fortitude she would require as she was tortured by the Gestapo, to whom she would never give any information.
Her exploits are detailed in an exciting new book by Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy. Loftis’ detail of Sansom’s life reads like a spy thriller but with the research of a nonfiction narrative, covering one of the best stories of clandestine heroism during the Second World War.
Sansom after the war.
(Imperial War Museum)
Sansom’s wartime story begins in 1941, as the British Admiralty was looking for native-born recruits they could send to Nazi-occupied France. Odette Sansom was a French-born woman who initially responded to the office’s request for photos of the French coastline — except she accidentally sent her photos to the War Office instead of the Admiralty. Soon, the Special Operations Executive, the department responsible for infiltrating Hitler’s Fortress Europe, would recruit her for much, much more.
After less than a year of training, Sansom found herself on a boat headed to France, landing near Cassis in 1942. She was picked up by a spy ring run out of Cannes, where she would work as a radio operator for her group leader, Peter Churchill, relaying secret information back to London. This was always a very dangerous task as the Gestapo were always looking for outgoing radio signals.
Sansom and Churchill.
(Imperial War Museum)
For more than a year, Lise, Sansom’s code name, kept one step ahead of the Gestapo. Along with her radio work, she acted as a courier for all of Southern France, sending messages between resistance cells and SOE operatives. Her skill and professionalism kept her alive, but accidents happen to even the best of operatives, and for Lise, it would be her undoing.
An agent riding a train fell asleep while carrying a list of 200 SOE agents operating in France in 1943. Eventually, that list fell into the hands of Nazi counterintelligence agents. A German double agent calling himself “Colonel Henri” infiltrated the group and betrayed them all. Colonel Henri was really Hugo Bleicher, the notorious Nazi spy hunter.
Sansom and Churchill were arrested and sent to Frenses Prison near Paris. The two were tortured and sentenced to death – a sentence that would never be carried out. While Churchill had no relations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his famous name saved both their lives.
Sansom told the Nazis that Churchill was related to the Prime Minister and that she was the younger Churchill’s wife – and that she was also his boss, and not the other way around. This served the dual purpose of keeping the pressure off of Churchill, even though the Nazis only tortured Sansom even more, while keeping the two alive.
But while Sansom and Churchill survived the torture and execution orders, they spent much of the rest of the war in solitary confinement and suffering cruel, brutal treatment at the hands of her SS captors in the Ravensbrück concentration camp until it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. But Sansom wasn’t liberated by the Russians. The camp commander drove her to an American position and surrendered himself to the U.S., with a “Churchill” as a bargaining chip.
Ravensbrück was a primary camp for women and political prisoners.
Though she physically came out of the war an emaciated shadow of her former self, the treatment left her with no ill will towards anyone. She would testify against the Nazis who imprisoned and tortured her during the Nuremberg Trials, but her main activities after the war involved helping ease the suffering of those affected by the war.
“How strong the reserves upon which you draw you never realize until you need them, but believe me they do not fail you,” she once said.