Interview'99% of WWII historians probably don’t know who she is'

The forgotten female WWII-era spy who stayed silent under gruesome Nazi torture

Odette Sansom was the first woman to receive the UK’s second-highest honor for courage under fire. She’s now being remembered in a new book, ‘Code Name Lise’

From left, 'Code Name Lise' author Larry Loftis; Odette Sansom. (Courtesy)
From left, 'Code Name Lise' author Larry Loftis; Odette Sansom. (Courtesy)

Despite unimaginable torture by the Nazis, imprisonment in concentration camps and uncertainty over the fate of her lover and fellow spy, Allied agent Odette Sansom never betrayed the clandestine ring she was part of in occupied France during World War II.

While operating under the code name “Lise,” the French-born, British-residing Sansom helped aid the resistance in her homeland. Her actual name — which changed after the war during her several marriages — would be honored in the annals of espionage when she received the George Cross after the war. She was the first woman who had faced enemy fire to receive the honor, the second-highest award in the UK.

A posthumous UK postage stamp honoring her for her wartime service lists her as Odette Hallowes, the surname of her third husband.

While her exploits made her a celebrity in ensuing years, Sansom has become largely forgotten. A recently published book, “Code Name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis, aims to set the record straight.

“It’s a story of a particular heroine whom 99 percent of people — 99 percent of WWII historians — probably don’t know who she is,” Loftis told The Times of Israel. “Her family is thrilled I wrote about her life.”

Sansom, who died at 83 in 1995, had an eventful life — especially during WWII. She entered espionage unexpectedly and proved to be great at it. Her skill at spycraft was noted by her commanding officer, Peter Churchill, as they helped the French Resistance while avoiding master German spycatcher Hugo Bleicher.

Odette Sansom, circa 1939-1945. (Public domain)

Sansom and Churchill developed a romantic relationship that Sansom relied upon to keep them safe after they were captured by the Nazis. She told her captors that she was married to Churchill and that he was kin to British prime minister Winston Churchill — lies that the Nazis swallowed even as they tortured her gruesomely, pulling out all 10 of her toenails.

After the war, she testified against some of her captors at the Nuremberg Trials — and married Churchill, making her WWII cover story a reality.

Spycraft is one of writer Loftis’s longtime interests. He said that he has “always loved” the spy books and novels of authors like Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Loftis’s previous book, “Into the Lion’s Mouth,” chronicled Dusko Popov, a Serbian WWII spy who was the real-life inspiration for 007.

“Into the Lion’s Mouth” became a bestseller, and afterward Loftis searched for an idea for a second book in this genre. He describes the genre as “nonfiction thriller,” which allows him to combine his love of WWII history with spy novels.

He found inspiration from reading Bleicher’s memoir, “Colonel Henri’s Story,” in which the former Nazi recounted matching wits with an Allied agent named “Lise.”

“It was none other than Odette Sansom, her code name, that I stumbled across,” Loftis recalled. “Reading his book, that of a German spycatcher in WWII, which mentioned her, I was most fascinated, and kept digging.”

Loftis read Jerard Tickell’s 1949 biography of Sansom as well as Churchill’s three memoirs, and found what he calls his “best stuff” in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) files on Sansom at the UK national archives in Kew.

Born Odette Brailly, Sansom was a French citizen and daughter of a World War I hero who crossed the English Channel to become a wife and mother of three daughters in England. Her husband and brother both joined their countries’ respective war efforts. Loftis details how Sansom ended up joining the Allied cause in a field previously unknown to her: espionage.

As Loftis explains, her superiors were unsure whether she would succeed, viewing her as having negative qualities such as impetuousness and arrogance, but also positive traits such as determination, fearlessness and a strong will. They ultimately decided to trust her with vital work for the SPINDLE circuit in France.

There, as a courier, she became part of an effective team with Churchill (codenamed “Michael” and “Raoul”) and radio operator Adolphe Rabinovitch, a Russian-Egyptian Jew who went by the code name “Arnaud.”

“Arnaud was an incredible figure,” Loftis said, adding that “maybe my favorite line from all this research” is a description of the radio operator attributed to British chief cryptologist Leo Marks: “He could, and did, swear in four languages.”

Espionage was tense work for Rabinovitch, Sansom, and Churchill. They faced not only Nazi agents from the Abwehr, but also French double agents secretly working for the Third Reich. Their most dangerous foe proved to be Bleicher.

“He was not trained to be a spycatcher or secret policeman, but he was a master at it,” Loftis said. “Somehow, he tracked down Allied agents.”

Bleicher cracked INTERALLIE, the largest Allied spy ring. He also successfully pursued Sansom and Churchill, who were both eventually held at Paris’ Fresnes prison under the SS and the Gestapo. Bleicher showed surprising sympathy toward his former targets.

“On the one hand, he’s relentless and does his job,” Loftis reflected. “On the other hand, he’s sorry he does his job. He arrests them and knows what’s going to happen… At Fresnes, he feels guilty. He knows they’re on starvation rations, in solitary confinement, absolutely miserable. He sneaks in food at risk of being shot himself. Who does that? With Odette, you could say he was smitten. Peter did not bring that allure.”

Meanwhile, Sansom independently devised a cover story that would protect herself and Churchill: They would pose as a married couple, and he would claim kinship with the British prime minister — though there was no actual relation.

“The Germans bought it — relatively [speaking],” Loftis said. “Bleicher never did.”

But he noted that when Sansom and Churchill were interrogated, “their stories matched. It was a brilliant idea.”

Cover of ‘Code Name Lise,’ by Larry Loftis. (Courtesy)

While it helped save their lives, it could not prevent Sansom from agonizing torture.

“I made a conscious effort to make [the narrative] as real as possible so people realize what she was thinking, how tempting it would be to talk if they [pulled out] just one [toenail],” Loftis said. “It was one after another after another. That’s why I dropped anchor and delved into it. I wanted to do it justice. It’s a large part of why she won all those medals, going without talking.”

For Loftis, this is one of the two most painful scenes in the book. The other is his description of Sansom’s subsequent ordeals at the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp under commandant Fritz Suhren.

“One of her cells was in the bunker, across from the crematorium,” Loftis said. “The crematorium stacks blew ashes into the cell.”

Sansom survived the war, as did Churchill, and they were reunited. But Rabinovitch was captured shortly before D-Day and was gassed at the Rawicz extermination camp, located in Poland.

“It’s very sad,” Loftis said, adding that whereas certain individuals who were “absolute traitors” were “eventually let go” by the conquering Allies, others such as Rabinovitch, “who gave it their all,” were executed by the Nazis in their waning moments of power.

Sansom played a role in bringing Suhren to justice — which took longer than anticipated.

“He kept escaping,” Loftis said. “He was recaptured and eventually hung… She had to testify about what happened, people who were taken and carted to the crematorium, horrifying experiences.”

A grateful nation honored Sansom with the George Cross in 1946. Her exploits were chronicled in Tickell’s 1949 book and in a 1950 movie. In the latter year, she was also inducted into the French Legion of Honor. She divorced her first husband, Roy Sansom, and married Churchill.

A British Royal Mail postage stamp released in 2012 honoring Odette Sansom. (Courtesy Larry Loftis)

“I just figured that the main story ends when the war ends,” Loftis said. “But I got it into my mind that I couldn’t just leave the story there.”

That’s because real life brought complications: Sansom and Churchill divorced. She remarried, to Geoffrey Hallowes, although she remained lifelong friends with Churchill and even dined with him when she and Hallowes visited France. By then, she and Churchill had also faced attacks over the validity of their achievements — charges which Loftis refutes in an appendix.

Loftis looks forward to continuing to share Sansom’s story with the world — including on the “Today Show,” when he will appear with Sansom’s granddaughter Nicole, who will fly to New York from her home in New Zealand for the taping.

“It’s getting universal acclaim,” Loftis said of the book. “People love it. On its Amazon page, all the reviews are pretty much all the same. It’s testimony to who Odette was.”

“In 1950 she was famous. She had just been awarded the George Cross. There was the 1949 book, the 1950 movie … Fast-forward to today, she’s lost in history. Her family is thrilled that ‘Code Name: Lise’ resurrects the legacy of their grandmother,” he said.

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