During the Second World War Peter Churchill and his colleague in the Special Operations Executive, Odette Sansom, put the Churchill name to use with great effect.
Odette Sansom (codename Lise) was recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) after mistakenly addressing a letter to the War Office, rather than the Admiralty. It was 1942 and Odette was sending photographs of France, along with a letter stating she was French and knew Boulogne, in response to a plea from the Admiralty for information to help with raids on, and the eventual liberation of, France.
Odette Sansom, 1946
Wikicommons. UK Government Official copyright.
After completing her training, Odette travelled in a small fishing boat to Cassis where she joined the SOE and met the local organiser, Peter Churchill (codename Raoul). Odette’s original mission was to cross Vichy France to join up with a resistance group in Burgundy. However, when Vichy France was invaded on 11 Nov 1942 Odette remained as Peter’s courier in Cannes and then in St. Jorioz, near Annecy.
Peter and Odette were captured by the Gestapo in 1943. A letter in the Churchill Archives Centre, sent to Winston Churchill by the couple in 1947, reveals the story of how they decided to use the Churchill name in order to try and save themselves.
Odette and Peter were able to communicate very briefly on their ‘cell-studded’ journey to Fresnes Prison (south of Paris). During these brief exchanges they decided to pretend to be married.
On arrival at Fresnes Odette and Peter were placed in separate solitary confinement. According to Peter, the Gestapo agent that had captured them proposed that Peter, as Winston Churchill’s nephew, be exchanged for Rudolf Hess. Though Peter initially denied this relationship, Odette’s continued insistence on it and Peter’s refusal to give his home address convinced the Gestapo of the claim. Odette and Peter were both kept as hostages rather than being shot as British agents.
Peter was taken to Berlin and then to Sachsenhausen concentration camp (north of Berlin) in February 1944. In April 1945 Peter was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Flossenberg and then on to Dachau, from which he was handed over to the Americans at the end of the war.
In May 1944 Odette was taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp, north of Berlin. On the way she was interviewed by a Berlin newspaper reporter who told her several members of the Churchill family were already in German captivity, and that the entire family would be in Berlin before long. She replied with a feisty “when Winston Churchill arrives in Berlin, it will not be in quite the way you expect it”.
When the US Army was advancing towards Ravensbrück, the camp commandant (Fritz Suhren) took Odette to the nearest Americans and told them that she was a relative of Winston Churchill, hoping that his action would save his own skin. Odette’s evidence against Suhren given at the Nuremburg trials helped convict him and he was hanged in 1950.
Christmas card from Odette and Peter Churchill, 1950
The Clementine Spencer Churchill papers, CSCT 5/3/109.
Letters at the Churchill Archives Centre reveal that in the autumn of 1944 General Redman (Deputy Commander of the Chief French Forces of the Interior) contacted Winston Churchill to find out whether Peter Churchill was a relation. Winston Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Colville, stated that if Peter Churchill was a relation he was a very distant one. Peter estimated in his 1947 letter to Winston that they were 62nd cousins.
Odette became the first woman to be awarded the George Cross in 1946. She was also awarded an MBE in 1945 and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for her contribution to the French resistance in 1950. Peter and Odette married in 1947 (the day after they sent the letter to Winston Churchill), but divorced in 1955.
Both Peter and Odette remarried in 1956, Odette became Mrs Odette Hallowes. Peter died in 1972 and Odette in 1995.
Finding out more about Peter and Odette:
The letters between Winston Churchill and Peter and Odette (1947) are available at Churchill Archives Centre. Reference: The Churchill Papers, CHUR 2/147/135-137.
Correspondence about General Redman contacting Winston Churchill regarding Peter Churchill are available at Churchill Archives Centre. Reference: The Churchill Papers, CHAR 20/142B/155-157.
Peter Churchill’s Special Operation Executive personnel file was opened in 2003 and is available at the National Archives, see
Records of Special Operations Executive, HS 9/314
Jerrad Tickle wrote a biography of Odette which was published in 1949, and re-published in 2007. ‘Odette’ was adapted to film by Herbert Wilcox in 1950.
Peter wrote several books about his wartime experiences including Of Their Own Choice (1952), Duel of Wits (1953), The Spirit of the Cage (1954) and By Moonlight (1958).
Information supplied by Paul Courtenay, senior editor of ‘Finest Hour’.
The Churchill Archives Centre, The Churchill Papers, CHUR 2/147/135-137 and CHAR 20/142B/155-157.
The Churchill Archives Centre, The Clementine Spencer Churchill Papers, CSCT 5/3/109 (Christmas card from Odette and Peter Churchill).
Biography of Odette [Marie Céline Hallowes] at
‘The Elmbridge Hundred’ website of the Elmbridge Museum
Biography of Peter Churchill at
Spartacus Educational website
Biography of Peter Churchill at nigelperrin.com
Biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Redman from The Generals of WWII’ website
Photograph of Odette Sansom, 1946. Wikicommons. UK Government Official copyright.