At a time when it was rare for a woman to step out of the domestic environment, let alone engage in dangerous undercover war work, Odette had entered the brink of hell and survived against the odds to testify against her persecutors at the International Nazi War Crimes Tribunals in Hamburg. Her contribution to the war effort was deemed to be all the more remarkable because she was the mother of three small daughters.
Odette was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British secret service organisation that was established to encourage underground covert resistance within enemy-occupied territories, and to gain vital information to assist the war effort. In the spring of 1943, while she was engaged in dangerous espionage work in Nazi-occupied France, Odette was arrested along with her supervisor, Captain Peter Churchill. En route to Fresnes prison she managed to convince her captors that she was married to her supervisor and that he was, in fact, closely related to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In total, Odette was subjected to fourteen Gestapo interrogations and brutal torture. All her toenails were pulled out and her back was scorched with red hot irons; yet she clung rigidly to her fabricated story about her supervisor, and also refused to disclose the whereabouts of another British agent and a radio officer.
Significantly for the intelligence service, she succeeded in deflecting attention away from her ‘husband’ by claiming that he was only in France at her request, and knew nothing of her activities with the French Resistance. Nevertheless, her refusal to co-operate with her captors had severe consequences, and Odette was subsequently condemned to death on two counts by a Gestapo court at Avenue Foch.
However, on hearing this news, she had simply replied politely: ‘Then you will have to make up your mind on which count I am to be executed, because I can only die once!’ Incensed Gestapo officers quickly responded to her insolence by transferring Odette from Fresnes prison in Paris to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. Here Odette was kept in solitary confinement as a political prisoner to await her execution. Within the walls of this all-female camp the SS women guards ruled supreme. Each day and night they patrolled the confines of the camp with their vicious dogs and inflicted cruel and sadistic treatment on their despairing prisoners. It was during this nightmare period that Odette became fully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities.
Miraculously Odette survived her internment at Ravensbrück, and in 1946 she received her honours from Britain and France. They were, she insisted, accepted on behalf of all the gallant women who had worked within the Special Operations Executive. But despite her own deep sense of humility, Odette became a celebrated heroine on both sides of the Channel. Furthermore, a major film about her war time exploits, starring Dame Anna Neagle, was released in 1950. Thus for a considerable time, Odette remained the darling of the British popular press.
But the story of Odette is not without controversy. During the post-war years there were several officials who disbelieved her recollection of events and others who cast doubt on her personal and professional integrity. There were even some who fervently believed that she did not deserve to be the first woman to receive the George Cross medal. Subsequently, the organisation and administration of the SOE was also subjected to increased scrutiny and criticism, and a negative wave of publicity threatened to destroy Odette’s peace of mind along with her gallant reputation. But the prolonged media attention and controversy made her even more determined to defend not only her own honour, but also that of her comrades, since the role of women in war was deliberately downplayed by many who supported the notion of a patriarchal society in the post-war years. At times it appeared that Odette was on a one-woman mission to emphasise the role of female SOE agents, and to ensure that these women and their brave sacrifices were respectfully remembered.
Extracted from Odette by Penny Starns