Born in Amiens, Odette Brailly was the daughter of a banker who joined the French Army at the beginning of World War I and who was killed two years later in 1916 at Verdun. She was convent-educated in Saint Sens and, at age nineteen, married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, moving to England with him in 1932. The couple had three children.
In 1940, after the British evacuated Dunkirk during the fall of France to the Nazis, the War Office requested all French-born residents in London to provide photos of their towns and provinces. Odette came forward, offering her family photo album that contained many photos of the French Channel coast, particularly the Boulogne area. British intelligence needed these photos to prepare bombing missions and secret landings along the coast made by small fishing vessels and those from submarines.
It was quickly apparent to British intelligent agents interviewing Odette that she would make a perfect agent for SOE (Special Operations Executive). She was asked to join SOE, train as a radio operator, and be sent to France where she would work with the French underground. Though she had three small children, Odette enthusiastically volunteered in 1942. After finishing her training, she was taken by submarine to southern France where she rowed ashore near Cannes on the night of October 30, 1942, to make contact with British agent Peter Churchill, who was in charge of all SOE operations in southern France.
Operating under the code name "Lise," Odette's mission was to bring Churchill money and to act as his radio operator. So expertly did she perform that Churchill asked London for permission to have her stay on as his permanent assistant.
In 1943, through the treachery of a French double agent, Churchill and many in his organization were captured and imprisoned. They had been trapped through the machinations of Hugo Bleicher, a fanatical Nazi agent who knew well how to turn French underground fighters into German double agents. It was Bleicher (known as Colonel Henri, although he never rose above the rank of sergeant), who penetrated Churchill's network with the help of a French turncoat.
When Odette and Churchill were taken to a Gestapo prison for interrogation, both underwent tortures. Throughout fourteen hideous interrogations by Nazi thugs, Odette was branded on the base of the spine with a white-hot iron and had several of her toenails ripped out with pliers, but she refused to talk. Moreover, she not only convinced her Nazi interrogators that she, not Churchill, was the leader of the SOE group, but that Churchill was the nephew of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (which he was not). This undoubtedly preserved Churchill's life. He, in turn, told the Nazis that Odette was his wife. As such, she was treated with some deference when she was sent to the women's camp at Ravensbrück.
Both Churchill and Odette were housed in separate camps, were spared execution as Allied troops closed in, their captors believing that they would receive leniency if they preserved the lives of those related to Winston Churchill, a ruse Odette had perpetuated throughout captivity. After the war, Odette attended the 1946 war crimes trials in Hamburg where she testified against German females who had served as guards at Ravensbrück, detailing their cruelty and atrocities against prisoners. Four of these women were later executed. One of these bestial female guards was Irma Grese who took pleasure in torturing and murdering helpless prisoners.
Odette's husband had died and, after returning to England, she married her commander, Churchill, a union that ended in divorce in 1955. The courageous Odette was awarded England's prestigious George Cross for her wartime service. A stirring film, Odette, released in 1951, retold the spy's heroic story.