Odette Hallowes remembered by her granddaughter.
Odette Hallowes GC, MBE, Legion d’honneur (28 April 1912 – 13 March 1995) was an Allied Intelligence agent during World War 2. In this second of a three part series, her granddaughter, Sophie, shares Odette’s story.
On 16th April 1943, Odette and Peter Churchill were betrayed by a Double Agent and they were arrested and handed over to the Germans. Thankfully, Odette had the foresight to take Churchill’s wallet when they were being transported to the prison and she hid it down between the seats of the car so that the Germans would never find it. The wallet contained sensitive information relating to their missions and could have compromised their fellow agents.
Undoubtedly, Odette’s swift action saved many lives.
Despite her terror and the pressure of the situation, Odette showed her level-headed resourcefulness by whispering to Churchill that they should pretend to be married, and, furthermore, claim they were related to Winston Churchill. She felt that if she could convince the Germans that she and Peter were related to the British Prime Minister, the Germans might keep them alive believing they could use them as a negotiating tool with the British. This is probably what saved both their lives.
Odette was taken to Fresnes Prison in France and later the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. She was continuously pressed for information about other Secret Agents but she told them nothing and she endured brutal torture: her toe nails were pulled out, they branded her back with a red hot iron and after being condemned to death, she was put in solitary confinement for months. In total she endured at least 14 visits to the German Headquarters where she was subjected to endless questioning.
Odette refused to let the Germans break her spirit. Mindful of the dignity, strength and courage of the agents in the field, she was determined not to give up. Her feet were dreadfully painful after her toenails had been removed and it was excruciating to wear shoes but when summoned to see the Prison Commandant, she carried her shoes right up to his door and proudly put them on before she went into his room.
A good indication of Odette’s steeliness was when she was told that she was condemned to death on two counts. Fearlessly she replied with a smile “Gentlemen, you must take your pick of the counts. I can only die once”. Her courage and humour must have been a stark reminder to her captors that whilst they had her body in captivity, her mind was still her own.
The conditions within the prison were terrible but Odette would try to maintain her appearance, washing herself as best she could and using rags to tie and curl her hair. The darkness of solitary confinement would have broken many but Odette was helped through this ordeal by her experience of Polio when she was young. She had also mysteriously gone blind for a while during childhood and this, together with her grandfather’s advice that she should just accept her condition and not feel sorry for herself, helped her endure the loneliness and darkness.
Odette found that the most difficult thing of all was keeping her mind busy. Among other things, she would imagine making clothes for her three little daughters, mentally planning out the pattern, cloth and the stitching of each garment until it was finished. Once she even found some tiny scraps of clothing and used it to make two little dolls for the prison Priest’s family. Amazingly, these two dolls survived the war and are now part of the permanent display about Odette in London’s Imperial War Museum.
One day, when walking across the prison camp, she found a leaf. She bent down and picked it up knowing that it must be from somewhere far away because there were no trees in the vast and barren camp. She took it back to her prison cell and cherished it. To her, the leaf represented hope, freedom and the future.
During her time in the camp, Odette contracted tuberculosis but amazingly, she pulled through. Eventually, the war ended. Odette had survived. Just before the prison was taken over from the Germans by the Allied Armies, the Prison Commandant drove Odette in his luxury open top car to the American army, claiming she was Odette Churchill, a relation of Winston Churchill. She asked the Americans to arrest the Prison Commandant. She took his gun. Strangely enough, my mother was clearing out her loft quite recently and found this gun hidden in a box among my Grandmother’s possessions; a brutal reminder of all that Odette had endured.
Odette’s first night of freedom was spent in the Prison Commandant’s car relishing the freedom and enjoying the night sky after over two years of incarceration.
After the war, Odette was awarded many medals in recognition of her courage and determination to protect the identity and whereabouts of her fellow agents. She remains the most highly decorated woman of the Second World War, receiving an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), a GC (she was the first SOE agent to receive the George Cross) and the Legion d’Honneur for the work she carried out with the French resistance.