The biographical facts of Odette Brailly Sansom Churchill Hallowes, as presented in Penny Starns’ new book, form a tale of sweeping historical context, duty, passion and courage. The daughter of a fallen French WWI hero, young Odette Brailly was determined to marry an Englishman and spent the first part of the Second World War as a British homemaker. Almost by accident, she was recruited into the ranks of the F [French] Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British wartime organization intended to galvanize resistance efforts in occupied countries with the assistance of native speakers trained in Britain.
Odette worked in occupied France as a courier for the Spindle network, answering to her superior (and eventual lover) Peter Churchill. After being betrayed and captured, Odette was interrogated and tortured but remained stoically silent regarding the whereabouts and activities of her fellow resisters. Condemned to death and sent to Ravensbruck, she miraculously survived to receive both the George Cross and the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her silence under excruciating torture. After testifying at the Nuremburg trials, she tried to settle down to a quiet life.
It was not to be. For a decade following the war, she was the darling of a demanding press and public who couldn’t get enough of her story. A fictionalized account of her experiences written in 1949 became a bestseller and was transformed into a film the following year. Publicity-shy Odette felt it her duty to cooperate with these endeavors, but only so that she might bring attention to the work of all the SOE women, many of whom did not return.
Then the SOE came under a cloud of suspicion and public disfavor. Had it been a dangerously amateur organization? Did it knowingly betray agents into the hands of the Germans in order to present the enemy with disinformation? Odette’s star fell with the SOE’s, especially when one particular female politician took a special and energetic interest in seeing her fall.
The impetus for this new biography – the first in 60 years – seems to have been the recent opening of previously sealed Odette-related SOE files. Dr. Starns makes full use of this information but occasionally overuses it a bit. For instance, the narrative will explain something in detail and then present long paragraphs of SOE quotes regarding the same information. In these cases, Starns should have either explained less before presenting the file quotes or else worked them into the narrative.
However, to have access to this material must have seemed like a gold mine to Starns, a professor of World War II, and one can forgive her for sometimes overusing it. She’s obviously fascinated with her subject, and the book generally moves along at a compelling, no-nonsense, page-turning clip. Odette’s story is a life-affirming one, a long-overdue biography of a fascinating and heroic woman.