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Code Name: Lise

12 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

In October 1942, Odette Sansom, a housewife turned British spy, was holed up on Gibraltar waiting for passage to Nazi-occupied France to begin her mission. She had left her three daughters at a convent school in England, a decision so painful, she later said, that it paled in comparison to Nazi torture. She had endured training, learning to shoot, detonate explosives, encode messages and navigate by compass at night. She had tried and failed four times to get to France. At last she was just a boat ride away, but the Polish seaman charged with taking her refused.

She was a woman, he said. France was no place for her. Would she like to go dancing with him in Gibraltar instead?

Sansom was relentless. She would get there even if she had to swim, she told him. He commented that she would look good in a bathing suit. In the end, she did the only thing she could—she got him so drunk that he gave in.

Odette Sansom, née Brailly, would go on to become the most decorated woman of World War II—a member of the Order of the British Empire, a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, and the first woman awarded the George Cross, an award for “acts of the greatest heroism.” Her story was first told in print in 1949, followed by a film re-enactment the next year that made her a national heroine. It has been retold many times since. In “Code Name: Lise,” Larry Loftis tells it again for a new generation, reweaving the usual account of her wartime activities into a kind of nonfiction thriller.

It is a story that is inherently thrilling. “Shortly after ten the mist began to dissipate,” Mr. Loftis begins, “leaving them partially exposed.” He then flashes back to give a glimpse of Sansom’s childhood. Born in Amiens, France, she grew up visiting her father’s grave every Sunday with her brother and grandparents. A war hero, he had been killed in action when she was 6. When war returns, her grandfather said, it will be your duty to do as well as your father did.

. . . .

In 1942, when the Admiralty asked civilians to send in photos of the French coastline for possible war use, Sansom mistakenly sent hers to the War Office. That was how she came to the attention of Col. Maurice Buckmaster of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a sabotage and espionage outfit formed in 1940. Its mission, according to Winston Churchill, was to “set Europe ablaze.” Nicknamed the Baker Street Irregulars, due to the location of its London headquarters, the group was also known by other names—“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and “Churchill’s Secret Army.”

Buckmaster was particularly interested in finding recruits who could pass as locals. Sansom’s native French made her a natural asset, but she was initially considered too temperamental to serve. “She is impulsive and hasty in her judgments,” read one evaluation, “and has not quite the clarity of mind which is desirable in subversive activity.” It also noted, however, her “patriotism and keenness to do something for France.” Despite these reservations, the SOE sent her on.

. . . .

Sansom and Peter Churchill were arrested in April 1943 and sent to Fresnes Prison, outside of Paris. She was interrogated by the Gestapo 14 times and tortured, her back scorched with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails pulled out. Still, she refused to disclose the locations of other agents. She deflected attention from Peter, claiming to be the brains of the operation, and also cleverly made use of his famous name. Though Peter was not related to the great prime minister, Sansom said he was—and that she was his wife. That ruse is almost certainly what saved both of their lives. She was condemned to death on two counts. (“Gentlemen, you must take your pick of the counts,” she retorted. “I can only die once.”)

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Non-Fiction

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