Odette Hallowes, World War II Heroine
July 1944, Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Germany:
Odette paused to take one last, long look at the beautiful blue sky above, intentionally drawing its light deep into her soul. The moment did not last long before she was abruptly shoved into Ravensbruck’s underground bunker. Odette had already suffered torture, fourteen interrogations and been incarcerated for over a year in Fresnes Prison, Paris. She would now be kept in the bunker for more than three months, on starvation rations, and in complete darkness – 24 hours a day. Odette had been condemned to death for being a British Secret Agent and for her associations with the French Resistance. As the door slammed shut, and the bolts shot into place, Odette could feel the blackness penetrating her whole being. She knew, in that moment, that she would have to do all she could just to survive. The desperate longing to see her three young daughters burned as fiercely as ever, as did the desire to return to Somerset, and to feel, once more, what it was to be free.
When the Second World War broke out, my Grandmother, Odette, a Frenchwoman, was living in England with her family. In 1942, as the horrors of the War continued to unfold, she came to the attention of the British Government, who believed her knowledge of France and fluency in the language would make her a strong candidate to join their Special Operations Executive (SOE).
SOE had been established to infiltrate hand-picked individuals into occupied countries to work undercover: sabotaging the German War effort, sending vital information to and from London and strengthening the French Resistance. The work did not come without its very real dangers, and many agents in the field had already lost their lives.
SOE had seen in Odette the kind of patriotism, sense of duty and courage required, and asked her to consider becoming one of their agents in France. Odette, who was living in Somerset at the time, did not want to leave her daughters, but eventually, she came to realise this was a chance to do something to help protect their future freedom, and to serve the two countries she loved. After training, she joined SOE agent, Peter Churchill, in France as part of the Spindle Network.
In April 1943, after several months working together, Odette and Peter were betrayed and imprisoned. Worse was to come for Odette, who endured brutal torture for information on her fellow agents. She refused to say anything. Her silence saved their lives, and enabled them to carry on their vital work.
Odette’s confinement in the notorious Ravensbrück bunker was a ‘lockdown’ like no other, but she held on to the knowledge that imprisonment of the body does not necessarily mean imprisonment of the mind and spirit. She would also come to realise that an experience of a long-term childhood illness, which had left her temporarily paralysed and blind, would actually prove to have been a blessing for her as it helped prepare her for the isolation, deprivation and darkness she encountered.
To survive, Odette ensured she kept her mind and body active and endeavoured to retain a sense of dignity. She found she could escape her terrible surroundings by drawing on her memory and vivid imagination. She pictured her much loved children; tenderly remembering their faces, their voices, their clothes. She also found a deep sense of peace by calling to mind with remarkable clarity the beauty of the Somerset countryside and the kindness of its people.
Three precious books would also become a lifeline to Odette during her incarceration.
In August 1944, in vengeance for the Allies successfully landing in the south of France, Odette found herself punished by having all food withdrawn for a week, and the heating in her bunker turned up to unbearable levels. She realised that the Gestapo felt that this Allied success was due to work that SOE agents like her had done. There was at least some consolation that this could be a sign the tide was turning. Already emaciated, gravely ill and suffering from heat-exhaustion, Odette was revived at the prison hospital. Some hushed whispers from one of the nurses who helped Odette, told her that the British and Americans were making their way across France.
When Odette was being escorted across the prison compound on her way back from the hospital to a new above-ground cell, her eyes suddenly came to rest on a single green leaf that lay at her feet. The leaf must have blown into the compound from far away because there were no trees in the vastness that was Ravensbruck. She bent down and picked up the leaf, cradled it in her hands, and took it with her to her cell. This one small, simple leaf, which was something that would be overlooked by most, took on enormous importance to Odette, giving her both comfort and strength in equal measures. It was something clean and fresh; something flawless and beautiful. It represented the miracle of nature, and it had come to her from the world beyond the camp. This treasured leaf became a beacon of hope and a symbol of freedom.
In late April and early May 1945, the Allies were rapidly closing in. Orders were received from Himmler that no witnesses should be left to testify to the horrors of the camp, and with no warning or explanation, Odette was taken from her cell by the Prison Commandant.
They reached another concentration camp. Here, Odette saw SS guards begin to shoot at the prisoners. Appalled by the chaos and the desperate plight of the starving prisoners, her heart sank, and she demanded to see the Prison Commandant. As he came out of his office, Odette beseeched him to open the gates and release everyone. Couldn’t he see the War was finished and that it was useless murder to keep the prisoners confined? He must set them free. At that moment, believing her own life was all but over, she was desperate to see some compassion for the other prisoners.
Ominously, Odette was told by a guard to prepare to leave. He added that it would not be necessary for her to bring any of her things. She was sure they planned to drag her into the woods and shoot her. She knew too much.
So, when on the 3rd of May, she was handed over to the American military base, her relief was immeasurable. The Prison Commandant had thought he might obtain some clemency as, from the outset, Odette had cleverly, but entirely falsely, made her captors believe she and Peter were related to Winston Churchill and may be useful in their negotiations with the British Prime Minister. She believed the deception was their only chance of staying alive. She was right; it did save her and Peter’s lives. It did not, however, give the Prison Commandant the leniency he was hoping for.
Arriving home in England after two years of incarceration and knowing she was at last going to be reunited with her daughters was monumental for Odette. The sense of joy, relief and celebration that would come to define VE Day was something Odette must have thought England may never experience, but the sight of London’s streets hung with the glorious flags of military victory, affirmed that her hopes and dreams of freedom had finally become reality.
After the War, Odette returned to the haven of Somerset. It is where she chose to live in order to regain her health; to be with her three daughters; and to reconnect with the place that held such a special place in her heart.
Odette kept the leaf that meant so much to her for the rest of her life. Despite being told not to pack any of her things when she was taken from the Concentration Camp, Odette knew she could not leave the leaf behind, so she tucked it safely into one of the three books she had been given, and took these with her. Our family found the leaf, still placed between the pages of the book in 2019. Knowing everything that it had meant to Odette, to hold the leaf in my own hands, just as she had held it in hers some 75 years earlier, was truly remarkable.
The leaf and the three books will join her medals, her Wartime jacket and some other treasured possessions in her display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.