Letting Odette Sansom face the window as they tortured her was the biggest mistake the Nazis made, she later told her family – because it meant she could see the trees.
So when they took a poker from the fire and seared it to her naked back, and pulled her toenails out one by one, the young British spy used all her mental strength to not only remove herself from her agony by imagining she was among the trees but, extraordinarily, that she was even one of them.
“She imagined herself as a seed in the dirt, struggling to get air and water, growing from a seedling to a sapling, to a young tree, to a massive oak,” reveals her granddaughter, Nicole Miller-Hard, 56, for the first time.
But the agent was not able to endure such excruciating pain for her country alone – she was also doing it for the man she loved.
The 30-year-old fell into German hands while working for the Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France, gathering vital intelligence ahead of the Allies’ D-Day invasion – launched 75 years ago next month.
She had fallen for her fellow spy and supervisor, Captain Peter Churchill, and they were caught together.
Odette was so desperate to protect him, she convinced their captors she was the mastermind.
And while he was interrogated just twice, she, unbeknown to him, suffered 14 times.
Nicole’s sister Sophie, 52, says: “She saved him from torture. It should have been him, he was the senior. She made out she was the brains. She deflected and drew it to herself.
“Her feet were butchered, she couldn’t wear shoes because her feet were in the most dreadful state, and she had a scar down her back because she had taken it.”
Quick-witted Odette had saved both their lives by coming up with an ingenious story.
When they were caught in April 1943, she convinced the Gestapo they were married and Peter was related to Winston Churchill.
Without the protection this gave them as potential bargaining chips, it is unlikely either would have survived their two-year captivity.
Indeed, Odette, eventually imprisoned with six other female SOE agents, was the only one of them condemned to death – yet the only one to live.
“That’s the only reason they didn’t finish them off,” says Nicole.
Peter and Odette’s love story is central to a new book about the decorated agent, the first woman awarded the George Cross and who was played by Anna Neagle in 1950 film, Odette.
Code Name: Lise, by Larry Loftis, describes the depth of affection that unfolded between them as they risked their lives for their country.
In Sophie’s sitting room in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, doors down from the cosy home where Odette rebuilt her life and where the girls would visit their loving gran after school for “pots of French soup”, they agree Peter was key in carrying her through her suffering.
But so too were her daughters. For when she met Peter, Odette was a married mum of three, to Francoise – Sophie and Nicole’s mum – Lili and Marianne.
She and first husband Roy Sansom had married young and “drifted apart” by the time he left to fight in the Second World War.
Odette and her girls were living in Somerset when the housewife saw a government appeal for photographs of the French coast to help them plan their invasion.
Having grown up in Picardy, she was determined to help.
But she contacted the wrong military department and the SOE, desperate for French-speaking female recruits, wanted her.
Though shocked, Odette could not deny her duty.
“Am I going to be satisfied that other people are going to suffer, get killed, die… trying to get freedom for my own children?” she later said.
She placed her girls in a boarding school and in October 1942 was taken to France by boat.
“She said whatever they did to her could never be as bad as leaving her children,” said Sophie.
Odette and Peter did dangerous work gathering intelligence for the D-Day landings and arranging night-time parachute drops.
Their cover was finally blown by a fake German defector and they were imprisoned in Paris.
But even enduring appalling conditions and brutality, Odette put her mind to manipulating her captors, persuading them to allow her brief meetings with Peter.
She even devised a message system, coaxing her female Gestapo guard to let her write tiny notes under the lids of jam jars to take to him.
In return, she instructed him to reply using a code of letters marked in a book they passed between them.
The pair were finally parted when Odette was transported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.
She was thrown into solitary confinement in a pitch-black bunker for three months and eight days.
She became skeletal, almost bald and so desperately ill with tuberculosis she nearly died.
Sited next to the crematorium, she was choked by the smell and ashes of her fellow prisoners being incinerated.
Once, her captors turned up the heating in her usually freezing cell so high she could barely breathe. They said it was punishment.
“It was when the allies were closing in, they had landed in the South of France,” explains Sophie.
Yet Odette clung to life. Describing again her extraordinary mental strength, Nicole recalls how her gran found a tiny piece of wood and focused on it.
“She kept herself sane by polishing the floor with it,” she says. “Inch by inch. That dust was human dust and stank.”
Thanks to her Churchill ruse, as US troops approached she was not shot but driven towards them by the camp’s commandant.
He handed her over, saying: “This is Frau Churchill. She has been a prisoner.”
But incredibly, even in her weakened state, she turned the tables.
“This is the commandant of Ravensbruck,” she said. “You make him a prisoner.”
She later testified against him, to help get him hanged.
Back in Britain, Odette was so ill doctors said she would not live. But there was no way she was letting the Nazis win.
“I think she survived those doctors,” smiles Sophie.
Odette married Peter in 1947. Although they divorced nine years later, they stayed friends until his death in 1972.
Odette died in 1995, aged 82, with six grandchildren.
And if she ever suffered trauma from her experiences, she did not show her family.
“I only saw her cry once,” says Sophie. “And that’s when she spoke of her fellow agents. She never wanted us to forget them.”
And she kept her love of trees. “I remember being on her swing, hung from a beautiful oak,” says Nicole. And we would stare up into it together.”
- To order a copy of Code Name: Lise for £15 (RRP £18.99) with free P&P, call 01256 302 699
or visit mirrorbooks.co.uk . Use offer code R15.
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