The Female Spy Who Climbed the Alps to Battle Nazis
Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom were part of a highly successful team of spies and resistance fighters. When he made a perilous nighttime drop, she was there to meet him.
The year is 1942, and World War II is raging. Odette Sansom decides to follow in her war hero father’s footsteps by becoming an SOE agent to aid Britain and her beloved homeland, France. Five failed attempts and one plane crash later, she finally lands in occupied France to begin her mission. It is here that she meets her commanding officer, Captain Peter Churchill.
As they successfully complete mission after mission, Peter and Odette fall in love. All the while, they are being hunted by the cunning German secret police sergeant, Hugo Bleicher, who finally succeeds in capturing them. They are sent to Paris’s Fresnes prison, and from there to concentration camps in Germany where they are starved, beaten, and tortured. But in the face of despair, they never give up hope, their love for each other, or the whereabouts of their colleagues. Larry Loftis recounts this fascinating story of resistance and romance in Code Name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, from which the following is excerpted:
The morning of April 15 Col. Maurice Buckmaster [director of the Special Operations Executive France Section] called Peter into his office. Arnaud had sent coordinates of the drop zone, he said. They retrieved a Michelin map and Peter paused when he saw where he would be landing: atop a mountain of more than 5,500 feet.
“Struth!” He rubbed a hand over his face. “They certainly took you at your word when you said I’d land anywhere.”
A parachute drop was simpler than being tossed in a canoe 800 yards off the coast of Cannes, but this was different. His submarine insertion into France on New Year’s Day was controllable; if he capsized, he could always swim. Throwing yourself out of a plane at 200 miles an hour into sheer darkness to hit the head of a pin—that was a mild form of suicide.
Buckmaster laughed, looking again at the summit. “An Alp all to yourself.”
Peter would fly out that night, they decided, since the moon had only three days remaining.
During preflight Peter met with the Halifax navigator, Colonel Philippe Livry-Level. “This mountaintop,” Level said, tapping the map, “there’s nothing to it. I’ve dropped 57 customers already, and if you go out when I give you the green light, I’ll drop you on a six-penny bit.”
Peter accepted the boast with a grain of salt. A night drop in the Jura—at altitude and with likely swirling winds—he’d be happy to hit the mountain.
At 7:15 p.m. Odette, Arnaud, and Jean Cottet huddled around three receivers, hoping to hear the coded message on the BBC broadcast. As the BBC news started, the Germans began their counter interference, jamming the waves with ongoing notes: aou . . . eou . . . aou . . . eou. At half past seven Odette heard it: “Le scarabée d’or fait sa toilette de printemps”—“The golden beetle makes its spring toilet.”
Peter was coming.
She bundled up and went to collect Arnaud. She found him, along with Jean and Simone, in the bar.
“Why aren’t you ready?” she asked Arnaud.
“Ready for what?”
“He’s coming! Hurry up!”
“What d’you mean, he’s coming?”
“Didn’t you hear the message?”
Arnaud and Jean looked at her blankly. If there was a message, Arnaud said, he’d have heard it.
Odette swore she’d heard it, twice. If they weren’t going, she said, she’d go alone.
Arnaud relented, Jean offered to drive, and Simone said she wanted to go, too. Jean fired up his charcoal-burning V-8, and at half past eight, bundled in boots and sweaters, they left. Before they reached the halfway point, the Ford petered out; the charcoal-gas conversion diminished power by 30 percent and the old car could proceed no farther. Odette and Arnaud would have to walk from there.
Jean and Simone decided to tag along, and Jean led them to a path he said would go to the top. At nine o’clock they began the steep climb, but there was a surprise: the moon was on the opposite side of the mountain and they lost sight of the snow-covered path. Worse, Jean admitted he didn’t have a clue which way to go.
Odette looked around and spotted a telephone pole. “Look! I remember those poles go straight up the side of the mountain and end up on the top. Why there’s even one by the very spot we chose for him to land on. Don’t you remember, Arnaud?”
Arnaud said he remembered one at the top, but not the sequence going up. Odette promised she knew what she was doing and took the lead. Over and around cliffs and boulders they went, higher and higher, panting and struggling as they gained altitude. At half past one she saw the snowclad hog’s back shimmering in the moonlight some nine hundred yards ahead.
“Look, Arnaud! Look!”
She checked her watch; Peter could arrive at any minute and without the bonfire, the plane would pass.
“Oh, God,” she prayed, “let me get there before the plane!”
She encouraged everyone to step up the pace but remembered what Peter had told her some time before about cross-country treks on weary legs: “When you have ten paces to make and nine are done, only then can you say that you are halfway.”
She urged the others on and they raced to the top, dashing back and forth to the shed to arrange the wood. As Arnaud doused it with petrol, Odette sank into the snow, exhausted. Arnaud set it ablaze and then turned toward the northern sky.
“Here it comes!”
All eyes turned heavenward and they watched as the Halifax cut diagonally across the drop zone. Nothing fell from the plane as it flew directly overhead and made a slow turn east.
“Oh, God!” Odette said. “I can’t bear it. After all this sweat, they’re taking him home again.”
Peter glanced into the nose of the Halifax and saw navigator Level prone, peering intently through the glass.
“Bonfire ahead,” Level shouted. “Action stations!”
The plane banked for a direct run over the hog’s back and the dispatcher patted Peter’s shoulder and connected his tether to the static line. The warning light came on and Peter gazed into the hole: snow-capped mountains drifted by like mounds of fresh cotton. The plane decelerated as the flaps dropped and Peter felt the familiar butterflies raging in his stomach. Unlike all of his prior jumps, however, this one required split-second timing. If he paused after the go signal, he’d land on the wrong alp. Or tumble down a sheer cliff.
He gritted his teeth and waited.
The light finally turned green and he was out. A moment later his parachute opened and he watched as five more chutes—supply crates—opened behind him.
He enjoyed the majestic view of the Alps and Lake Annecy for several seconds and then cast his gaze below, squirming in his harness.
I’ll drop you on a six-penny bit . . .
Peter was dropping on a six-penny bit, all right—directly into the raging bonfire!
He yanked the forward set of cords, releasing air, and drifted backward. Below he could see two figures, the larger one—presumably Arnaud—running after a supply chute.
As he continued to drift, he saw that he was now descending directly over the second figure—apparently Odette—who was searching the sky. Just then a rising current caught his canopy and he was suddenly hovering only feet above her.
“Hallo, Lise. If you’ll take a step backwards, I shan’t land on your head.”
Odette cried out and stepped back, opening her arms to catch him.
Peter floated into her embrace and Odette squeezed him tightly. “Pierre, Pierre,” she whispered sweetly in his ear. It was in a tone that told Peter everything a man could ever wish to hear.
Arnaud came running, yelling, “Sacré Michel!” He hugged Peter as a long-lost brother and Peter beamed, an arm around each of his loved ones.
Jean and Simone arrived moments later, and Arnaud and Jean gathered up the five supply cases. Storing them in a nearby deserted hotel, they retrieved the parachutes and flung them into the fire. As they walked, Odette kept her arm in Peter’s and recounted what he had missed over the last three weeks. She told him that the betrayal had come from Roger Bardet—the man she’d warned him about—and not Marsac. The fact that Bardet had now vanished was proof enough.
They returned to the abandoned inn and Arnaud tore into the crates like a child at Christmas: dynamite, a Sten gun camouflaged as a log, two Colt automatics, a Belgian pistol, clips, radio parts, crystals, batteries, two suits, a mackintosh, two pairs of shoes, and two pairs of sheepskin gloves. Someone had to stay with the supplies overnight, they decided, and Arnaud was happy to oblige.
It was now 4 a.m. and Peter, Odette, Jean, and Simone began their descent. Seeing the steep drops—sometimes vertical—Peter was amazed that they had made it up. In daylight, he reckoned, the descent would have been done with ropes.
They had Peter’s flashlight.
Odette held Peter’s hand and did her best to follow their path. Rock, ice, and darkness, though, made tracking footprints impossible. They pressed on, one boulder at a time.
Stepping gingerly, Odette made her way along a sheer cliff.
It happened without a sound.
Her foot hit a patch of ice and she fell toward the precipice, her weight ripping her hand from Peter’s. He watched in horror as she dropped, her body bouncing off protruding rock like a rag doll.
There was a sickening thud 30 feet below.
Everyone scrambled down, sliding and skidding. Jean arrived first and was aghast; Odette’s body was sprawled across a fallen tree, lifeless. He cradled her head and saw that she was unconscious. Peter rushed up seconds later and shined his light on her face. She was deathly grey. Grabbing a handful of snow, he rubbed it on her face and neck.
He slapped her cheeks. Nothing.
“Lise, Lise, for God’s sake say something!”
He rubbed more snow on her forehead.
There was no response.
Peter feared the worst. It was a horrendous fall and it appeared that Odette had broken her back. She seemed to be breathing but was unresponsive.
Jean fished out his flask and began pouring drops into her mouth.
Odette choked and opened her eyes. “What are we waiting for?”
At once she was on her feet and ready to move. Contrary to her demeanor, however, Odette was not well: she had a concussion and a shattered vertebrae in the middle of her spine. She told no one of her pain, though, and the party moved out.
Excerpted from CODE NAME: LISE Copyright © 2019 by Larry Loftis and published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.