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This letter saved my spy grandmother from the Nazis: It kept her alive in a concentration camp, now it’s her granddaughter’s most prized possession – who reveals her extraordinary story


In 2019, Sophie Parker was at home in Surrey, going through a book that had belonged to her grandmother. Inside the pages she discovered a letter. It was small; no bigger than the little finger. Parker, now 57, was amazed. She quickly told her older sister Nicole Miller-Hard (61), who lived in New Zealand.

When Miller-Hard flew back to the UK, Parker met her and they went to deliver the letter to the Imperial War Museum. In the car, Parker placed the letter in his sister’s hand. «I couldn’t believe it,» says Miller-Hard.

“This little veined patch of green may have saved my grandmother’s life.

Parker and Miller-Hard’s grandmother was Odette Hallowes – a French woman who was part of the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE, as the organization was known, was formed in 1940. Its agents were trained to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage in Nazi-occupied Europe and to cooperate with local resistance armies. SOE members were also required to be fluent in the language of the country they were infiltrating.

Hallowes joined SOE almost by accident: in 1942, the British government asked British citizens to send holiday photos from the northern French coast.

The aim was to analyze the coast through as many images as possible before the D-Day landings. Hallowes – then 30 and living in Somerset with three daughters, all ten and under, and a British husband in the army – submitted a selection and a letter. SOE found her answer and must have been impressed: they invited her to London and asked her to join.

Odette in 1947

She was desperate in occupied France but did not want to leave her children. Until then, she was a mother and housewife with no experience of working as a secret agent – or, as the SOE called it, of waging an «ungentlemanly war».

But in the end she agreed. The children were enrolled in a boarding school and Hallowes wrote them letters with a date to open week by week. «Things like, ‘I hope you’re doing your homework,’ or ‘I hope you’re not biting your nails,'» says Miller-Hard.

What convinced Hallowes to join? «She had a very strong sense of duty,» Parker says. “Her own father was killed in the First World War and her grandfather took her and her brother to their father’s grave every Sunday. He told them, “There will be another world war. I know it will come. And when that happens, it will be your turn to do your duty, just as your father did.» I think the words burned into her heart.»

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SOE training was rigorous. Hallowes learned self-defense, skydiving, using explosives, reading Morse code, and resisting interrogation. When she arrived in France, she joined a fellow SOE agent, Peter Churchill, and they worked closely with radio operator Adolph Rabinovich, who coded and decoded messages.

Hallowes was also sent on solo missions and coordinated airdrops of weapons and equipment. On one mission, she missed the last train home and had to spend the night in a brothel in Marseille frequented by the Nazis; in another assignment, she hid from German troops in a freezing river at night.

But in 1943 Churchill and Hallowes were betrayed by a double agent and arrested by the Gestapo. Thinking quickly, Hallowes told the officer that she and Churchill were married and that he was Winston Churchill’s nephew. That was a lie – the shared surnames were purely coincidental. She reckoned that a false connection with the prime minister could save them both from execution.

Odette (bottom right) at the 25th anniversary of the George Cross at Guards Chapel, London, 1965

Odette (bottom right) at the 25th anniversary of the George Cross at Guards Chapel, London, 1965

Hallowes was sent to occupied Paris where she was interrogated and tortured. She was burned on the back with a red-hot rake; her toenails were pulled out one by one. The Gestapo wanted to extract SOE information from her, but Hallowes remained silent. «She said it was as simple as making a decision, ‘I’m not going to talk,'» Parker says.

“She said that once she made a decision, it was easy to stick to it.

Odette (far left) at a family party with granddaughters Sophie (second right) and Nicole (centre), 1980s

Odette (far left) at a family party with granddaughters Sophie (second right) and Nicole (centre), 1980s

Parker also adds, «When they tortured her, they made one major mistake: they placed her in a chair that was facing the window.» The Gestapo building where Hallowes was interrogated was on Avenue Foch – a huge street in an expensive area of ​​the capital. It was lined with trees and ended at the Arc de Triomphe.

Hallowes was in a room several floors up and could see the tops of the trees from the window. «She said, ‘I just decided I needed to transport myself away from where I was and sit in those trees.’ I suppose that was what we would imagine today as going into some kind of meditative state.»

Hallowes was imprisoned in Fresnes Prison in Paris and held in solitary confinement. The Nazis condemned her to death on two counts: for being a British spy and for collaborating with the French Resistance. Hallowes’ response was typically defiant: «Gentlemen, you must choose among the earls, for I can only die once.»

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And so, exactly 80 years ago this month, in June 1944, Hallowes was sent to Ravensbrück, Germany, an all-women concentration camp with more than 50,000 inmates. She was again placed in solitary confinement, in an underground cell with no light.

Hallowes sat alone in complete darkness for three months and 11 days. She was next to the punishment and often heard the torture of the prisoners; she had no idea if it was night or day. According to Miller-Hard, Hallowes found a small piece of wood in the cell and used it to polish the floor: «That kept her sane.»

As the winter of 1944 approached, Hallowes was moved to a cell on the ground floor of the camp that had a small window. One morning she was sent to the hospital in Ravensbrück, and as she was walking back across the grounds, she saw something on the ground: a small leaf. The foliage was unusual—there were no trees beyond the camp fences. Hallowes picked it up and the guards didn’t seem to mind. «The letter was not one of the things a prisoner (was) forbidden to have,» she wrote in her later memoirs.

“They were completely unaware of the significance of the treasure I had obtained. When they slammed the door of my cell, they didn’t know that I held in my fingers the most powerful connection to the forces of life and liberty.’

Odette's letter found in Ravensbrück

Odette’s letter found in Ravensbrück

Day after day in her cell, Hallowes examined the leaf, tracing its veins and spine with her fingertips. The act connected her to the outside world from which she had been removed. «It seemed to me,» she wrote, «that I had touched not a leaf, but a tree.»

By early 1945 it was becoming clear that Germany was losing the war and the Ravensbrück commander was becoming increasingly concerned. Still believing that Hallowes was related to Winston Churchill, he decided to hand her over to the Americans.

Parker thinks he was hoping it might grant him some grace. Instead, the Americans arrested the commander on Hallowes’ instructions and confiscated his weapon. Hallowes herself kept the weapon a secret for the rest of her life; her family only discovered it decades later, after her death.

The night she was released, the Americans offered Hallowes a warm place to sleep, but she refused. After so many months locked in a cell, she said she wanted to smell the fresh air. She was reunited with her children – according to Parker, «she was so thin they hardly recognized her» – and settled back in Britain.

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She divorced her first husband, Roy, and when she corrected the lie she told the Gestapo, she married her SOE partner Peter Churchill in 1947. The couple divorced in 1956. Hallowes then married another ex-SOE member, Geoffrey, and they were together. until she died in 1995 aged 82 at home in Surrey.

Her post-war life seems to have been happy and well decorated. In 1950, the film Odette was made about her and Hallowes was awarded the MBE, the George Cross and the French equivalent, the Légion d’Honneur.

She kept her medals at her mother’s house in Kensington – until they were stolen in a burglary. Hallowes’ mother appealed to the press and the thief willingly sent the medals back with a note. He apologized for the robbery, promising he’s ‘not that bad – it’s just the circumstances’ and signing himself as ‘Bad Egg’.

Yet, for all Hallowes’ accolades, Parker and Miller-Hard don’t recall her discussing her SOE work often – and when she did, it was to thank her SOE colleagues who didn’t survive. Instead, their grandmother’s work was revealed in unspoken signs: her persistent cough, bouts of bronchitis, frequent visits to the doctor to tend to her injured legs.

Hallowes was honest and unromantic about the war and its consequences. In the last paragraph of her memoirs, she wrote of Ravensbrück: ‘The military victory was won and I was one of the few who came back to tell the tale… But now I ask myself the extent of the victory. I believe with great sorrow that the decision between freedom and slavery has yet to be made. At Ravensbrück, we believed that those of us who survived could enter a more tolerant and peaceful world whose leaders would learn the age-old lesson that man is made in God’s image and must bear God’s dignity.

In war we fought a human enemy; one who has been infected with the germ of inhumanity. Although we defeated the enemy, we failed to defeat the parasite. The same parasite of inhumanity is all over the world today, and unless it is completely destroyed, the Ravensbrück camp will be only a shadow and a symbol of the greater darkness to come.”

Today, Hallowes’ letter is kept in Parker’s house. She is 80 years old, slightly shriveled and curling at the ends. But somehow it stayed a soft green.

«It’s special,» Parker says. “There are still life forces in that leaf.



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