On Friday 6th March, FANY (PRVC) Commandant-in-Chief, HRH The Princess Royal, accompanied by Commanding Officer, Commandant Philippa Lorimer MBE and a number of serving Corps members attended the official naming of a Great Western Railway Intercity Train after FANY and Special Operations Executive (SOE) heroine Odette Hallowes. Watch here.
This year, to mark 75 years since peace broke out across Europe, Great Western Railway (GWR) is naming six trains to honour some of those who played a crucial part in defeating Nazi Germany. Sophie Parker, one of Odette's grandchildren speaking at the event said that naming the first train after Odette was "a wider tribute to the courage and endeavours of all the SOE women, who rose from their normal everyday lives to take on extraordinary challenges during the War. Most of all, Odette would want this dedication to be a time for remembrance for those women who never returned home."
During the Second World War 2,000 members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry were part of the SOE. The SOE’s purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers and to aid local resistance movements. Members of the Corps served as wireless and telegraphy operators, signal distributors, coders, drivers, support staff. 39 FANY's, including Odette, were agents who dropped into occupied France.
Her remarkable story is one of breath taking bravery and extraordinary survival. Odette Sansom (later Churchill, later Hallowes) was arrested after seven months, and brutally tortured (with a red hot poker, and her toenails pulled out). Sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, she was kept in solitary confinement in a room next to the furnaces, the heating turned on full blast throughout the summer to try and break her. She survived pneumonia and the war and lived to become one of the Corps most revered veterans. After the war she was presented with a George Cross, MBE and also appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur for her work with the French Resistance.
The unveiling took place at Paddington Station. It was attended by three generations of Odette's family, Sybil Beaton, daughter of Maurice Buckmaster (the French section of the Special Operations Executive) and Tania Szabo, daughter of FANY Violette Szabo. Violette was a fellow SOE agent in France and was imprisoned along with Odette. Violette was executed in February 1945 and posthumously awarded the George Cross. Also present were representatives from the FCO and French Embassy.
The FANY (PRVC) continues to thrive as a charity. Its female volunteers are highly trained, on call 24/7 and work to support civil and military authorities in times of crisis. One of the current emergency response roles is to support the City of London Police by staffing their Casualty Bureau - a role that Odette herself initiated in the late 1960s. Since then, members have responded to every major incident in London and many further afield - for example, the three terrorist attacks in 2017 (Westminster Bridge, London Bridge and Manchester Arena) and also that same year for the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower. In 2019, the Corps was deployed again in the aftermath of the terrorist incident at Fishmongers’ Hall and on London Bridge
HRH The Princess Royal said:
"Odette and her fellow agents have set the standard that the members of our Corps aspire to achieve, and we remember with pride their courage, bravery and dedication to our country."
Sophie Parker, Odette's Granddaughter said:
"Odette’s story is one of courage, dignity and hope; three things which were so important to her, both during her wartime service, and in overcoming the torture she suffered... very importantly, Odette possessed a deep sense of duty, which had been instilled in her from an early age, and this is perhaps what guided her above all else. It compelled her to join the Special Operations Executive, and it ensured that, after being captured, she would go on to protect the identity and whereabouts of her fellow agents – at all costs... Odette always maintained she was just an ordinary woman, who felt she had been given the opportunity to see human beings at their worst, but also, at their best. In her own words, she said,“I saw things … which no human ever should see, but it is the dignity I want to remember. The dignity of people stripped of everything else. No-one can take that away. Destruction was all around me, but it only served to highlight courage and human dignity at its finest”."
Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Foreign Secretary sent a supportive statement saying:
“It is a fitting tribute to have chosen to name this train after wartime heroine Odette Hallowes as part of International Women’s Day, especially as we are marking 75 years since peace broke out across Europe. We honour all the courageous female Special Operations Executive agents dropped behind enemy lines during World War II and will be forever indebted for their service and sacrifice.”