Ne pas avoir froid aux yeux

French Resistance heroine Odette Marie Céline Brailly was born on April 28, 1912. She married an Englishman named Sansom in 1931 and moved to England with him, where the couple had three daughters. During World War II, the Admiralty appealed for photographs of the French coast that could be used to plan a naval landing. Having been raised in Amiens, near the coast, Odette wrote that she did indeed have such photos. In a curious twist of fate, she misaddressed the letter to the War Office instead.  This brought her to the attention of Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. She was enrolled in the Special Forces and trained to work with the French underground in Nazi-occupied France. Her three daughters were placed in a convent school as their father had already enlisted.

Under the code name Lise, Odette worked as a courier until she and her contact were betrayed. Even under torture, she maintained her cover story. She was condemned to death and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Somehow, Odette survived the war and testified at a war crimes trial. Her husband had died during the time of her imprisonment. After the war she married the other agent, Peter Churchill, but the marriage ended in divorce a decade later.

Odette was awarded the George Cross and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire as well as a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. A funny story surrounds her George Cross. Her mother had the decoration at her home when it was burgled. A public appeal was made for its return. A repentant burglar dropped it off with a note that read:

You, Madame, appear to be a dear old lady. God bless you and your children. I thank you for having faith in me. I am not all that bad – it’s just circumstances. Your little dog really loves me. I gave him a nice pat and left him a piece of meat – out of fridge. Sincerely yours, A Bad Egg.

Odette died in England on March 13, 1995.

Today’s expression, ne pas avoir froid aux yeux (nuh paz avwar frwah ohz yuh) literally means “to not have cold in the eyes.” Figuratively, it means to be brave. I recently visited a concentration camp and it made my blood run cold. I can’t imagine the courage that was needed to leave her children, work in Nazi-occupied France, resist Gestapo interrogators, and survive the camp. Well done, Odette Brailly.

Eyewitness: Spy

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About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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4 Responses to Ne pas avoir froid aux yeux

  1. theinkbrain says:

    Another great post about ‘the finest quality’ !
    A story I shall never forget is about another such valiant operative, Eileen Nearne. She worked for the British SOE in France and was captured by the Nazis, tortured and sent to Ravensbrück, but escaped. She returned to England and lived out her life there.
    After she died, and only when the council was about to give her a pauper’s burial, were her papers and medals discovered and her service to the nation made public.
    Another woman Noor Inayat Khan, who also worked for the SOE was not so lucky, and the Nazis tortured and killed her.
    Now there is evidence to suggest that the British set these women up and betrayed them in order to pass disinformation (through their code books etc) to the Germans.
    Both these women had evaluated very negatively (in derisive terms) by their handler, who had little faith in them, yet neither of them broke under torture, and they never revealed anything about their missions to their captors.
    These women deserve our highest respect and admiration. Happy Birthday Marie Céline Brailly. We are indebted to you and your brave colleagues for the services you rendered your country. We will always honour your memory.

  2. Susan Waplington says:

    Are you aware that resistants in France in SOE and Defense state that she was not tortured, and was given privileged treatment because of her name?

    • Yes, I’m aware that there is debate about her contribution. However, the concensus is that she exhibited bravery under hellish circumstances. I hope that is the case and that I would do the same.

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