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Peter Morland Churchill, DSO (14 January 1909 – 1 May 1972) was a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) officer in France during the Second World War. His wartime operations, which resulted in his capture and imprisonment in German concentration camps, and his subsequent marriage to fellow SOE officer, Odette Sansom, received considerable attention during the war and after, including a 1950 film.
Peter Morland Churchill
Peter Churchill in 1947
|Born||14 January 1909|
|Died||1 May 1972 (aged 63)|
Le Rouret, France
|Years of service||1940–1945|
|Unit||Army Intelligence Corps|
Special Operations Executive
|Battles/wars||Second World War|
|Awards||Distinguished Service Order|
Croix de Guerre (France)
(m. 1947; div. 1956)
Early life and careerEdit
Churchill's father was William Algernon Churchill (1865–1947), a British Consul who served in Mozambique, Amsterdam, Pará in Brazil, Stockholm, Milan, Palermo, and Algiers. His father was also an art connoisseur, and author of what is still the standard reference work on early European paper and papermaking, Watermarks in Paper,. His mother was Violet (née Myers). He was a brother of Walter Churchill, a Royal Air Force pilot during the war, and Oliver Churchill, who was also an SOE officer.
Peter was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on 14 January 1909. He was educated at Malvern School from 1923–27, then spent 18 months at Chillon Castle, then went on to Geneva University. From 1929–32, he read Modern Languages at Caius College, University of Cambridge. In addition to his native English, he was bilingual in French and fluent in Spanish and Italian. He also excelled in sports – he had the reputation of being one of the finest ice-hockey blues the university had produced. Churchill was Captain of the Cambridge University Ice Hockey Club in 1932 and won 15 international caps. He was proficient at exhibition diving, was a first-class skier, and played golf off a six handicap.
He moved into the British diplomatic service and served as British Vice-Consul in the Netherlands from 1934–5, and Pro-Consul in Oran, Algeria from 1935–6. From September 1939 to August 1940, he was Under Secretary to Sir Norman Birkett in the Home Office Advisory Committee, and later became President of the Committee.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill and three colleagues embarked aboard HMS Unbroken on 11 April 1941, and were dropped off by folboats in the Bay of Antibes on 20 April. That same night he returned to the submarine with François d'Astier de La Vigerie (Baron d′Astier de la Vigerie), who went by the name of Bernard.
He continued his work as an Intelligence Officer and joined the Special Operations Executive in June 1941, assigned to the French Section. His code names were "Michel", "Raoul" and "Pierre Olivier". He was infiltrated into France four times, twice by submarine and twice by aircraft.
On 1 January 1942, he was landed at Miramar by submarine to supply and evaluate the Carte circuit of the Maquis and French Resistance, returning to England through Spain on 14 February. On his return, he was promoted to captain.
On 1 March 1942, he landed in the south of France by submarine to deliver four other people.
On 27 August 1942, he was parachuted into the south of France and went to Cannes to organise and coordinate the SOE F Section "Spindle" Network. He developed a close relationship with his French courier, Odette Sansom. The Spindle Network directed the delivery of supplies to support Carte. After Churchill's unsuccessful attempts to arrange for an aircraft to pick up himself and members of the Carte network, he relocated the Spindle network to Annecy. He returned to the UK on 23 March 1943.
Eventually the Abwehr infiltrated Spindle. Churchill went to England on 23–24 March 1943 and on 15 April parachuted back into the mountains above Saint-Jorioz on the banks of Lake Annecy. However, he and Sansom were arrested two days later in St. Jorioz by Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr.
Churchill and Sansom claimed they were a married couple and related to Winston Churchill to make themselves seem more valuable as prisoners and less likely to be executed as spies. They were sent to different concentration camps, where they were tortured and sentenced to death, but both escaped execution.
Churchill was first taken to the German barracks in Annecy, then to Fresnes, where he remained until 13 February 1944, when he was transferred to Berlin for questioning. At some point, he was tortured on the fifth floor of number 84 in Paris.On 2 May, he was sent to Sonderlager “A” Sachsenhausen, where he was held in solitary confinement for 318 days out of 11 months. On 1 April 1945, he was moved by train to Flossenbürg, 50 miles south-east of Bayreuth, where he was held for 3–4 days before being taken by truck and Black Maria on a 30-hour trip to Dachau where he was lodged in the former official (now empty) brothel at the Dachau concentration camp along with other officers of various nationalities, including the Italian General Garibaldi and his Chief of Staff, Colonel Ferraro. The next day, as the Americans were approaching Dachau, Churchill and 30 other officers were taken by bus to Innsbruck, where he was held in the Straflager. They were joined by 140 other notable prisoners (the Prominenten), including former Austrian Chancellor, Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg. On 24 April 1945, Churchill was taken from Dachau over the Brenner Pass to Villabassa (Niederdorf in the Tyrol), together with many other prominent concentration camp inmates from different countries, where the SS left the prisoners behind as American forces were approaching.
On 27 April, he was taken 15 miles to the south to Wildsee, where on 4 May he was liberated by the Fifth United States Army. He was taken to Naples for debriefing by officers from the Crimes Investigations Departments and testified against his former captors. On 12 May 1945, Churchill was flown back to England in the personal aircraft of Air Marshal Garrow.
Odette was sent to Ravensbrück, where she endured terrible torture, but revealed nothing to her captors.
This officer carried out four clandestine missions into France between the end of 1941 and the spring of 1943. He was first landed by submarine in the south of France in December 1941 with the mission of contacting the principal organisers in the unoccupied zone, to bring them directives, remedy their various difficulties, improve communications and arrange help for arrested members of the organisation. This involved much travel and dangerous liaisons activity, but CHURCHILL carried out the mission with complete success and return to England in early February 1942.
His second mission was to organise the infiltration of a number of agents by sea into the South of France. Although this involved a short stay in France, it was nevertheless a delicate and hazardous task. It was mainly due to CHURCHILL's courage and resourcefulness that the operation was successfully carried out.
In April 1942, he was parachuted into France as chief liaison officer to a large resistance group in the south. He worked here for several months organising parachute dropping operations and the reception of agents by sea on the Mediterranean coast. His operations were always well organised and he took great personal risks to ensure the safe disposal of infiltrated agents.
In March 1943, Capt. Churchill paid a short visit to England for consultation. Two months after his return to France in May 1943, he was arrested. By that time, he had decentralised the organisation to such an extent that his work could be continued by others. He was released by Allied troops in Germany in May 1945.
Capt. Churchill worked tirelessly and unselfishly over a long period in very trying conditions, showing outstanding courage, leadership and organising ability, which earned him the respect and admiration of all who came in contact with him. It is strongly recommended that he is appointed a Companion in the Distinguished Service Order.
Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom were married in London in 1947, but divorced in 1956. Churchill continued to live in France after the war, settling in Le Rouret near Cannes, where he worked in real estate, and lived there until his death in 1972.
Books by Peter ChurchillEdit
- Churchill, Peter, Duel of Wits, New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, U.S. edition (combining British editions of Duel of Wits and Of Their Own Choice), 1955.
- Churchill, Peter, Spirit in the Cage, New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, U.S. edition, 1955
- Watermarks in Paper
- SOE Personal File at National Archives
- Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker’s War 1941–45 Leo Marks, 1998
- Unbroken, the true story of a submarine Alastair Mars DSO DSC and Bar
- Purnell, Sonia (9 April 2019). A Woman of No Importance (Kindle ed.). Viking. p. 191.
- Peter Koblank: Die Befreiung der Sonder- und Sippenhäftlinge in Südtirol, Online-Edition Mythos Elser 2006 (in German)
- Biography of Peter Churchill at Nigel Perrin's site
- Special Forces Roll of Honour
- Peter Churchill on French Wikipedia site (French)
- Newsreel footage of marriage to Odette Sansom, 1947
- Five images of Peter Churchill and Odette at Getty Images
- Portrait of Peter Churchill by Mark Gerson at National Portrait Gallery, London