Peter Churchill

Recruited: April 1941

Role: Circuit Organiser (F Section)

Circuits: URCHIN, SPINDLE

Codenames: Raoul, Michel

Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, survived

image of SOE agent Peter Churchill

Peter Morland Churchill was born in Amsterdam on 14 January 1909. The son of the British consul there, he was sent to be educated at Malvern School and read Modern Languages at Caius College, Cambridge; a keen sportsman, he also captained the university's ice hockey team, playing at international level in 1932. After a spell as British pro‐consul at Oran in 1934 he drifted through a number of jobs, before being commissioned into the Intelligence Corps in 1940.

Churchill was one of the French Section's early recruits, joining in April 1941. In January 1942 he was sent on his first mission, during which he met a charismatic artist named André Girard, the leader of a Resistance network called CARTE, based at Antibes on the Riviera. Girard had already come to the attention of SOE's local URCHIN network, which had reported CARTE's important links with many senior members of the French army. Very soon the British convinced themselves that Girard was capable of achieving great things, and agreed to send him more agents, arms and supplies.

In April 1942, Churchill made another brief expedition to bring two wireless operators, Edward Zeff and Isidore Newman, to Antibes, then returned once more in August to become the head of a new liaison circuit called SPINDLE, which would work with CARTE to train Girard's men and carry out sabotage along the Cote d'Azur. To assist, Churchill also adopted two abandoned F Section agents, an Egyptian Jewish wireless operator named Adolphe Rabinovitch, and a French–born courier, Odette Sansom.

In November the Germans invaded the southern, unoccupied zone of France. This marked the beginning of the end for CARTE, which soon descended into chaos following a split between Girard and his chief of staff, Henri Frager. Churchill decided to relocate SPINDLE to the safety of St Jorioz in the Haute‐Savoie, but while he and Girard flew to London for talks in March 1943 SPINDLE was infiltrated by Hugo Bleicher, one of the Germans' most successful spycatchers. Within hours of parachuting back on 15 April Churchill was arrested by Bleicher, who had tracked him and his courier Odette to a hotel in St Jorioz. Rabinovitch, based ten miles away at the village of Faverges, evaded capture.

Churchill and Odette were held by the Italians, then transferred to Fresnes prison in Paris. Despite Bleicher's attempts to get them to talk both remained silent, and in February 1944 Churchill was told he was important enough to be exchanged for a German agent, after a captured CARTE courier, André Marsac, had told Bleicher that Churchill was a close relation of Winston Churchill. When the SS heard of this, Bleicher, whose Abwehr department was effectively in competition with the Gestapo, reportedly encouraged Churchill to make the most of the story to save himself, even though Churchill had privately confessed to Bleicher that it wasn't true.

Churchill was deported to Germany but no exchange was attempted. Shortly after his arrival at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and placed in "Sonderlager A", a section outside the main compound reserved for a small number of special prisoners. Here he met several British officers, including Harry "Wings" Day, one of the architects and survivors of the Great Escape. Mindful of his status as a captured spy and being unprotected by the Geneva Convention, Churchill chose not to push his luck and refused to help with their new tunneling plans (Day and four others made a successful breakout in September 1944 but all were quickly recaptured).

As the Allies approached Berlin in April 1945, Churchill was moved again to the concentration camps of Flossenberg and then Dachau, where he joined a motley bunch of generals, politicians, royalty, German anti–Nazis and other high profile prisoners lodged in the camp's brothel. The plan was to evacuate these so‐called Prominenten south into Austria, but after reaching Innsbruck they were fortunate to come under Wehrmacht rather than SS jurisdiction, which probably saved them from execution. On 4 May they were liberated by American forces at a lakeside hotel in South Tyrol. After returning to London via Italy, Churchill was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and the Croix de guerre.

In 1947 he married Odette, who had survived torture and appalling treatment at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Their public profile was boosted by Jerrard Tickell's biography of Odette in 1949, followed by Herbert Wilcox's film adaptation, starring Anna Neagle as Odette and Trevor Howard as Churchill. Churchill wrote about his experiences shortly afterwards, in three volumes: Of Their Own Choice (1952), Duel of Wits (1953) and The Spirit in the Cage (1954). He and Odette also added their comments to Ian Colvin's English translation of Bleicher's own version of his wartime career, Colonel Henri's Memoirs (Bleicher later visited Churchill and tried to persuade him to take part in a magazine interview, an offer which Churchill declined).

In 1955 Churchill divorced Odette and married a former model, Irene Hoyle, in Nice a year later. He continued to write, publishing a novel based on the Glières maquis, By Moonlight (1958), and a guidebook for fellow British caravanners and tourists visiting the Cote d'Azur, All About the French Riviera (1960).

Though Churchill had made mistakes as head of SPINDLE, his wartime mission to forge CARTE into a useful weapon for the Allies had been a difficult if not impossible one. Nevertheless criticism of Churchill's SOE career persisted after the war, and following the release of the film Odette in 1950 (in which he played a cameo role) several former resisters – including Francis Basin and AndrĂ© Girard – publicly attacked Churchill and Odette, questioning their right to be portrayed as heroes of the resistance (no doubt some of this indignation was motivated by jealousy and bad blood, particularly in the case of Girard). In 1966 the publication of M.R.D. Foot's official government history, SOE in France, revived the controversy: in reviewing their efforts Foot suggested that Churchill and Odette had lived a life of luxury on SOE's money and had accomplished little of military value. In 1969, Churchill accepted a settlement and a full apology, and the text of later editions of SOE in France was revised.

In the mid‐1950s he settled in Le Rouret near Antibes – a spot he described as "the next best place to the Seychelles" – overlooking the coast he knew so well from his wartime days, and worked as an estate agent selling local property to British clients. He died in Cannes on 1 May 1972.

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