SOE Agent Profiles
Recruited: April 1941
Role: Circuit Organiser (F Section)
Circuits: URCHIN, SPINDLE
Codenames: Raoul, Michel
Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, survived
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 SOE's early recruits, joining in April 1941. In January 1942 he was sent on his first mission, being infiltrated by submarine off the Riviera coast at Théoule-sur-Mer, just west of Cannes. One of his objectives was to make contact with SOE's URCHIN network at nearby Antibes, run by another agent, Francis Basin. It was through Basin that Churchill had his first encounter with a charismatic local artist named André Girard, the leader of a Resistance network called CARTE, who claimed to have important links with many senior members of the French army and a potential force of 300,000 resistance fighters. This impressed the British Chiefs of Staff, and SOE began providing CARTE with agents, arms and supplies, believing Girard might play an important role in a future Allied invasion of southern France.
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 begin training Girard's men and carry out sabotage along the Cote d'Azur. To assist, Churchill also adopted two abandoned SOE agents, an Egyptian Jewish wireless operator named Adolphe Rabinovitch, and a French–born courier, Odette Sansom.
Great things were expected of SPINDLE, but things did not go to plan. Girard turned out to be something of a fantasist and a megalomaniac, and his network largely an illusion. Rather than working as an equal partner, Churchill became little more than a go-between, communicating CARTE's increasingly bizarre demands to London, and newly-arrived SOE agents found themselves being employed by Girard to further his own whimsical ambitions. Appalled by CARTE's lax security and SPINDLE's lack of direction, a number of these agents preferred to ignore their new orders and headed for neutral Spain instead.
The German invasion of the southern, unoccupied zone of France in November 1942 marked the beginning of the end for CARTE. Girard's carelessness led to a detailed list of 200 agents falling into enemy hands, and ensuing rows between Girard and his chief of staff, Henri Frager, led to a split. For the sake of safety Girard moved to Arles, then made several near-farcical attempts to arrange an RAF pickup to fly him and Churchill out of France. The failure of each successive operation brought the likelihood of capture ever nearer, and in early 1943 Churchill decided to relocate the remains of SPINDLE from the Riviera to the relative seclusion of St Jorioz in the Haute‐Savoie.
Churchill and Girard were finally flown to London for talks in March. SOE decided that Girard should not return to France (despite his protestations he sat out the rest of the war in the US), but Churchill's problems were far from over. During his absence one of the most successful spycatchers of the Abwehr, Hugo Bleicher, had infiltrated SPINDLE by posing as a disillusioned officer wanting to join the Allies. London warned Odette and Rabinovitch to keep away from him, but within hours of Churchill parachuting back on 15 April, Bleicher made his move and arrested both him and Odette at their 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 (a captured CARTE courier, André Marsac, had told Bleicher that Churchill was a close relation of prime minister Winston Churchill). 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 instead 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' earlier that year. Mindful of his status as a captured spy whose fate still hung in the balance, 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 a year later by Herbert Wilcox's film adaptation, starring Anna Neagle as Odette and Trevor Howard as Churchill. Shortly afterwards Churchill began publishing his wartime memoirs, 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 Story (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 which he played a cameo role) several former resisters – including Francis Basin and André 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.
Of Their Own Choice by Peter Churchill (Hodder and Stoughton, 1952).
Duel of Wits by Peter Churchill (Hodder and Stoughton, 1953).
The Spirit in the Cage by Peter Churchill (Hodder and Stoughton, 1954).
By Moonlight by Peter Churchill (Hale, 1958).
Odette by Jerrard Tickell (Hodder, 2008).
Odette (1950, b/w). Starring Anna Neagle, Trevor Howard. Directed by Herbert Wilcox.
British Pathé newsreel