The FANY Memorial on St Paul’s, Knightsbridge
On the wall of St Paul’s Knightsbridge, there’s a surprising war memorial where all the names are women. It remembers the members of the Women’s Transport Service (later known as FANY).
History of FANY
The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was founded back in 1907. It was the idea of Sergeant Major Edward Baker who felt it was quicker to get to an injured soldier on a single horse than a horse-pulled ambulance.
Although not actual members of the army, the women could offer first aid and understood cavalry movements.
They were active in the First World War, having been rejected by the War Office they instead served the Belgian Army and seeing the success they worked with the British Army from 1916. By this point they were driving ambulances.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, FANY once again swung into action and they worked alongside the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
Given their training and experience, outstanding women serving within FANY were an easy choice for the SOE.
The SOE was the Special Operations Executive, a plan hatched by Churchill in 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’. They were undercover agents, sent to occupied France to sabotage plans a gather information. Of the 50 women sent to France, 39 were members of FANY.
You might recognise some of the names?
Noor Inyat Khan has a statue in Gordon Square and a bust of Violette Szabo commemorates the members of SOE (Churchill’s network of undercover spies) on Lambeth Embankment.
You can read more about both women and find a link to a longer YouTube video about them here.
The SOE expanded throughout the war to cover far more than just Europe. By 1945 there were 13,000 agents worldwide (of which, 3,000 women).
Back to the FANY memorial, there’s one name – because she managed to survive the War – that’s singled out.
The Extraordinary Life of Odette Hallowes
Odette was born in 1912 in France. Her father, a bank manger, but was killed at Verdun and posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery.
As a young child she was seriously sick, blinded by an illness for 3 and 1/2 years and suffering from polio which left her bedridden – even paralysed – for months.
In 1931 she married Roy Samson, an Englishman and the pair moved to Fulham. They had three daughters.
In 1942 Odette was invited to join the SOE, her fluent French an advantage. Torn between serving her country and leaving her children, it was after hearing the suffering of her family back in France which swayed her to leave.
Enrolling in FANY as cover, she was trained in self-defence, morse code and how to resist interrogation. She was sent to Cannes on 31 October 1942, serving under Peter Churchill’s resistance group.
In April Odette and Peter were captured, betrayed by a member of their network.
Odette told the Germans she had persuaded Peter to join her in France and that they were a married couple related to Winston Churchill. None of this was true but it meant Peter was spared torture and they avoided being shot as spies.
Unfortunately Odette was tortured. Brutally. All her toenails were pulled out and a red hot poker was placed on her back. Despite this she never gave up any information. Each time she simply answered ‘I have nothing to say’.
In July 1944 Odette was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She was kept in darkness and held in solitary confinement for 3 months and 11 days.
As the Allied forces entered Germany, Odette was kidnapped by a German guard who hoped to ransom her for a better deal. She survived and he was later executed for war crimes. In 1946 Odette was awarded the George Cross for her selfless heroism under torture. It’s held at the Imperial War Museum.
The IWM also have an extraordinary recording of an interview with Odette, describing how she managed to not break under torture. I highly recommend having a listen.
In a bizarre twist to the story she actually had her George Cross medal stolen during a burglary in 1951. After her mother appealed publicly, it was returned with an anonymous note;
“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 at her home in Surrey, aged 82, in 1995.
The link with the church appears to be that during the Second World War the vicarage was leased – rent-free – to FANY.
I’m not sure if Odette physically “laid violets” here as the memorial suggests, the flower is a common symbol of faithfulness. But it’s a wonderful image on an extraordinary memorial nonetheless.
If you get a chance to go inside the church, I recommend you do.
Inside St Paul’s, Knightsbridge
Consecrated in 1843 it’s an elaborate Victorian Gothic design by Thomas Cundy the Younger.
Along the walls there are tiled panels (1870) by Daniel Bell as well as stations of the cross painted in the 1920s by Gerald Moira.
The military connections continue behind the church with The Grenadier Pub, one of the most charming in London.
Although not listed, it was apparently built in the early 1700s specifically for infantry soldiers and opened to the public around 1818. You might also be interested that throughout its history its been associated with numerous ghosts (if you go in for that sort of thing!) In any case its a great spot for a cosy long lunch.
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