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Sonia d’Artois (Courtesy of the Family)
Sonia d’Artois (Courtesy of the Family)

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Secret agent Sonia d’Artois was ‘utterly fearless’ Add to ...

Sonia d’Artois was only 20 when she parachuted into occupied France as one of the youngest female secret agents sent there by Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It was a perilous business. Of the 50 women dispatched to France, 13 did not return; most went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps, such as Natzweiler-Struthof, Dachau and Ravensbrueck.

Ms. d’Artois landed on May 28, 1944, just nine days before the D-Day landings in Normandy. Her assignment was to work as courier for the Headmaster circuit of undercover agents operating around Le Mans, 160 kilometres inland from the landing beaches. Led by Sydney Hudson, an unflappable 33-year-old Englishman, the group set out to sabotage German efforts to reinforce their front after the Allied landings.

Ms. d’Artois’s time in France was relatively brief, and along with all other SOE French Section agents she was abruptly withdrawn from the country a few months later at the request of General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and head of the provisional government. But in her short time in the field, Ms. d’Artois displayed an extraordinary courage and tenacity that profoundly impressed her comrades.

“For all of us, she was an inspiration,” wrote the group’s radio operator, George Jones, in his after-action report. For her undercover work, she was later made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Ms. d’Artois, who died on Dec. 21, 2014, in hospital in Pointe-Claire, Que., at the age of 90, preferred to be known as Toni, a jaunty nickname that reflected her adventurous spirit.

Sonia Esmée Florence Butt was born on May 14, 1924, in Eastchurch, Kent, England, one of the three children (two girls and a boy), of Leslie Butt, an officer in the Royal Air Force, and his wife, the former Thelma Gordon. Young Sonia had a troubled childhood; her parents divorced and she spent the next few years either with her mother living in the south of France, where she attended school, or being shuffled among relatives in Britain.

Yet the feisty tomboy who emerged had great resilience – and spoke flawless French. After returning to Britain at the outbreak of the Second World War, she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and in 1943 was snapped up by an SOE eager for women who could serve as couriers for its networks gearing up for the Allied invasion in France.

Female agents had an advantage over men because they were less likely to be stopped and searched while travelling on public transportation and roads, and a male agent in the company of a woman was less likely to arouse suspicion. The decision to use women for such unprecedented front-line work had gone to the top and prime minister Winston Churchill, somewhat reluctantly, had agreed.

But her path back to France was far from smooth. The SOE training was rigorous, and while she excelled in demolition, her headstrong temperament raised questions about her reliability for the disciplined life of a secret agent. “I got long reports that said I was not suited for that type of work,” she later recalled.

Doubts were fuelled when she quickly fell in love with one of her fellow trainees, Canadian military officer Guy d’Artois, one of three French-Canadians sent into France by the SOE. They married in London in April, 1944, and hoped to go on the same mission to France. But that was firmly vetoed on the grounds that if the Gestapo captured them and learned they were married, one would be tortured in front of the other to gain information. Her immediate reaction was a stormy refusal to go on any mission. But after seeing her husband off to his own behind-the-lines exploits in Burgundy, she changed her mind and four weeks later was dropped to Mr. Hudson’s circuit.

With her trim and elegant figure, she plausibly posed as Suzanne Bonvie, a representative of the Parisian fashion company Louis Vuitton, supposedly recovering from bronchitis in the country. The guise fitted well with Mr. Hudson’s cover as a travelling salesman in cosmetic goods. He, too, spoke fluent French, having grown up in Switzerland. Among their circle, he was known as Michel, while she was Blanche.

Mr. Hudson established his circuit’s headquarters in a château owned by a sympathetic landowner 20 km west of Le Mans. The group’s mission for D-Day was part of a broad SOE plan to launch a campaign of sabotage against railways, roads, telephone lines and cable networks to disrupt German efforts to stop the Allies from getting a foothold in Normandy. This would also force the Germans to send messages by radio, which could be intercepted and read.

The location and timing of the Allied landings was a tightly guarded secret. The various circuits were only told of the invasion and ordered into action through last-minute coded messages sent in BBC radio broadcasts. On the morning of June 6, with Allied troops on their way, Ms. d’Artois awoke to the sound of bombs exploding near the railway station in Le Mans, where she and Mr. Hudson were staying in a safe house. He promptly cycled to the château where the radio operator, Mr. Jones, told him of the messages that had come from London. Meanwhile, Ms. d’Artois learned of the invasion from a radio in a café where she was having breakfast. “I was quite surprised,” she said later. “I didn’t think that it would come so soon.”

During the next few weeks, she worked tirelessly carrying messages and money between the circuit’s various sub-groups as they waged their sabotage campaign. But disaster struck when one of the groups, hiding in the forest of Charnie not far from the château, was betrayed and then attacked by German troops, who killed three of their number and, worse, captured their radio and other supplies, along with all of the Headmaster circuit’s hidden cash. Mr. Hudson quickly dispersed his forces and took Ms. d’Artois with him, to act not only as courier but also as administrator of the circuit.

On one occasion she risked her life by bicycling several hundred kilometres through dozens of German roadblocks in an unsuccessful effort to obtain a replacement radio from another SOE group. Throughout it all, she retained her tenacity and nerve. After the Charnie disaster, she and Mr. Hudson decided to have a meal in a Le Mans restaurant, even though it was known to be patronized by collaborators. Forced to share a table, they chatted with a middle-aged German, only to learn later that he was head of the Gestapo in the city.

The liberation of Le Mans on Aug. 8, 1944, by forces of U.S. General George Patton’s Third Army opened new paths of action. Using a variety of captured automobiles provided by the Americans, she and Mr. Hudson, now disguised as married French collaborators, carried out a dozen or so reconnaissance missions, crisscrossing the lines to scout German defences ahead of the advancing Allies. Not only could the couple have been killed on the spot by members of the resistance, but Ms. d’Artois also concealed on her body the U.S.-issued papers proving their real identity. Discovery of these by the Germans would have led to certain death.

In late August, in the town of Bar-sur-Seine, they almost lost the gamble. Ambushed while driving back from a mission, Ms. d’Artois found herself being held as a hostage, along with several other women, and was assaulted at gunpoint by two German soldiers. Throughout the ordeal, she gave no inkling that she was a British agent; the U.S. identity papers remained undiscovered, and she was released.

It is no wonder that in his after-action report, Mr. Hudson described her as “utterly fearless.” He and Ms. d’Artois became involved romantically, a not-uncommon development for SOE comrades living in constant fear of capture or death. But once reunited with her husband in Paris, she insisted she wanted to make her life with him.

In December, 1944, the young couple sailed for Canada, and for the next three decades she accompanied him during his many post-war military postings with the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos), to Montreal; Shiloh, Man.; Quebec City; Germany and Italy. Along the way, their family grew to include six children: Robert, Michael, Nadya, Christina, Lorraine and Guy.

In her late 40s, Ms. d’Artois began to work in the retail industry in Montreal, and later managed a Laura Ashley shop in Quebec City. For many years, she also served as a volunteer at the veterans’ hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, where her husband died in 1999. For his work with the SOE, Major d’Artois was awarded Canada’s Distinguished Service Order.

Ms. d’Artois leaves her six children, 12 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and extended family.

Shortly after her husband’s death, she was invited by the BBC to take part in a television documentary about the female agents of SOE. Unbeknownst to her, the producers also tracked down Mr. Hudson and brought them together for an unexpected reunion in a London hotel. “Mais, c’est Michel!” she exclaimed when Mr. Hudson, who had been primed for the event and was seated in an armchair, turned to greet her. The emotional reunion finally liberated her to share their full story with her family. Soon after, she and Mr. Hudson, accompanied by his wife Ruth, took a trip to Le Mans to visit the sites of their wartime exploits.

“I always felt I’d see Sydney again,” she said, and kept in close touch with him until his death in 2006. She also reconnected with the legendary Australian agent Nancy Wake, with whom she had trained in Scotland; the two would meet regularly in London until Ms. Wake’s death in 2011.

Despite the publicity flowing from the documentary, Ms. d’Artois was ambivalent about her place in the spotlight during her final years, and was often a reluctant interview subject. Her real life, she insisted, began after those few short months in France, with Guy and their family in Canada. Yet, as she also said, the reunion with her old SOE comrades had nicely completed the circle of her life.

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