Lise Villameur 'Odile' SOE Secret Agent
11 May 1905 - 28 March 2004
Lise Villameur MBE, who has died aged 98, was one of the first two female agents to be parachuted into France by SOE in the Second World War.
On the night of September 24 1942, Lise de Baissac (as she then was) and Andre Borrel - code-named Odile and Denise - were dropped over the Loire valley. De Baissac's mission was to form a new circuit, called "Artist", based at Poitiers, where she could provide a secure centre for agents in need of help and information.
She found a small flat in the town, where she assumed the name of Madame Irene Brisse, a widow of quiet habits. With typical sang froid, she chose to live next to the Gestapo headquarters. It was in a busy street, she explained afterwards, and on the way to the station; visitors, even at night, were unlikely to attract attention.
In the first weeks, she bicycled through the country lanes looking for possible landing and dropping zones, and building up contacts who would be prepared to help her. "I was very lonely," she said afterwards. "I discovered what solitude was. Having false papers, I never received a letter or a telephone call."
She had no wireless set or wireless operator, and had to go to Paris or to the circuit run by her brother in Bordeaux to send or receive messages or pick up supplies of cash. In Paris, she reactivated circuits badly damaged by betrayals of agents.
From the spring of 1943, she widened her operations, acting as liaison officer between the "Scientist", "Prosper" and "Bricklayer" circuits. When these were disabled by the Gestapo, she was sufficiently brave and calm to extricate herself unscathed.
She returned to London with her brother in August, but broke a leg while helping to train two new agents in parachuting, and it was April 1944 before she was fit enough to go back to France. She was given the code name Marguerite, and flown in by Lysander to work as a courier in a branch of the "Pimento" circuit with a rendezvous at Toulouse.
The circuit had many useful contacts among railway and industrial workers, but Lise de Baissac believed that the leadership was composed of militant socialists whose main aims were political rather than patriotic.
She therefore obtained permission to join her brother in south Normandy, where his circuit, "Scientist", had re-formed and was reconnoitring landing grounds and arming Maquis groups in the run-up to D-Day.
She was on a recruiting trip to Paris when the D-Day action messages came through, and she had to cycle through streets full of German troops to meet people whom she knew were under Gestapo observation. Sleeping in ditches and keeping to the small roads, it took her three days to return to Normandy.
In the second half of June, when the Allied forces were held up at Caen, the "Scientist" resistants were involved in mining roads and cutting rail and telephone communications. She cycled between the groups, often covering 40 miles a day, taking arms and explosives and relaying instructions about targets. Groups organised by her and using tyre-busters caused heavy losses to the enemy, and she took part in several attacks on enemy columns.
On one occasion, when the radio set broke down, she and her radio operator cycled to another village where there was a replacement. She was carrying crystals for the set and codes in a belt around her waist. They were stopped and searched by a German soldier doing a spot check; but he did not find them, and they were allowed to proceed.
On another occasion, a party of retreating Germans requisitioned the house in which Lise de Baissac was living. Returning to her room, she discovered that the soldiers had opened her sleeping bag, which was made out of parachute silk; one of them was sitting on it.
In the kitchen cupboard, there were three bags of English sweets which had been part of a parachute drop. The German officer regarded her with suspicion, but he locked the cupboard door without looking inside and handed her the key. She coolly gathered her belongings and left the house, returning two days later when the soldiers had moved on.
De Baissac worked with her brother in the south of Normandy until the Germans had retreated eastwards and, in September 1944, returned to England, where she remained until she was demobilised. She took part in the parade on VE Day, and was received by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.
Lise de Boucherville Baissac was born on May 11 1905 on Mauritius. Her parents came from French families long settled on the island; but, as Mauritius had been British since 1810, she grew up bi-lingual. She completed her education in Paris but, when the Germans invaded France in 1940, she moved to Dordogne in the Free Zone and then on to Gibraltar.
There she was reunited with her brother, Claude, who had been arrested and had spent some months in a Spanish jail. Claude de Baissac obtained an introduction to the SOE and, as soon as the organisation started recruiting women, his sister was interviewed and accepted.
At a meeting with Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F section, she urged upon him the need to establish an SOE base in France in order to provide greater support for the French resistance movement. Poitiers was chosen. It was well placed for landing and dropping grounds; the wooded slopes of the Vienne provided good cover.
Lise de Baissac was trained in the second intake of SOE's women agents. The commandant of the Special Training School at Beaulieu reported that she was intelligent, extremely conscientious, reliable and quite imperturbable and, in 1942, she was granted a commission in the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).
After the war she worked for the French Service of the BBC as a programme assistant, announcer and translator. Following her marriage in 1950 to Gustave Villameur, an artist and interior decorator, she lived in Marseille and St Tropez. Slimly built, she retained her elegance and poise into great old age.
She was vice-president of the Association France-Grande Bretagne in Marseille for many years. She was appointed MBE in 1945 and was, in addition, made a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur and awarded the Croix de Guerre avec palme.
Lise Villameur died on Monday. Her husband predeceased her. There were no children.
We salute the heroines of the French Resistance!