Sonia d’Artois, a member of the Special Operations Executive [SOE] who parachuted into France before the D-Day to gather intelligence, help with the resistance and worked as a courier and explosives expert, passed away at the age of 90 last December 21, 2014.
Sonya [she later changed the spelling of her name] was born to RAF officer Charles Butt and and his French wife, Ada Cordon. Her parents split up shortly after she was born and Ada took her daughter with her to France. During the outbreak of WWII, mother and daughter returned to England and as soon as she was old enough, Sonia followed in her father’s footsteps. She became a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force after which she eventually became involved with the SOE as a WAAF officer.
Sonia was only twenty years old when she agreed to work for the Allies. Bearing the codename Blanche, she was set to pose as Suzanne Bonvie, a supposedly representative of a fashion house in Paris and was sent to the country to recuperate from a certain serious disease.
The original plan was to drop Sonia off into eastern France’s Saône-et-Loire district. She was set to work as an explosives expert with the SOE’s Ditcher circuit or network. However, working there would mean working with its organizer, French-Canadian Guy d’Artois.
Sonia and Guy had trained together and he fell in love with her on their second training jump when she winked at him. They were able to persuade their officers to allow them to be paired with each other. Nevertheless, when they got married on a weekend in London just before their departure, the head of SOE’s F Section, Maurice Buckmaster, feared that their relationship as husband and wife would make them more vulnerable when they come under torture. So, the plans were changed.
Guy was sent to the Saône-et-Loire district but with a different explosives expert. Sonia, on the other hand, was paired with the Headmaster circuit of the cathedral city of Le Mans which was under Major Sydney “Soapy” Hudson.
Thus, on the night of May 28 in 1944, exactly nine days before D-Day, Sonia landed on La Cropte which was situated west of Le Mans and was just less than one hundred miles south of the Normandy beaches. She was placed there perfectly to disrupt the German troops behind their own lines and eventually overthrow enemy reinforcements which were moving from the south.
The Gestapo was alerted of the arrival of a female agent when Sonia lost the container of designer clothes which was part of her cover during her landing. Nevertheless, assuming that the Germans expected her to lie low because of the loss of her props, Sonia did the exact opposite and frequented the restaurants German officers patronized. She flirted with them, gained their confidence and was able to establish her identity and credentials as genuine allowing her to gather intelligence.
When one of the SOE officers sent into France with her, who was responsible for training new recruits in the use of weapons and explosives, died in an ambush, Sonia stepped in his shoes. During the day, she traveled through the countryside passing supplies, instructions and cash to the different Maquis groups. When night came, she organized sabotage operations.
Sonia and Hudson went on the move after the D-Day. they had to contend with sleeping in hedgerows, barns and haystacks as the Maquis pressured the German forces. One time, she was stopped and arrested by German soldiers at a roadblock as they were suspicious of her papers. Knowing they were forgeries, she expected to be discovered. However, her confidence and her knowledge of colloquial French pulled her through from the mess. The Germans believed she was genuine and released her.
Sonia and Hudson had operated from a base located at the forest of Charnie. But then, its location was given away to the Gestapo by a tortured Maquis fighter. This resulted to them loosing a great number of men and supplies. Nonetheless, they were able to inflict heavy damage on the enemy. Their unit had managed to blow up railway lines, supply dumps and even a key telephone exchange at Le Mans. The latter was very crucial as it forced German commanders from across a great area south of Normandy to employ radio rather than telephone for their communications. This allowed the Allies to intercept their messages and know their whereabouts.
Le Mans was liberated by the American troops in August of 1944. In connection to this, Sonia was arrested and beaten up local men thinking she was a collaborator as she shared her meals with German officers. They were about to shave her head and tie her to a lamp post when a group of Maquis came and saved her.
Sonia and Hudson remained in France for a few weeks traveling around areas still occupied by the Germans to gather intelligence information for the advancing American troops. She was, then, reunited briefly with her husband, Guy, in Paris before she returned to the UK October of 1944 where she was appointed MBE as she was mentioned in dispatches.
Sonia and Guy lived in Montreal, Canada after WWII ended. Guy had already preceded her in 1999. The couple is survived by their three sons and three daughters.
Goodbye, female agent and explosives expert Sonia d’Artois!