Sonia d'Artois was a British agent who parachuted into occupied France to aid the Resistance and infiltrate the Nazis.
On the night of May 28 1944, nine days before D-Day, Sonia was dropped by parachute at La Cropte, south-east of Laval, in the Sarthe, north-west France. Code-named Blanche (and also Madeleine) and with identity papers in the name of Suzanne Bonvie, her job was to join the “Headmaster” circuit of Sydney Hudson, code-named Albin. Accompanying her were Raimond Glaesner, a native of Alsace, and Eugène Bec.
One of her jobs was to train the Maquis in the use of weapons and explosives. Initially, some of them objected to being instructed by a woman, but her professionalism quickly won their respect. Her other task was to act as courier and carry messages by bicycle or deliver money, wireless equipment and other vitally needed supplies.
She pedalled long distances and was in constant danger of being pulled in for questioning. Most of the other Resistance fighters in the area had been arrested by the Gestapo; a container with her clothes in it had been discovered by the Germans and she had to keep on the move.
Rarely spending two nights in the same place, she became accustomed to sleeping in barns and haystacks. In June, she was stopped at a roadblock and taken to the German HQ. There she was interrogated, locked in a cell, and her papers closely examined before she was released.
The forest of Charnie, about 25 miles west of Le Mans, was chosen as a base for the Maquis. They lived in tents or under tarpaulins, local villagers supplied them with food, and Sonia delivered arms and explosives. Shortly afterwards, the Gestapo struck. A member of the Resistance revealed under torture the location of the base and guided a company of German soldiers to a clearing in the forest where a party of the Maquis were preparing for a container drop. Some were arrested. Bec sacrificed his life to allow the others to scatter and escape.
The Germans discovered the signalling procedures used by the SOE and seized two planeloads of containers. In addition, the circuit lost three cars and a million francs. The disaster, Hudson said afterwards, was shattering but he was greatly encouraged by Sonia’s refusal to let it get her down.
On the way back to Le Mans, the two were riding on bicycles. There was a long, steep slope leading into the town. Sonia spotted a German sentry lounging in the road outside a property which the Germans had requisitioned. She put on speed, tore down the hill and made straight for the sentry, forcing him to leap out of the way to avoid being run down.
After D-Day, sabotage operations by the Maquis on trains and canals, bridges and enemy fuel dumps greatly increased as did attacks on German troops passing through the area on the way to reinforce the units in Normandy.
Sonia believed that there was no safety in keeping her head down and hoping to remain undetected. She therefore made a habit of eating in black market restaurants where she would strike up an acquaintance with the more approachable German officers and act in an open and friendly manner.
After the liberation of Le Mans, she was accused of being a collaborator. Young women suspected of consorting with the Germans were being marched through the streets with placards around their necks branding them as collaborators. Then, in the town square, they would be mocked by the crowd of onlookers, spat upon and roughed up before their heads were shaved.
Sonia’s practice of sharing her meals with German officers had not gone unnoticed and, had it not been for the timely intervention of her friends in the Maquis, she would have suffered the same humiliation.
Sonia Esmée Florence Butt was born at Eastchurch, Kent, on May 14 1924. Her father served as an officer with the RAF in the Second World War, but separated from Sonia’s mother soon after his daughter was born. Sonia was brought up by her mother in the south of France and educated locally.
After the Germans invaded France, she managed to get back to England and joined the WAAF. She did clerical work, which she found unexciting, and, after transferring to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (the FANYs), she was recruited for training with SOE F Section. During this period, she met fellow agents Violette Szabo and Nancy Wake and fell in love with, and married, Guy d’Artois, an officer in the Canadian army.
In August 1944, Sonia and Hudson helped intelligence officers in the US Third Army by gathering valuable information about the disposition of the enemy forces in German-occupied areas.
On one occasion, they were stopped at an enemy roadblock while driving a staff car painted in the Wehrmacht camouflage colours and with the French tricolor draped over the side. They explained that they were dedicated collaborators who had come to warn them of the approach of Allied units. On another, their excuse that they were visiting a grandmother barely held up and they were fortunate to suffer nothing worse than the confiscation of their vehicle.
As the German retreat from the Falaise pocket turned into a rout, the two were able to obtain documents – passes, permits and identity cards – which authorised them to ignore curfews, to travel virtually unimpeded in forbidden zones and even to carry weapons. They realised that if they were unmasked it was tantamount to a death sentence. At the end of the month, they set off to reconnoitre the area between the Seine and the Marne. On the way back, near Bar-sur-Seine, they found the bridge guarded by armed German soldiers and the SS.
Hudson put his foot down and crossed the bridge at high speed. The Germans opened fire, blowing out the rear window and wounding him in the shoulder. Seeing that they were hemmed in by roadblocks, they abandoned the car and set off across country.
Soon they were stopped by a German patrol and, having been turned back, walked into Bar-sur-Seine. The Germans were afraid of being attacked by the local Resistance and Hudson was held hostage in a café overnight. At dawn, an officer arrived. Hudson showed him his Gestapo-stamped identity card and was released.
He then went to the house of the family that had accommodated Sonia for the night. Sonia told him that she had gone back to the café the previous day to collect his coat which he had left there by mistake. Two German soldiers had searched her at gunpoint, she said, and had raped her. But they had not discovered the German passes.
At a checkpoint outside Bar-sur-Seine, an NCO examined their papers once more. His face, as Hudson said afterwards, was full of suspicion but he let them go. They walked for two days along deserted roads, crossed the Seine using the remains of a demolished bridge and were eventually picked up by an American jeep.
At Divisional HQ at Troyes, they were able to report to the intelligence officer that the Germans appeared to have made few preparations for the defence of the River Marne. In September Sonia was reunited with Captain Guy d’Artois who had commanded three battalions of the Maquis in Burgundy and was subsequently awarded a DSO and the Croix de Guerre. Hudson was awarded a DSO and Bar and the Croix de Guerre.
Sonia returned to England the following month. After the war, she went to Canada with Guy and set up home near Montreal. In 1945 she was appointed MBE (Military Division) and was also mentioned in dispatches. In 1948 Guy d’Artois was awarded a George Medal for his part in rescuing a badly injured missionary in the far north of Canada the previous year.
In the early 1960s her son was driving home with a friend after having had dinner together at Como, Quebec province, when they were pursued by three thugs in their own vehicle and forced to stop. The three ruffians jumped out of their car and began to intimidate the two young men.
By coincidence, this happened in front of a house where Sonia was having dinner. Hearing the commotion, she decided to take charge. She hit one of the men in the face, smashed the car door on to his leg and held the other two until the police arrived.
Sonia, known to her friends as Toni, married, in 1944, Guy d’Artois. He died in 1999 and she is survived by their three sons and three daughters. For the last seven years of her life, John Tozer was a devoted companion.
Sonia d’Artois, born May 14 1924, died December 21 2014