Sonya Butt was the last surviving female British spy and member of the secretive organisation Special Operations Executive (SOE) who, aged just 19, was risking her life on a daily basis after being parachuted into occupied France to aid the French Resistance and infiltrate the occupying Nazi force.
In a modern era where celebrity and fame is achieved for doing relatively little, her bravery and selflessness epitomised a bygone era in which the fortitude of young men and women ultimately led to the Allied victory during the Second World War.
Butt, codename Agent Blanche, was an expert in explosives, sabotaged bridges and ambushed German convoys for the Maquis, evaded capture on a number of occasions and later narrowly escaped punishment as a collaborator; for her valour, she was awarded the MBE – Military Division – and mentioned in dispatches by the age of 20.
Born in Eastchurch in 1924, Sonya Esmée Florence Butt spent her early childhood with her mother growing up and being schooled in the south of France.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, they returned to England, residing in Woking. Butt was desperate to join up but was too young. When the opportunity arose in 1941, aged 17, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as her father had served in the RAF, later transferring to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.
Desperate to see action, she was bitterly disappointed when the same year women were excluded from frontline duties and she was reduced to filing paperwork. In April 1942, this provision was changed and one of the first organisations to take advantage of this was SOE.
Whilst working at RAF Gosforth, Butt advertised her fluency in French in an attempt to get attached to the Free French squadrons. While this failed, she did come to the attention of SOE.
SOE was established in 1940 to infiltrate occupied Europe with a network of spies and conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.
SOE did not advertise its vacancies and recruited by “the usual methods”, word-of-mouth, and other quiet and roundabout means; a skill in an appropriate language was an excellent starting-point.
The work was highly dangerous and only the toughest in mind and body could perform successfully under such pressure, so SOE were very demanding, very selective and very secretive.
Butt was snapped up for training by F Section in 1943, and during preparation met fellow agents Violette Szabo and Nancy Wake, and fell in love with Guy d’Artois, a Canadian Army officer. Butt was given an honorary commission as an Assistant Section Officer.
SOE trained teams to operate “behind the lines” in countries under Nazi occupation. They were looking for potential female couriers, a role of particular importance, as movements around a district were likely to encounter German check-points and a male of military or working age attracted adverse attention; a woman on a bicycle, however, was not suspect and if she attracted attention at all, it was usually the sort that made a besotted sentry forget to check papers and luggage thoroughly.
Butt’s training followed the usual programme of tough outdoor training, to develop stamina and basic soldiering skills, followed by specialist training according to the role on operations, plus familiarisation with the routine of life in occupied Europe.
Furthermore, recruits could not discuss their work with outsiders; in any case, this sort of training was unheard of for women, so at the time few would understand or even believe the full details of the armed and unarmed combat training they received.
Upon completion, Butt married Guy d’Artois in Scotland prior to being dropped into northern France in May 1944, nine days before the D-Day landings. Parachuted into the Sarthe department in the Le Mans region to work, Agent Blanche was Courier to Christopher Hudson, codename Albin, and the organiser of the Headmaster Circuit.
Her mission got off to a desperate start with one of her fellow agents being killed during a shoot-out between the Maquis and the Germans. Butt thus took on the role of weapons and explosives instructor and her expertise was much in demand in rural towns and villages, although she did encounter some initial resistance because she was a woman.
She later said modestly: “I filled in wherever the need arose.”
With her primary role as a courier, Butt carried money, passed messages and maintained liaison with all of the SOE agents, Maquis and local operatives working with the circuit. She was, however, hampered by the arrest of a large number of the Maquis by the Gestapo and the interception of a container carrying her wardrobe, alerting the Germans to the presence of a new female agent. Unperturbed, Butt soon gained a reputation for her fearlessness; rarely spending two nights in the same place, she delivered arms, explosives and radios.
With all the cycling she was doing, Butt was in constant danger of being stopped for questioning. In June 1944, she was detained at a check-point and taken to the German HQ, where her cover story and false papers withstood a thorough interrogation and meticulous examination, and she was eventually released.
Following D-Day, June 1944, the Maquis increased their sabotage operations. Butt thought it best to keep moving rather than hoping to remain undetected and, therefore, became a regular face in black market restaurants, where she would make acquaintances with the more approachable German officers, acting in an overtly open and friendly manner.
This “fraternising” with the Germans did not go unnoticed. With the Allied liberation of Le Mans, women suspected of consorting with the Germans were rounded up and marched through the streets, placards around their necks branding them as collaborators; then in the town square they would be abused and have their heads shaved. Butt too was arrested but friends in the Maquis intervened to save her this humiliation.
Butt refused the offer of returning home and remained in France with the Americans, providing them with vital intelligence on regional German fortifications.
In late 1944, she returned to England, as did her husband the following year, but many SOE agents were captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo.
The couple moved to Canada in 1946, where Butt led an ordinary life raising their six children. Her husband, who had trained and commanded 600 members of the Maquis, was awarded the DSO, the Croix de Guerre and the George medal; he remained in the army, eventually establishing the Canadian SAS.
Butt’s remarkable story only emerged with the publication of The Women Who Spied for Britain: Female Secret Agents of the Second World War (2014) by Canadian historian Robyn Walker.
• Our obituary of Second World War spy Sonya d’Artois credited Canadian historian Robyn Walker with bringing her story to public attention in 2014. We have been asked to point out that her story was also told four years earlier by Squadron Leader Beryl Escott in her book The Heroines of SOE - F section published by The History Press.