Andree Peel: French Resistance fighter who helped Allied airmen evade capture in occupied Europe

Andrée Peel was a French Resistance fighter who embodied everything that General de Gaulle wanted from French men and women. Known as Agent Rose, she survived a Nazi death squad and helped more than 100 British and American airmen evade capture and escape occupied Europe.

Born into a religious and patriotic family in Brittany on 3 February 1905, there was nothing to suggest that Andrée Marthe Virot would become a heroine of the Resistance movement. With the fall of France in June 1940 she was in her mid-thirties and running her own beauty salon in the port of Brest in north-western France.

However, with de Gaulle's famous rousing broadcast on 18 June 1940, when he exclaimed that "France has lost a battle, but she has not lost the war," Virot and a group of friends began to actively defy the occupying forces. She began helping the Resistance by distributing leaflets, and later the organisation's clandestine newspapers. Her enthusiasm was noted and she was promoted to command a Breton sub-section of the Resistance, initially under the codename Agent X and then Agent Rose, with the rank of sous-officier (sergeant).

With Brest's importance as a naval port, its impressive fortifications and its instant access to the Atlantic and close proximity to the Channel, the Germans wasted no time in improving the base and its defences. They built new submarine pens protected by impregnable concrete walls where they housed a large U-boat fleet and improved the work yards for the surface fleet. Virot's brief was to provide military intelligence on the Atlantic Wall (the coastal fortifications) and the Kriegsmarine and Wehrmacht deployments as well as the effects of allied bombing. Her information- gathering prompted Winston Churchill to write a personal letter of congratulation – though it had to be destroyed immediately after reading.

Virot's team, which ran the VAR escape route across the beaches of northern Brittany, used torches to guide allied planes to improvised landing strips for Special Operations Executive drops and pick-ups and smuggled fugitive airmen on to submarines and gunboats along remote parts of the coast. All of this work was extremely hazardous; capture would result in torture and probable execution. During Virot's time in charge, 102 allied airmen passed through her section to freedom.

In 1944, however, the Germans, who realised that an Allied invasion was imminent, increased their efforts to track down resistance cells in the region. Following the capture, torture and confession of a comrade, Virot came under suspicion. She fled to Paris, changing her identity and papers, but three days after D-Day she was captured and taken to Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch, where she was subjected to some treatment including simulated drowning – a fore-runner to water boarding – severe beatings to the throat, from which she continued to suffer in later life, and electric-shock torture.

She was then sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp north of Berlin. Unlike 90,000 other inmates, she survived selection for the gas chamber, thanks to the intervention of a fellow inmate. Finally, with the Red Army advancing, she was transferred south to Buchenwald, near Weimar. It was here, while being lined up to be shot with other internees by the retreating SS, that she cheated death once more thanks to the arrival of a detachment of American troops from the 9th Armoured Infantry Battalion.

Following the war and some convalescence Virot returned to Brest to discover that her father and brother had died, so she moved to Paris to run La Caravelle, a restaurant on the Rive Gauche – where a young English academic, John Peel, walked in one day and stole her heart. Although he was 20 years her junior their relationship developed and they married a few years later, moving to the village of Long Ashton, south-west of Bristol. Years later she still suffered pain, and flashbacks from her torture. In later life, believing she had a gift, Peel became a faith healer and dietician.

Her bravery was honoured with numerous decorations, including the King's Commendation for Bravery, presented to her by King George VI, the US Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Croix de Guerre (with palm and another with purple star), as well as appointment to the Légion d'honneur. In 2004, she was upgraded to Chevalier of the Légion, an award presented to her by her brother, the retired four-star General Maurice Virot.

In 1999, Peel reluctantly published her memoirs, Miracles Existent [Miracles do Happen], after it was suggested that in doing so she would tell the story of those who had been less fortunate than her. In 2008, William Ennals, a local film-maker, turned her story into a film, Rose: A Portrait of a Resistance Fighter.

"We were defending freedom," she said of herself and her fellow freedom fighters. "It's an extremely precious thing. It is only when you do not have it that you begin to appreciate how important it is."

Martin Childs



Andrée Marthe Virot, French Resistance fighter and healer; born Brittany 3 February 1905; married John Peel (died 2003); died Long Ashton, near Bristol 5 March 2010.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz