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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum