14 May 1924 |
|Allegiance||United Kingdom, France|
|Service/branch||WAAF, SOE, FANY|
|Years of service||1941–1944 (WAAF) / 1943–1944 (SOE)|
|Rank||Assistant Section Officer|
|Awards||MBE, Mentioned in Dispatches|
Service in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force
Sonya was only a schoolgirl at the start of the War, and would not be due to join up for at least a couple of years. Her preference was for the WAAF, as her father had served in the RAF himself, but in order to join the WAAF, a girl had to be a minimum of 17½ years old. Sonya Butt joined up the moment she became eligible, to the very day: 14 November 1941, becoming 454240 Aircraftwoman (ACW) Butt. She served in the Administrative Branch.
The girl whose quest for adventure made her join up at the age of 17 was probably not going to be stimulated by filing paperwork, but in 1941 women were banned from front-line service. In April 1942, this provision was changed and one of the first organisations to take advantage of this was the Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE trained teams to operate 'behind the lines' in countries under Nazi occupation. The role of Courier was particularly important, 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 makes a besotted sentry forget to check papers & luggage properly. SOE began to look for potential female Couriers, but the work was highly dangerous and only the toughest in mind and body could perform successfully under such pressure, so SOE had to be very demanding, very selective and very secretive. It did not advertise its vacancies and recruited by 'the usual methods': word of mouth, and other quiet and roundabout means; a skill in the appropriate language was a good starting-point. Whilst working at RAF Gosforth (alongside another future SOE Agent Patricia O'Sullivan) Sonya had been advertising her fluency in French in an attempt to get attached to the Free French squadrons and escape her dreary routine. She failed in this bid but her attempts did bring her to the attention of SOE and she was soon accepted for training. She was given an honorary commission as an Assistant Section Officer.
Special Operations Executive
Sonya joined SOE, aged 19, on 11 December 1943 and in less than six months she was on operations in France. Her 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. Recruits could not discuss their training with outsiders, and 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 the girls received. Only fellow students could give meaningful support and Sonya's colleagues included Nancy Wake and Violette Szabo and also a certain French Canadian Officer Captain Guy D'Artois, whom she would later marry.
On 28 May 1944, Sonya was parachuted into the department of the Sarthe in the area of Le Mans to work as a Courier, under the codename "Blanche". She was Courier to Christopher Hudson (codename Albin), the organizer of the Reseau (Circuit) Headmaster. She was one of the last WAAFs landed in France before the Allied invasion, only nine days before D-Day. After one of the other agents dropped with her was shot during a battle between the Maquis and the Germans, Sonya took on the additional role of Weapons Instructor. She later said modestly: "I filled in wherever the need arose." As a courier her primary roles were to carry money, pass messages and maintain liaison with all of the SOE Agents, Maquis and local operatives working with the circuit.
In June 1944, whilst communicating messages around the countryside, she was stopped by two Germans and detained for questioning. This was a very dangerous moment but her cover story and false papers withstood the examination and she was eventually released. In due course the Allied ground forces broke out from Normandy and Sonya's district was liberated.
In October 1944, she returned to England on the successful completion of her mission. Her pioneering bravery in front-line operations (or, rather, beyond the front-line) was recognised with the award of the MBE and a Mention in Dispatches. She was still only 20 years old.
Much to the annoyance of her superiors, Sonya left to marry Guy d'Artois without signing off. After the war, Sonya and Guy went to live in Canada. Guy d'Artois had parachuted into another district of France about the same time as Sonya. For the success of his mission he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Croix de Guerre. In 1947, he received another very senior decoration, the George Medal (GM) for his work in rescuing an injured missionary in Northern Canada. After a tour in Japan, Guy served in the Korean War, before the couple settled down again in Canada. Guy and Sonia (the alternative form of her name) were to have six children, three boys and three girls: Robert, Michel and Guy, and Nadya, Christina and Lorraine.
- Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott, Mission Improbable: A salute to the RAF women of SOE in wartime France, London, Patrick Stevens Limited, 1991. ISBN 1-85260-289-9
- Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger: the Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002. ISBN 0-340-81840-9
- Liane Jones, A Quiet Courage: Women Agents in the French Resistance, London, Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1990. ISBN 0-593-01663-7