Violette Szabo has to be one of the bravest women in British history. Violette was recruited by the Special Operations Executive during World War II, was parachuted into France, captured, tortured and executed by the Germans in 1944 aged twenty three. Here we take a look at this amazing young woman in more detail.
In fact such was her accomplishments and unflinching heroism during World War II that she regularly features at number one on top ten lists of most iconic and heroic women in English history, ref www.wise-english.co.uk.
Violette was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Levallois Paris on the 26th June 1921. Her father Charles was English while her mother Reine was French. Violette had four brothers and the earliest part of her childhood was spent with her aunt in Picardy as her parents moved to London because of The Depression. Finally when Violette was eleven years old her family were reunited in Stockwell South London, while they ultimately settled at 18 Burnley Road where Violette is commemorated with a blue plaque.
Violette was somewhat a Tom Boy probably due to the fact that she spent much of her time with her four brothers and cousins who were also boys. The competition to be as athletic as the males in the family must have been tremendous and Violette excelled at athletics, gymnastics, cycling and even shooting as her father taught her how to fire a gun! Violettes petite stature, she was only five feet tall, did not hinder her at all as she was said to be as strong as the next man!
School days were spent in Brixton and Violette was a popular student who was much admired as she not only spoke English but French fluently. Violette left school at the age of fourteen and worked for a French corsetiere in Kensington, while later moving to a somewhat less exotic sounding Woolworths store located in Oxford Street in London.
Violette had a happy childhood and although doted on by her father (who spoke only English and would sometimes feel left out of conversations) was head strong and would often have raging rows with him with one row resulting in her making her way back to France alone.
Violette and Etienne
By 1939 Violette was working in a department store in Brixton called Le Bon Marche where she sold perfume. In 1940 she joined the womens land army strawberry picking in the countryside followed by working in an armaments factory in London. In 1940 her French mother asked her to go out and find a French soldier who would come and spend Bastille Day with the family. It was while searching for a suitable candidate that Violette met Etienne Szabo her future husband.
Etienne was a French officer who was also cut from the same type of cloth as Violette. Etienne won many honours including
- Croix de Guerre
The couple hit it off instantly falling in love and marrying within a very short time. Etienne was thirty one, while Violette was a mere nineteen years old but never the less knew her own mind. Once the couple had married Violette went to work as a telephonist at the GPO, while Etienne returned to duty in Senegal, South Africa, Syria and eventually North Africa where he was killed during an act of extreme bravery as he led his men from the front in the Second Battle at El Alamein in October 1942.
Violette had meanwhile joined the ATS but following her initial training found that she was pregnant so had to return to London. Her daughter Tania was born on the 8th June 1942 and Violette returned to work, this time in an aircraft factory, while Tania stayed with a minder. It was only three months after Tania's birth that Etienne was killed in action therefore he never saw his daughter which was extremely sad.
Violette Joins the SOE
Violette was devastated by Etienne's death and soon joined the SOE in order to become a field operative and courier. Violette would be extremely useful to the SOE as she could speak both French and English. Violette subsequently became Section Leader of The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a title that was created in order to keep her real missions secret and undercover.
Violette took part in strenuous paramilitary training in Scotland where she was instructed in Field Craft, Weapons, Demolition and Night and Day Navigation. Violette then attended training in Hampshire where she learned communications, cryptography, weaponry, uniform recognition and escape and evasion tactics. Finally Violette learned how to parachute jump out of a plane and passed the second time around as her first attempt resulted in a badly sprained ankle.
Violette was a much admired member of the SOE known for keeping up the morale of her colleagues as well as her zest for life. Violette was loved by men and women alike not only for her obvious physical beauty but also for her enthusiasm and never give up attitude.
Violettes First Mission
Violettes first mission was as courier to Phillipe Liewer who was head of the SALESMEN circuit in Normandy. The poem "The Life That I Have" was given to Violette as her code poem by Leo Marks Cryptographer at the SOE. This assignment was muted to be extremely dangerous, not something that fazed Violette. She travelled to Rouen alone under a false identity in order that she could investigate the circumstances surrounding the capture of Claude Malraux and an SOE wireless operator the month before.
Violette reported back that over one hundred French Resistance workers had been captured by the Gestapo. Violette returned to Liewer in Paris where she had left him to say that his network was crushed. The couple returned safely to England together.
The Fatal Mission
Violette along with three colleagues volunteered for this mission and were parachuted into Limoges on the 8th June 1944 the day after D Day. The aim of the second mission was to build a new SALESMAN circuit in the Limoges area. Violette was sent by car on June 10th to meet with Jacques Poirier.
The Second SS Panzer Division was moving north towards Violette something she and her colleague were unaware of. The couple came upon a road block and tried to turn around but Violettes ankle, the one she injured previously during training, gave way and she urged her companion to go on without her. Violette was subsequently captured, taken to Limoges Prison then on to Paris. Violette was at that time using one of her aliases, Vicky Tailor and she was taken for interrogation at The SS Security Services headquarters on Avenue Foch.
In August of that year Violette, Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe were deported along with thirty seven others to Saarbrucken Transit Camp located just inside the border of Germany. Their train was bombarded by allied aircraft and it was during this attack that the three women managed to get water for the other prisoners. Ten days later the three women were taken to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp North Germany where thousands of women died during the war, then on to Torgau.
The Final Months
The women were put to work in Torgau and survived under horrendous conditions albeit they were left in a much weakened state. Returning to Ravensbruck the women were placed in solitary confinement where they were brutally assaulted. Around February 5th 1945 Violette Szabo was executed by a shot in the back of her head aged just twenty three. Her two companions Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe met the same fate although these two brave women were so weakened that they were unable to walk to their deaths.
Cecily Lefort who was also an agent of the SOE was put to death in the gas chamber, while all the bodies were cremated in the camp crematorium. The SOE has fifty five female agents of which
- 13 were killed in action
- 12 executed
- One died from typhus
- One died from meningitis
All the operatives who died whether in camps by execution or otherwise were listed as killed in action.
- The George Cross
Violette Szabo was the second woman to be awarded the George Cross for bravery. Her award came posthumously on 17th December 1946 and was collected by her daughter Tania. Violette was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in 1947 along with La Medaille de la Resistance in 1973. Violette is also listed on the Valencay SOE memorial as one of the SOE agents who died liberating France. Violette and Etienne are the most decorated married couple of World War II.
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The Love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours
A Sleep I shall have a rest I shall have
And death will be but a pause
For the years I shall have in the long green grass
Are yours and yours and yours