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|Violette Szabo, GC|
Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo, GC
|Nickname||Corinne and Louise (also: La P'tite Anglaise)|
|Born||26 June 1921
|Died||5 February 1945 (aged 23)
KZ Ravensbrück, Nazi Germany
|Allegiance||United Kingdom, France|
|Service/branch||Special Operations Executive,
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
|Years of service||1941-1945 (FANY) /
|Awards|| George Cross
Croix de Guerre
Medaille de la Resistance
Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo, GC, née Bushell, (26 June 1921 – c. 5 February 1945) was the daughter of an English father and French mother, and widow of a French army officer killed in action in North Africa in 1942, who served during World War II as an SOE agent on two missions in occupied France. On her second mission she was captured by the Germans, interrogated and tortured, and deported to Germany where she was eventually executed at Ravensbrueck concentration camp.
- 1 Early life
- 2 World War II, marriage and motherhood
- 3 Special Operations Executive F Section agent
- 4 Capture and interrogation
- 5 Ravensbrueck and execution
- 6 Awards and honours
- 7 Museums and memorials
- 8 Media
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris, on 26 June 1921. She was the second child of five and only daughter of an English soldier, taxi-driver, car salesman and, during World War II, storekeeper father, Charles George Bushell, son of a publican from Hampstead Norreys near Newbury in Berkshire, and a French dressmaker mother, Reine Blanche Leroy, originally from Pont-Remy, Somme, who had met during World War I. The family moved to London, but because of the Depression, Violette and her youngest brother, Dickie, lived with their maternal aunt in Picardy in northern France, until the family was reunited in Stockwell, south London, when Violette was eleven, first at 12 Stockwell Park Walk (now demolished), and then at 18 Burnley Road, Stockwell, where she is commemorated by a Blue Plaque She was a very active and lively girl, enjoying gymnastics, long-distance bicycling and ice-skating, and with four brothers and several male cousins, she was regarded as a tomboy, especially as she was taught by her father to be a good shot. Violette attended school in Brixton, quickly relearning the English she had lost, where she was popular and regarded as exotic due to her ability to speak fluent French, until the age of fourteen when she went to work at a French corsetiere in South Kensington and then at Woolworths in Oxford Street. Her home life was loving, although she often clashed with her strict father - once running away to France after an argument - and the family, excepting her monolingual father, would often converse in French. At the start of World War II, she was working at the perfume counter of Le Bon Marché, a department store in Brixton.
World War II, marriage and motherhood
In early 1940 Violette joned the Land Army and was sent to carry out strawberry picking in Fareham, Hampshire, but she soon returned ti London and went to work in an armaments factory in Acton, west London.
She met Adj-chef de la 13eme Demi-brigade de la legion etranges[nb 1] Étienne Szabo, Legion d'honneur, Medaille Militaire, Croix de guerre avec etiole et palme, a French officer of Hungarian descent, at the Bastille Day parade in London in 1940 where Violette had been sent by her mother, accompanied by her friend Winnie Wilson, to bring home a homesick French soldier for dinner. They married at Aldershot Registry Office - Etienne was stationed at Farnborough in Hampshire - on 21 August 1940 after a whirlwind 42-day romance. Violette was 19, Étienne was 31. They enjoyed a week's honeymoon before Etienne set off from Liverpool to fight in the unsucessful Free French attack on Dakar, Senegal From there Etienne returned to South Africa before seeing action, again against the Vichy French, in the successful Anglo-Free French campaigns in Eritrea and Syria in 1941.
After her marriage, Violette went to work as a switchboard operator for the General Post Office in central London, working throughout the Blitz, but bored by the work, on 11 September 1941 she enlisted in the Auxiliary Transport Service. She was posted to Leicester for initial training, before being sent to 7 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment in Oswestry, Shropshire, for specialised training as a predictor and then attached to 481 Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft Battery. Then after further training in Anglesey, Gunner Szabo and her unit were posted to Trodsham near Warrington in Cheshire from December 1941 to February 1942. However, Violette found within weeks that she was pregnant, so she left the ATS to return to London for the birth.
Violette took a flat at 36 Pembridge Villas in Notting Hill, London W1, which was to be her home until she left for her second mission to France in June 1944. On 8 June 1942 she gave birth to her daughter, Tania Damaris Desiree Szabo, at St Mary's hospital in Paddington while Etienne was stationed at Bir Hakeim in North Africa. The following day he was to take part in a valiant defence against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and then the escape with his battalion from the assault of the 15th Panzer Division on 10 June.
Violette sent her baby to childminders, firstly in Havant, Hampshire, and then in Mill Hill, north London, while she went to work at the aircraft factory in South Modern where her father was now working. Her time there was brief, as she was soon informed of the death in action of her husband. Étienne had died from chest wounds he received leading his men in a diversionary attack on El Heimimat at the beginning of the Second Battle of El Alamein on 24 October 1942. He had never seen his daughter. It was Étienne's death that made an inconsolable Violette decide to offer her services to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Special Operations Executive F Section agent
After an assessment for fluency in French and a series of interviews, some at Winterfold House, the training school designated STS 4, Szabo was inducted into the French Section of Special Operations Executive and commissioned an Ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She received intensive training in night and daylight navigation; escape and evasion, both Allied and German weapons, unarmed combat, demolitions, explosives, communications and cryptography. In his book "Das Reich" Max Hastings comments that Szabo was "adored by the men and women of SOE both for her courage and endless infectious cockney laughter".
An ankle injury during parachute training delayed her deployment until 5 April 1944, when she was flown by Lysander plane, meaning that they were not going to be dropped but were to land  into German-occupied France, near Cherbourg.
Under the code name "Louise", which happened to be her nickname (she was also nicknamed "La P'tite Anglaise", as she stood only 5'3" tall), she and SOE colleague Philippe Liewer (under the name "Major Charles Staunton"), organiser of the Salesman circuit, reorganised the Resistance network centred on Paris that had been broken up by the Germans. She led the new group in sabotaging road and railway bridges, and carried out reconnaissance in the Zone Interdict around Le Havre before meeting up with Liewer in Paris. Her wireless reports to SOE headquarters on the local factories producing war materials for the Germans were important in establishing Allied bombing targets.
She returned to England by Lysander, piloted by Bob Large, DFC of the RAF, on 30 April 1944, landing at RAF Tempsford, after an intense but successful first mission. Philippe Liewer returned at the same time in another Lysander.
After two aborted attempts, due to stormy weather on the night of 4/5 June and the abandonment of the intended landing ground on 5th/6th by the Resistance reception committee because of German patrols, Szabo and three colleagues were dropped by parachute from a USAF Liberator flown from RAF Harrington onto a landing field near Sussac on the outskirts of Limoges, early on 8 June 1944 (immediately following D-Day, and Tania Szabo's second birthday). Szabo was part of a four-person team with the circuit code-name 'Salesman II', led by her SOE commander Philippe Liewer (codename Hamlet), whose rolled-up Rouen circuit had been 'Salesman', and also made up of Second Lieutenant Jean-Claude Guiet (codenames Claude and Virgile) of the US Army as wireless operator (W/O), and Bob Maloubier (alias Bob Mortier; codenames Clothaire and Paco) of SOE who was to act as military instructor to the local Maquis.
Upon arrival, she was sent to coordinate the activities of the local Maquis (led by Jacques Dufour) in sabotaging communication lines during German attempts to stem the Normandy landings. When he arrived in the Limousin, Philippe Liewer found the local maquis to be poorly led and less prepared for action than he expected. In order to better coordinate Resistance activity against the Germans, he decided to send his courier, Violette Szabo, to the more amenable to action maquis of Correze and the Dordogne. However, due to poor intelligence gathering by the local Resistance, he was unaware that the 2nd SS Panzer Division was making its slow journey north to the Normandy battlefields through his area.
Capture and interrogation
At 9.30 am on 10 June Szabo set off on her mission, not by bicycle as Liewer would have preferred as less conspicuous, but in a Citroen driven by a young maquis section leader, Jacques Dufour ('Anastasie') who had insisted upon using the car, even though the Germans has forbidden the use of cars by the French after D-Day. On their way across the sunlit fields of south central France they picked up a twelve year-old boy who was the son of one of Dufour's friends. Unfortunately, their car raised the suspicions of German troops at an unexpected roadblock that had been set up to find Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, a battalion commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, who had been captured by the local resistance.[nb 2]
A brief gun battle ensued, and Dufour and the boy escaped unscathed in the confusion. However, Szabo sprained her ankle and was captured when she ran out of ammunition, around midday on 10 June 1944, near Salon-la-Tour. Her captors were most likely from the 1st Battalion of 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment Deutschland (Das Reich Division) whose commanding officer was the missing Sturmbannfuehrer Kampfe. In R.J. Minney's biography she is described as putting up fierce resistance with her Sten gun, although German documents of the incident record no German injuries or casualties. A recent biography of Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer for the French section of SOE, notes that that there was a great deal of confusion about what happened to Szabo—the story was revised four times—and states that the Sten gun incident "was probably a fabrication."
Violette Szabo was transferred to the custody of the Sicherheitsdienst(SD) (SS Security Service) in Limoges, where she was interrogated for four days. She gave the name "Vicky Taylor", the name she had intended to use if she needed to return to England via Spain. (Her reason for choosing this name is unknown, but it may have been a play on szabo being the Hungarian word for "tailor".) From there, she was moved to Fresnes Prison in Paris and brought to Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch for interrogation and torture by the Sickerheistdienst who by now knew of her true identity and operations as an SOE agent.
Ravensbrueck and execution
With the Allies driving deep into France and George Patton's 3rd US Army heading towards Paris, the decision was taken by the Germans to send their most valuable French prisoners to Germany. On 8 August 1944, Szabo, shackled to SOE wireless operator Denise Bloch, was entrained with other male and female prisoners, including several SOE agents she knew, for transfer. At some point in the journey, probably outside Chalons-sur-Marne, an Allied airraid caused the guards to temporarily abandon the train allowing Szabo and Bloch to get water from a lavatory to the caged male prisoners in the next carriage, the two women both providing inspiration and a morale boost to the suffering men. When the train reached Rheims the prisoners were taken by lorries to a large barn for two nights where Szabo, still tied at the ankle to Bloch, who was in good spirits, was able to wash some of her clothes in rudimentary fashion, and to speak about her experiences to her SOE colleague Henry Peuleve.
From Rheims, via Strasbourg, the prisoners went by train to Saarbruecken and a transit camp in the suburb of Neue Bremm, from whence Szabo and most of the other women were sent onwards to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where over 92,000 women were to die during the war. The exhausted women arrived at this notorious camp on 25 August 1944 after a terrible eighteen-day journey.
Although she endured hard labour and malnutrition. Here she managed to help save the life of Belgian resistance courier Hortense Clews[how?], and managed to keep up the spirits of her fellow detainees. While in Ravensbrueck, Szabo, Denise Bloch and Lillian Rolfe were sent to do hard manual labour in the sub-camp of Torgau, with Szabo only dressed in the summer dress she had been wearing when sent to Germany. In January 1945 the three British agents were recalled to Ravensbrueck and sent to the punishment block where they were kept in solitary confinement and brutally assaulted. They were already in poor physical condition — Rolfe could barely walk - and the torture managed to weaken even Violette Szabo's morale.[nb 3]
Violette Szabo was executed at Ravensbrueck, aged twenty-three, by shooting in the back of the head by SS-Rottenfuehrer Schult, in the presence of camp commandant Fritz Suhlen (who pronounced the death penalty), and camp overseer Johann Schwarzhuber (de), on or about 5 February 1945, along with Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe. Their bodies were cremated in the camp's crematorium.[nb 4]
Along with Szabo, three other women members of the SOE were also executed at Ravensbrück: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, and Cecily Lefort, who was murdered in the gas chamber sometime in February 1945. Of SOE's 55 female agents, thirteen were killed in action, twelve by execution, one from typhus in a Nazi concentration camp, and one in hospital of meningitis.
While there is some confusion about the precise circumstances of her execution, Violette Szabo, along with her male and female colleagues who died in the concentration camps, was recorded by the War Office as having been killed in action.
It must be noted that as an agent dressed in civilian clothes operating behind enemy lines, Violette Szabo was regarded by the Germans as a francs-tireur, and therefore she was not protected by the Geneva Convention; as such she was liable to summary execution. However, this does not excuse the treatment to which she was subject in captivity, especially at Ravensbrueck, and nor does it detract from the brave conduct that Mme Szabo exhibited before and after her arrest while on active duty.
Awards and honours
St. James's Palace, S.W.1. 17th December, 1946
The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: —
Violette, Madame SZABO (deceased), Women's Transport Service (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).
Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April, 1944, and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice arrested by the German security authorities but each time managed to get away. Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the southwest of France. Resistance appeared hopeless but Madame Szabo, seizing a Sten-gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement, she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted. She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness.
The Croix de guerre avec etoile de bronze was awarded by the French government in 1947 and the Médaille de la Résistance in 1973. As one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of France, Lieutenant Violette Szabo, FANY, is listed on the Valençay SOE Memorial.
Before her third birthday, both of Tania Szabo's parents were killed in action during World War II, and both were awarded the French Croix de guerre for their bravery in the field. In December 1947 five year-old Tania received the George Cross from King George VI on behalf of her late mother.
Museums and memorials
The Violette Szabo GC Museum is located in the cottage in Wormelow Tump, Herefordshire, that Violette's English cousins formerly owned, and that Violette would visit before the war to enjoy walks in the surrounding hills. She also stayed at the farm while she was recuperating from her ankle injury and between her two missions to France. Tania Szabo attended the museum's opening in 2000, as did Virginia McKenna, Leo Marks and members of SOE.
There is a mural dedicated to Violette Szabo in Stockwell, South London, painted in 2001: Stockwell War Memorial, Stockwell Road. Painted on the exterior of the entrance to a deep level shelter, this mural was executed by Brian Barnes (with the assistance of children from Stockwell Park School). It features Stockwell's famous people such as Violette Szabo and Vincent Van Gogh. It also commemorates the local people who gave their life in the war.
At the entrance to Lambeth Town Hall there is a plaque commemorating Violette's residence in that borough.
Szabo's daughter, Tania Szabo, wrote a reconstruction of her two 1944 missions into the most dangerous areas in France with flashbacks to her growing up. Author Jack Higgins wrote the foreword and US-French radio-operator, Jean-Claude Guiet, who had accompanied her on the mission in the Limousin, wrote the introduction. On 15 November 2007, at the launch of the book, Young Brave and Beautiful: The Missions of Special Operations Executive Agent Lieutenant Violette Szabo, at The Jersey War Tunnels, the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey said of her, "She's an inspiration to those young people today doing the same work with the risk of the same dangers". Odette Churchill GC said, "She was the bravest of us all."
Szabo's wartime activities in German-occupied France were dramatised in the film Carve Her Name with Pride, starring Virginia McKenna and based on the 1956 book of the same name by R. J. Minney. Whilst in the SOE, she met Leo Marks, codes officer of the SOE, who gave her what is now thought of as the definitive World War II poem code, The Life That I Have.
- Captain in the 13th Half-Brigade of the Foreign Legion
- Tania Szabo suggests in her semi-biography of her mother, 'Young, Brave and Beautiful', p389, that the troops may have been SS-Felfgendarmerie from Salon-Le-Tour who were protecting 'Das Reich's' rear
- There is some evidence Szabo may have been raped while in German custody Helm (Binney, p431)
- Mary Lindell, an escape line organiser also imprisoned in Ravensbrueck, believed the three women agents were hanged, as was the usual practice in the camp, and their clothes distributed to other prisoners (see Barry Wynne (1961) 'No drums...No trumpets: the story of Mary Liddell', p253), but Vera Atkins's investigations established the official version of shooting;
- Minney, R. J. (1956) Carve her Name with Pride: the Story of Violette Szabo. London: Newnes
- Ottaway, Susan (2003) Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have. Pen & Sword Books ISBN 0-85052-976-X
- Szabó, Tania (2007) Young Brave and Beautiful: the Missions of Special Operations Executive Agent, Lieutenant Violette Szabó, George Cross, Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de bronze, St Helier: distributed by Tania Szabó, ISBN 1-905095-20-1. 496 pp, index, bibliography, plus 30 pages of illustrations.
- Foot, M.R.D., "Szabo, Violette Reine Elizabeth", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004: rev. edn 2008)
- Helm, Sarah (2005) "A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE"
- Binney, Marcus (2002) "The Women who Lived for Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War"
- Plaque reads: "Violette Szabo, GC, 1921-1945, Secret Agent, lived here. SHE GAVE HER LIFE FOR THE FRENCH RESISTANCE.
- Ottaway, Susan, 'Violette Szabo: The Life that I Have...' & 2002 pp10-14.
- Ottaway, p11.
- Ottaway, pp15-16.
- Ottaway, pp13-14 & 16.
- Ottaway, p9.
- Ottaway, p19.
- "Violette Szabo and Etienne Szabo". Violetteszabo.org. 1942-10-24. Retrieved 2014-02-27.
- Ottaway, pp22-25.
- Grehan, John; Mace, Martin (2012). Unearthing Churchill's Secret Army: The Official List of Soe Casualties and Their Stories. Casemate Publishers. ISBN 9781783376643.
- Ottaway, pp26-7.
- Ottaway, pp28-29.
- Ottaway, pp31-35.
- Ottaway, p39-40.
- Ottaway, pp40-43.
- Hastings, Max (2012). Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 9780330529136.
- Carve her name with pride (ISBN 978 1 84415 441 8)- p114
- Binney, Marcus (2002) 'The Women who Lived for Danger: The women agents of SOE in the Second World War',p220
- M.R.D.Foot, 'Szabo, Violette Reine Elizabeth (1921.1945)', rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004; online edn, Jan 2011
- "Violette Szabó 1921-1944 - a brief history". Jersey War Tunnels. Retrieved 2008-11-21.
- Helm, Sarah (2005). A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Little & Brown. p. 456.
- Ottaway, Susan (2002). Violette Szabo. Naval Institute Press. p. 110. ISBN 9781557504999.
- Minney, R.J. (1956). Carve Her Name With Pride. pp. 149–158. ISBN 0-86220-521-2.
- "Violette: A secret story of wartime bravery". www.thefreelibrary.com. Retrieved 9 September 2010.
- Binney, pp241.244
- "George Cross facts". Marionhebblethwaite.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- The London Gazette: . 13 December 1946. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
- "The Violette Szabo GC Museum". Geograph.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- "Opening of the Violette Szabo museum". Powell-pressburger.org. 2000-06-24. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- "RCM Prizes available in 2008" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- "Unveiling of the Violette Szabo mural at Stockwell". Powell-pressburger.org. 2001-01-15. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- "Violett Szabo sculpture". Karen-newman.com. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
- "Secret agents' memorial unveiled". BBC. 4 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
- "Memorial Plaque, Violette Szabo, Lambeth Town Hall". Landmark.lambeth.gov.uk. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
- "violetteszabo.org". Violetteszabo.org. 1942-10-24. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Violette Szabo.|
- Violette Szabó GC site built by Tania Szabo, the daughter of Violette
- Violette Szabo Museum
- Violette Szabo GC Museum
- Special Operations Executive Agents in France - Nigel Perrin's profile of Violette Szabo
- Special Forces Roll Of Honour website
- Carve Her Name with Pride at the Internet Movie Database
- Les Fernandez - Daily Telegraph obituary of the man who trained Violette Szabo