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.

Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris, on 26 June 1921, the second child of five and only daughter of an English soldier, taxi-driver and car salesman father, Charles George Bushell, and a French dressmaker mother, Reine Blanche Leroy, from Pont-Remy, Somme, who had met during World War I. The family moved to London, and she attended school in Brixton until the age of 14. At the start of World War II, she was working at the perfume counter of Le Bon Marché, a department store in Brixton.

Violette met Adj-chef de la 13eme Demi-brigade de la legion etranges[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. They married on 21 August 1940 after a whirlwind 42-day romance. Violette was 19, Étienne was 30. Shortly after the birth of their only child, Tania, Étienne died from chest wounds he received leading his men in a diversionary attack at the Second Battle of El Alamein on 24 October 1942. He had never seen his daughter. It was Étienne’s death that made Violette, having already joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1941, decide to offer her services to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).

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. 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 parachuted 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 (‘Major Charles Staunton’), organiser of the Salesman circuit, reorganised the Resistance network that had been broken up by the Germans. She led the new group in sabotaging road and railway bridges. 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 on 30 April 1944, landing at RAF Tempsford, after an intense but successful first mission.

She flew to the outskirts of Limoges, France on 7 June 1944 (immediately following D-Day) from RAF Tempsford. Immediately on arrival, she coordinated the activities of the local Maquis (led by Jacques Dufour) in sabotaging communication lines during German attempts to stem the Normandy landings.

Szabo was a passenger in a car that raised the suspicions of German troops at an unexpected roadblock that had been set up to find Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe of the Das Reich Division, who had been captured by the local resistance.
A brief gun battle ensued. Her Maquis minders escaped unscathed in the confusion. However, Szabo 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). 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. From there, she was moved to Fresnes Prison in Paris and brought to Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch for interrogation and torture.
In August 1944, she was moved to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where over 92,000 women died. Although she endured hard labour and malnutrition, she managed to help save the life of Belgian resistance courier Hortense Clews, 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 break even Violette Szabo’s morale.[9]
Execution[edit]

Violette Szabo was executed, at the age of 23, by shooting in the back of the head by SS-Mann Schult, on or about 5 February 1945, along with Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe Their bodies were cremated in the camp’s crematorium.

There is some evidence that Szabo may have been raped while in German captivity, and Mary Lindell, an escape line organiser also imprisoned in Ravensbrueck, believed the three women agents were hanged, as was the usual practice in Ravensbrueck, and their clothes distributed to other prisoners.
Three other women members of the SOE were also executed at Ravensbrück: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, and Lilian Rolfe. Of the SOE’s 55 female agents, thirteen were killed in action, twelve by execution and one from typhus in a Nazi concentration camp.

Whatever 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 while on active service.

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 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, Ensign Szabo 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.

Book

Her 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.”
Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s Story 1941-1945 includes a description of her by Leo Marks.

In popular culture

Her 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. The video game Velvet Assassin by Replay Studios is inspired by Szabo’s life as an allied spy during the Second World War, with the protagonist sharing her first name. Howard Brenton’s play Hitler Dances caused some controversy by depicting Szabo as more of a real and vulnerable woman, rather than the heroic, patriotic archetype of Carve Her Name with Pride.

via Violette Szabo – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.