Violette Szabo

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Violette Szabo
Violette Szabo IWM photo.jpg
Violette Szabo
NicknameLouise (also: La P'tite Anglaise)
Born26 June 1921 (1921-06-26)
Paris, France
Died5 February 1945 (1945-02-06) (aged 23)
Ravensbrück, Nazi Germany
AllegianceUnited Kingdom, France
Service/branchSpecial Operations Executive,
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
Years of service1941-1945 (FANY) /
1942/43-1945 (SOE)
RankEnsign
UnitF Section
AwardsUK George Cross ribbon.svg  George Cross  
Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 ribbon.svg   Croix de Guerre
Medaille de la Resistance ribbon.svg    Medaille de la Resistance
 
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Violette Szabo
Violette Szabo IWM photo.jpg
Violette Szabo
NicknameLouise (also: La P'tite Anglaise)
Born26 June 1921 (1921-06-26)
Paris, France
Died5 February 1945 (1945-02-06) (aged 23)
Ravensbrück, Nazi Germany
AllegianceUnited Kingdom, France
Service/branchSpecial Operations Executive,
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
Years of service1941-1945 (FANY) /
1942/43-1945 (SOE)
RankEnsign
UnitF Section
AwardsUK George Cross ribbon.svg  George Cross  
Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 ribbon.svg   Croix de Guerre
Medaille de la Resistance ribbon.svg    Medaille de la Resistance

Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell Szabo, GC, (26 June 1921 – c. 5 February 1945) was a World War II French-British secret agent.

Early life and marriage[edit]

Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris, on 26 June 1921, the second child of a French mother and an English taxi-driver father, 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 Étienne Szabo, 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 31. Shortly after the birth of their only child, Tania, Étienne died from chest wounds at the Battle of El Alamein in 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).

Allied spy[edit]

Training and first mission[edit]

After an assessment for fluency in French and a series of interviews, some at Winterfold House the training school designated STS 4 she was inducted into SOE. 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 also happened to be her nickname, she and SOE colleague Philippe Liewer reorganised a 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.

Second mission[edit]

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.

She 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.[1]

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."[2]

Interrogation, torture and execution[edit]

She 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.[how?][3][4]

Violette Szabo was executed, aged 23, by SS firing squad on or about 5 February 1945. Her body was cremated in the camp's crematorium.

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 or died in Nazi concentration camps.

Awards and honours[edit]

Szabo was the second woman to be awarded the George Cross, bestowed posthumously on 17 December 1946.[5] The citation was published in the London Gazette and read:[6]

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 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.

Museums and memorials[edit]

There is a blue plaque on the wall of the house where Violette Szabo grew up in Burnley Road, Stockwell.

The Violette Szabo GC Museum[7] is located in the cottage in Wormelow Tump, Herefordshire,[8] 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.[9]

The Jersey War Tunnels has a permanent exhibition room dedicated to Violette Szabo.[1]

The Royal College of Music offers an annual award called the Violette Szabo GC Memorial Prize for pianists who accompany singers.[10]

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.[11]

In 2008, a bronze bust of Szabo by sculptor Karen Newman was unveiled at the Albert Embankment of the River Thames, opposite Lambeth Palace.[12][13]

At the entrance to Lambeth Town Hall there is a plaque commemorating Violette's residence[14] in that borough.

Book[edit]

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[edit]

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.

References[edit]

Bibliography
Notes
  1. ^ a b "Violette Szabó 1921-1944 - a brief history". Jersey War Tunnels. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  2. ^ Helm, Sarah (2005). A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Little & Brown. p. 456. 
  3. ^ Minney, R.J. (1956). Carve Her Name With Pride. pp. 149–158. ISBN 0-86220-521-2. 
  4. ^ "Violette: A secret story of wartime bravery". www.thefreelibrary.com. Retrieved 9 September 2010. 
  5. ^ "George Cross facts". Marionhebblethwaite.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  6. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37820. p. 6127. 13 December 1946. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
  7. ^ http://www.violette-szabo-museum.co.uk/foyer.htm
  8. ^ "The Violette Szabo GC Museum". Geograph.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  9. ^ "Opening of the Violette Szabo museum". Powell-pressburger.org. 2000-06-24. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  10. ^ "RCM Prizes available in 2008" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  11. ^ "Unveiling of the Violette Szabo mural at Stockwell". Powell-pressburger.org. 2001-01-15. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  12. ^ "Violett Szabo sculpture". Karen-newman.com. Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  13. ^ "Secret agents' memorial unveiled". BBC. 4 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-05. 
  14. ^ http://landmark.lambeth.gov.uk/display_page.asp?section=landmark&id=2982
  15. ^ violetteszabo.org

External links[edit]