The story of Violette Szabó, Special Operations agent during WWII
"She was the bravest of us all." Odette Churchill GC, SOE
Violette Szabo was a secret agent in occupied France during the Second World War. She was immortalised in the film ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, based on the book of the same name by R.J. Minney. Her spymaster during her time in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was Leo Marks, who gave her a code-poem titled ‘Yours’. This code-poem has become one of the most famous poems about the war.
Violette Bushell was born on 26th June 1921 in Paris, France. She was the daughter of a French mother and an English father. In 1940, Violette married Etienne Szabo, a French officer who was later killed at the Battle of El Alamein.
After her husband’s death Violette offered her services to the SOE. She was parachuted into France from where she sent reports back to SOE headquarters in England on factories producing war materials. These reports were very important to establish bombing targets. On her second tour of duty in France she helped the local resistance groups in preparing for the D-Day landings.
Violette was betrayed, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.She was executed on or about February 5, 1945. At Ravensbrück, three other SOE agents were executed: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, and Lilian Rolfe.
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 Szabó 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 south west of France. Resistance appeared hopeless but Madame Szabó, 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.
Training and first mission
After an assessment for fluency in the French language and a series of interviews, she was inducted into 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. A minor accident during parachute training delayed her deployment into the field until 5 April 1944, when she was parachuted into German-occupied France, near Cherbourg.
Code-named "Louise", she reorganized a French resistance network that had been smashed by the Germans. She led the new group in sabotaging road and rail bridges. Her wireless reports to SOE headquarters on the local factories producing war materials for the Germans were extremely important in establishing Allied bombing targets. She returned to England by Lysander on 30 April, 1944, after an intense but successful first mission.
She flew back to 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.
A brief gun battle ensued. Her Maquis minders escaped unscathed in the confusion. However, Szabó was captured when she ran out of ammunition, around mid-day on 10 June, 1944, near Salon-la-Tour. Her captors were most likely from the 1st Battalion of the Deutschland Regiment. In R. J. Minney's biography, she is described as putting up fierce resistance with her Sten gun. German documents of the incident record no German injuries or casualties.
Interrogation, torture, and execution
She was transferred to the custody of the SD in Limoges, where she was interrogated under torture, enduring sexual assault, rape and severe beatings. From there, she was moved, first to Fresnes Prison in Paris, then in August 1944 to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where over 92,000 women died. There, she endured hard labour and malnutrition.
Violette Szabó was executed on or about 5 February, 1945 and her body disposed of in the crematorium. She was 23 years old.
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, 13 were killed in action or died in Nazi concentration camps.
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