In late January 1945–about the same point in time at which Auschwitz was liberated–Violette Szabo was shot, in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Like Noor Inayat Khan, about whom I have written previously, she was an agent of the shadowy British organization Special Operations Executive. Noor and Violette were very different people; the heroism was the same.

Violette Bushnell was born to a French mother and a British father; she grew up mostly in Britain. As a child, she had something of a reputation as a daredevil and a tomboy; this did not keep her from developing into an extraordinary beauty. She left school at 14, working first as a hairdresser and later as a clerk at a Woolworth’s store. In 1940, shortly after the fall of France, she met and married Etienne Szabo, an officer in the French Foreign legion. After Etienne departed for the fighting in North Africa, Violette decided that she wanted to do something on her own to aid in the war effort.

Although it not very well known in the US, Britain had a number of mixed (male/female) anti-aircraft batteries for home defense. General Sir Frederick Pile, the innovative head of AA Command, had elected this politically-unpopular approach as a way of dealing with severe manpower shortages. The division of labor in a mixed AA battery was typically this: the women operated the tracking, rangefinding, and computing instruments; the men loaded and fired the actual guns.

Violette became a member of the 137th HAA Regiment, Royal Artillery, and was assigned to operate the mechanical fire control computer. She was good at her job and was active and popular with her comrades during off-duty hours. She gave French lessons, and once did a dance exhibition which became legendary in the battery as a result of what would today be called a “wardrobe malfuction.”

Etienne was able to return to England for a short leave, and Violette had to quit the battery when she became pregnant. Their daughter, Tania, was born in June 1942; Violette herself was 21 at the time. Etienne never met his daughter: he was killed in North Africa that October.

Some time later, Violette received a letter from a Mr Potter, asking her to come in for a government job interview. “Mr Potter” did not, in fact, exist: the interview was really with Selwyn Jepson, a writer who had become a principal recruiter for Special Operations Executive. SOE had been created, at the urging of Winston Churchill, to “set Europe ablaze.” It was not an espionage organization; it was a resistance and sabotage organization. Agents were sent into occupied Europe by parachute, light aircraft, and even by boat…their mission was to develop, assist, and coordinate the local resistance efforts. Violette’s fluency in French, combined with her courage, spirit, intelligence, and athletic ability, made her a desirable candidate for the job of agent.

After being fully informed of the risks, Violette chose to join SOE. The training program encompassed security and deception, firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and cryptography. It’s said that Violette was not only the best marksman in her training class, but one of the best in the history of SOE…a legacy of the time she had spent at shooting galleries as a teenager trying to win free cigarettes.

Just before leaving for her first mission, she was given a refresher course in cryptography by Leo Marks, SOE’s youthful Codemaster. One of the methods used for encrypting messages involved memorizing a poem and then using the letters of the poem as a key. Violette was having trouble remembering the poem she had chosen (a French nursery rhyme) and Marks suggested that she might want to try a different one. She asked if he had any ideas, and he recited a poem beginning with these lines:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours

Violette liked the poem and wanted to use it as her code-poem. “Who wrote this?” she asked Marks, and he told her he would have to check and get back to her. In fact, Marks had written it himself for his fiancee, who had been killed in an accident before he could give it to her.

Violette’s first SOE mission was in April, 1944. Her objective was to go into Rouen, where resistance groups had been decimated by the Germans, and gather information about the strength of the remaining forces and the identity of key leaders. She made the trip by Lysander aircraft, and spent several weeks in Rouen. After completing her mission, she rewarded herself with a shopping expedition in Paris. She was picked up by Lysander and returned to Britain.

She agreed to participate in another mission and, one day after D-day, she returned to France–this time making the trip by parachute and with a group. The objective was to help coordinate resistance in the south of France, delaying powerful German units that were being sent to reinforce the German troops in Normandy.

On a courier mission with a local leader named Jacques Dufour, a German roadblock was encountered. Jacques and Violette tried to run, but Violette twisted her ankle and was unable to continue. Urging her parner to get away, she opened fire with her submachine gun, and held the Germans off long enough for him to make his escape. Estimates of the number of German troops she killed or wounded are highly varied.

Out of ammunition, Violette was captured and taken for interrogation: it is believed she gave away nothing of significance. With other prisoners, she was put on a train for Germany. A British fighter-bomber attacked the train, not knowing it contained prisoners and wounded. The guards abandoned the train. Escape was not possible, but Violette–although chained at the ankle to another woman–carried water to the desperately-thirsty men in another car.

She was taken to Ravensbrueck concentration camp and, after enduring months of suffering, was shot, together with two other SOE agents (Lillian Rolfe and Denise Bloch.)

After the war, she was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery. The medal was presented by the King to Violette’s daughter, Tania.

Violette’s story was told in the book Carve Her Name with Pride, which became a movie of the same name. (Violette was played by Virginia McKenna, best known for Ring of Bright Water.) A more recent biography is The Life That I Have, by Susan Ottaway.

Short biography, with picture, at 64 Baker Street. A small museum dedicated to Violette has been established in Herefordshire, in the house where she and her family often spent summers. The museum has created a documentary video about her, which is well worth seeing. There is also a vivid word-portrait of Violette in Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks. Marks was the SOE codemaster who met with Violette just before her first mission to France…it is through this memoir that I first became aware of Violette, the other female SOE agents, and the work of SOE in general.


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