Violette Szabo was an undercover secret agent for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in Occupied France during World War Two. After completing two special missions, she was captured by the Germans and executed in 1945. This is her incredible story.
Early Life of Violette Szabo
The daughter of an English father and French mother, Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born in Paris on 26 June 1921. Sometime during her childhood, the family relocated to London where Violette attended school in Brixton. At the age of 14, she finished her education and worked briefly as a hairdresser’s assistant and, later, as a sales assistant in Woolworths.
After a brief, whirlwind romance, Violette married Captain Étienne Szabo, a 30-year-old officer serving in the French Foreign Legion. Almost immediately after the wedding, Étienne and his unit were deployed to North Africa while Violette joined the Auxiliary Transport Service.
After spending a week together while Étienne was on leave, Violette found out that she was pregnant and left the Auxiliary Transport Service. On 8 June 1942, she gave birth to Tania, the couple’s only child. However, in a tragic turn of events, Étienne was killed at the Battle of El Alamein on 24 October 1942. Violette now faced an uncertain future as a war window and single mother.
Special Operations Executive
The SOE was set up in 1940 with the dual aims of sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines. After moving to offices in Baker Street, the SOE began recruiting men and women and, due to reasons unknown, became aware of the recently-widowed Violette Szabo.
Shortly after Étienne’s death, Violette received a letter from a ‘Mr Potter’ inviting her for an interview in the offices at Baker Street. With her knowledge of the French language, Violette was exactly the kind of person the SOE wanted to recruit. They explained the job requirements and Violette immediately agreed.
One week later, she met with the SOE for a second time where she was informed of the potential risks of working behind enemy lines. Even though she had a one in four chance of dying, Violette was desperate to return to France and to punish the enemy that had so cruelly taken her husband’s life.
After intensive training in navigation, escape, weapons, communications and cryptography, Violette was ready to deploy. On 5 April 1944, she was flown to Rouen in a Lysander and parachuted to the ground below. She was now known as ‘Louise’ and was charged with reorganising the local Resistance movement after a series of arrests. Despite being arrested twice, Violette was able to complete her first mission within six weeks and return to London.
The day after D-Day, Violette began her second mission behind enemy lines. She was flown to the outskirts of Limoges and began working with Jacques Dufour, head of the local Maquis (guerrilla band) to sabotage German communication and coordinate the French Resistance.
On 10 June 1944, Violette was travelling in a car with Dufour when they were met by an unexpected German roadblock searching for soldiers captured by the French Resistance.
Capture and Execution
A brief gun battle ensued and Violette was captured by the SS and taken to Limoges for interrogation. She spent four days there and was then moved to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. She was tortured and interrogated but gave nothing away to her German captors.
In August 1944, she was taken to the notorious Ravensbruk concentration camp where she endured hard labour and squalid conditions. In early February 1945 (possibly the 5th) she was executed along with two other female SOE agents. She was just 23 years old.
Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Resistance. As fellow World War Two heroine, Odette Churchill, once said, “she was the bravest of us all.”
In October 2009, a memorial commemorating the SOE, featuring Violette, was unveiled on London’s Albert Embankment (pictured).
See also article on French resistance hero, Nancy Wake.