The preparation for D-Day on the Allied side took a couple of years of meticulous planning, training, the massing of troops and then intense coordination with air, sea and land forces as well as coordinating the French resistance.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) was the driving force behind infiltrating agents into occupied France, setting up intelligence networks, coordinating with the French resistance, arming guerilla bands, and performing acts of sabotage and subversion.
One of the best known of these British agents was a woman, Violette Szabo who was as brave as she was beautiful. Code-named Corrinne, Szabo conducted two missions into France. On her second one, shortly after D-Day, she was captured by elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division who were moving into Normandy after the Allied invasion. She got into a sharp fire-fight with the Germans, allowing her teammates to escape. But she was captured, beaten, tortured by the Gestapo and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was executed in January 1945. She was just 23 years old at the time of her death.
Early Life, Following a Tomboy Lifestyle:
Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Levallois Paris on June 26, 1921. Her father was English and her mother French. They met during World War I and together they had four boys and just one girl, Violette.
Because she was surrounded by four brothers as well as several other male cousins, Violette was a tomboy and she competed with them, excelling in athletics, gymnastics, cycling, and shooting, something her father taught her well. It was said, that despite being just five foot three, she was as strong as a man.
The family moved to South London and Violette was popular because she was athletically gifted, beautiful, and could speak French as well as English. She left school at just 14, working in the retail industry.
When the war broke out, she was a perfume saleswoman in a department store. In the dark days of 1940 with Free Frenchmen pouring into England, her mother sent her to find a lonesome French soldier to celebrate Bastille Day with.
Violette met Etienne Szabo, French Foreign Legion officer. And although he was 31 and she just 19, they began a torrid love affair and the two were married just five weeks later. Soon after their marriage, Etienne was sent back to Africa where he served in Senegal, South Africa and then Syria. Violette was working as a telephone operator. Etienne returned briefly to England, where Violette got pregnant with their first child. He was then sent to North Africa where he was killed at El Alamein in October 1942. His daughter Tania was born on June 8, 1942, he never got to see his daughter. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille Militaire, and the Legion d’honneur.
Szabo Joins SOE:
Violette was devastated by her husband’s death and then volunteered to join SOE as a courier. Because of her ability to speak fluent French and English, she was accepted. She was given a cover assignment as a Section Leader of The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, as was typical for SOE operatives.
Szabo had to successfully complete paramilitary training in Scotland where she was instructed in Field Craft, Weapons, Demolition and Night and Day Navigation. She then attended training in Hampshire where she learned communications, cryptography, weaponry, uniform recognition and escape and evasion tactics. Although she wasn’t excelling in her courses, she passed. Where she did excel was in the physical aspects of the course and was rumored to be the best shot in the SOE.
After completing the Group B’s “finishing school” at Beaulieu in Hampshire, which taught students how to operate as undercover agents, she learned how to parachute out of an airplane and passed the second time around as her first attempt resulted in a badly sprained ankle.
Szabo was offered her first mission as a courier to Philippe Liewer, the head of the SALESMAN circuit in Normandy. This was a busy time for SOE. In the buildup for the Normandy invasion, during the fourth quarter of 1943, SOE flew 105 sorties to France. By the second quarter of 1944, that number skyrocketed to 1665.
Szabo’s mission was a dangerous one. London had received a message that Liewer’s deputy, Claude Malraux was arrested in Rouen. Liewer couldn’t risk going himself, so he remained in Paris and sent Szabo to assess the situation, far more difficult than a traditional courier role.
They arrived on April 6 and Szabo traveled to Rouen under the false identity of a secretary named “Corinne Leroy”. She spent three weeks doing a careful investigation of what happened to the SALESMAN circuit. Malraux and SOE radio operator Isadore Newman had been arrested. Also, more than 100 members of the resistance group had been rounded up and were in the hands of the Gestapo. She delivered the news to Liewer back in Paris that his cell was shattered. His wanted poster was plastered all over the town. They left France and were flown back to England on April 30.
During the period of February-May 1944, SOE airdropped to French resistance forces in France 76,290 Sten guns, 27,961 pistols, 16,945 rifles, 3441 Bren guns, 572 bazookas, 304 PIATs, and 160 mortars.
In addition to the SOE agents, 100 Jedburgh teams were dropped into France in uniform to coordinate with French resistance units operations. Each Jedburgh team had two officers and one sergeant radio operator. The “Jeds” had British, American and French team members.
Szabo had proved herself very capable and was promoted to Ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, her cover organization. She volunteered for a second mission with Liewer to attempt to rebuild the SALESMAN cell in Limoges in west‐central France. They parachuted in on the night of June 7-8 just after the Allied invasion.
On the morning of June 10, Liewer sent Szabo by car with another agent Jacques Dufour to meet with Jacques Poirer. The Maquis in the area weren’t as ready for action as previously believed and poorly led. Szabo was to act as his liaison officer. The local Maquis also didn’t know that, due to the invasion, the 2nd SS Panzer Division was moving up to the coast and passing thru their area.
Szabo wanted to move by bicycle but Dufour insisted that they travel by car, something the Germans had forbidden the French to drive in the aftermath of the invasion. If even seen driving, it would immediately arouse suspicion with the Germans. It would prove to be fateful. Szabo was armed with a Sten gun and two magazines. On the way, they picked up another resistance member Jean Bariaud.
The Germans had set up roadblocks in the town of Salon-la-Tour to find Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, a battalion commander of the 2nd SS that had been kidnapped by the resistance. As Dufour slowed the car, Bariaud leaped from it, escaping into the woods and warning the rest of the resistance about what transpired.
Szabo and Dufour leaped from the car and Dufour opened fire. The gun battle resulted in a French woman being killed as she emerged from a nearby barn. Once armored cars arrived on the scene the two fled across a stream and up to a hill where Szabo twisted the same ankle that she had hurt during her parachute training.
She leaned against an apple tree and provided covering fire against the Germans long enough for Dufour to escape. He made it to a friend’s barn and hid out. Szabo was captured. A German SS officer put a cigarette in her mouth, she spat it out and demanded one of her own.
Szabo was transferred to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, the SS Security Service) in Limoges, where she was brutally interrogated for four days by SS-Sturmbannführer Kowatch. She was then transferred to Gestapo HQ in Paris where she was tortured. Her cover story and the name she used “Vicky Taylor” was blown and by then the Germans knew of her real name and her activities.
Szabo was shackled to SOE radio operator Denise Bloch and they began a long, circuitous journey to Ravensbrück concentration camp which took ten days. There she kept up the morale of other prisoners and refused to work as slave labor in the Heinkel munitions factory. They were placed in the vegetable garden where the women dug potatoes.
In early October, they were moved back to Ravensbrück and later to a punishment camp at Königsburg where they were forced into hard, physical labor cutting down trees and clearing the field by hand to construct an airfield. But despite this, Szabo kept the morale of the others high and was always trying to find a way to escape.
With the Allies pushing the Germans back on all fronts, they weren’t going to allow the SOE agents to survive. On the morning of February 5, 1945, Szabo was executed, shot in the back of the head while forced to kneel, by SS-Rottenführer Schult in the presence of camp commandant Fritz Suhren. Along with her the other two SOE women, Denise Bloch, and Lilian Rolfe were also executed. The other two women were too weak to stand and were carried by stretcher to the execution. Their bodies were then sent to the crematorium.
Awarded the George Cross:
Szabo was posthumously awarded the George Cross on December 17, 1946, only the second woman to be awarded that honor. Her citation reads:
St. James’s Palace, S.W.1. 17 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 south-west 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.
She was also later awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. She and her husband Etienne were the most decorated couple in World War II.
Her daughter Tania wrote a book about her mother’s missions in France, called “Young, Brave and Beautiful”, that author Jack Higgins (The Eagle has Landed) wrote the forward for. A film was made about her exploits, “Carve Her Name with Pride” that starred Virginia McKenna as Szabo. A 2009 video game, “Velvet Assassin” is based on Szabo.
In 2009 she was also chosen as the “face” of the SOE memorial, unveiled on London’s Albert Embankment. There is a Violette Szabo museum at Wormelow, Herefordshire.