Szabo, Violette (1921–1945)
Szabo, Violette (1921–1945)
British secret agent in France during World War II. Name variations: (code name) Louise. Born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell (some sources cite Bushnell) on June 26, 1921 (some sources cite 1918), in Paris, France; executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp sometime between January 25 and February 5, 1945 (some sources cite January 26); daughter of Charles Bushell (an Englishman who operated a fleet of tourist taxis) and a French mother (name unknown); educated mostly in London; married Etienne Michel René Szabo (a French soldier), in August 1940 (killed in action on October 24, 1942); children: daughter Tania (b. June 8, 1942).
Awarded the George Cross for courage for her work in Normandy and around Limoges (1946); awarded the Croix de Guerre (1947).
During World War II, British agent Violette Szabo single-handedly held off a Nazi SS infantry regiment so her partner, a local leader of the Maquis, could escape with information important to the Allies. Captured and sent to Paris for interrogation, she never revealed the identity of any of her contacts. She was tortured in Nazi prisons, then sent with two other women agents to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where all three were executed.
Violette Szabo was born Violette Bushell in Paris in 1921. Her father Charles Bushnell, an Englishman who operated a fleet of tourist taxis, and her French mother, whose name is unknown, had met while Charles was serving in World War I. Szabo was raised in London, speaking French with her mother and English with her father and friends. She was a cyclist and a good gymnast, and excelled at athletic games and feats requiring muscular strength. Her father taught her to shoot at carnival shooting galleries. After finishing school, Szabo became a hairdresser's assistant and later worked in a large department store. Apolitical, she did not take the war against Hitler seriously until the tragedy was brought home when her mother's homeland of France fell.
On Bastille Day, July 14, 1940, there was a parade in London of the Free French Army. Mrs. Bushell, who drove an ambulance for the Women's Transport Service of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs), sent Violette to find a French soldier to bring home for dinner. Five weeks after Etienne Michel René Szabo accepted the invitation, he and Violette were married. Their wedding ceremony, however, was interrupted by an air raid, and their honeymoon lasted only a few days. Etienne then sailed with his regiment to North Africa. Violette saw him only once more, for a week in Liverpool where he had been sent for a short vacation. After he flew back to Cairo, she joined the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS), a women's branch of the British Army. In April 1942, she took a leave to prepare for the arrival of her daughter, Tania Szabo , who was born on June 8 in Paddington. Violette wrote her husband regularly, but she had no news of him until that October, when she learned that he had been killed while advancing against General Erwin Rommel's forces at El Alamein in North Africa. Along with bringing her shock and grief, the news of his death intensified her hatred of the Nazis and of the terror and destruction they were spreading across Europe.
Szabo now wanted a more direct role in the war, as a spy. Because she was bilingual, she was the perfect candidate, much valued by the British War Office, but her enthusiasm almost worked against her. The life of a spy requires a person who can handle the dull as well as dangerous and highly confidential work. Some sources say she was approached to become an agent, while others say she applied to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Szabo was offered a desk job, but she held out for an agent's assignment. Accepted as an agent, she was officially commissioned as an ensign in the FANYs while secretly being trained for sabotage and parachute jumping. Even her parents did not know of her true assignment. Slim, beautiful and high-spirited, with natural athletic ability and a rugged physical constitution, Szabo excelled. She was taught holds and grips for unarmed combat, and proved outstanding at weapons training, becoming an expert with Bren and Sten guns. She told her training officer, Peggy Minchin , she would be happy to die fighting if only she could take some Germans with her. During this time, however, she twisted her ankle at parachute training school, and it was never strong after that.
Szabo undertook her first mission in France in May 1944, when she traveled as a courier from Paris to Rouen tracing uncaptured members of a Rouen-based Resistance group that had been uncovered and broken up. Successful, she returned to England after about six weeks of work. In early June, she parachuted into occupied Paris. Her mission was to coordinate groups of French Resistance spies with the local underground leader, whose code name was "Anastasia"; her orders were to protect him at all costs. After successfully completing one mission, they ran into a Gestapo patrol from an SS infantry regiment on its way to reinforce German divisions. Szabo and Anastasia left their car and ran. The Germans shot Violette in the arm, but she continued to run, turning and firing at them from her Sten gun until her weak ankle gave out. Though Anastasia tried to help her, she insisted that he escape. While he did so, she stood and emptied her magazine at the Germans, who had been joined by reinforcements. Other accounts have Szabo keeping the Nazis at bay with her rapid-firing machine gun, moving from window to window in a small house as she covered her partner's escape.
Anastasia hid in a woodpile. Szabo fired until she ran out of ammunition and the Germans closed in. They took her biting and kicking to an officer who stood near Anastasia's hiding place. When the officer offered her a cigarette, she spat in his face. Without discovering the Maquis leader, the Nazis took Szabo to a jail in Limoges. Though she was interrogated for hours, she never revealed the information they wanted. They then sent her to Fresne, the notorious prison near Paris, where she was placed under heavy guard, interrogated and tortured.
In August 1944, while the Allies were approaching Paris, the Nazis evacuated their prisoners and deported them to concentration camps in Germany. Szabo was one of twelve women who were chained in pairs and sent on a week's journey by night train. Several male SOE officers were also on that train, including a good friend of Szabo's, with whom she spoke. That British officer survived the war, and reported what she had told him to SOE. During the journey, the train was attacked by British forces and the Germans fled to try to defend themselves. With another woman chained to her, Szabo dragged herself through the corridor with bottles of water for the men agents who were going mad with thirst. Seventeen Germans were killed in the air attack. The train was put out of commission and the prisoners were held in stables for the night.
Finally, Szabo and the other women prisoners arrived at Ravensbrück, the most feared women's concentration camp, where Odette Sansom was also imprisoned. There they were met by jackbooted women guards wielding whips. Illness, beatings and torture were common at Ravensbrück. Prisoners shared bunks infested with lice, and the smell of death from the crematoriums was everywhere. They were forced to labor from dawn to dusk on starvation rations, building roads or working in the fields or in the war factories. Twice, Szabo was caught trying to escape and sent to solitary confinement, where she was whipped. In the cold of winter, she was sent with two other SOE agents, Danielle Bloch and Lilian V. Rolfe , to a site 300 miles away and forced to cut down trees to prepare the land for an aerodrome. Danielle Bloch (codenamed "Ambrosia") was Jewish and consequently a target for the Nazis. She had worked with the French Resistance before escaping to Britain and joining the SOE. After training, she returned to the Paris Sector on March 3, 1944. Acting as a courier, she carried out much useful work until the group was betrayed on June 19, 1944, and she was captured during a Gestapo raid on one of the group's hideouts. Lilian V. Rolfe (codenamed "Nadine") was a tall, dark young woman with an English father and a French mother. Brought up in Brazil, she had been living in Surrey when she joined the SOE, and arrived in the field on April 6, 1944, to act as a wireless (radio) operator. She was captured by a group of Germans who had not been looking for her but took her into custody after questioning.
Szabo, Bloch and Rolfe were sent back to Ravensbrück a few months before the German surrender. There, sometime between January 25 and February 5, 1945, Szabo was executed with a bullet to the back of the neck. Bloch and Rolfe were killed the same way.
After the war, their friend Vera Atkins traveled to Germany to search the prisons and the
camps for any information on the women's fate. For many weeks, she interviewed hundreds of people connected with the Nazi concentration camps, building up a dossier of evidence which was used at the war trials. Among the men she interviewed was Johann Schwarzhuber, second-in-command at Ravensbrück, who was later hanged. His statement to Atkins read:
One evening, towards 1900 hours they (Lilian, Danielle, Violette) were called out and taken to the cemetery yard by the crematorium. Camp Commandant Suhren made these arrangements. He read out the order for their shooting…. I was myself present. The shooting was done by Schult with a small caliber gun through the back of the neck. They were brought forward singly by Corporal Schenk. Death was certified by Dr K Trommer. The corpses were removed singly by internees who were employed in the crematorium, and burnt. The clothes were burnt with the bodies.
I accompanied the three women in the crematorium yard. A female overseer was also present and was sent back when we reached the crematorium. Zappe stood guard over them while they were waiting to be shot.
All three were very brave and I was deeply moved, Suhren was also impressed by the bearing of these women. He was annoyed that the Gestapo did not themselves carry out these shootings.
In all, 50 SOE women agents were sent to France. Fifteen were captured by the Nazis, two of those fifteen escaped and only Odette Sansom survived. Violette Szabo was awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest civilian award, in 1946. The following year, France awarded her the Croix de Guerre, its highest honor. In 1981, a commemorative blue plaque was placed on the home in London where Szabo had lived with her parents and daughter; it reads in part, "Secret Agent lived here. She gave her life for the French Resistance." The United Kingdom also issued a postage stamp in her honor in 1995, and in June 2000, the house in Wormelow, Herefordshire, where Szabo often visited her aunt and uncle opened as the Violette Szabo Museum.
Fraser, Antonia, ed. Heroes and Heroines. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980.
Gleeson, James Joseph. They Feared No Evil: The Woman Agents of Britain's Secret Armies 1939–45. London: R. Hale, 1976.
Mahoney, M.H. Women in Espionage: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA, 1993.
Minney, R.J. Carve Her Name with Pride. London, 1956.
Carve Her Name with Pride (119 min. British film), starring Paul Scholfield and Virginia McKenna as Szabo, based on the book by R.J. Minney, produced by Rank, 1958.