Categories: Women in World War II | World War II British Spies | Special Operations Executive | French Resistance, World War II | Female resistance members of World War II | World War II Resistance | George Cross | 1939-1945 Star | France and Germany Star | War Medal 1939-1945 | Croix de guerre 1939-1945 | Médaille de la Résistance | Died while Prisoner of War, United Kingdom, World War II | Spies and Traitors | Prisoners of War, United Kingdom, World War II.
||Violette (Bushell) Szabo GC was a Black Sheep and an accused spy or traitor|
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Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris on 26 June 1921. She was the second child of five and the only daughter of an English father Charles George Bushell and French mother Reine Blanche Leroy. The family moved to London, but because of the Great Depression, Violette and Dickie, her youngest brother, lived with their maternal aunt in northern France until the family was reunited in south London when Violette was eleven. Violette was a very active who enjoyed gymnastics, bicycling, and ice-skating with four brothers and cousins. Violette was often regarded as a tomboy, especially because she was taught by her father to be a good shot with a gun. Besides being able to speak English, she was fluent in French. She left school at the age of 14 and started to work as a hairdresser’s assistant. After this job, she worked at the Oxford Street branch of Woolworth’s as a sales assistant.  At the outbreak of the Second World War, she was working at Le Bon Marché, a Brixton department store.
From early in the war, Violette was determined to contribute to the war effort. She joined the Land Army and was sent to Fareham, Hampshire to help with harvesting food. Violette soon returned to London and began working in an armaments factory in Acton. On 14 July 1940 and to mark Bastille Day, Violette’s mother urged her to go to the Cenotaph in central London and invite a French soldier home for a meal. The man she asked home, Sergeant Major Étienne Szabó, a member of the French Foreign Legion, fell in love with her and less than six weeks later, on 21 August 1940 they were married in Aldershot, Hampshire.  He was 30 and she was 19. Soon, however, Szabó’s husband had to go to fight in North Africa and they did not see each other for a year. 
After her marriage to Étienne, Violette took a job with the General Post Office in London. She quickly became bored with this job and enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) on 11 Sep 1941. She was posted to Leicester for initial training before being sent to one of the first mixed anti-aircraft batteries of the 7th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment, Royal Artillery in Oswestry, Shropshire for specialized instruction as a predictor and then to the 481st Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft Battery. After further training in Anglesey, Gunner Szabo and her unit were posted to Frodsham, Cheshire near Warrington, from December 1941 to February 1942. Violette found within weeks that she was pregnant, so she left the ATS to return to London for the birth. 
After spending a week together while Étienne was on leave in the summer of 1941, Violette found out that she was pregnant and left the Auxiliary Territorial 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 Second Battle of El Alamein on 24 October 1942. Violette now faced an uncertain future as a war window and single mother.  At the time of being notified of Étienne’s death Violette was working at the South Morden aircraft factory with her father.
In 1943, Violette was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), she received a letter from a “Mr. E. Potter”, the alias of Selwyn Jepson, a detective novelist and the F-Section recruiter. He invited 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. 
Upon completion of the assessment and interviews she received her initial training assignment. Szabo was sent from 7–27 August to STS 4, a training school at Winterfold House, and after a moderately favourable report, to Special Training School 24 of Group A at Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands in September and October. Szabo received intensive instruction in fieldcraft, night and daylight navigation, weapons and demolition. Once again, her reports were mixed, but she passed the course and moved on to Group B. 
Szabo was sent to the SOE "finishing school" at Beaulieu, Hampshire, where she learnt escape and evasion, uniform recognition, communications and cryptography, and had further training in weaponry. The final stage in training was parachute jumping, which was taught at Ringway Airport near Manchester. On her first attempt, Szabo badly sprained her ankle and was sent home for recuperation, spending some time in Bournemouth (it was this ankle that was to fail her later in France). She was able to take the parachuting course again and passed with a second class in February 1944. On 24 January 1944, Szabo made her will, witnessed by Vera Atkins and Major R. A. Bourne Paterson of SOE, naming her mother, Reine, as executrix and her daughter Tania as sole beneficiary. 
|Violette Szabo’s Will|
During Violette’s training, she suffered an ankle injury during parachute training that required to her to leave the training and recuperate at home with her daughter Tania. After returning to parachute training, during her second course at Ringway that she first met Philippe Liewer. While in London she also socialized with Bob Maloubier, so SOE decided she would work as a courier for Liewer's Salesman circuit. This extra time meant Szabo could be sent for a refresher course in wireless operation in London, and it was then that Leo Marks, SOE's cryptographer, seeing her struggle with her original French nursery rhyme, gave Szabo his own composition, "The Life That I Have" as her code poem. 
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The Love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A Sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
And death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours. 
After Violette completing her training Violette was scheduled for her first mission, on 5 April 1944 Szabo and Liewer were flown from RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire in a US B-24 Liberator bomber and parachuted into German-occupied France, near Cherbourg. Her cover was that she was a commercial secretary named Corinne Reine Leroy (the latter two names being her mother's first and maiden names), who was born on 26 June 1921 (her real birthdate) in Bailleul, and who was a resident of Le Havre, which gave her reason to travel to the Restricted Zone of German occupation on the coast. 
Under the code name "Louise", which happened to be her nickname, Violette and SOE colleague Philippe Liewer (under the name "Major Charles Staunton"), organizer of the Salesman circuit, tried to assess the damage made by the German arrests, with Szabo travelling to Rouen, where Liewer could not go as a wanted man, due both he and Maloubier were on wanted posters with their codenames, and Dieppe to gather intelligence and carry out reconnaissance. It soon became clear that the circuit, which originally involved over 120 members (80 in Rouen and 40 on the coast) had been exposed beyond repair. Szabo returned to Paris to brief Liewer, and in the two days before they were due to depart, she bought a dress for Tania, three frocks and a yellow sweater for herself, and perfume for her mother and herself. While the destruction of Salesman was a heavy blow to SOE, her reports on the local factories producing war materials for the Germans were important in establishing Allied bombing targets. 
On 30 April 1944, Violette returned to England landing after a stressful flight in which the plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire over Chateaudun, and Szabo had been thrown heavily about the body of the plane. The pilot had turned off the intercom when attacked and did not turn it back on for the rest of the flight, so when the plane landed heavily due to a burst tire, and he went to get Szabo out, she thinking they had been shot down and not having seen her blond pilot, let the pilot have a volley of abuse in French, mistaking him for a German. When she realized what had really happened, he was rewarded with a kiss. Philippe Liewer returned at the same time in another Lysander. On 24 May 1944 Szabo was promoted to Ensign in the FANY. 
Then again in June, Violette was scheduled for a second mission to return to France. However, due to weather the mission was delayed several times. On June 7, 1944, the day after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Szabo was dropped back into France to disrupt German communications.  Once the weather improved and the mission scheduled, Violette and three colleagues were dropped by parachute from a USAAF Liberator (B-24) flown from RAF Harrington onto a landing field near Sussac on the outskirts of Limoges. They quickly established contact with the French Resistance and started disrupting German communications.
At 9.30 am on 10 June Szabo set off on her mission, not inconspicuously by bicycle as Liewer would have preferred, but in a Citroen driven by a young maquis section leader, Jacques Dufour ('Anastasie'). He had insisted upon using the car, even though the Germans had forbidden the use of cars by the French after D-Day, and would drive her half the 100 kilometres (62 miles) of her journey. At her request to Liewer, Szabo was armed with a Sten gun and 8 magazines of ammunition.  As they approached Salon-la-Tour, they came across a German road block. Dufour stopped the car about 50 yards from the soldiers and told Szabo to be ready to run. He leapt out and began firing his machine gun—and noticed, to his surprise, that Szabo stayed with him, firing her Sten Gun and hitting several Germans. He ordered her to run toward a wheat field while he provided cover, and once she got there she fired at the Germans from the flank, enabling Dufour to join her. The two began to run, taking cover in the tall wheat as they headed for the woods. 
Soon they heard vehicles in pursuit. Running, crawling, they tried to retreat to safety but found nowhere to go. Szabo was bleeding and her clothes were ripped; exhausted, she told Dufour she couldn’t go any further. She insisted that he flee while she tried to keep the Germans at bay, and fired judiciously for a half-hour while he found refuge under a haystack. When she ran out of ammunition, the Germans closed in. Dufour could hear them questioning her about his whereabouts. Szabo simply laughed. “You can run after him,” she said. “He is far away by now.” 
Szabo was turned over to the German secret police, who interrogated, tortured and sexually assaulted her. She refused to cooperate, however, and was transferred to Paris, held by the Gestapo and tortured some more. Fearful that the Allies might mount a rescue mission, the Germans transferred her to a series of camps and prisons. On one transfer near Paris, British planes strafed the prisoner train carrying her. The German guards exited to take cover, but a group of male prisoners were trapped as the bullets hit. Szabo secured a jug of water from a bathroom and crawled to the wounded, even with another woman chained to her ankle, so she could pass jug around and calm them. 
By the end of 1944, Szabo had arrived at Ravensbruck, still wearing the dress she’d been captured in months before. There, she joined Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe, where they were put to hard labor, digging wells and clearing boulders for an airfield. They were subjected to more beatings, and women around them were succumbing to tuberculosis and dysentery; Szabo hatched several plans to escape, but to no avail.  Although she endured hard labour and malnutrition, she helped save the life of Belgian resistance courier Hortense Daman Clews, kept up the spirits of her fellow detainees, and, according to fellow inmate Virginia Lake, constantly planned to escape. 
Violette Szabo was executed in the execution alley at Ravensbrück, aged twenty-three, on or before 5 February 1945. She was shot in the back of the head while kneeling down, by SS-Rottenführer Schult in the presence of camp commandant Fritz Suhren, who pronounced the death penalty, camp overseer and deputy commandant Johann Schwarzhuber (de), SS-Scharführer Zappe, SS-Rottenführer Schenk (responsible for the crematorium), chief camp doctor Dr Trommer and dentist Dr Hellinger, from the deposition of Schwarzhüber recorded by Vera Atkins 13 March 1946.  Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe—neither of whom could walk and were carried on stretchers—were shot at the same time, by order of the highest Nazi authorities; the bodies were disposed of in the camp crematorium.
While there is some confusion about the precise circumstances of her execution, Violette Szabo, along with her male and female colleagues who died in the concentration camps, is recorded by the War Office as having been killed in action. It must be noted that as an agent dressed in civilian clothes operating behind enemy lines, Violette Szabo was regarded by the Germans as a Franc-tireur not protected by the Geneva Convention and liable to summary execution. Though she was treated harshly at Ravensbrück, there is no conclusive proof that she was tortured or sexually assaulted by the Germans; her biographer, Susan Ottaway, thinks it unlikely, although the threat of both must have been ever-present.
Violette Szabo was the second women to ever be awarded the George Cross, there have been 408 total recipients’. With four being to women and two being to units. The George Cross the second highest award of the United Kingdom honors system. The recommendation for Violette to be awarded the George Cross read as follows:
In December 1946, it was announced that Violette had been posthumously awarded the George Cross. Her daughter Tania, wearing the dress her mother had bought her in Paris, attended Buckingham Palace to receive the award from George VI.
Violette Szabo was awarded her George Cross posthumously on 17 December 1946, it was presented to her daughter Tania Szabo by King George VI. Her daughter Tania, wearing the dress her mother had bought her in Paris, attended Buckingham Palace to receive the award from George VI.
The citation was published in the London Gazette and read: 
St. James's Palace, S.W.1. 17 December 1946
The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: —
This scroll came to Tania in Stockwell in a large hardback brown envelope on His Majesty's Service. Violette's name is not very clear but it reads Lieutenant V.R.E. Szabo, GC, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (F.A.N.Y.).
|Scroll Received by Tania Zsabo with George Cross|
In an interview Tania recalled the following events and comments by King George VI from the ceremony: 
|Tania Szabo Being Presented Mothers George Cross|
|Tania Szabo Wearing Mothers George Cross|
Violette Szabo was also awarded the Croix de guerre avec etoile de bronze was awarded by the French government in 1947 and the Médaille de la Résistance in 1973. As one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of France.
|Violette Szabo Awards and Honors|
Violette’s parents did not have a full understanding of the nature of the type of work she was doing in the military until one day her mother found the jump wings Violette had earned. They had accidently fallen out of a bag or pocket of Violette’s when she was packing to return for duty.
|Violette Szabo’s Jump Wings|
On 22 July 2015 Violette Szabo's medals and numerous associated items were sold at auction, realising £260,000 (£312,000 including buyer's premium). The purchaser was Lord Ashcroft, who placed the George Cross on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum from 7 October 2015.  As well as the George Cross, the lot sold to Lord Ashcroft contained a French Croix de Guerre and three other campaign medals, plus a parachute bag, documents and photographs, some previously unseen. 
|Tania Szabo Displaying Mothers George Cross Prior to Auction|
On 4th October 2009, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Selbourne were at the unveiling of the new monument on the Albert Embankment, opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, as were veterans and many others in various services and members of the general public.  This monument is in honour of all the courageous S.O.E. Agents: those who did survive and those who did not survive their perilous missions. Their services were beyond the call of duty. In the pages of history their names are carved with pride.  The bust of Violette Szabo on top of the memorial was sculpted by Karen Newman. On each side of the SOE memorial there is a dedication to different events significant to SOE history, to see additional information click here. Additionally, there is a Cenotaph located at the Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Brookwood, Woking Borough, Surrey, England. 
|Violette Szabo Bust on the Top of the SOE Memorial|
There are numerous World War II museums in the United Kingdom, each has its own story to tell about the war. The most significant ones are the Imperial War Museums, they have the largest collection of Victoria Crosses in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes display. This is also the location of Violette Szabo’s items purchased at auction in 2015. Besides the Imperial War Museum, there is a separate museum located at the former house Violette spent many happy childhood days and did indeed stay between her missions to France during the war. Violette's aunt moved to the house and subsequently turned it into the Violette Szabo GC Museum.  The museum was opened in 2000 and is located in Herefordshire, for more information click here.
Below are links to just a couple of the many videos about Violette Szabo’s life in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The videos include additional information about the George Cross Medal presented to Tania Szabo by King George VI.
There was a movie made about the exploits of Violette Szabo during World War II, Virginia McKenna played the role of Violette Szabo in the film Carve Her Name with Pride. The film was released in June 1958. To view a scene for the movie Carve Her Name with Pride, click here. If you are unable to find a copy of the full movie you can click here to view or download the full movie, the viewing time is approximately 2:00 hours.
|Carve Her Name with Pride Movie Poster|
Below is a list of books written about Vioilette Szabo and her life leading up to the time she spent in the SOE and her tragic death. The list includes the book titles and authors.
|Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have – Book Cover|
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