Violette Szabo, the second child of five and the only daughter of Charles George Bushell and Reine Blanche Leroy, was born as Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris on 26 June 1921.During her early life she was a lively girl, regarded as a tomboy and enjoyed long-distance bicycling, ice-skating and gymnastics with her four brothers and several male cousins. In addition to that, she was taught by her father to be a good shot. She attended school in Brixton and at the age of 14, started working at a French corsetiere and then at a grocery store owned by Woolworths Group on Oxford Street. At the onset of World War II, she was engaged to sell perfume at Le Bon Marche, a Brixton department store.
In 1940, while working in an armaments factory in west London, she met Étienne Szabo, a charming, 31-year-old officer with the French Foreign Legion, at a Bastille Day parade and after a whirlwind romance for 42 days, they married on 21 August 1940 at the Aldershot Register Office in Manor Park. However, after a week's honeymoon, Étienne shipped off to North Africa and was killed in October 1942, during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Unfortunately, he never saw his daughter, Tania, born to Violette in London just months before he died.
Mean time, Violette settled in London and working at the South Morden aircraft factory. But, as she was eager to become more actively involved in defeating Nazi Germany, she accepted an offer to be trained as a field agent in the British Special Operations Executive or SOE and was commissioned as a section leader in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a civilian service often used by SOE as a cover for female agents. After receiving intensive instruction in Fieldcraft, night and daylight navigation, weapons and demolition, she was sent to the finishing school at Beaulieu in Hampshire, where she was trained for escape and evasion, communications and cryptography, along with further training in weaponry. In the final stage of her training, Szabo badly sprained her ankle on her first attempt of parachute jumping and was sent home for recuperation. However, she took the parachuting course again and passed with a second class in February 1944.
Due to the ankle injury, Violette Szabo's first deployment was delayed, but she was sent to London for a refresher course in wireless operation, where Leo Marks, the cryptographer of SOE, noticed her struggle with her original French nursery rhyme, a cryptographic method of sending and receiving messages and gave her his own composition, a simple-worded poem, ‘The Life That I Have’ as her code poem. Finally, she was parachuted into German-occupied France, near Cherbourg on 5 April 1944, under cover of a commercial secretary named Corinne Reine Leroy. Under the code name Louise, she tried to assess the damage made by the German arrests of the Salesman circuit, a network in the area, gathered intelligence and carried out reconnaissance. Apart from that, her reports on the local factories producing war materials for the Germans were important in establishing Allied bombing targets.
Nevertheless, as it became clear that the destruction of Salesman circuit was beyond repair, Violette returned to Paris to report the matter and bought a dress for Tania, three frocks and a yellow sweater for herself and perfume for her mother and herself in the two days before she was due to depart. After a stressful flight in which the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Chateaudun, she landed in London on 30 April 1944.
After two aborted attempts, due to stormy weather and probable German patrols, Szabo and her three colleagues were dropped by parachute onto a landing field near Sussac to disrupt German communications on 7 June 1944, the day after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and Tania Szabo’s second birthday. Szabo was part of a four-person team, led by her commander Philippe Liewer, who intended to co-ordinate the Resistance activity against the Germans. Liewer decided to send Szabo, as his liaison officer to the more active Maquis, the rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters of Correze and Dordogne, in southwest France. Unfortunately, due to poor intelligence gathering by the local Resistance, he was quite at dark about the slow advancement of the 2nd SS Panzer Division to the Normandy battlefields through that area.
Violette Szabo set off her mission at 9.30 am on 10 June 1944, in a Citroen driven by a young marquis section leader, Jacques Dufour and her bicycle thrown in the back of the car. She was armed with a Sten gun with eight magazines of ammunition and was dressed in a light suit, flat-heeled shoes, without stockings. On their way, they picked up Jean Bariaud, a 26-year-old Resistance friend of Dufour, who was supposed to accompany them on the return journey. It was a nice sunny day, but the situation changed abruptly, as they approached Salon-la-Tour and unexpectedly came across a German roadblock.
As Dufour slowed the car, Bariaud jumped out to escape and later informed the team about the certain arrest of his two companions. Dufour stopped the car about 50 yards from the soldiers and as both of them leapt from the car, Dufour insisted Szabo to run and started firing his machine gun. However, soon after he noticed to his utter surprise, that Szabo did not leave, she stayed with him, firing her Sten gun and killing a corporal, possibly more and wounding some others. Dufour again requested her to run toward a wheat field while he provided cover, which she obeyed and then opened fire again at the Germans from the flank, enabling Dufour to join her. After that, both of them ran and took cover in the wheat field, as they headed for the woods. Running and crawling, they tried to retreat to safety, while the Germans were chasing them with their vehicles.
Meanwhile, Szabo became totally out of breath, she was bleeding and her clothes were ripped. She told Dufour that she was unable to take another step, as she was completely exhausted and insisted him to run for safety, while she would try to keep the Germans at bay. She fought bravely for half an hour, while Dufour took refuge under a haystack. Eventually, she ran out of ammunition and was captured by two men and was transferred to the custody of German secret police, who interrogated, tortured and sexually assaulted her continuously for four days at a stretch. But, as she refused to cooperate despite their barbaric torture, she was transferred to Paris, held by the Gestapo for further torture. However, as the Germans were apprehensive about possible rescue mission by the Allies, Violette Szabo, along with most of the other women was sent on to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp, where over 92,000 women were to die during the Great War.
Szabo had arrived at Ravensbruck by the end of 1944, still wearing the dress she had been captured in months before. There, along with the two British agents, Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and many other women, she was put to hard labor, digging wells and clearing boulders for an airfield. At one time, Violette volunteered for tree-felling in the forest, where the trees gave some shelter from the bitter winds. In the bitter East Prussian winter of 1944, each day the women were forced to stand for roll-call in the early morning for up to five hours before being sent to work. Actually, apart from physical and sexual torture and diseases, many of the inmates simply freeze to death.
On 19 or 20 January 1945, the three British agents were sent first to the punishment block, where they were possibly brutally assaulted and then to the punishment bunker, where they were kept in solitary confinement. Violette Szabo, aged 23, was executed on or before 5 February 1945, when she was shot in the back of her head while kneeling down, by SS-Rottenführer Schult. The other two agents, Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe, were carried on stretchers, as they were unable to walk, were also shot at the same time.
Violette Szabo was posthumously awarded the George Cross on 17 December 1947 and Tania Szabo, her five year old daughter, received the Cross from King George VI, on behalf of her late mother. She was the second woman to be awarded the coveted Cross for bravery. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in 1947 and La Medaille de la Resistance in 1973. As one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of France, Lieutenant Violette Szabo is listed on the Valencay SOE memorial. Her dramatic life was picturized in the 1958 British film ‘Carved Her Name with Pride’, based on the 1956 book of the same name by RJ Minney.