Recruited: July 1943
Role: Courier (F Section)
Circuits: SALESMAN I, SALESMAN II
Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, executed
Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born in Levallois, Paris on 26 June 1921, to a British father and French mother. Her early life was spent on the move between Britain and France, but at the age of eleven her family settled in Stockwell, south London. Although petite (just under five feet five inches tall, according to her SOE file) and very attractive, Violette's character was far more robust than her looks suggested: spirited and strong-willed, she detested needlework and domestic chores, but could outperform her brothers in any athletic pursuits. At the age of fourteen Violette left school, and was working as a shop assistant in Brixton when war broke out.
In 1940 she met Etienne Szabo, a dashing French Foreign Legion officer from Marseille, who was serving with de Gaulle's Free French forces. They were married in August, and the following year Violette enlisted with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), serving with an anti-aircraft battery. In June 1942 she gave birth to a daughter, Tania, but four months later Etienne was killed in action near El Alamein.
Determined to avenge his death, it was a chance meeting that offered Violette the opportunity to join SOE. In June 1943 she met agent Harry Peulevé, who had recommended a friend of Violette's as a possible recruit for the French Section. She was rejected, but at the end of the interview she mentioned Violette as another possible candidate. After meeting SOE recruiting officer Selwyn Jepson in July, Violette was accepted and began training as a courier the following month.
She turned out to be a crack shot - reputedly the best in SOE - but her instructors' reports were mixed, and concluded that she seemed too temperamental and lacked "the ruse, stability and the finesse" for secret work. Yet with D-Day just months away there was an urgent need for more female couriers, and she was allowed to finish the training courses. After recovering from a sprained ankle suffered during a practice parachute jump, Violette was offered her first mission as assistant to Philippe Liewer, the head of the SALESMAN circuit in Normandy.
This would be a particularly dangerous assignment: Peulevé had just sent a wireless message from France warning of the arrest of Liewer's deputy in Rouen, which meant that Liewer couldn't risk capture by returning in person. Instead he would go to Paris and send Violette from there to assess the damage and visit his other local contacts - a job far more difficult and demanding than a typical courier's role. After landing safely at a secret landing field in France on 4 April Violette travelled alone to Rouen as planned, and after three weeks of investigations the writing for SALESMAN was literally on the wall: the city was plastered with "wanted" posters showing Liewer's face, and Violette had learnt that nearly a hundred resisters had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo. She journeyed to Paris to tell Liewer the news that his network was now completely shattered, and they both flew back to England by Lysander aircraft on 30 April.
Having proved herself a capable and resourceful agent, Violette was promoted to the rank of Ensign in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a cover organisation used by female SOE agents) and volunteered for a second mission with Liewer. Parachuting on the night of 7/8 June, their objective was to build a new SALESMAN circuit around Limoges in west-central France. Soon after landing Liewer decided to ask for help from Peulevé's assistant Jacques Poirier, who commanded the DIGGER circuit to the south, and sent Violette with another agent, Jacques Dufour, by car.
Outside the village of Salon-la-Tour they encountered an SS roadblock and attempted to retreat, but Violette was hampered by her earlier parachute injury. Telling Dufour to go on without her, she was eventually captured, though the exact details of what happened, and particularly whether she had been armed and engaged in a firefight, has generated debate ever since. (In a report at the end of the war, Liewer stated that she had taken a Sten gun and two magazines for the trip, but this was later contradicted by the testimony of a young resister, Jean Bariaud, who claimed to have travelled with Szabo and Dufour that day and insisted that she had been unarmed). Dufour managed to escape and reported back to Liewer the next day, and they immediately began working on a plan to free Violette from Limoges prison, but she was transferred to Fresnes prison near Paris before they could act. She faced interrogations at the infamous headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (the SS security service) on Avenue Foch, but there is no good evidence that she gave anyone away.
In August Violette and fellow French Section agents Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe were deported to Saarbrücken transit camp just inside the German border, along with 37 male prisoners. When their train was attacked by Allied aircraft, Violette, Denise and Lilian managed leave their compartment and fetched water for the imprisoned men, an act which left a deep impression on those who survived. After ten days the women were transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany, then to a smaller camp at Torgau. Here Violette came close to mounting an escape attempt, but an informer foiled her efforts at the last moment, and in October they were moved yet again, this time to a derelict camp south of Königsberg on the River Oder. Put to work building a new runway, the conditions were brutal and the effects of the bitter winter reduced them all to a pitiful state.
In January Violette and her companions were returned to Ravensbrück, unaware that their fates had already been decided: with Germany's defeat only weeks away the SS was systematically executing SOE agents before they could be liberated. Around 27 January, Violette, Denise and Lilian were taken to the crematorium yard, where an SS officer shot each of them in the back of the neck. The bodies were then cremated.
The end of the war brought chaos across Europe. Hundreds of camps were liberated, and countless thousands of prisoners remained unaccounted for. In the midst of this confusion the fate of Violette remained a mystery, and SOE faced enormous challenges trying to trace her. Captured SOE agents might have been arrested under a false identity (which might be different to those issued in London), and they were typically treated by the Nazis as "Night and Fog" prisoners, whose whereabouts were almost impossible to track after they were deported to Germany. Some of the returning civilian survivors reported having seen British women hanged at Ravensbrück, but their vague, often contradictory statements raised more questions than they answered. In fact it was not until the spring of 1946, after the investigations of SOE officer Vera Atkins revealed an eyewitness testimony of the executions given by a former SS overseer at Ravensbrück, that Violette's death was officially pronounced.
Later that year Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross, one of three F Section women to receive it (the other two being Odette Sansom and Noor Inayat Khan). She was also awarded an MBE, the French Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.
Violette Szabo has become the most celebrated of all SOE agents, in large part because of R.J. Minney's popular biography, Carve Her Name with Pride, published in 1956, and Lewis Gilbert's film adaptation released in 1958 starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield. More recent biographies include Susan Ottaway's Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have (2001), and Young, Brave and Beautiful (2007), written by Violette's daughter Tania. Violette's poem code, 'The Life That I Have', has also been published by Leo Marks, its author and the former head of SOE's coding section.
A blue plaque was erected at Violette's family home in Stockwell in 1981, and her name is commemorated on the SOE memorial plaque at Ravensbrück, the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey and the FANY memorial at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge. 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.Back to SOE Agent Profiles