In February 1945, a supremely courageous Franco-British lady was executed by the Nazis with a single shot to the back of the head. She was aged just 23. This martyr to freedom was one of the bravest women in our history and one of the most decorated, only the second female recipient of the George Cross for bravery, and also the Croix de Guerre and La Medaille de la Resistance. She was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and her name was Violette Szabo.
Violette was born in the Parisian suburbs in June 1921, to an English father and French mother. She would always be imbued with a sense of belonging to both nationalities. Her early childhood was spent with an aunt in Picardy, when her parents moved to England, Violette joining them in Stockwell, South London, aged eleven. One’s impression of the teenage Violette is of a ‘tom-boy’, competing for elbow-room with four brothers, someone headstrong, but also talented and fluently bilingual.
A retail worker, the onset of war saw Violette joining the ‘land-girls’ then working in an armaments factory, when she met and married Etienne Szabo, twelve years her senior, a French Legionnaire, killed at the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Etienne was another courageous individual, recipient of the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’honneur; here was the most decorated married couple of WW2. Violette was now without her beloved husband, however, and this loss appears to have driven her determination to strike back at the Germans in the most direct way possible.
Violette joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the female equivalent of the British Army, then the SOE, for which she was tailor-made due to her linguistic ability. The SOE was not for the faint-hearted; operating behind enemy lines, engaging in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance, was fraught with danger, with capture invariably resulting in torture and execution. Strenuous training included weaponry, demolition and parachuting, her first attempt, however, resulting in a badly-sprained left ankle.
Violette’s first mission into occupied France in April 1944 was a success, parachuting in over Cherbourg, and travelling alone to Rouen to find out what had happened to a couple of SOE operatives the month before. She returned safely to England, confirming that over a hundred Resistance workers had been captured by the Gestapo, with this particular ‘circuit’ in tatters, plus providing valuable information about German war factories.
Her fateful second and final mission saw Violette and three colleagues parachuted into Limoges in early June 1944, just after D-Day, the intention being to build a new ‘circuit’ in this area and presumably to try and disrupt the German response to the landings. Violette was travelling by car to a rendezvous, unaware that the might of the 2nd SS Panzer Division was heading directly for her.
Encountering a road block, the car attempted to turn around, but flight proved impossible for Violette, whose ankle, already weakened in that first parachute attempt, gave way, leading to her capture, just two days after D-Day. Szabo used up what ammunition she had providing covering fire for her escaping comrade, effectively laying down her life for that of a friend. She continued firing for close on half-an-hour before she ran out of ammo.
Anyone suspected of being a spy or member of the SOE was treated brutally and Violette was packed off to Paris for months of ‘interrogation’ (torture) by the SS. Her supreme stoicism stands as a shining exemplar of moral triumph over adversity and oppression.
The infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp was one of the places which awaited Violette. Solitary confinement and brutal assault followed before this gallant lady was finally escorted to her execution. In December 1946 Violette was awarded the George Cross, second only to the VC, as far as medals this nation can bestow.
Violette’s story was disseminated to a wider audience in 1958, with the feature film, Carve Her Name with Pride. Just last year the George Cross and other medals awarded to Violette were sold at auction for £260,000, a record price for a ‘George Cross group’, the medals destined for the Imperial War Museum. Violette’s daughter, Tania, who has worked tirelessly to foster her mother’s memory, was present at the auction, as was the actress who portrayed her, Virginia McKenna. It was Tania who had collected the medal from Buckingham Palace, aged just four, a touching scene depicted in the film.
The women of the SOE were among the ‘bravest of the brave’. Of 55 female agents, 12 were executed, with another 13 killed in action. Only three other women have been awarded the George Cross, all of them SOE members. One of them, Odette Sansom, described Violette Szabo as, “the bravest of us all.”