There were forty-one female agents who worked for Section F of the British Special Operations Executive during World War 2. They ranged in age from 20 to 53. These exceptional women were aggressively trained in spycraft and covertly deployed into Axis-occupied territory. Their missions typically involved intelligence gathering and coordinating resistance operations. The Germans despised them.
Twenty-six survived the war. Of those who were lost, a dozen were captured and executed by the Germans, two perished from disease while imprisoned, one drowned when her ship was sunk, and another died of natural causes. I once met one of the survivors. Her name was Eve Gordon. She was the most compelling speaker I have ever heard.
Arguably the best-documented of the lot was Violette Szabo. A hero of the highest order, Violette’s story reads like an adventure novel. She ultimately gave her life for the cause of freedom.
Origin Story Of Violette Szabo
Violette was born on 26 June 1921, in Paris. Her father was English, and her mother was French. She was the second of five children and the only girl. She lived in France until age 11. Surrounded as she was by boys, she grew up shooting, ice-skating, and long-distance bike riding. Once she moved to England she had to relearn English.
Violette was cursed with a hyperdeveloped sense of patriotism. With the onset of war, she volunteered for the Women’s Land Army and was dispatched to pick strawberries in support of the war effort. From there she transferred to an armaments factory in Acton where she met her future husband, Etienne Szabo. Etienne was Hungarian but served as an NCO in the French Foreign Legion. They dated for 42 days and were married. At the time Violette was 19, and Etienne was 31. After a one-week honeymoon, Etienne deployed to fight the Vichy French in Senegal, South Africa, Eritrea, and Syria. War is hell.
Violette bounced through a couple of jobs before enlisting with the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Hers was the first coeducational antiaircraft battery in the British military. She was posted to Frodsham, Cheshire, near Warrington. Etienne returned home briefly on leave before deploying yet again, this time to North Africa to face Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Soon after he left, Violette discovered she was pregnant.
On 8 June 1942, Violette gave birth to a daughter, Tania. Once the child was old enough, Violette sent her away to be raised in safety by childminders while she took a job in an aircraft factory. On 24 October of that year, Etienne was killed during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Tania never met her father. The rage that Etienne’s death ignited in Violette led her to F-section of the British Special Operations Executive.
The Girl Becomes a Spy
F-section oversaw a series of clandestine underground networks in occupied Europe. 470 SOE agents served in France. 104 of them died. Of the fifty individual networks operating during the war, thirty-one were broken by the Germans.
Little is known of Violette’s recruitment to the Dark Side. Those records, if ever they existed, were eventually lost. Her mastery of the French language and French customs no doubt played a large part as did her service with the 481st Heavy (Mixed) Antiaircraft Battery. She trained in spycraft for several months in 1944. There she mastered weapons, demolitions, cryptography, communications, parachuting, navigation, and fieldcraft. Her classmates adored her for her courage and good humor. Her instructors passed her but only just.
The master cryptographer Leo Marks described her as, “A dark-haired slip of mischief….She had a Cockney accent which added to her impishness.”
One of her instructors said, “She lacks ruse, stability, and the finesse which is required and…she is too easily influenced…[but] she set an example to the whole party by her cheerfulness and eagerness to please.” Regardless, by the Spring of 1944, Violette was declared ready to go to war.
Seeing the Elephant
On the night of 5 April 1944, Violette and another SOE operative named Philippe Liewer parachuted into France near Cherbourg from a British Halifax bomber. Violette was cute, gregarious, and small at only five foot three inches tall. As such, she could move more freely than might a more intimidating military-age man. She travelled along the coast prior to the invasion assessing the state of Resistance cells and the local war industry. Her reports aided Allied planners in establishing pre-invasion bombing targets.
Three and one-half weeks after her insertion, Violette was extracted by an RAF Lysander piloted by Bob Large. The plane was badly damaged by antiaircraft fire on the trip back to England, losing a tire in the process. The plane was dark, the ride rough, and the landing without one tire all the more so. Tucked away as she was in the belly of the plane, Violette thought they had gone down in occupied France. When Large, who had bright blonde hair, went back to check on her after landing, Violette thought he was a German and attacked him. When she realized her mistake he earned a kiss.
Playing for Keeps
After two attempts aborted due to foul weather, Szabo and three other agents parachuted out of an American B-24 Liberator bomber into a landing zone near Limoges on 8 June. It is suspected that Szabo exacerbated her old ankle injury on this jump. Finding the local Maquis cells in poor shape to fight, the SOE commander dispatched Szabo to make contact with a better organized Resistance cell in the Correze and Dordogne.
Szabo had 62 miles to traverse, and the area behind the invasion front was frenetic with enemy activity. Specifically, the 2d SS Panzer Division was gradually making its way forward through the same area while being continually harassed by Allied air assets. Despite a general prohibition by the Germans against the use of automobiles by French civilians, one of her Maquis contacts insisted upon taking a Citroen rather than a bicycle given the distances involved. This was a terrible mistake.
Szabo was dressed in light clothing and wore flat-heeled shoes. She carried a Sten submachine gun and eight 32-round magazines. Violette found herself in the small car with two members of the French Resistance when they encountered an SS roadblock outside Salon-la-Tour.
Local Resistance fighters had previously captured Sturmbannfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, a battalion commander in the 2d SS Panzer. The SS troopers were out for blood. Kampfe was eventually executed, sparking a brutal crackdown that resulted in the deaths of 643 innocent French men, women, and children.
The details of what came next have been disputed. Some historians claim it didn’t happen at all. However, SOE personnel who were there alleged that one of the Maquis fighters leapt from the moving car and escaped to warn his comrades. It was claimed that Szabo and the remaining fighter, a young man named Dufour, exited opposite sides of the vehicle. In the ensuing gun battle, an innocent French woman was cut down by the Germans as she peeked out of a nearby barn.
With German armored vehicles and reinforcements arriving quickly, Dufour and Szabo vaulted a gate and sprinted toward a nearby copse of trees. Along the way, Szabo badly twisted her already injured ankle. Now unable to run, Violette refused assistance and directed Dufour to flee to safety. She then dragged herself to cover behind an apple tree at the edge of a cornfield. In this position, she held the attacking SS troopers at bay for a full half an hour until she ran out of ammunition. According to SOE sources, her sacrifice allowed Dufour to escape.
Nazis Just Suck
SS Sturmbannfuhrer Kowatch of the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the SS Security Service, tortured the captured girl mercilessly for four days in an unsuccessful effort to extract details about her resistance cells. Eve Gordon’s description of her experience with the SD was enough to make me vaguely ill when I heard her speak of it back in 1989. Eventually, with Patton’s 3d Army rapidly approaching, the Germans shipped Szabo and the rest of her captured female SOE counterparts to Ravensbruck concentration camp.
In an environment dominated by Allied air power, the trip by rail took eighteen days. During this time Violette and her comrades were given little to no food or water. During one air attack, the Germans temporarily abandoned the train, allowing Violette to retrieve some water from a lavatory for herself and her friends.
Violette and her female counterparts were assigned to work as slave labor building Heinkel bombers. When she refused to work on German munitions she was remanded to digging potatoes. Eventually, she was put to work felling trees in the winter of 1944 without proper clothing. Many of her comrades literally froze to death. With minimal food and bone-breaking work, Violette grew steadily weaker. Throughout it all, she still schemed ways to escape.
Violette’s Story Comes To An End
Around 5 February 1945, SS-Rottenfuhrer Schult dragged Violette Szabo out of her cell to a spot known as Execution Alley at the Ravensbruck camp. There he forced her to kneel and shot the pretty girl in the back of the head. Her body was burned in the camp crematorium. Szabo was 23 when she died.
Violette Szabo was only the second woman ever awarded the George Cross for gallantry. Some of the details were clearly confused in the interim, but here is the citation—
Violette Szabo was a rare patriot. She could have just left well enough alone and whiled away the war years picking strawberries. Instead, she volunteered to parachute deep into enemy-held territory to take the fight to the hated Nazis.
Amidst a veritable ocean of tragedy and pain, the Nazis brutally stole one little girl’s parents. The orphan Tania Szabo subsequently devoted herself to telling her mother’s amazing story. Violette’s inspiring tale of selfless sacrifice in the face of unimaginable hardship should inspire all of us today. Violette Szabo was indeed a true hero.