This is one of the greatest stories of bravery & courage to come out of WWII. The men & women who fought behind enemy lines in occupied Europe were exposed to incredible danger & very many of them died. The story of Violette Szabo is one of the best-known. Carve her name with pride was published in 1956 & was then made into a movie with Virginia McKenna & Paul Scofield.
The author had the advantage of being able to talk to Violette’s family & friends, neighbours from her early days & the people she worked with in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The book is very much in the style of all the great WWII stories written in the 50s & 60s like Odette by Jerrard Tickell & Boldness be my Friend by Richard Pape. I think this is the strength of the narrative. It’s told as a story of heroic adventure, which it was, & without the cynicism that might have crept in if more time had passed. There’s certainly enough heroism in the story of a young woman in her 20s leaving her family & young daughter behind to serve her country in one of the most dangerous jobs a woman could do during WWII.
Violette Bushell grew up in an ordinary home. Her father was English, her mother French; she had four brothers with whom she played boisterous games. She was a daring child who was unafraid of climbing trees, drainpipes, fences, & she enjoyed played practical jokes on her family. The Bushells moved house frequently as Mr Bushell looked for work. These were the hard days of the 1920s & 30s & the family’s income was often supplemented by Mrs Bushell’s dressmaking business. All the children were bilingual as they often stayed with relatives in France.
When WWII broke out, Violette had left school & was working in a shop. She vaguely wanted to do something for the war effort & worked in a munitions factory until she joined the ATS where she became part of the first teams of women trained to spot enemy aircraft in an anti-aircraft battery. When De Gaulle’s Free French forces arrived in London after the fall of France, Mrs Bushell asked Violette & her cousin to ask one of the young soldiers home for dinner as they might get some comfort from a meal with a French –speaking family. This is how she met her future husband, Etienne Szabo. Violette & Etienne spent only a few weeks together. They were married hastily before Etienne was sent overseas. He only had one short period of leave in England before being sent to North Africa where he was killed at El Alamein. He never saw his daughter, Tania.
After Etienne’s death, Violette became more determined to be involved in the war effort. The SOE had been set up by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” by supporting the many resistance groups operating in occupied Europe. British agents were sent in to make contact with these disparate groups, form networks, supply them with arms & communicate with SOE HQ in London. The SOE was so top secret that recruitment couldn’t take place in the usual way. A friend of Violette’s thought she would be suitable & passed her name on to Selwyn Jepson & Vera Atkins, the recruitment officers for the French section of the SOE. Violette was asked to come for an interview & was accepted for training.
It was a controversial decision to recruit women for such dangerous work but they were better suited to undercover work of this type than men. A strange man in a village or town under German occupation would be conspicuous as most men were in the services or in prison camps. Only young boys & the elderly were left. A young woman would attract less attention.
Violette was eager to join the SOE. She had been devastated by Etienne’s death & Jepson was surprised by her mature attitude at the interview. He thought she was in her late 20s but she was only 22. She didn’t mention Tania as she thought, rightly, that she would be turned down if they knew she had a child. She was sent to Wanborough Manor outside Guildford to begin the intensive training necessary to her new role. The recruits were trained in commando tactics, map reading, weapons training, the use of explosives, sabotage techniques & parachute training for their eventual journey into the field on a mission. French was spoken at all times. They also did all the regular army physical training, long route marches, compass exercises, sleeping out in all weather conditions. Then, there was the vital psychological training in assuming a new identity. Forged papers were essential but to be on guard 24 hours a day, to stop being Violette Szabo & really become Corinne Leroy, was the most difficult of all. There was training in radio communications & Morse code. The agents were sent on trial runs through local towns. They had to follow other agents without being caught & be followed themselves & throw off their tail.
Eventually, Violette was ready for her first mission. She was to go to Rouen to find out what had happened to the French agents there. The circuit had been broken up & London needed to know who was left so they could start rebuilding it from scratch. Violette had nothing but a memorised list of names of men who had been in the circuit & had no idea who to trust. She decided to try talking to the wives of the men on her list & was successful in finding out how bad the situation actually was. The circuit had been betrayed & many of the men were in prison or dead. Violette had fulfilled her mission with determination & intelligence & she was soon sent back to France.
This time, she was sent to Limoges with three other agents to confirm the details of the sabotage of German troops planned to coincide with the D-Day landings. Violette & her companions were dropped onto the rendezvous point & met by a large group of jubilant Maquis eager to pick up the supplies they’d brought & start bombing German trains. The chief of the local Maquis, Anastasie, was vital to the British plans & Violette was instructed to protect him at all costs as they travelled to the local groups to ascertain their readiness for the attack. Violette & Anastasie set out to drive to Sussac but they were ambushed by German troops near Salon-la-Tour. They managed to escape the ambush by fleeing across the fields but the Germans were right behind them. Violette held off the Germans with her Sten gun to allow Anastasie to escape. He was sheltered by a family he knew at a nearby farm.
Violette was eventually captured & taken to the jail at Limoges. Twice a day at the same time she was marched to the Gestapo HQ for questioning & Charles Staunton, the leader of the mission, decided that an attempt to rescue Violette could be made. All the arrangements were in place when suddenly, on the day of the rescue attempt, Violette was moved to Fresnes prison outside Paris. This was the overcrowded prison where many other Allied prisoners were held. Violette was questioned & tortured here by the Gestapo at their notorious HQ on the Avenue Foch but refused to speak. Her courage was amazing but she was determined to endure & she did.
As the Allies advanced on Paris during 1944, the Germans didn’t want their Allied prisoners to be rescued so they were sent into Germany. The women were bound for Ravensbruck concentration camp. Even on the endless train journey, Violette’s spirit didn’t desert her. The train was bombed by the Allies & their escort abandoned them to their fate. Violette managed to crawl down the train to take water to the male prisoners who had been herded into cattle trucks without water in the sweltering heat.
On arrival at Ravensbruck, in the last week of August, 1944, Violette managed to share a bunk with the two other English prisoners from Fresne, Denise Bloch & Lilian Rolfe. They were formed into work gangs to build roads & Violette saw this as an opportunity to try to escape. All her plans came to nothing as she was betrayed to the Commandant of the camp & punished. As the Russian Army moved closer to Ravensbruck on their march to Berlin, the Germans grew afraid of what the Allied prisoners would say of their treatment & Violette, Lilian & Denise were executed at the end of January 1945.
Violette’s family had no idea of her fate until after the war, when Vera Atkins travelled through Germany, interviewing captured officers & trying to find out what had happened to all the agents who had not returned. Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery & her parents & daughter, Tania, received the award from King George VI.
This incredible story of bravery & endurance reads like an adventure story. I read it in an evening, I couldn’t put it down. The details of Violette’s training & the missions themselves are incredibly exciting. Stories like this should never be forgotten.