A beautiful undercover agent, a secret mission to Occupied France… and the greatest sacrifice of all
Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born in Paris in June 1921, one of five children of Charles Bushell and his French wife Reine. The couple moved to London, where Charles worked, among other jobs, as a taxi driver and car salesman and Reine as a dressmaker.
But, because of the Depression, Violette and her youngest brother lived with an aunt in northern France, until the family was reunited in Stockwell, south London, when Violette was 11.
Violette was a lively, active girl, enjoying gymnastics, cycling and ice-skating. With four brothers and boy cousins, it seemed inevitable she was a bit of a tomboy – even learning how to shoot from her father.
She also spent many happy holidays with her aunt and uncle in the Hertfordshire countryside, where she earned a reputation as a daredevil, climbing trees or as a passenger on a speeding motor bike around the narrow lanes.
At school in Brixton, Violette was popular and spoke fluent French and English. At 14, she went to work at a French corsetiere in South Kensington, and then at Woolworths in Oxford Street. When the war began, she had a job at the perfume counter of a department store.
In early 1940, Violette joined The Women’s Land Army and was posted to Hampshire, but soon returned to London to work in an armaments factory.
Then, in 1940 at the Bastille Day Parade in London, the 19-year-old Violette met Etienne Szabo, a dashing 31-year-old French Hungarian army office serving in the French Foreign Legion. Violette and Etienne married that August after a whirlwind romance.
After a week’s honeymoon, Etienne set off from Liverpool with his unit for North Africa, while Violette returned to work as a GPO switchboard operator in central London throughout the Blitz, before enlisting in The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1941.
She was posted to Leicester for initial training before being sent to one of the first mixed anti-aircraft batteries for specialised instruction. After further training in Anglesey, Gunner Szabo and her unit were posted to Cheshire, from December 1941 to February 1942.
Violette found within weeks that she was pregnant following a happy short leave for Etienne, which the couple had spent in Liverpool, so she left the ATS to return to London for the birth. She took a flat in Notting Hill and, on 8 June 1942, gave birth to baby Tania a few days before her 21st birthday, while Etienne was stationed in North Africa.
Violette now went to work at the aircraft factory where her father was stationed, but soon received tragic news – Etienne had been killed in action. He would never see his baby daughter…
And now the Special Operations Executive (SOE) became aware of the recently-widowed Violette.
The SOE was set up in 1940 with the aims of sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines. After moving to offices in Baker Street, it began recruiting.
And so, shortly after her Etienne’s death, Violette found herself invited for an interview at its Baker Street offices. With her fluency in French, plus her service in the ATS, Violette was exactly the kind of person the SOE wished to recruit.
She decided to accept an offer to train as a field agent, in Etienne’s honour – even though she knew it carried a one in four chance of being killed.
Violette was sent to training school and, from there, for special instruction in the Scottish Highlands, where she was trained in fieldcraft, night and daylight navigation, weapons and demolitions.
Violette then went on to the SOE ‘finishing school’ in Hampshire, to learn escape and evasion, uniform recognition, communications, cryptography and weaponry. The final stage in training was parachute jumping at Ringway Airport, near Manchester.
Slight, 5ft 3in Violette was remembered by those who trained with her for her courage, impishness, laughter and Cockney accent. And now she was ready for her first mission.
On 5 April 1944, Violette and another agent, Phillipe Liewer, were parachuted into German-occupied France. Her cover was that she was ‘Louise’, a commercial secretary from Le Havre. Her mission was to reorganise the local Resistance movement after a series of arrests.
Violette travelled alone to Rouen and Le Havre and found the movement of over 120 members had been exposed beyond repair. Despite being arrested twice, Violette completed her first mission within six weeks and her reports on factories producing war materials would prove important in establishing Allied bombing targets.
She returned to Paris to brief Liewer, and in the two days before they were due return home, treated herself to a shopping spree – buying a dress for Tania, some clothes for herself, and perfume for her and her mother.
The day after D-Day, Violette began her second mission behind enemy lines. She was flown to the outskirts of Limoges and began working with the head of the local guerillas – the Maquis – to sabotage German communication and coordinate the French Resistance.
On 10 June 1944, Violette was travelling in a car with the guerilla leader when they met an unexpected German roadblock searching for soldiers captured by the French Resistance.
A brief gun battle followed and Violette was captured by the SS and taken to Limoges for interrogation. She spent four days there and was then moved to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris.
Brave Violette was tortured and interrogated, but gave nothing away to her captors.
In August 1944, she was taken to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. In early February 1945, Violette Szabo was executed, along with two other female SOE agents.
She was just 23 years old.
December 1946: After her death, Violette Szabo is awarded the George Cross – the nation’s highest award for gallantry – ‘for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.’ In addition, she receives the French Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance.
Above: Tania Szabo proudly wears her mother’s George Cross and Croix de Guerre after a ceremony in London.
February 1958: Actress Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.
Above: Walking between her grandparents Charles and Reine, Tania Szabo sets off for Buckingham Palace to receive her mother’s George Cross.
October 2009: A memorial commemorating the SOE, featuring Violette, is unveiled on London’s Albert Embankment.
July 2015: Violette’s daughter Tania puts her mother’s medals up for auction. Her George Cross, along with four other medals, is sold for £260,000 within minutes of going on sale in central London. They will go on display at the Imperial War Museum, London.