“My mother, the secret agent who fought the Nazis”

Executed at the age of 23, Violette Szabo was one of the most famous female spies of WWII – but her story has been largely forgotten

Speak to anyone who grew up without one or both of their parents, and they will tell you that physical loss rarely translates into psychic absence; that often, it’s the people we never get the chance to know who loom largest in our lives. And when your mother was a legendary World War II secret agent and your father a dashing military officer, both killed in the line of duty – well, then those figures cast longer shadows than most.

Tania Szabo lost both her parents before she reached her third birthday. Her father, a highly decorated French Legionnaire with a merry smile, died when she was just four months old, after sustaining wounds in battle in Egypt. Her mother Violette was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in February 1945. She had not yet reached her 24th birthday.

Today, Violette and Etienne are relatively little-known. But there was a time when she, in particular, was nothing short of an icon. (Tania, now 74, jokes that her father’s light has been “hidden under a Bushell” – Violette’s maiden name.) A half-French, half-English tomboy with the face of a movie star, Violette was the first woman to be bestowed with the George Cross for bravery. Her exploits have inspired a film (1958’s Carve Her Name with Pride) and three biographies – one of which, Young, Brave and Beautiful, was written by Tania herself.

We shouldn’t forget her. This is her story.

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Violette Szabo as a young woman.

Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris in 1921, the second child of working-class parents: Reine, a French dressmaker, and Charles, a “happy-go-lucky” Englishman with countless – and mostly fruitless – get-rich-quick schemes.

Her childhood was spent mostly in France, in the care of Reine’s more bourgeoisie family. When she was 12, she returned to London to live with her parents and four brothers permanently, although she would always speak Cockney with a slight French accent.

Violette’s teenage years were filled with boyfriends, nights out at the Locarno Dance Hall in Streatham, cycle rides, fairground jaunts. Always strikingly pretty, she was scrappy and athletic from the get-go. After her death, former teachers would recall her “large, lovely eyes” and the fact that there was “no drain pipe she could not climb, no wall she could not scale”.

From a young age, Violette also displayed the fearless streak that would lead her to become an undercover agent in Nazi-occupied France. At school, she would physically fight boys who attacked her female friends; later, after finding herself stuck in a particularly boring hairdressing apprenticeship, she briefly ran away to France. Her nerve infuriated her father, who wanted his daughter to be ‘nice’ – but it would serve her well in years to come.

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From left: a portrait of Violette she gave to a teenage boyfriend; at home as a teenager; on holiday.

With the outbreak of WWII, a generation of British women previously confined to mundane jobs suddenly found themselves duty-bound to throw themselves into productive, vital work. Violette, who was 18 and working behind a perfume counter when the war began, felt no sense of obligation: she was desperate to help however she could.

In 1940, while working at an armaments factory in London, she met the man who would become her husband. It was Bastille Day, 14 July, and Violette’s mother had sent her to the parade to invite a French soldier home for tea. Reine missed France terribly, and thought that one of her countrymen stationed in London would likely feel the same way.

She invited him home for tea, and they lived happily ever after

In the end, Violette did bring home a Frenchman, of sorts: Etienne Szabo, a Hungarian officer in the French Foreign Legion. They met in Hyde Park, after he approached Violette’s friend and asked her in French if she had the time.

Violette’s friend, not speaking a word of French, was mystified. But Violette understood Etienne perfectly – both his language and his real meaning. She suspected that Etienne didn’t need to know the time at all; that he’d just wanted an excuse to talk to them. 

 She reached forward, pulled up Etienne’s sleeve to reveal a wristwatch, and read out the time in flawless French.

“And then,” says Tania, “she invited him home for tea, and they lived happily ever after, for as long as they had.”

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Violette and Etienne on their wedding day, left, and in the garden at home in London, right.

But like so many couples in WWII, “as long as they had” turned out to not be very long at all. In October 1942, Violette received word that Etienne had been killed in action. They had been married for a little over two years, with Etienne posted abroad for almost all of that time. He had never met their only child, Tania Damaris Desiree, so named because she was so desired.

Violette had already experienced some of the brutality of war. Before Tania was born, she’d volunteered as a gunner in the women’s branch of the British army; she’d lived through the Blitz. But this blew her world apart.

“She was devastated. Absolutely devastated,” says Tania. “What else can one say? If you’ve ever been through a loss, you will know what that means. She would have walked the streets in tears… She was broken by it for quite a while.”

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Tania Szabo visiting Ravensbruck concentration camp, the site of her mother’s execution, in May 1994.

Not long after her husband’s death, when Violette was still numb with grief, an envelope dropped through the letterbox of her Notting Hill flat. It contained a letter from a man named Mr Potter, inviting her to attend an interview at the Ministry of Pensions. Violette, still only 21, wasn’t thinking about her pension. She assumed the meeting had something to do with Etienne.

But as it turned out, Mr Potter wasn’t thinking about Violette’s pension either. ‘Mr Potter’ was, in fact, the alias of Selwyn Jepson, a recruiting officer at the Special Operations Executive (SOE): a secret British government agency set up to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.

She wanted to avenge the death of the man that she adored

Jepson worked for F Section, the French branch of the SOE, and he had made something of a name for himself due to his keenness to recruit bilingual women as secret agents. It’s not known exactly how or why Violette first came to his attention, but her motives for agreeing to join up are crystal clear. There was her love for her two countries, and her desire to protect her surviving English and French families. But more than anything else, there was Etienne.

“She was absolutely wanting to avenge the death of her husband, the man that she adored and loved,” says Tania. “She just wanted to do anything that would help.”

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Left: Violette Szabo at home in London with baby Tania. Right: actress Virginia McKenna as Violette and Amanda Godsell as Tania in Carve Her Name With Pride, the 1958 film based on Violette’s life.

Leaving baby Tania in the care of a friend, Violette told her family that she was leaving London to work for a women’s first aid organisation. In August 1943, she set off for Winterfold House, a stately home in Surrey where new SOE recruits were trained.

It wasn’t immediately clear that Violette would make a natural spy. As she progressed from Winterfold to other ‘schools’, learning everything from fieldcraft to parachuting and cryptography, she won many friends, but little respect from those at the top. One report, written after Violette completed her first round of training, encapsulates the mixed reaction she provoked:

“A quiet, physically tough, self-willed girl of average intelligence. Out for excitement and adventure but not entirely frivolous. Has plenty of confidence in herself and gets on well with others. Plucky and persistent… Not easily rattled. In a limited capacity not calling for too much intelligence and responsibility and not too boring she could probably do a useful job, possibly a courier.”

German officers often inadvertently let women spies slip under the radar

Couriers in occupied France were responsible for travelling between undercover networks, or ‘circuits’, and gathering intelligence about the Nazis. As historian Juliette Pattinson notes, women in F Section were almost always made couriers – a decision based, in no small part, on the gender norms of the time.

Despite the famous British propaganda poster launched in 1941 to encourage men to be suspicious of unfamiliar women, German officers often inadvertently let women spies slip under the radar. An SOE file from the time reports that women were seldom stopped and searched at Gestapo controls, nor picked up in mass arrests in France.

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A British WWII propaganda poster urging men not to trust unfamiliar women. The campaign was intended to serve as a reminder that ‘when in the company of a beautiful woman… beauty may conceal brains’.

And so a courier is what Violette became. She was assigned to a secret web of ‘resisters’ codenamed ‘Salesman’, and provided with a code poem to use in case of emergencies: the deeply romantic The Life that I Have, thought to have been written by codemaster Leo Marks.

Salesman had already successfully sabotaged several German operations in northern France before Violette joined the team, including sinking a minesweeper on the Seine and blowing up a power station. But a clutch of the network’s most senior members had recently been captured or killed, and there were fears that security had been compromised. Violette’s job would be to go out into the field and ascertain whether that really was the case.

On her first mission to France in April 1944, Violette successfully uncovered significant information for Salesman – almost none of it was positive. The original circuit had been all but destroyed with the German clampdown that took place before her arrival, and she concluded that any attempt to try to restore the old network could be “suicidal”. Deflated, Violette and the rest of the team returned to London to plot their next move.

Shortly before 10.30pm on the night of 7 June, Violette climbed aboard a plane at an airfield in Northamptonshire with a silk parachute strapped to her back. She would never see England, or her family, again.

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Three days after dropping from the star-strewn sky into a field near Limoges, Violette was captured by the Germans. True to form, she didn’t go down without a fight. Several accounts describe how she urged her companion, a young Frenchman named Jacques Dufour, to flee, and held off their attackers for half an hour with her Sten gun. When a German officer finally managed to lay his hands on her, she spat in his face. 

Violette had always been brave, but her courage as a prisoner of war was awe-inspiring. She was handed over to the Gestapo, who interrogated, tortured and sexually assaulted her. When she refused to talk, she was tortured some more. In August 1944, British planes bombed a German train, not knowing it carried Violette and other prisoners. Violette, shackled to another woman, crawled up the blown-apart carriage with a jug of water for the wounded.

The women in the camp would give each other dandelions as gifts

Eventually, she ended up in Ravensbrück, a notorious concentration camp for women some 50 miles north of Berlin. Up to 132,000 women passed through Ravensbrück between 1939 and 1945; only 15,000 would make it out alive.

While there were gas chambers at Ravensbrück, the Nazis’ main strategy was to work the women to death – with a little help from systematic physical and sexual abuse, medical experimentation, starvation and disease. But despite the horrific conditions, Violette retained her fighting spirit. 

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A memorial book in the former guard’s house at Ravensbruck National Memorial on the site of the former women’s concentration camp in Germany.

According to women who knew her and who survived the war, she plotted constantly to escape, and displayed a goofy, mocking contempt for the SS guards. On one memorable occasion, she stepped jauntily out of line during appel (roll call) to perform the Lambeth Walk – a popular Cockney song and dance routine with its origins in her old Streatham stomping ground, the Locarno Dance Hall. “She was punished, obviously,” says Tania. “But that’s the kind of person she was.”

How does Tania think her mother managed not to fall apart in there? In part, she says, it was down to Violette’s natural resilience: she had always been a hardy little thing, both physically and mentally, and her SOE training had toughened her up even more. And amidst the bleak brutality of the camps, Violette made great friends. Most of the women there were Polish and/or Jewish, but they came from all walks of life, and they looked out for one another.

When one of her cellmates at Ravensbrück became infected with dysentery, causing severe diarrhoea, Violette gave the girl her bed and slept on the cold floor. At another camp, Konigsberg, Violette would spend hours working in the thigh-deep snow; afterwards, her friends would rub her body until warmth returned to her limbs, even though the process was so painful that she would scream.

“Little things like a dandelion would be given as gifts, and bring great smiles to people’s faces,” says Tania. “All the small things that we don’t even consider these days were of special significance.”

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Left: Tania Szabo aged five, holding Violette’s portrait. Right: Tania aged 33 with the same portrait.

The order came towards the end of January 1945. Soviet troops had just successfully liberated Auschwitz from the Nazis; Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were about to meet at Yalta. The end of the war felt within reach – but it was too late for Violette. On a cold February day, she and her two friends, Denise Bloch and Lillian Rolfe, were shot in the back of the head in the presence of seven SS officers. Before she died, Violette was the only one still strong enough to stand.

Today, there are memorials to Violette dotted all over the UK and France, including – but by no means limited to – the Violette Szabo Museum in Herefordshire and a blue plaque on the house in Stockwell where she grew up. Her George Cross is on display at the Imperial War Museum, after Tania was forced to sell them in 2015. At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, a garden designed by David Domoney to commemorate 100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves was dedicated, in part, to Violette’s memory.

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A garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower show, designed by David Domoney (second left) commemorated 100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves. Tania Szabo is on second right.

A typical WWII baby in many ways, Tania is pragmatic about the reality of growing up without her parents. She was raised by her maternal grandparents, and had a happy, relatively normal childhood. “That was my existence,” she says. “That was life. Difficult in some ways, wonderful in others.”

But it is important to her that her mother’s legacy isn’t forgotten, particularly at a time when forces of prejudice and division appear to be swirling more strongly than they have in years.

“When we hear about terrible things like [what happened in WWII], we think: ‘Ah, it will never happen again,’” she says. “But terrible things are happening. We shouldn’t forget Violette and other women like her: women who stood up and were very definitely counted.”

Images: courtesy of Tania Szabo; National Archives; Rex Features. For more information on David Domoney’s garden at Chelsea Flower Show see daviddomoney.com.