Remembering Violette Szabo
PUBLISHED: 17:48 17 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013
Wartime British agent Violette Szabo, executed by the SS in 1945, has no known grave but her short life is honoured by a small museum in rural Herefordshire. Chris Poole remembers "the bravest of us all"
The life that I have
Wartime British agent Violette Szabo, executed by the SS in 1945, has no known grave but her short life is honoured by a small museum in rural Herefordshire. Chris Poole remembers the bravest of us all
Violette Szabo GC. The name needs no introduction or explanation to those familiar with the wartime activities of the Special Operations Executive.
Synonymous with heroism and self-sacrifice Violette Szabo remains an enduring symbol not just of Britains struggle against Nazi tyranny but of the courage that women have shown, often unremarked at the time, throughout our islands history of armed conflict.
Although her name is so familiar, few will know that in the heart of rural Herefordshire there is a small museum dedicated to her memory. Each year, on or close to her birthday on 26 June, people gather to honour and remember Violette Szabo.
Born in Paris in 1921 with an English father and French mother, Violettes family moved to London as the war clouds over continental Europe were taking shape and gathering. As a child, living in Stockwell, she spent time with her cousins at their country home in the village of Wormelow near Ross-on-Wye. Violette was working in London when war broke out. She met Etienne Szabo of the Free French Army and they were married in August 1940. Soon after the birth of their daughter, Tania, tragedy struck. Violette learned that her husband had been killed in action at El Alamein. The shocking news threatened to overwhelm the young Violette but an unusual opportunity to strike back presented itself.
It isnt clear how the shadowy world of wartime secret agents heard of Violette Szabo. In all probability the recruiters of the SOE were attracted by her French language skills. Violette had developed a steadfast and driven urge to contribute to the war effort and to extract retribution for her husbands death. She agreed to join the SOE a commission in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry provided cover for her training.
Records now available reveal that during her training there were misgivings in the hierarchy about Violettes suitability. One officer doubted that her English-accented French and her temperament would be right for undercover work in occupied France. Another noted that despite these misgivings she was one of the units best rifle shots. However, SOE completed Violettes training and had her flown into France by Lysander aircraft to reconnoitre options for the Resistance.
This first, and successful, mission won her some notoriety. Her task was to look at the possibilities for Resistance activities near to Rouen. The network had been severely disrupted by the Gestapo and the mission was fraught with the risk of exposure. At one point she was detained and questioned by the police but was released and returned to Paris where, legend has it, she shopped for presents for her daughter before requesting a covert SOE pick-up for the return to England.
Once safely back in Britain, Violette might have felt that there would be no call on her to return to France. That, however, was not to be. SOE needed someone with her expertise and nerve to go into the area near Limoges for operations with the Resistance. Violette agreed. This time insertion was by parachute drop. On the ground and linked up with her French Resistance colleagues the operation did not go well. A chance encounter with a German patrol led to a firefight during which, in the face of overwhelming German armed superiority, Violette was wounded and then captured having given covering fire to enable a Resistance colleague to escape.
The next phase in Violettes short, heroic life was of torture by the Gestapo and transportation to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. She revealed nothing to her German interrogators. Along with two other female SOE agents Violette Szabo was executed by the SS in January or February 1945 she has no known grave.
Over the years, the story of the SOE and its heroes and heroines has steadily become available to the public. It is hard, now, to imagine the daring and bravery of its young men and women. Veterans and many others believe it important to maintain lasting memorials to the courage and sacrifice of SOE agents. Violette and her colleagues are revered in pictures and words on the walls of the Special Forces Club in London. Violettes picture takes pride of place at the foot of the clubs staircase. More accessible to the public is the museum in Herefordshire.
When she came to live in the house known as Cartref in Wormelow more than 40 years ago, Rosemary Rigby was to discover that the Bushell family (Violettes maiden name) used to spend holidays at the house and that Violette had been there between her two missions in France. Miss Rigbys work for the blind delayed for many years the project about which she came to feel so strongly completing a permanent space that would mark the life and achievements of Violette Szabo. But by the summer of 2000 a small stable in the grounds of Cartref had become the museum and was opened to the public. Several thousand people attended, including Violettes daughter Tania, the actress Virginia McKenna and some who had known and worked with Violette in SOE. Ms McKenna starred in the film tribute to Violette, Carve Her Name With Pride and returns each year to Cartref to attend the memorial ceremony. She, with Miss Rigby, was instrumental in generating enough support to convert the stable block.
And for those wondering about the title of this article, poetry was commonly used as a cypher key by SOE agents. In the case of Violette Szabo it was, of course, the following poem (attributed to Leo Marks, a SOE cypher specialist).
Long after the war ended, Leo Marks said of Violette Szabo She was more than an agent, she was a symbol and another SOE agent, Odette Churchill, said she was the bravest of us all.
If you wish to visit the museum it is best to contact Rosemary Rigby on 01981 540477 to check opening times.
The museums website is at www.violette-szabo-museum.co.uk
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours, and yours, and yours.
A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
And death will be but a pause
For the years I shall have in the long green grass
Are yours, and yours, and yours.