The way we remember war is a mostly through a male focus. This week, leading up to Armistice day on 11th November I want to bring to you some bitesize stories about incredible women who sacrificed an immense amount and in some cases paid the ultimate price.
Violette Bushell was working in a department store called Le Bon Marché in Brixton
at the outbreak of World War II . She was slightly exotic in that she had a French mother and English father and she had spent the first 10 years of her life in France.
When she arrived in England she could hardly speak a word of English but as time went by she soon picked up the lingo even speaking with a cheeky cockney accent!. In 1940 she joined the Women’s Land Army like so many others at the time and in the same year on Bastille day 14th July she met an Officer in the French Foreign Legion the dashing Étienne Szabo he was of Hungarian descent an was an immediate pull to Violette! To say they were smitten with each other is an understatement. Not wasting any time (as was the norm in those days) they married in August 1940. Etienne set off on his round of duty first to Senegal then to South Africa before going to Eritrea and Syria. Coming home for leave some time after, Violette realised after he left that she was pregnant. By this time she was working for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). In October 1942, the unmentionable happened, she got word that Étienne had been killed in action.
Little is known of how exactly she was recruited, but historians have suggested that her ability to speak French colloquially was a great asset to F section (the French speaking part of the Secret Service) and they may have sought her out or who knows, she may have approached them.
She entrusted her daughter’s care to her parents and started the training to become an SOE (Special Operations Executive) which in simple terminology means spy. First up, her training was intensive with her being sent from Scotland to Manchester and from London to finishing school for spies, Beaulieu in Hampshire. She learnt to code, to shoot, to stand up to torture tactics and to parachute amongst other things.
First mission to France was important in that she was able to provide information on the location of factories producing war materials for the Germans. The second mission to France she made a fatal mistake. She didn’t listen to her intuition, at the insistance of a local maquis ( French resistance fighter) instead of climbing on a bike she got into a car, a car which shouldn’t have been on the road. The French had been banned from driving cars after D Day. For whatever reason she allowed herself to be talked into it against her better judgement. The car was apprehended by Germans soon after it set off and a shoot out followed. She told the local maquis to run and she would cover him. He got away and she was captured.
She was interrogated by the Sicherheitsdienst (SS) for four days in Limoges before being taken to Gestapo headquarters in Paris then as the allied forces pushed deeper into France, valuable spies such as Szabo were taken to Ravensbrück camp in Germany.
Tortured mercilessly alongside others like Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch she tried to escape but on the 5th February 1945 she was dragged outside to execution alley, made to kneel and shot in the back of the head. She was 23 years old.
Posthumously she was awarded the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. She was one of 12 female Special Operation Executives who were killed in the pursuit of defending their country.
In London there are three areas to visit should you wish to pay your respects to Lieutenant Violette Szabo. The Albert embankment outside Lambeth Palace has a bust of Szabo by Sculptor Karen Newman. At Lambeth town hall there is a plaque commemorating her as a resident of Stockwell. There is also a plaque on the house she grew up in at 19, Burnley road.
On my Westminster tour Deeds Not Words: Suffragettes, Spies and Warrior Queens I talk extensively about Violette and other SOEs whose memory must never be lost. 12th November I shall be in Westminster talking about Violette and others. Get onto the book a tour page of my website to get a ticket.
Plenty of books have been written about Violette, including one by her daughter Tanya. A film came out in 1956 called Carve her name with Pride but I do believe it is well overdue for a remake.
As I sign off today I want to leave you with that famous phrase from a poem by Laurence Binyan: