It is now certain that the thirty-nine female SOE operatives, then affectionately christened ‘The Moonlight Madonnas’ were the finest in what they heroically achieved in the last War. But sadly thirteen or maybe more failed to ever return home, to waiting families in England in 1945. Spying and especially for women was always going to be dangerous, yet it was a supplement that had to be reckoned with by those brave ladies of the SOE who answered Churchill’s call to ‘set Europe in flames.’
Perhaps they were the matches that started the fire burning. (The expression ‘moonlight’ comes from the fact that only by moonlight were selected agents able to be parachuted or be landed into enemy terrain by a Lysander aircraft Mk III. And with only a five-minute drop off and pick up by the pilot things could and did get pretty dangerous for the crew.)
In this series, I have attempted to examine the Wartime achievements of just three of those individual agents, who were selected and trained by the SOE: these being Odette Churchill and Princess Noor Inayat Khan. In this final article, I want to look at the life of a woman who has always been associated with a particular and popular area of South London, that being Stockwell, but who herself was born in Paris in 1921.
She was, of course, Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo. The daughter of an English father and French mother, and in a natural manner her talents would be an ideal canopy for the risks she undertook, whilst gathering intelligence in occupied France.
When Violette was three-years-old her family returned to England from France and after various addresses, they settled down at 18 Burnley Road, Stockwell, London.
Hers seems to have been a happy and fulfilling childhood, then after leaving school at 14-years-old Violette found employment in Woolworths Stores (no longer with us) and later in the perfumery dept. of a local departmental store in Brixton Road.
She seems to have been an all-rounder enjoying sports and learning the basics of shooting as well from her father, George Bushell.
However, on Bastille Day, July 14th 1940, Violette met the man she would later marry, he was French legionnaire, Sgt. Etienne Rene Szabo. They would be married on the 21st August 1940.
Within a week her husband was posted abroad on active service and Violette, now Mrs Szabo would later enlist in 1941 in the ‘Auxiliary Territorial Service,’ a then vital part of Britain’s defence shield against the enemy. (Our own Queen, the then Princess Elizabeth also signed up for the ATS course, later learning to drive and learning some rudimentary car maintenance as well.) However when Violette found herself pregnant she obtained her release for the service and prepared for future motherhood, and in 1942 her baby daughter, Tania was born in London.
Sadly that joy would later be tinged with grief when in October of that year, her husband Etienne was killed in N. Africa. Violette was now a 21-year-old War widow, with a baby daughter to care for and I suppose her options must have seemed limited. But all of that would change when a buff envelope fell through her letterbox. Soon afterwards that would offer her an opportunity to serve her country and without hesitation, it seems she could say at her interview when approached to undertake ‘dangerous work’ that, “I am prepared to face the danger of that kind.” Hesitation doesn’t seem to have been in her vocabulary. And I hope in this series that I have presented, their unique lives have been faithfully presented because we will not see their likes again or celebrate their insignia of courage and perhaps charm.
And of her personal motives to enlist, well perhaps it was for revenge for what had happened to her late husband, Etienne or perhaps some form of justice for the occupied country of her mothers birth and of course hers. Either way, Violette was fired up with the desire to do something positive in those Wartime days, and in the world of the SOE she found just that opportunity, that would reveal itself in bringing out the very best in her and in those other celebrated women, remembered today in this series.
According to Marcus Binney in his book The women who lived for danger the girls who served as secret agents in Churchill’s Special Operations ‘were young, beautiful and brave.’ Yet I always understood and had been reliably informed that in the dangerous game of espionage it was more beneficial to blend into the background where you were located and never attract the attention of the enemy, especially young German soldiers now stationed in occupied France, and far from home and who might have an eye for pretty girls.
Yet all of the three women in this series were willingly recruited into the French Section of the SOE, then presided over by the old Etonian Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. “Some said there was a Walter Mitty side to Buckmaster,” writes Marcus Binney. And frustratingly in Buckmaster’s books, authored after the war, he apparently swaps the locations and events of the chase by the Germans and eventual capture of some of the agents under his command in London for no apparent reason.
Although in his book They fought alone, written in 1958 he says: “Some people have suggested that we should never have sent women on these missions at all. I cannot agree. Women are as brave and as responsible as men; often more so.”
Then as regards Violette’s natural charm according to Nancy Roberts who herself worked in the wartime SOE office, she recalls: “Well she (Violette) was really very pretty. She was an entrancing creature to men and women alike. Everyone had wanted to see Violette take off; she had bewitched the whole of Baker Street” (the then home of the SOE.) Yet this gift of beauty can bestow anger or admiration in friend or foe alike and is always dangerous in any theatre of war or conflict.
In 1942 some months after Violette’s husband’s death in N. Africa she received an unexpected letter in the post, asking her if possible to present herself at a building in London and there ask for a ‘Mr. Potter’ where it seems an appointment had been made for her. Violette mistakenly believed it concerned her widow’s pension, a natural presumption to make.
However, we now know that ‘Mr Potter’ had somehow learned about Violett’s fluency in language’s and that she might be possible SOE material. But Potter was just a convenient cover name for a well-known author and his name was Selwyn Jepson. He had previously authored many successful books before the War, even having one later filmed and directed by Alfred Hitchcock no less. But Selwyn Jepson was also a popular recruiting agent for the SOE and for the important ‘F Section’ of that then secret bureau in London. (In an interview some years after the war Mr Jepson declared: “That woman were much better than men for the work” of the SOE.)
How she came into the spotlight of the SOE is not clear, yet someone must have been aware of her talents. In the 1958 Rank Organization film Carve her name with pride the actor playing Mr. Potter, who incidentally was Sidney Tafler, almost drops his briar pipe and tobacco pouch before recovering, then remarks cautiously to Violette: “We hear you’re a crack shot.” However, in the book Carve her name with pride the author R.J. Minney does not mention this important asset of Violette’s skills that he certainly would have been searching for in any prospective future agent.
So for some reason, the film scriptwriters later inserted these lines into the films spoken dialogue and I do have to wonder why.
She would, however after these interviews with Captain Potter and others (maybe MI6), be accepted for future training into the SOE, but as her biographer, Susan Ottaway cautiously writes: “There has never been a conclusive answer to the question of how Violette Szabo came to be recruited.”
One written report concerning her ability says: “I seriously wonder whether this student is suitable for our purpose…(she) speaks French with an English accent.” Another more favourable one remarked: “Though essentially feminine, there was something gallant, debonair and quite genuine about her.”
I suspect these are the rather special qualities Maurice Buckmaster saw in her, when he decided to use her in the dangerous manoeuvres she would perform for the ‘F Section’ of the SOE, under his guidance. (I also think he had a crush on her when he wrote years later that, “She was really beautiful, dark-haired, and olive-skinned.” She may even have had small acting roles in films, suggests her biographer, Susan Ottaway.)
She rather reminds me today of a young Yvonne DeCarlo. But first, she would be seen as a serving member of ‘First Aid Nursing Yeomanry’ whilst secretly training for her future SOE role. It was always an ideal cover, then for family and friends and others in uniform and of course fewer questions being asked as well by nosey neighbours. Yet Captain Jepson must have heard about or been made aware of her talents in the fields of espionage that he and Buckmaster could use and perhaps later exploit. Men like these always trust their instincts and are rarely wrong in doing so. And so much of the covert work then and even today relies on instinct rather than intelligence.
However, Violette did eventually commence her initial training in 1943 and she must have been very excited both in Surrey and later in the bleak hills of Inverness. Today one can only speculate on what is applicable in an agents personality and suitability for this kind of work because there can never be the perfect man or woman who can or will engage in all of its successful aspects to the end. Spiritually, of course, we are all born in sin and shame and only through true repentance will we reach security and salvation. It is all part of the DNA of a fallen world that we live and survive in today.
As part of her training, the obligatory parachute jump would be expected and demanded from all potential trainee agents. Violette prepared herself for this ordeal at Ringwood Airport, near south Manchester for her own jump. (Although some reports suggest she had used the parachute jumps before in Scotland.) Unfortunately for her in her descent, she would land rather badly and in the process severely injure her left foot. This is confirmed when later she is seen sitting comfortably recuperating in the delightful seaside resort of Bournemouth.
Incidentally, feet or the study of them are carried out by an orthopaedist. Frequently it seems one foot or leg or even a hand can be weaker than the other. However, in the case of Violette’s foot injury, it may be that this weakened left foot had not fully repaired itself and sometimes this healing process can and will take many months to happen. Sadly sometimes they never become a hundred per cent usable for many people, so I have to suggest that this foot injury she suffered would later become her ‘Achilles heel’ and this would later possibly result in her being captured on that day in the French countryside of Salon-La-Tour. (Incidentally, I have also been unable to find any mention in the town of that event in 1944, either by a memorial or otherwise, and if anyone has seen evidence of the kind do please let me know.)
Yet I have to suggest that I believe she was a born hero, something her training course commanders stupidly failed to recognize but something that Buckmaster and Jepson naturally were aware of in her personality. Both Violette and Princess Noor would in the turmoil of occupied France go on to become celebrated heroic heroines (although it would take some years for some of the full truth about them to emerge.) And perhaps the two women did meet and converse about their families back home in England regardless of the danger, none of us, of course, know when we will be expected to draw from that inner pool of survival when danger presents itself, perhaps suddenly and dramatically.
All three woman Violette, Odette and Noor were three of the serving British agents (and I haven’t forgotten their important French heritage as well, which was so crucial in each of their own stories), who performed under the dangerous SOE banner in those dark days of the last War. The individual courage of these women had always come at a heavy premium, something that many forget in today’s culture of narcissism and self-indulgence.
Today I sometimes feel I have known Violette Szabo for over fifty years, not personally of course, but only through the popular medium of film and biography. So first the manuscript and its portrayal of her life Carve Her name with pride was written by Reuben ‘Reubeigh’ James Minney and published in 1956.
The author was a professional writer and as well as Mrs Szabo, he would author such books on Chaplin, Clive of India and Rasputin. He was equally at home in the film studios in Hollywood or Pinewood, later contesting a Parliamentary seat for the Labour Party, which he didn’t secure. He had also been fortunate in interviewing many members of Violette’s family and others, as well from the wartime SOE including Col. Buckmaster and Captain Jepson, so he must have been cleared for examining sensitive material for background research for his future book.
On a personal note, I actually owned a 1959 Pan paperback of Carve her name with pride many years ago and with the original artwork depicting Violette and a fleeing colleague crouching down in a field in France holding off advancing German soldiers. It may well have been a signed copy I don’t know, but now sadly lost.
And as far as I know, this book is still in print today, which does rather say something for its longevity and peoples good tastes.
Second the film and its historical aspects. I first enjoyed Carve her name with pride, when it was released in 1958 in a cinema in South London, and no not the Classic Cinema in Stockwell.
It was based on R.J. Minney’s book and was an immediate financial success. Today through celluloid to VHS to DVD audiences can still applaud and appreciate the life of Violette Szabo, G.C.
The final casting of Londoner Miss Virginia McKenna, O.B.E, then aged 25-years-old in portraying a 21-23 years-old Violette was appropriate and except for the height difference and the fact that Miss McKenna’s accent rather slips in some of the early scenes, the film does seem to remain faithful to the book. The casting of William Mervyn as Col. Buckmaster who for some reason sports a splendid moustache in the film was suitable, remembering of course that in the 1950 film Odette Maurice Buckmaster (without the moustache) was badly cast by the producer into playing himself, never a good idea.
The late Bill Owen, always excellent to watch, played the tough Sgt. putting the girls through their commando paces and he and so many other ‘jobbing’ actors were always the backbone of British films in those days in darkened cinemas, wherever films like these were being played. None more so than in this portrayal of her brief heroic life.
The confusion of her historic ‘shootout’ with the Germans that would eventually lead to her arrest would also later cause confusion to researchers and historians, hoping to learn more about this important military event.
For example according to the late Buckmaster in his book: “They fought alone.” Violette and another resistance agent had been corned outside Salon-la-Tour by the elite advancing Hermann Goering Division, but in fact, they were elsewhere. It was, however, the Das Reich 2nd Panzer Division, who was then on a slow crawl from the south of France to Normandy to resist further allied beach landings. As Max Hastings writes it was Violette Szabo’s bad luck to cross their advancing path, and he may be correct in this assumption.
In the 1958 film, Violette is seen desperately holding back the German attacks and then later discovers that her stern gun is empty or has jammed, because of this confusion she will eventually surrender after being wounded in the left arm as well. She seems to have been rather well treated after being detained and even being offered a cigarette (in the film) and complemented by the officer on her marksmanship.
Later it is reported that: “She was treated with great politeness and supplied with clean clothes.” Which does seem rather unusual knowing the brutality the SS used against complete villager’s who resisted or hindered their mission. The Czech town of Lidice is a case in point. And again it’s the distinguished author and historian Max Hastings who further comments in his book Das Reich that: “The Germans were entitled to execute Violette Szabo or any other SOE agent who fell into their hands.”
Again as regards the ‘shootout,’ which was such an important and dramatic scene of the 1958 film, Max Hastings comments in his book that some former resistance agents suggested she was in fact captured before having to use her gun and if this is true it is a very serious allegation to be made against her lasting reputation. He then adds with some hesitation on page 157 that: “I have therefore accepted the story of Mrs Szabo’s use of her gun in R.J. Minney’s biography Carve her name with pride I have been unable to find any record of German casualties from the incident in the Das Reich files.”
All of this confusion since 1944 does in my opinion only add more complexity to what did or did not occur on that hot June day in the fields near salon-La-Tour. Also as her biographer Susan Ottaway concludes in her book: “…many of the long-held ‘truths’ about Violette Szabo proved not to be true at all …trying to separate the fact from the fiction has not always been easy..” And I do think this is an honest appraisal from Susan Ottaway about the subject of her biography Violette Szabo, The life that I have.
After her capture, it seems Violette Szabo was tortured, starved and humiliated during her imprisonment. And in the manner of her death either by the rope or bullet, there is also some confusion here. However, one witness from Guernsey later wrote of the three agents and their condition when she witnessed their pitiful condition: “They were in rags, their faces black with dirt and their hair matted, they were starving. They had been tortured.” No doubt there it seems from this lady on what she looked upon in the camp.
Violette Szabo and the other SOE agents were murdered in Ravensbruck Women’s Camp on the 5th February 1945. Then she with the other women’s dead bodies were incinerated. (We can only hope that they were indeed clinically dead and in the case of Noor Khan the evidence of her final hours suggest that she may have been partially alive before being lifted into the ovens in Dachau!) Violette Szabo was 23-years-old.
Three months later the dark clouds of Nazism were lifted and the arrival of the allied forces entered these camps across Europe, but for now, the war was finally over. However, in Matthew 24 of the Holy Bible, we are informed by Jesus Himself that: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that ye are not troubled for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” These are certainly words to pause and ponder upon in these end times that are now upon us.
After the War, her daughter Tania with her grandparents would journey to Buckingham Palace to receive the posthumous award of the George Cross from King George himself, who presented this distinguished medal to Tania in memory of her late mother’s courage. Later Violette Szabo would be awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de La resistance, but most tender and touching were the words spoken from her fellow SOE friend Odette Churchill, who later wrote, “She was the bravest of us all.”
Perhaps Odette had learned far more of what Violette did indeed suffer and was subjected to in those last months of her life and perhaps one day we will also be privileged to learn more about this remarkable woman, and the price she forfeited and the suffering she just endured.
Today you can watch a film about her life and even purchase three books concerning her achievements. Also on display to the public is a blue plaque now seen at her house in Stockwell London, and in the town centre, an imposing mural is also on display, as well as a plate in the Lambeth Town Hall.
Her face also adorns a memorial stamp, as well as a scholarship from the RCM that is offered in memory of her, and if you wish you can purchase a Brixton 20 pound note or a beer tap cover (very tacky.)
In Wormselow, Herts a private museum concerning her life has also been established.
And these are just a few of the many exhibits of the life of Violette Szabo G.C. on display today. And amazingly even in the 21st century, an exciting video game or so I’m informed also extols her heroism.
In conclusion I have to suggest that the spy from Stockwell, with the distinctive marguerite earrings, still lives on in the films and books and other artefacts that chronicled her amazing life, that began in Paris, France in 1921 and tragically ended in Ravensbruck, Germany in 1945, a few short weeks before the Wars end.
P.S. On December 1st I journeyed down to London to inspect the bronze bust of Violette, erected in 2008 and also to see the newly erected Princess Noor Memorial in Gordon Sq. But first I arrived at Burnley Road, Stockwell to find her previous home and photo, the mounted blue plaque. Sadly the house seemed neglected with peeling window frames and I suspect the original front door that Violette would herself have recognized, and why the organisers placed the plaque so high is a mystery.
Whilst outside the house a gentleman who lives in the house arrived and I asked him if he knew who the name on the plaque was, he sadly shook his head and informed me he was from Europe and knew nothing about her or her life. This was also the case of a family living opposite I met. As they were leaving their own house but after I talked to them about her life they seem genuinely interested and thanked me for this information. Whilst there I distributed some Bible tracks into the street’s letterboxes.
There was however a future disappointment, when I eventually located the large painted mural that depicts selected scenes from Violette’s life, sadly it was neglected, with paint peeling off the wall, a broken glass hydrant also on display, and with dirt graffiti around the edges as well as discarded beer cans and bottles at the base, all in all it seemed in a shocking condition to view, and I will be writing to complain to Mayor Boris Johnson, enquiring if something can be arranged to restore it to its original condition. As far as I’m concerned it is the duty of the Government both nationally or locally to maintain and preserve these sites that depict so much of the actions of the brave people, and especially this particular woman who did so much for the freedom of this country in its battle for survival. However, the statue of Mrs Szabo on the south bank was impressive and striking to see at first glance, and facing the House of Commons it seemed suitable and appropriate that she faces the mother of all Parliaments. And it is certainly worth a visit as indeed is the Noor Khan Memorial as well.
The following pictures were a record of my visit to London, which although tiring was enjoyable to undertake and enjoy.
UPDATE: 3rd July 2015.
The medals of 23-year-old Violette Szabo are to be sold, her daughter Tania has announced. Her posthumous George Cross is expected to reach £300K, with her other medals and photos and documents expected also to go under the auctioneer’s hammer later this year. It is hoped the Imperial War Museum will purchase them for the nation to see, rather than a private collector; we will bring further updates as they happen.
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die after, but this the judgment.”
Violette Szabo, the life that I have, Susan Ottaway
Das Reich, Max Hastings
Carve her name with Pride, R.J. Minney
They fought alone, Col. Maurice Buckmaster
A life in secrets, Sarah Helm
The Women who lived for danger, Marcus Binney
10th December 2012
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