Violette Szabo: A Woman of the French Resistance By Donna Coulson
Violette Szabo: A Woman of the French Resistance
by Donna Coulson
If you’ve been with the Normandy Allies in the breakfast nook of the Hotel Churchill in Bayeux, you likely noticed the portrait of a young woman on their wall. I asked the hotel owner, Madame Rima Hebert, who the woman was–fascinated to hear this was Violette Szabo, a heroine of the French Resistance. Violette was a French female spy who was executed in a German prison camp. Walter Ford Carter shared some information with me and then I delved deeper into the history of this feisty lady of the Underground.
Violette Szabo was born on 26 June 1921, in Paris, daughter of a French mother and English taxi-driver father who met during WWI. The family moved to the Brixton area of London where Violette worked at a perfume counter and then a telephone exchange. During a Bastille Day parade in 1940s London, Violette met Etienne Szabo, a French officer of Hungarian descent. After a 5-week courtship, they wed on 21 August 1940; she was 19 and he 31. Etienne shipped out of Liverpool to Africa—Sierra Lione, Dakar then Camaroon. A year later he returned on leave only to depart for duty again. He was KIA in El Alamein after their only daughter, Tania, was born. Violette decided to avenge his death by joining the Resistance.
I’m a Training Specialist by profession and was stunned to read about Violette’s Paramilitary Training course at a special school at Inverie in the Scottish Highlands. This isolated shooting lodge in Knoydart was accessible only by sea from the fishing port of Mallarg at the western tip of Lochaber. Both men and women received the same training as SOEs (Special Operations Executives) and they would be deployed on dangerous missions in enemy-occupied territories.
Violette was with the SO2 set up in July 1940 to train volunteers of various nationalities for clandestine operations in enemy-occupied Europe. They also organized Resistance groups against Nazi invaders. Violette’s training was 5-weeks and physically demanding. Included was parachute and rope work, weapons training with small arms (like hand guns, incendiaries and timing devices), demolition training, safe handling of explosives, map reading, compass work, field craft and silent killing (knife work).
Violette took her parachute training in Ringway, Manchester. She was also trained in Secret Service methods. During a jump here, she injured her ankle which later compromised her speed and led to her capture in the field.
Violette was accompanied by Philippe Liewer on their first mission of 5 April 1944. They parachuted into enemy territory from a B24 bomber near Cherbourg where she reorganized a resistance network. Together, they sabotaged roads and railroad bridges. She also sent wireless reports on the activities of local factories producing German munitions and returned from that mission on April 30, 1944. Her second mission was in Limoges, France on 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day, where she coordinated local Maquis (rural guerilla bands of French Resisters) in sabotaging communication lines during German attempts to stem the Normandy landings. She was riding in a car at a German roadblock in search of Sturmbannfuhrer Helmut Kampfe of the Das Reich Division when she raised suspicions of the guards. A gun battle ensued; she ran out of ammunition and was captured by the 1st Battalion of the Deutschland Regiment.
Because of her capture, Violette was sent first to the Gestapo offices in Limoges, then to Fresnes prison in Paris. On 10 August 1944 she was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where many Resistance fighters were held. She was 1 of 13 women executed by firing squad on 5 February 1945.
A 1958 movie with actress Virginia McKenna, Carve Her Name with Pride, highlights Violette’s life. Author Susan Ottaway wrote the book Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have for the Naval Institute Special Warfare series in 2002. Violette is survived by her daughter Tania who was active in setting up a museum in Violette’s memory in 1998 at the home of an aunt and uncle—Florence and Harry Lucas—called Cartref in the village of Wormelow, Herefordshire, England.
Donna Coulson participated in the Normandy Allies International Experience in 2004, 2007, and 2009. In 2009, Donna began researching Women of the Resistance. She has presented her findings to groups in New Jersey. Future editions of Amitié will feature her continuing research.
Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
For a complementary subscription, request one here.