In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
December 7th 2004
The autumn was sliding peacefully towards winter in a kaleidoscope of colours. It would be the fourth winter of the War for Britain, a War that seemed endless, even if defeat no longer appeared probable. The blitz which had so devastated London, and other British cities, in 1940 and to a lesser extent in 1941 had almost ceased as the bulk of the Luftwaffe moved to the east to support Hitler’s following in Napoleon’s footsteps by invading Russia. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had dragged a reluctant United States into the war in Europe and the great battle of El Alamain was still in progress in late October 1942. El Alamain would, in Churchill’s stirring words, reflect the glint of victory on the helmets of our soldiers, and become ‘the end of the beginning.’
Violette was upstairs attending to her four-month-old daughter, Tania, when her mother, Mrs Bushell, answered a knock on the front door of the family’s quiet London suburban home. It was a telegram boy carrying what so many families in Britain between 1939 and 1945 would come to experience, bad news. “I regret to inform you that your husband, Captain Etienne Szabo, died of wounds on 27th October.” That telegram would, as with so many others, change totally the life of the recipient, but in a more dramatic and poignant way.
Etienne Szabo, aged 32 at the time of his death, had been a career soldier who had seen fighting in Indo-China, North Africa and Norway before declaring for Charles de Gaulle in June 1940. That choice may have been simplified by the fact that his unit was in England when France surrendered. Born in Marseilles of Czech parents, Etienne had been an orphan since the age of fifteen. The Foreign Legion was his home.
Violette had been born in 1921 in the British Military Hospital in Paris, the first born of five, to a French mother and a British soldier. She was equally at home in France or England, and completely bi-lingual. She left school at fourteen and was working as a shop assistant in 1940 when the Free French forces paraded in London on Bastille Day. Violette’s French mother sent her nineteen-year-old daughter to find a French soldier and bring him back for a home cooked meal. She returned with the captain in the Legion. They were married five weeks later in Aldershot and General Pierre Koenig, the Legion’s charismatic commander, kissed the young bride.
Etienne left soon afterwards for Africa to persuade, with a great deal of British help, the French colonies to declare for de Gaulle. They were repulsed with a bloody nose at Dakar, but those territories closer to British colonies were more circumspect. The French troops joined with British and South African forces in occupying Italian colonies in East Africa and liberating Abyssinia. Etienne returned to Britain in September 1941 for a short leave, during which their daughter was conceived.
Their time together was brief and Etienne was soon back in North Africa to take part in the first Battle of El Alamain in July 1942. The Free French occupied the southern flank of the allied line and at Bir Hakeim held up Rommel’s Panzers for fifteen days. It was the first time in two years that France’s tattered flag could be held proudly aloft. Etienne’s and Violette’s little girl was safely delivered at this time, but the legionnaire was destined never to see his daughter. Wounded on the first day of the second Battle of El Alamain he died on 27th October.
As the fact of his death seeped into her being, Violette developed a great anger and a burning hatred of the Germans and determined to find a role for herself in the War. Early in 1943 she was recruited by Special Operations Executive. SOE had been the child of Churchill’s fertile brain and was tasked with ‘setting Europe ablaze.’
Violette Szabo trained for over a year for her role as an agent in occupied France. All her trainers commented on her intelligence, her pleasant nature and her attractiveness. She was required to master a number of skills, parachuting, hand to hand combat, use of weapons and explosives and disguises. Her training took her to Surrey, Scotland, Cheshire and finally Beaulieu, in Hampshire. Violette missed her baby daughter hugely, and saw her but rarely at her parents’ house.
On 6th April 1944 she was landed by Lysander in France and spent nearly four weeks in Paris and Normandy meeting Resistance contacts and gathering intelligence. Her feminine side was revealed when she arrived back in England at the beginning of May with her case packed with Parisian fashions.
Still only 23, the young woman had little time to enjoy her new clothes, jumping into France with another agent on D Day plus two. The pair suffered great ill fortune in running into the SS Das Reich Division moving north towards Normandy. Das Reich are infamous for the murder of 642 French civilians, men, women and children in the small Limousin village of Oradour sur Glane. On 10th June she was wounded and captured in a shoot out with German troops. Violette Szabo was taken to Limoges prison and then to Gestapo Head Quarters in Paris, and brutally tortured. Her legend says she told the Nazis nothing, even though her interrogators knew her real name and family details.
In August, Violette was taken by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp. The train was attacked and derailed by RAF Typhoons and the journey to the camp was completed in trucks, taking over three weeks. In January 1945, Violette Szabo was executed by the Gestapo, even as the 1000-year Reich fell into ruins around them. She was still only twenty-three and her daughter, Tania, two years and seven months.
The following lines, used as code by Violette, are a fitting testimony to her memory:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
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
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
This poem was written by her Controller, Leo Marks in memory of a girl he loved, killed in an air raid.
Violette Szabo was awarded a posthumous George Cross by the King.
Written by my Father B.M