Female Badasses in History: Violette Szabo (1921-1945)

Violette Szabo was a secret agent for the Allies in World War II. She participated in two major missions for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE, the approximate counterpart to the American’s OSS) and served with such distinction that Odette Churchill, another female British secret agent (no relations to Winston Churchill), said of her that “She was the bravest of us all”.

Violette Szabo was born in 1921 as Violette Bushwell in Paris. Her family, her father being British, moved the family to London where Violette went to school until age 14.

The celebration of Bastille Day in London in 1940 should change her life. This is where she met Etienne Szabo, a French officer of Hungarian descent. Violette married him after only 42 days in August of 1940. A year later and only shortly after the birth of their daughter Tania, in October 1941, Etienne died fighting in El Alamein against the German Africa Corps. This tragedy convinced Violette to sign with the Auxiliary Territorial Service, an agency related to the SOE. The SOE picked her out – among other factors – for her excellent knowledge of French and trained her not only in night- and day-time evasion tactics, parachuting, hand-to-hand-combat but also sabotage techniques and demolitions.

In April 1944 she started her first mission parachuting into France near Cherboourg. She took charge of a group of French resistance fighters that had been seriously weakened by the German police and army in France. Not only did Violette Szabo manage to rebuilt the group and become its temporary leader, she her group also gathered vital intelligence for the preparation of D-Day and managed to sabotage several railway lines and bridges. She completed the mission successfully and returned home after six weeks.

Her second mission took place right after D-Day on June 7 1944. Again she parachuted into France this time near Limoges and took charge of the local French resistance group. She and her group contributed to the Allied fight against Nazi Germany vitally by successfully sabotaging communication lines of the Germans so that they couldn’t communicate that the Allies had landed in Normandy. On June 10 she and some other membes traveled by car and raised the suspicion of German soldiers nearby. A gunfight ensued and Violette Szabo in an act of heroism decided to save the group by staying behind and fighting the Germans. She engaged them in a gunfight lasting over an hour and while German records indicate no injuries witnesses state that she succeeded in taking out several German officers. Ultimately Szabo was captured because she ran out of ammunition.

The German soldiers that captured her transferred her first to the local German SD office from she was transferred to the Paris’ Gestapo headquarter. The Gestapo tortured and interrogated her for four days. Afterwards she was sent to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (the camp especially for women) where she and other female SOE agents allegedly joined the camp-internal resistance movement. Around February 5, 1945 she and four other SOE members were executed at Ravensbrück and their bodies subsequently were burned in the camp’s crematoria.

The names of her murderers and torturers remain unknown until this day, Violette Szabo however is still remembered for her bravery and contribution to the war effort. In 1946 she was posthumously – as the second woman ever – awarded the King George’s Cross. Today there is not only a plague and a museum in Szabo’s honor and memory but also several books about her – one written by her daughter – as well as a movie called “Carve Her Name with Pride”. She also made her way into today’s popular culture by being the role model for female agent Violette Summer in the 2009 video game “Velvet Assasin”.