The Cranfield University is situated in the middle of nowhere just
in the middle of England next to Milton Keynes. Bletchley Park, the famous
place where the scientific heroes of the WW2 (like Neumann or Turing) cracked
the Enigma, is just 15 - 20 minutes (by car) away. Approximately the same
distance up to the north brings you to a forgotten place in the middle of
a field - Tempsford Airfield. A tiny wooden building on this now unused airfield,
the so-called "Gibralter Farm" remembers the unknown and forgotten heroes which have
fought against the Germans in this bloody war in secret missions - spies.
The Gibraltar Farm at Tempsford Airfield
One of those brave fighters who started their missions here was Violette Szabo,
best remembered as the heroine of the romanticised 1956 book and film
"Carve Her Name With Pride".
This page is dedicated to her, may she never be forgotten like the place
where she started her missions.
As one of four children, Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell was born
in Paris on June 26th, 1921. Her father, being a taxi-driver, was
British, her mother French. Between the wars the family moved to London.
From early age Violette was beautiful and fit, surpassing her three brothers
at all sports. The young "Vi" spent many happy holidays at the cottage of her
aunt and uncle Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, at Wormelow, Hertfordshire. She quickly developed
a daredevil reputation, often seen climbing the trees around the village or riding
pillion on a motor bike driven at speed around the narrow country lanes. It was said
that at the age of 10 she was seen running along the roof of her uncle's cottage,
Leaving school at 14, Violette spent the next few years working
locally, first as a hairdresser's assistant then as a shop assistant at
Brixton's 'Woolworths' department store. In July 1940, Mrs Bushell decided
to offer hospitality to a French soldier on Bastille Day. She sent Violette
to find one in London. "Vi", being 19, was happy about this task! She met
Captain Etienne Szabo, a 30-year old officer serving in the French Foreign Legion.
After a whirlwind wartime romance, the couple married in Aldershot just one month
later on August 21st, 1940. Almost immediately the newly weds were parted, when Etienne
went to North Africa with his unit.
"Vi" joined the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS) to pay her part to the war against Germany.
At Oswestry, in north Shropshire, Violette became a member of 137 (Mixed)
HAA Regiment, RA. Her Battery Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel JW Naylor,
"She was tiny, about five feet tall, very slim and very attractive.
Szabo became a really excellent predictor who, because of her lack of
height, always seemed to stand on tiptoe when at her instrument. She was
very popular with all the girls on her site, and her officers and NCOs
always spoke highly of her as both a soldier and comrade. Whatever she
did, she did with 100% enthusiasm, whether at site concerts, guard duties,
inspections, games or whatever, she was always the example and leading
Captain Szabo was fortunate enough to return to England for a
week's leave which he and Violette spent together in Liverpool. After her
husband's return to North Africa, Violette discovered that she was
pregnant so she had to leave the ATS. Lieutenant-Colonel Naylor:
"All of us felt quite dismayed when we heard that 'Little Szabo' was
going home to have a baby and would therefore be leaving the battery".
The Life that I have
On June 8th, 1942, just a few days before her 21st birthday,
Violette gave birth to a daughter, Tania. Tragically, Captain Szabo never had the chance to meet
his daughter: he was killed in action during the Battle of El Alamein on
October 24th, 1942. Violette was devastated and faced the future
as a War Widow and single parent.
Stop! Let's go back in time. In the same month that Violette and Etienne
Szabo met, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) was set up. A small but tough British secret service,
its role was to support and stimulate resistance in the german occupied countries.
Although SOE's total strength never exceeded 10,000 men and 3,200 women,
over a third were active secret agents. During talks concerning the
creation of SOE, Dr Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare,
perfectly described SOE's intended role:
"We have got to organise movements in enemy-occupied territory
comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese Guerrillas
now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a
notable part in Wellington's campaign or - one might as well admit it - to
the organisations which the Nazis themselves had developed so remarkably
in almost every country in the world. This 'democratic international' must
use many different methods, including industrial and military sabotage,
labour agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts
against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots."
Somehow the half-French Violette Szabo, now a
civilian, came to the attention of SOE and was considered as a potential
recruit. She received a letter from a 'Mr Potter', inviting her to an
interview during which it was explained that people had "to do
dangerous work" in occupied France. "You mean spying?" responded Violette.
"No, not spying exactly, but similar. We want people with special
qualities to be trained and go into enemy occupied territory and make life
very unpleasant for the Germans". Violette agreed immediately.
At a second meeting with 'Mr Potter', who was most likely Major
Selwyn Jepson, a week later, Potter made no secrets of
the risks involved (actually a one in four chance of death), but Violette
remained steadfastly resolute in her desire to return to France. It has
been said that, after her husband's death, she had become 'smitten with
grief and hatred of the enemy', which would only be natural, and this,
coupled with her natural zest and spirit, was no doubt the demon driving
If a third meeting took place then the visitor, by then considered
a prospective agent, would either join SOE or withdraw. There was never
any question of the latter for Violette Szabo.
Interestingly for the times, both Jepson and the official board
were prepared to treat women with equality. SOE was, therefore, far in
advance of the current fashion given the realisation that for clandestine
purposes there were several tasks that women could perform better than
men. By no means all of 'F' Section's female agents had that ordinary,
unassuming air considered invaluable for such work. Several, including
Violette Szabo, were beautiful, and extrovert personalities. Maurice
Buckmaster, the Head of 'F' Section, remembers her as 'really beautiful,
dark-haired and olive-skinned, with a porcelain clarity of face'. Although
such qualities made these women more easily noticed in the street, it was
hoped that they would appear to be from the 'leisured classes'. Although
certain female SOE agents were fortunate enough to hail from this
desirable social strata, Violette Szabo, the working class girl from
Brixton, certainly was not.
Many of 'F' Section's females belonged to what was probably the
least known women's service, which at one time was a socially exclusive
one, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Over half of FANY's total
strength was, in fact, involved with SOE work. In the main this was not
connected with dangerous clandestine operations but with a host of other,
home-based, far less glamorous and mundane duties. The FANYs relaxed their
social standards, however, sufficiently to commission Violette Szabo,
described by the SOE historian Professor MRD Foot as 'fiery' and amongst
SOE's 'outstanding characters'. She became one of the few FANYs allowed to
move out of housekeeping, transportation, clerical or signals tasks into
what was, after all, actual warfare. Most SOE women worked in the field as
messengers and liaison officers, known as couriers, or as wireless
operators. They often provided invaluable support for the organisers; all
Naturally 'F' Section's training was intensive, not least as a
means of weeding out any liabilities before they got to France. The first
course was of a two-three week duration at a country house. This
concentrated on physical fitness, elementary map reading, and some weapons
training. Those who successfully passed out then went to Scotland for
three to four weeks' para-military training. Small arms training there
included British, German and Italian pistols, rifles, machine-guns and
sub-machine-guns. The art of silent killing, derived from both ju-jitsu
and karate, was also taught. Demolitions and railway sabotage - using live
explosives - were also practised together with basic infantry tactical
training (including how to combine fire and movement, laying an ambush and
storming a house). It was not unusual for a third of each course to fail.
The next step was the final training around Beaulieu in the New
Forest. There agents were briefed in the machinations of Nazi policing,
terror and collaboration. Essentially agents were taught how to play a
part and act their cover, unusually hard but of vital, life-saving,
During the course of Violette's parachute training, at Ringway,
Manchester, she landed heavily and consequently recuperated at 'Cartref'
where she nursed her bandaged limbs. Eventually recovered from her
unfortunate injury, Violette successfully completed her SOE training and
was cleared for fieldwork. The only thing she appears to have struggled
with was mastering the necessary code, as SOE Codemaster Leo Marks recalls
in his recently published book, "Between Silk & Cyanide". After personal
tuition from Marks himself, Violette became proficient, the basis of her
later broadcasts from enemy occupied France being based upon the verse
written especially for her by the Codemaster:
Is all that I have
And the life that I
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
And yours and yours.
Violette Szabo's first mission came in April 1944
Flown to the Rouen area by a Westland Lysander (of 161 Squadron
RAF, the 'Special Duties' unit), Violette - now known as 'Louise' - was
tasked with assessing the effectiveness of the local Resistance movement
following large-scale arrests. Despite being twice arrested, the task was
successfully completed. Before flying back to England, 'Louise' was able
to go shopping in Paris where she bought a pretty dress for her little
daughter. It would one day become significant.
After her de-brief, Violette unwound at 'Cartref'. She regularly
travelled to Hereford Market to enjoy the fair, but was banned from the
shooting shy for being such a good shot! Of course no one knew of her
double-life and were not to know, of course, that Violette Szabo was
considered to be the very best shot in SOE.
Violette Szabo in a PC-Game
By this time D-Day, the intended liberation of Europe, was rapidly
approaching and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, gave SOE a
very clear message: "Set Europe ablaze". Policy had for some time been
directed at creating a clandestine army in France which would rise on
D-Day and cause chaos behind enemy lines. The success of Resistance, in
the eyes of Allied governments and chiefs of staff, would be determined by
the difficulties it imposed upon the Germans, particularly in respect of
the delay it could inflict upon Normandy bound reinforcements. Allied
aircraft increasingly dropped weapons and supplies to Resistance groups in
preparation for the proposed uprising. Despite concerns regarding civilian
casualties, the Allied air forces were also undertaking the 'Transport
Plan', an intensive bombardment of 72 critical railway junctions in
France. These targets were spread throughout northern and central France
so as to conceal the location of the forthcoming landings.
Through ULTRA decrypts and reports from agents, the Allies had an
excellent knowledge of the disposition of enemy units. It was known, for
example, that the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, recently withdrawn
from the Russian Front, was training and returning to strength at
Montauban, near Toulouse. General Heinz Lammerding's Division, comprising
some 15,000 men and 1,400 vehicles (including around 126 tanks and 61
self-propelled guns) clearly represented essential reinforcements for the
Normandy battles. Ultimately the passage of Das Reich northwards through
the Dordogne and Corréze, the Limousin and across the Loire towards the
front would, however, be bitterly challenged by the Resistance. The
Germans anticipated this, and consequently Lammerding intended from the
outset to ruthlessly subdue this previously clandestine army.
Allied forces landed in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. As anticipated
the Germans started to move reinforcements into the area. Immediately the
Resistance - its great hour arrived at last - commenced harrying
operations. The scene was set for fierce encounters, no quarter given or
expected by either side. It was into this volatile scenario that Violette
Szabo parachuted shortly after nightfall on D-Day. By now, in a state of
euphoria, the Resistance were travelling around openly and the new 'F'
Section arrivals were driven through the night from their drop zone to
Sussac, a village some 25 miles south-east of Limoges. Lodged above a
grocer's shop, the local 'F' Section commander, Staunton, was both
concerned and disappointed not to find the well-organised maquis he had
expected. In his opinion, this 800 strong force was led by 'the most
incapable people I have ever met, as was overwhelmingly proved by the fact
that none of the D-Day targets had been attended to'. Only after 'several
hours of discussion' was Staunton able to achieve even one 'small turn
out, either to a railway or telephone line'.
At dawn on D-Day plus two, the Das Reich began its move towards
Normandy. Just 10 miles up the road, at Groslejac, local Resistance were
already preparing to fight their first delaying action. Led by the local
butcher, 15 Frenchmen armed with just one Bren gun and assorted other
small arms naively but bravely lay in wait for the advance party of this
elite Waffen-SS formation. At about 8.30 a.m., the leading vehicles of the
Der Führer Regiment's Aufklärungsabteilung (reconnaissance unit),
commanded by Major Heinrich Wulf, arrived in the village. The résistants
started firing but were soon overwhelmed by the battle-hardened panzer
grenadiers. It was all over in 20 minutes and Der Führer was soon crossing
the Dordogne. In the Germans' wake lay 10 dead Frenchmen and at least one
North of the Dordogne at Carsac, five shocked résistants blundered
into Dickmann's column. One fled, his comrades slain at point blank range.
Moving rapidly through the village, the SS men took no chances and fired
upon houses as they went. Within minutes 13 innocent civilians were dead
and more buildings were ablaze.
At Rouffilac a barricade had been erected across the road.
Apparently the leading SS motor cyclist was killed and a PIAT rocket hit
an armoured vehicle. The Germans soon overcame the obstacle, however,
killing one Maquisard and wounding two more. Another 15 civilians were
also added to the gathering death toll. Just a mile further on, at Carlux,
two women were shot as Der Führer entered the village. At Gabaudet, in the
Lot, an unknown element of Das Reich chanced upon a roadside gathering of
résistants. Eleven, including a girl, were shot on the spot. Curiously,
although 80 others were seized for 'deportation', they were released on
the road to Tulle.
On the approach to Cressenac, 10 miles north of the Dordogne, the
lead vehicles of Der Führer's headquarters group were hit by a long burst
of fire which found its mark. The SS panzergrenadiers leapt from their
vehicles, pinned down. Dickmann's armoured vehicles soon arrived, however,
and blasted the positions from which the French were firing. Four
résistants were soon dead; the survivors put to flight.
Eight miles on, at Noailles, more maquis lay in wait and heard the
firing from Cressanac. They proved no match for armour, however, and their
leader, Commandant Romain, soon lay dying at the roadside: mort pour la
The Germans' intention from the outset was to indicate the
consequences of any uprising. It was not been entirely without cost,
however, as Dickmann lost 12 men killed. Nevertheless, Der Führer had
opened a passage through which the Division now poured.
The following day saw a repetition of similar actions. The
Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German High Command) was prompted,
therefore, to issue orders to the 66th Reserve Corps and Das Reich to
'immediately pass to the counter-offensive, to strike with the utmost
power and rigour, without hesitation'. The order continued that 'it is
necessary to use intimidatory measures against the inhabitants. It is
necessary to break the spirit of the population by making examples. It is
essential to deprive them of all will to assist the maquis and meet their
The maquis was certainly causing problems for the Wehrmacht. The
town of Tulle in the Corréze, for example, was a Resistance stronghold and
not surprisingly the location of a major uprising. At 5 a.m. on June 7th,
a bazooka projectile exploded in the German barracks at Champs de Mars.
The maquis descended upon the town in droves, confident that the Germans
would soon surrender or flee. The enemy, trained soldiers of the 95th
Security Regiment with plentiful ammunition, had no intention of doing
either and doggedly fought back confident that help would soon arrive. By
4 p.m. the following day, only one German position remained undefeated
however, and this had a limited field of fire. So far as the maquis were
concerned, therefore, they had liberated the town. Their jubilation was
short-lived: the Frenchmen had not reckoned on an intervention by crack SS
panzergrenadiers. Major Wulf's Aufklärungsabteilung had been despatched to
rescue the besieged garrison, arriving during the evening of June 8th.
Having made contact with the defenders, Wulf's men began sweeping the
maquis from the streets. Sensibly, the Partisans retreated hastily.
During this mopping up operation the Das Reich suffered three
killed and nine wounded, whilst the garrison's losses amounted to 139
killed and 40 wounded. German records indicate that 40 German corpses were
discovered in a mutilated state early the following morning, June 9th.
Perhaps the most damning piece of circumstantial evidence supporting this
claim is the disproportionately light maquis casualties, 17 killed and 21
wounded. This suggests that executions may well have taken place.
Reprisals were ordered, the like of which France had never seen before. In
total Das Reich hung, from the town's lampposts, 99 Frenchmen aged between
17-42. Only two of them were, in fact, Maquisard. Even today, Das Reich
survivors apparently believe that their actions were justifiable
anti-terrorist measures. It was certainly an indication of what the 2nd SS
Panzer Division was capable and no doubt a reflection of the Division's
conduct in Russia.
Further south, Der Führer's 3rd Battalion, commanded by the dashing
34-year old Knight's Cross holder Major Helmut Kampfe, was advancing from
Limoges to Gúeret, the latter in maquis hands. Several engagements took
place en route, including the execution of 29-captured Maquisard.
Frustrated by these delays, at 8 p.m. Major Kampfe, who is believed to
have been alone, overtook his column at high speed driving a Talbot car. A
short time later his men found the Talbot abandoned at La Bussiére, 15
miles south of Limoges. There was sign of neither struggle nor injury. In
fact, Kampfe had been stopped and kidnapped by a maquis group returning
from blowing up a bridge near Brignac. Naturally lone German vehicles
travelling in advance of their columns were easy prey and at least one
other Das Reich officer was captured in similar circumstances but escaped
to tell the tale.
Enraged by delays and Major Kampfe's disappearance, the Divisional
Commander, General Lammerding, ordered that a search be conducted with
'utmost vigour'. Every available Das Reich panzergrenadier was combing the
Limousin by the morning of June 10th, desperate for any trace of this
missing officer. Having parachuted into the area of Sussac just four days
before, this bode ill, that fateful day, for Violette Szabo.
Colonel Georges Guingouin, a ruthless communist leader, who was
feared throughout the Limousin, controlled the Sussac maquis.
Unfortunately for SOE, of all the Resistance leaders in the area he was
the one least influenced by London. Understandably given this backdrop,
the SOE boss Staunton considered it essential that he should make contact
with other, more co-operative, maquis of the Corréze and Dordogne. He
decided to send his courier, Violette Szabo, to liase with them. A Sussac
maquis section leader, Jacques Dufour, codename 'Anastasie', volunteered
to drive 'Louise' to meet a contact at Pompadour, some 30 miles south.
From there she would be passed on to local leaders.
At 9.30 a.m. on June 10th, 1944, Dufour and Szabo set off in a
CitroŽn. Not far along the road, Dufour gave a lift to a friend's 12-year
old son who was travelling into the Corréze. Shortly after 10 a.m., at
Salon-la-Tour near the Tulle road, 20 miles south of Limoges, the CitroŽn
had the incredible misfortune, given the otherwise general lack of German
presence, to blunder into panzergrenadiers of either Der Führer or 1st
Battalion the Deutschland Regiment (another Das Reich formation). The boy
leapt out of the car and ran for his life. Szabo and Dufour stayed
together, armed with Sten guns, but ran in a different direction to their
passenger. What actually happened next remains a matter for debate.
Virginia McKenna as Violette Szabo
In Carve Her Name With Pride, the author, RJ Minney, describes a
drawn out firefight during which Violette Szabo tripped and twisted her
ankle. Quite rightly deserted by 'Anastasie', she held the Germans off,
inflicting fatal casualties, until her ammunition was exhausted. Captured
alive, she continued to fight until overcome by the tough SS men.
After the book's publication, however, certain former résistants
took issue with what they considered a romanticised account, and claimed
that 'Louise' was, in fact, taken without firing a shot. During the
research for his excellent work Das Reich, Max Hastings found no trace of
any relevant fatalities in German records (which in my experience are
meticulously recorded). Local people were also unable to provide any
conclusive evidence to resolve the matter. Given Violette Szabo's apparent
temperament and skill at arms, however, I would suggest it unlikely,
unless she was captured immediately which does not appear to have been the
case, that shots were not exchanged. Given Minney's claim that a local
woman was killed in crossfire, further research is currently ongoing at
Salon. Surely if a villager was killed in such circumstances the incident
would be widely recalled? Unfortunately 'Anastasie', the eyewitness whose
account is clearly invaluable, was later killed in Indo-China and is not
believed to have left behind any form of written account.
Whatever happened that fateful morning, the fact remains that this
remarkable young woman was indeed captured by the Waffen-SS, limping from
a twisted ankle and nursing a slight flesh wound. She was conveyed by
staff car to Limoges and presented to the Das Reich Divisional
interpreter, Major Kowatsch (who had acted as 'master of ceremonies' in
Tulle only the previous day). Admitting only that she was British and had
parachuted into the region just a few days before, Kowatsch later claimed
that the SOE agent was treated with respect and supplied with clean
clothes before being handed over to the SD (Security Police). Whether or
not this is true, given the Germans' frustration and current strength of
feeling against maquis activities, is not known but has surely to be
During the afternoon of that same day, men of the Der Führer
Regiment committed the worst atrocity of all against the French civilian
population. The unit's commander, Major Otto Dickmann, was a close
personal friend of Major Kampfe. Das Reich sources claim that Dickmann
received information to the effect that the Maquis was holding a high
ranking German officer at the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane. He deduced
that this could only be Major Kampfe and immediately moved against the
small town (of 254 buildings with a population of 650). Although
Dickmann's men failed to locate either Kampfe or prove any connection with
the maquis, they left Oradour in flames having slaughtered its population:
393 residents, 167 people from the surrounding area, 33 from Limoges, and
55 from other places were killed. Many of the victims were women and
children, only 52 of the total death toll were ever identified.
Das Reich did not reach Normandy for another three days, arriving
on June 13th having taken five days to complete a journey of 150 miles.
The delay imposed by what was, in effect, a 'Secret Army' was actually far
beyond what London had hoped for. These crack SS troops then had to spend
another seven days re-grouping and it was not until June 30th that Das
Reich had completely trickled into rear areas of the front. In fact,
Lammerding's men were unable to fight as a cohesive unit until July 10th,
by which time Das Reich had already suffered heavy losses.
Ultimately Violette Szabo was executed, together with fellow SOE
agents Lillian Rolfe and Denise Bloch, at the notorious Ravensbrück
concentration camp on an unknown date in January 1945. She was 23-years
On December 12th, 1946, Tania Szabo, then aged four, received her
mother's posthumous George Cross from King George VIth; she was wearing
the dress that Violette brought back from her first sortie into enemy
occupied France. The citation in part reads: -
Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous
mission in FranceÖ. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed
she showed great presence of mind and astuteness. She was twice
arrestedÖ., but each time managed to get away.
ÖShe was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was
then continuously and atrociously tortured, but never by word or deed gave
away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of value. She was
ultimately executed. Mme Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and
The George Cross
Captain Etienne Szabo was also decorated, receiving both the Legion
d'Honneur and Medaille Militaire. Both husband and wife were also awarded
the Croix de Guerre with clasps. These medals can now be seen at the
Exhibition of Jersey's Occupation Experience, located in the former German
Underground Hospital, having been made available by Tania Szabo who now
lives and works on the island. Movingly, Tania recently made a very
personal pilgrimage to Ravensbrück where she left violets in the very
passage where her remarkable mother had been executed, and placed a wreath
in the crematorium.
The current owner of 'Cartref', Miss Rosemary Rigby MBE, is equally
determined that Violette Sazbo GC will not be forgotten. A plaque
commemorating Violette's association with the house was unveiled there on
June 26th, 1988 (on which date Violette would have been 67). Although
Tania Szabo was unable to attend, she sent Miss Rigby 23 roses - one for
each year of her mother's short life. That same year, the Royal British
Legion authorised the inclusion of a wreath dedicated to Violette amongst
those laid at Hereford War Memorial every Remembrance Sunday.
On October 31st, 1998, the movie star Virginia McKenna, who played
the lead role in Carve Her Name With Pride, launched Miss Rigby's appeal
to raise the £17,000 necessary to create a museum at 'Cartref' dedicated
to Violette Szabo GC. The £7,500 raised so far indicates that there is a
long way to go. On June
24th, 2000, a special ceremony at 'Cartref' attended by Virginia McKenna
and Special Forces veterans was held to further boost the progress already made. On
the same day Miss Rigby was presenting the field adjacent to 'Cartref'
as a 'Millennium Green' for the people of Wormelow. Needless to say this
generous act was also in honour of Miss Rigby's heroine.
Naturally I wholeheartedly support Rosemary's efforts to provide
appropriate commemoration at 'Cartref'. It was, in fact, a curious feeling
leaving the house upon conclusion of my recent visit during the
preparation of this article: for me the road led safely home to my flatmates at Cranfield Village;
Violette's last journey from that very same house ended at
Ravensbrück. Well, I am German after all!
We Must Remember Her!