Text by Arne Lüker

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, seemingly fearless! 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, remembered:
"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 spirit".


Violette Szabo

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".

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 her.

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 were courageous.

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, importance.

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:

The Life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

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.




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 blazing building.

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 patrie.

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 needs'.

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 considered doubtful.

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.


Violette Szabo

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 old.

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 steadfastness.



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!




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