This blog series on women working undercover during the world wars highlights a few of the stories that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves which deals with the anti-fascist career of Kim Tavistock in the years leading up to WWII.
Violette Szabo was a French-born Englishwoman, one of the most decorated women of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). At the age of 20, having just lost her husband at El Alamein, she was eager to avenge his death and took training to serve as a courier to the French resistance.
SOE was always on the lookout for fluent French speakers, and Szabo came to their attention because she had been active with Britain’s Auxiliary Territorial Service in an anti-aircraft battery. Just 5’3″ her diminuitive size raised concerns when she was interviewed. But Szabo had always been athletic, and upon induction into SOE, took training in parachuting, weapons, and demolition.
Scattered throughout the UK were sites specializing in different skills that undercover operatives would need on the Continent. Szabo started her training at Arisaig House in the Scottish Highlands, specializing in commando-type skills such as silent killing, weapons, and sabotage. Shortly before D-Day she went to “finishing school” at Beaulieu, Hampshire where the intelligence service trained people to operate as undercover agents, including escape, evasion, uniform recognition and cyrptography.
On her first mission to France she parachuted in near Cherbourg where she was sent on an unexpectedly dangerous mission to Rouen and Diepe to determine the damage done to a network that had suffered recent German arrests. The circuit had been decimated, a terrible blow to SOE. While there, Szabo collected intel on munitions factories that helped establish Allied bombing targets. On the plane back to England, the aircraft came under fire. Escaping, they landed, and as the pilot tried to help Szabo out of the plane, she heaped abuse upon him in French, thinking him a German captor. When the situation was made clear to him, she rewarded him with a kiss.
Szabo went to France one more time. This time, she was sent as liaison to the local French resistance (Maquis) in West-Central France. Once on the ground, she went by car with two male agents. SOE was unaware, however, that a Panzer division was passing through the area. At a roadblock, she was captured. The subsequent supposed firefight that attached itself to her mythology, is likely untrue. Also unclear, whether an old parachuting injury hindered her ability to escape as the others did. She was taken to a prison in Limoges. The SOE immediately kicked into gear to try and effect her escape, but she had been immediately transferred to Paris, to the infamous Sicherheitsdeinst (SS security service) HQ on Avenue Foch where she underwent torture.
Eventually she was sent to Ravensbruck, a notorious prison camp. On February 5, 1945, Violette Szabo was executed, a shot to the back of her neck, along with two other women prisoners. Since she wore civilian clothes and operated behind enemy lines, the Germans did not consider her protected by the Geneva Convention, and thus she could be summarily executed.
The British government considered undercover agents killed at concentration camps to have been “killed in action.” Szarbo was one of two women to be awarded the George Cross by the British government during the Second World War. The other was Noor Inayat Khan.