In the end, the SS officers brought them out of their barracks and took them on a long walk to a quiet spot behind a crematorium. The three women, spies for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, had survived hard labor and inhuman conditions at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women, where thousands of children perished from starvation, hundreds of women were sterilized, and Jews and Gypsies were maimed or murdered in Nazi medical experiments. By the winter of 1945, with Russian forces approaching, the SS moved quickly to exterminate as many prisoners as possible in an attempt to prevent future testimony of atrocities.
Two of the spies, wireless operators Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe, were so malnourished they had to be carried by stretcher. Clothed in rags, their faces black with dirt and their hair matted, they had withstood torture and interrogation only to find themselves huddled together, freezing as their death sentences were read to them. The third spy, 23-year-old Violette Szabo, was still strong enough to walk. The Germans would save her for last, forcing her to watch as her two friends were made to kneel. An SS sergeant drew a pistol. Szabo went to her knees, taking the hands of her friends. How had it come to this?
Just four years before, she was Violette Bushell, a pretty, Paris-born girl selling perfume at the Bon Marché department store in South London. Then she met Etienne Szabo, a charming, 31-year-old officer with the French Foreign Legion, at a Bastille Day parade, and they married five weeks later. But Etienne soon shipped off to North Africa, where General Erwin Rommell and his Panzer divisions were on the move through the sands of Egypt. Szabo was killed in October 1942, during the Second Battle of El Alamein. He would posthumously receive the Croix de Guerre, the highest French military award for bravery in battle, but he would never see his daughter, Tania, born to Violette in London just months before he died.
Afterward, Violette Szabo seethed in London, working in an aircraft factory but yearning for some way to become more actively involved in defeating Nazi Germany. When, by chance, she met a recruiter from the Special Operations Executive, she decided to volunteer. Winston Churchill had created the SOE to send agents behind enemy lines for strategic purposes; she was fluent in French and, though just 5-foot-5, athletic and surprisingly strong for her size. She was already a crack shot in a family comfortable around guns and target practice; under rigorous SOE training, she became an accomplished markswoman. Reports described her as a persistent and “physically tough self-willed girl,” and “not easily rattled.” She was living in Brixton with her parents, who could care for Tania while she was away.
By February 1944, Szabo was finishing parachute training and gearing up for her first mission in France. The SOE codemaster, Leo Marks, observed that she was struggling with her poem code, a cryptographic method of sending and receiving messages with random groups of words from an assigned poem serving as a key, where each letter is assigned a number. Agents would have to memorize the poem exactly, but Szabo was making small spelling mistakes that often rendered her encoding indecipherable. She was despondent, but Marks tried to solve the problem by handing her a different, simply-worded poem, one whose iambic pentameter, he thought, might improve her concentration while encrypting:
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.
“Who wrote this?” she asked, clearly moved. Marks brushed the question aside with a promise he’d look into it. In truth, Marks had written it himself after the woman he loved had been killed in a plane crash in Canada the year before. Original poems, Marks believed, made it more difficult for Germans to decode.
Szabo continued to train, memorizing her cover story and attending briefings on the details and rendezvous points of her mission. In April 1944, she was dropped near Cherbourg, where she helped sabotage infrastructure and spied on industrial plants the Germans were using to support their war machine. After a month of SOE work, she treated herself to a shopping trip in Paris, spending 8,500 francs on a black dress at a couturier—the first “lovely dress” she had ever owned, she told a supervising agent upon handing over the receipt. She had returned to England. Szabo sometimes brought her daughter into the SOE offices at 64 Baker Street in London—where agents became known as the Baker Street Irregulars after the Sherlock Holmes group of boys who “go everywhere, see everything and overhear everyone”—as she awaited her next mission.
On June 7, 1944, the day after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Szabo was dropped back into France to disrupt German communications. She quickly established contact with resistance forces, including a young man named Jacques Dufour, and on the morning of June 10, the two set out on a mission by car, Szabo’s bicycle thrown in the back and her Sten gun up front.
As they approached Salon-la-Tour, they came across a German road block. Dufour stopped the car about 50 yards from the soldiers and told Szabo to be ready to run. He leapt out and began firing his machine gun—and noticed, to his surprise, that Szabo stayed with him, firing her Sten Gun and hitting several Germans. He ordered her to run toward a wheat field while he provided cover, and once she got there she fired at the Germans from the flank, enabling Dufour to join her. The two began to run, taking cover in the tall wheat as they headed for the woods.
Soon they heard vehicles in pursuit. Running, crawling, they tried to retreat to safety but found nowhere to go. Szabo was bleeding and her clothes were ripped; exhausted, she told Dufour she couldn’t go any further. She insisted that he flee while she tried to keep the Germans at bay, and fired judiciously for a half-hour while he found refuge under a haystack. When she ran out of ammunition, the Germans closed in. Dufour could hear them questioning her about his whereabouts. Szabo simply laughed. “You can run after him,” she said. “He is far away by now.”
Szabo was turned over to the German secret police, who interrogated, tortured and sexually assaulted her. She refused to cooperate, however, and was transferred to Paris, held by the Gestapo and tortured some more. Fearful that the Allies might mount a rescue mission, the Germans transferred her to a series of camps and prisons. On one transfer near Paris, British planes strafed the prisoner train carrying her. The German guards exited to take cover, but a group of male prisoners were trapped as the bullets hit. Szabo secured a jug of water from a bathroom and crawled to the wounded, even with another woman chained to her ankle, so she could pass jug around and calm them.
By the end of 1944, Szabo had arrived at Ravensbruck, still wearing the dress she’d been captured in months before. There, she joined Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe, where they were put to hard labor, digging wells and clearing boulders for an airfield. They were subjected to more beatings, and women around them were succumbing to tuberculosis and dysentery; Szabo hatched several plans to escape, but to no avail.
By February 1945, more than 130,000 women and children from German-occupied Europe had passed through Ravensbruck’s gates; many stayed for a while, then were transferred to prison and labor camps, but 30,000 to 40,000 women died there. In just weeks, with the Russians only hours away, the Germans would take 20,000 prisoners on a death march toward Mecklenburg, where survivors were liberated by the Red Army.
Szabo was not among them. Behind a crematorium, forced to her knees, holding hands with Bloch and Rolfe until the end, she felt their bodies go limp and collapse into the snow, as one shot, then another echoed through the camp. A pause, then a noise, and the life she had was no more.
Books: Marcus Binney, The Women Who Lived for Danger: Behind Enemy Lines During WWII, Harper, 2004. Phillip Jones, Quickly to Her Fate, P. J. Publishing, 2010. M.R.D. Root, SOE in France, Frank Cass Publishers, 2006. Conn Iggulden, The Dangerous Book of Heroes, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Gordon Brown, Wartime Courage: Stories of Extraordinary Courage by Exceptional Men and Women in World War Two, Bloombury Paperbacks, 2009. Bernard A. Cook, Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present, ABC-CLIO, 2006. Sarah Helm, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, Anchor, 2007. William Stevenson, Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II, Arcade Publishing, 2007.
Articles: “Violette Szabo, George Cross,” The Official Violette Szabo GC Site, http://www.violetteszabo.org/homevioletteetienne.html “Violette Szabo” The Allied Special Forces Association, http://www.memorialgrove.org.uk/history.htm “Recollections on the Holocaust,” Degob: National Committee for Attending Deportees, http://degob.org/index.php?showarticle=2018 “Ravensbruck,” JewishGen: An affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, http://www.jewishgen.org/ForgottenCamps/Camps/RavensbruckEng.html “SOE Agent Profiles” by Nigel Perrin, Spirit of Resistance: The Life of SOE Agent Harry Peuleve, DSO MC, Pen & Sword Military, 2008, http://www.nigelperrin.com/soeagents.htm “Daughters of Yael–Two Jewish Heroines of the SOE,” by Martin Sugarman, Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/ww2/sugar2.html