b. 26/06/1921 Paris, France. d. 05/02/1945 Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Germany.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 04/1944 - 05/02/1945 France/Germany.
Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris on 26 June 1921. She was the second child of five and the only daughter of Charles George Bushell, son of a publican from Hampstead Norreys. He was a taxi-driver, car salesman, and, during the Second World War, a storekeeper. Her mother was a French dressmaker, Reine Blanche Leroy, originally from Pont-Remy, Somme. The couple moved to London but, because of the Depression, Violette and her youngest brother, Dickie, lived with their maternal aunt in Picardy in northern France until the family was reunited in south London when Violette was eleven, first at 12 Stockwell Park Walk (now demolished), then at 18 Burnley Road, Stockwell, where she is commemorated by a Blue Plaque.
She met Adj-chef de la 13eme Demi-brigade de la legion etranges Étienne Szabo, a French officer of Hungarian descent, at the Bastille Day parade in London in 1940 where Violette had been sent by her mother, accompanied by her friend Winnie Wilson, to bring home a homesick French soldier for dinner. They married at Aldershot Registry Office – Etienne was stationed at Farnborough in Hampshire – on 21 August 1940 after a whirlwind 42-day romance. Violette was 19, Étienne was 31. They enjoyed a week's honeymoon before Etienne set off from Liverpool to fight in the unsuccessful Free French attack on Dakar, Senegal From there Etienne returned to South Africa before seeing action, again against the Vichy French, in the successful Anglo-Free French campaigns in Eritrea and Syria in 1941.
On 8 June 1942 she gave birth to Tania Damaris Desiree Szabo at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington while Etienne was stationed at Bir Hakeim in North Africa. The following day he took part in a valiant defence against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, escaping with his battalion from the assault of the 15th Panzer Division on 10 June.
Violette sent her baby to childminders, first in Havant, Hampshire, and then in Mill Hill, London, while she worked at the South Morden aircraft factory where her father was now stationed. Her time there was brief as she was soon informed of the death-in-action of her husband. Étienne had died from chest wounds received leading his men in a diversionary attack on Qaret el Himeimat at the beginning of the Second Battle of El Alamein on 24 October 1942. He had never seen his daughter. It was Étienne's death that made an inconsolable Violette decide to accept when offered the chance to train as a field agent by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) as her best way of fighting the enemy that killed her husband.
She was 23 years old and serving in the SOE when she was parachuted into France. With the codename "Corinne", she acted as a courier to a Frenchman who had survived the break-up of his resistance group in Rouen and was trying to regroup. She had to travel from Paris to Rouen, contacting certain people believed to have remained unmolested, and report back to her chief in Paris. She was twice arrested by the Gestapo, but each time she got away. She achieved her task and after 6 weeks returned to England. Just after D-Day, she was dropped back into France with 3 men. They were met by the local Maquis group. Jacques Dafour was to drive her by car to the next Maquis group. They set off on the 10th June 1944. Shortly afterwards they picked up Jean Bariaud, a friend of Dafour. They then saw a roadblock manned by the Germans. Dafour stopped, allowing them to jump out of the car. Bariaud got away while Violette and Dafour fired at the Germans and one was hit. Then they crawled into a wheatfield and , with some cover, Violette continued to fire at the Germans as the two of them retreated to a wood. By now the Germans were approaching and Violette was hurt but she continued to fire at the advancing soldiers. She became exhausted and told Dafour to run, which he did. She was captured and taken first to Limoges and then Fresnes in Paris. After a brutal interrogation over several weeks during she said nothing, she was put on a train to Germany. On the journey there was an air raid and the guards ran for cover; while they were gone she managed, despite being chained to another prisoner, to carry water to badly wounded British officers in a cattle truck, including a future GC winner, Yeo-Thomas. She was imprisoned at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, which was followed by a move to Torgau. In January 1945 she was taken back to Ravensbruck. Her physical condition had deteriorated and she was forced to make her way to the crematorium, where she was shot in the back of the neck and her body burnt.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IWM, LONDON (JULY 2015 - £260,000).
BURIAL PLACE: NO KNOWN GRAVE - BODY INCINERATED.
Szabo's medals in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery (Thomas Stewart)
Tania Szabo as a child wearing her mother's medals and in 2015
St George's Church, Ypres
Brookwood Memorial (August 2018)