The women agents of WWII
If you have already taken part in our Inspiring Women tour you will have heard of the hundreds of thousands of women who across the British Empire contributed to the defeat the Axis powers. Most did so in non-combatant roles, such as mechanics, clerks and drivers. Only a few dozen served as field agents in the top secret Special Operation Executive (SOE). One of them was Violette Szabo.
Violette was born in Paris and spent her childhood in Northern France and later on in London. When Britain entered WWII, she joined the women’s land army. Not satisfied with picking strawberries, she returned to London to serve in the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS).
While celebrating Bastille Day 1940 in the streets of London, Violette met Etienne Szabo, a French Foreign Legion officer. They married six weeks later. Shortly after their wedding, Etienne returned to his unit and was eventually deployed in Northern Africa. He fell in October 1942, four months after the birth of their daughter Tania.
Behind enemy lines
Following her husband’s death Violette left her position as anti-aircraft gunner and joined the SOE and trained as a field agent. From approximately 470 field agents about 60 were women. Many of them were bilingual and therefore useful working in undercover operations behind enemy lines.
Violette was sent to France twice. Her second deployment took place 2 days after D-Day with the aim to coordinate the efforts of the French Résistance. Within 3 days she was captured. After two months of interrogation and torture by the Gestapo, she was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Northern Germany, and executed alongside other SOE agents on 5th February 1945.
In 1947 Violette was awarded with the George Cross, the highest award for civilians, presented to her then 5 year old daughter Tania.