Friday, 04 September 2015

Young, Brave and Beautiful

Violette Szabó’s secret wartime missions provided invaluable intelligence but ended in her capture and death at the hands of the Nazis. Her daughter Tania was only two years old at the time. Melonie Clarke hears her moving story

Written by Melonie Clarke
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Violette Szabó was working on a perfume counter in Brixton. Within a year she had met and married Etienne Szabó, a Frenchman, but their time was cut short when he died fighting at El Alamein in 1942, never having met their four-month-old daughter, Tania. Already a member of the Land Army, the widowed Violette decided to seek revenge and joined the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Putting her ability to speak French to good use (she was half French on her mother’s side), she parachuted behind enemy lines, helping with sabotage missions.

Widely considered one of the most courageous women of the Second World War, Violette brought back vital information from France to help with the war effort, but her second mission, shortly after D-Day, ended in disaster when she was caught by the Nazis, interrogated and eventually killed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in early 1945, aged just 23.

Tania has shared her mother’s story in her book Young, Brave And Beautiful. Did her research for the book help her feel closer to Violette?

‘That’s a difficult question. I think I am closer, but I think in some respects I always have been close to her. My grandmother explained it all to me, what had happened to Violette and why she wasn’t able to come back, so I always had an image of her, almost like a vignette up in the air. Knowing that she was there somewhere. I think that was because of my grandmother’s words, saying she would be looking over me, so I think that hit the right neuron and has kept her close to me in some respect.’

VioletSzabo-Sept04-02-590Left: Tania with her mother's medals. Right Violette and Etienne

Her mother having been killed when she was still a ‘babe in arms’, does Tania feel resentful that she left her to go to France? ‘People ask me that and if I feel abandoned. It’s a normal question these days. That question would have never been asked in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s. It’s now asked all the time, because we’re supposed to feel resentful about just about everything.

‘The simple answer is no, I never even thought of that, until in the 1980s a journalist asked that very question, and I laughed because it had never struck me that I ought to feel resentful or that maybe I did feel resentful. There was this lovely woman who just so happened to be my mother. And she wasn’t fighting only for her country; she was fighting for me, for her parents, for her relatives in France. So she should have gone. ‘It was her job to do that; she was capable of doing it.’

Despite her young age when they were separated, Tania does have a few brief memories of her mother, one of which is incredibly poignant.

‘I was with this lady in a dark suit and hat and we were with my grandmother. We were walking along, but I was sulking because I didn’t want to walk; I wanted my grandmother to carry me, which she did. We got to this place where we stopped and chatted, and then this woman walked down a big, dark black hole and turned and waved.

‘All I could remember was this big black hole that she went down before waving goodbye. I told my grandmother about that and she said, yes, it was the very last time we ever saw her. She was off on her second mission to France and it was at Stockwell Tube station.’

If her mother had returned from her mission, Tania believes their times apart would have helped them in the long run. ‘Many women leave their children with their parents or whomever and they have nannies; they are the ones bringing them up. The woman is much more able to give love to the children, because she’s not handicapped by them. So she has a healthy relationship with them. I think that would have been the case with Violette.’

Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her heroism (she is one of only four women to have received the award since its inception in 1940), and Tania met King George VI at Buckingham Palace in her place. She still remembers the day she went to collect the award.

‘I was four-and-a-half,’ she tells me. ‘My grandmother explained why I was going to pick this cross up for Violette, that she was never coming back, that she had died. I think she might have mentioned heaven, even though she didn’t necessarily believe in heaven. She explained it all and I was very happy to go and see the King.’

Wearing a dress Violette had bought for her in Paris while on her first mission, she almost had her outfit spoiled. ‘It was that freezing weather of 1946-47 and my grandmother made me put gaiters on. Well, I remonstrated, because you don’t wear gaiters to go to see the King,’ she laughs. ‘I made her promise me that when we got to the palace I could take them off.’

But the day she accepted the award was not a joyous occasion for everyone. ‘The usher was going to lead my grandparents and myself in to see the King, and my grandmother said, “No, no, no, we do not go in; this is something Tania must do for herself, for her mother. We will stay outside.” My grandfather’s face fell – he was looking forward to meeting the King and he wasn’t expecting that,’ she laughs.

‘The King came over to me and he had the cross on a blue ribbon. It had a very big bow; it was very plain and just perfect. He bent down towards me and I remember he said something like, “I must pin this on your righthand side, Tania, because you are your mother’s representative; you did not actually win the medal. Whenever you wear it you must always wear it on your right-hand side.” That’s about as much as I remember. Then I was ushered out, met my grandparents and went home on the Tube.’

She has come up against some criticism lately for selling her mother’s medals (the lot also included a French Croix de Guerre, three other campaign medals, a parachute bag and documents and photographs) at auction. ‘It was a hard decision, and when I decided that was what I would do, I then had to decide whether to have a private sale or an auction that would lead to some publicity. I don’t care about people throwing brickbats at me, because when I make a decision to do something, I’ve made it for what I consider to be the right reasons.

‘I decided that the best thing would be to sell at auction, which would mean there’d be lots of publicity and therefore Violette would be in the spotlight again, because she deserves to be and inspires people.

VioletSzabo-Sept04-03-590Left: One of Violette's false documents used during her missions. Right: The George Cross Medal

‘I’ve had a few criticisms that one doesn’t sell such things; one gives them – but that’s all very well if you’re not financially in difficult circumstances. I’m getting old and I have a lot of research still to do, which costs money.’

The medals were eventually bought for £260,000 on behalf of Lord Ashcroft, and will go on display at the Imperial War Museum.

If she had survived her missions, Tania believes her mother would have pursued a very different profession. ‘She would have become an actress for sure,’ she tells me. ‘That was something she very much wanted to do. She had already been an extra in films. Probably if I watched enough of them I would be able to spot her in the background.

‘She was also an extremely good dancer. Glenn Miller told her that she should become a professional dancer. I researched it and decided I wouldn’t put it in the book, because I couldn’t find much information on it. I didn’t want to boast and then find it was wrong.’

If she had been in her mother’s position, would she have done the same? ‘I would have taken it up like a shot. And the reason, apart from wanting to do some damage to the enemy, would be the excitement of the training.

‘What a wonderful thing, to have seen all kinds of new things, new ways of life, learning how to sabotage. All the training must have been a wonderful thing to do.’

Young, Brave And Beautiful: The Missions Of Special Operations Executive Agent Lieutenant Violette Szabó, by Tania Szabó, is published by The History Press, priced £25.

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