Women were not officially part of the enlisted fighting ranks called upon to defeat Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Nonetheless, there were those who devoted their lives to the Allied cause and some of whom paid the ultimate price.
One such woman was British spy Violette Szabo.
Although born in France, Violette moved to London at the age of 12. She married a soldier, called Etienne, who died in battle in the North Africa campaign during World War Two.
Soon after losing her husband, Violette was determined she would fight for her country’s cause as a covert agent.
She signed on to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a body created by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1940. The goal of the organization was to work surreptitiously against the Nazis in countries they occupied, including Belgium, France, Greece, and others.
Violette was only on her second mission when she was captured by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. Tortured and beaten by guards who were determined to obtain information, she died of her injuries at the age of just 23.
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Though still very young, Violette had already been married, had a baby girl, and worked as a spy for the Allied forces.
Her tragic story holds a special place in the heart of Midlands resident Rosemary Rigby. After retirement, in 2000, Rosemary opened a small museum on her property near Herefordshire. This is not just any cottage with a roadside museum – this is the summer house of Violette herself, it was once owned by her aunt, and the young spy-to-be spent many wonderful times there as a girl.
The museum is dedicated to telling Violette’s story by displaying many personal mementos and publicizing the tributes she received from the French and British governments.
The country of her birth bestowed the Criox de Guerre upon her, while her adopted country gave her the George Cross.
Perhaps because Rosemary is getting older, she began worrying that one day she wouldn’t be around to protect the three and a half acres that the cottage and the museum occupy. Worried that developers might eventually encroach on the land, she has stipulated in her gift to the authorities that it must stay a museum for the next millennium – 1,000 years.
In mid June, Rosemary recalled to a local newspaper that Violette and Etienne were “the most highly decorated couple” of World War II. She added,“I am determined that the spirit of (this) remarkable woman should be remembered.”
Violette Szabo Belongings
On display in the museum are items such as a pack of cigarettes that Violette smoked, along with a packet of the tea brand she enjoyed. The environment gives visitors a sense of who this intriguing woman was – not only what she looked like, but how she dressed, what she read, and much more.
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And thanks to Rosemary, this place will continue telling Violette’s tale for a very long time.
“It (the land) has now been given to the country and saved to remember our Violette,” is how Rosemary describes her donation to the government.
Violette did not survive long enough to tackle very many missions for the SOE. Nonetheless, she is in the esteemed company of a surprisingly large number of female operatives who covertly worked to win the war.
A quick glance at the history of the SEO reveals that nearly 50 women put their lives at risk as spies for the British government. A few of them survived long past the war; many however did not. Most died in concentration camps or plane crashes or met other violent fates.
And while most have not got famous names, Violette Szabo does, thanks to Rosemary Rigby, and her determination to see the “glamorous spy” remembered hundreds of years from now.